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Canadian cross-country skiers win three medals in eight days

Alex Harvey reacts after crossing the finish line to win the men's 15km freestyle competition at the FIS Cross Country skiing World Cup event in Ulricehamn, Sweden on Jan. 21

Adam Ihse/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

There are a few reasons for a spike in cross-country ski medals from Canada's men, according to the team's star.

Alex Harvey says peaking at the right time, ski management, a commitment to the relay and the suspension of some Russians from competition combined to produce two World Cup gold medals and a bronze over an eight-day span.

The 28-year-old from Saint-Ferréol-Les-Neiges, Que., and Toronto's Lenny Valjas won team pursuit gold Jan. 15 in Italy followed by Harvey's 15-kilometre victory and the 4-x-7.5km relay bronze a week later in Sweden.

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Harvey, Valjas, veteran Devon Kershaw of Sudbury and rookie Knute Johnsgaard of Whitehorse earned the first World Cup relay medal ever by Canadian men.

While coach Louis Bouchard played down the absence of four Russian men from the field in Canada's recent medal burst, Harvey feels it made a difference, particularly in the relay medal.

"I think so," Harvey told The Canadian Press from the Italian Alps. "I think it's part of it for sure."

The International Olympic Committee said Dec. 22 that disciplinary proceedings were under way on 28 Russian athletes whose urine samples were suspected of being tampered with at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

Six were cross-country skiers who have been provisionally suspended by FIS, skiing's world governing body. Two men had appeals denied by FIS on Jan. 25 and the four others are still appealing.

Russia's men won a World Cup relay silver medal prior to the suspensions, but two of them were not on the relay team that finished seventh in Sweden.

"The Russians didn't do so well because some of their top, top skiers were just not racing," Harvey said. "Had they been on the team, we would have most likely been fourth. That would have been a big difference."

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The Canadian men committed prior to this season to making the relay a priority. Adopting a team mentality in an individual sport meant being accountable to one another and not just themselves.

"We've been trying to keep each other motivated," Harvey said. "That's the biggest gift for us in the sport, being on the podium at the end of a race."

"Now that we did, it confirms we do have a legitimate shot at it for the world championships or the Olympics next year."

It takes time for an athlete to build the powerful internal engine an endurance sport such as cross-country requires. Currently ranked fourth over all in the men's World Cup standings, Harvey is hitting that sweet spot.

"I think I'm just arriving at a point in my career where I'm in my late 20s and that's prime time for a cross-country skier, kind of like a marathon runner or a cyclist," Harvey explained.

"My body is just able to handle bigger training loads year after year."

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Canada has six technicians managing their skis this season. If that seems like a lot, Harvey says the Norwegians have more than 15.

"The skis are a crucial part of the equation," Harvey said. "It's a mix of a good body and really good equipment. That allows for fairly stable results.

"When you are stable in the top 10 you have a bigger chances of getting a few podiums."

The Russian doping scandal has impacted the Canadians in another dramatic way. The World Cup final March 17-19 originally slated for Tyumen, Russia, had been moved to Quebec City's Plains of Abraham.

"Being from there and having raced there last year, I had the chance to have a really good day with a second place in the skate sprint," Harvey said. "That actually is the most emotion I've ever had in a ski race.

"I'm really excited to have the opportunity to maybe relive such a moment again."

Valjas is the only skier from Canada's World Cup team competing in an Olympic test event in Pyeongchang, South Korea, starting Friday. Kershaw is in Norway with his wife, who is expecting their first child.

Harvey and the rest of the team remained in Europe preparing for the world championship Feb. 22 to March 5 in Lahti, Finland.

"We cannot sacrifice the training camp," Bouchard said. "The world championship is more important.

"We have an opportunity from the Canadian Olympic Committee to go to Pyeongchang at the end of the season and see the area and the venue."

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