The annual Tour de Ski is the cross-country skiing equivalent of the Tour de France, with seven races this year taking place in three countries - Germany, Switzerland and Italy - over nine days, Dec. 29 to Jan. 6. The tour rewards consistent, all-around skiers with a total prize purse over 800,000 euros.
Based on previous years, the favourites have to be Dario Cologna of Switzerland, who won the overall in 2009, 2011 and 2012, and Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk, who won in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Canada's best racer so far is Len Valjas of Toronto, one of the tallest racers on the tour at 6'6". He placed third in the third stage of the tour, a skate-sprint race at Val Mustair, Switzerland. He's been on the podium before in classic sprint events, but this is his first sprint podium in skate.
"This is totally unexpected for me with a skate ski and the race being on this hard of a course, but it turned out to be a great course for me," he said. "I just had a good feeling today and I'm super pumped."
While Valjas was slow off the line for most of his starts and just squeaked his way through the quarter-finals to the semi-finals and from the semi-finals to the finals, he took a different approach in the final heat and challenged for the lead from the start.
"I kept telling the wax techs between heats that I was cutting it too close," he said. "I was just tired of making comebacks so I punched it to the front right away in the final."
It all came down to a photo finish, with Valjas edging out Dario Cologna by a small margin. Finn Haagen Krogh of Norway took the gold, followed by Federico Pellgrijno of Italy.
Alex Harey also made it to the semifinals for Canada, but finished his heat in sixth to go on to a 12th place finish. Devon Kershaw was 15th and Ivan Babikov 67th.
Harvey continues to be a threat in the overall standings after leading the Canadians for the first two events of the Tour de Ski. He was sixth in the opening prologue and then fifth in the pursuit events at Oberhof, Germany.
In the prologue, Petter Northug Jr. of Norway set a punishing pace, winning by over six full seconds. Marcus Hellner of Sweden pulled in second, followed by Alexander Legkov of Russia. Harvey finished with the next group of skiers led by Dario Cologna, posting his first top 10 result of the season.
"It is a good feeling to be back where I feel I belong," said Harvey. "It is the same result as last year, but I feel it is better. I felt a lot more relaxed and smooth today, whereas last year I was empty and struggled to the finish. That is a good sign for me."
The other Canadians struggled, with Ivan Babikov in 32nd, Devon Kershaw in 48th and Len Valjas in 52nd.
While the course was short - just 4km for the men - the pace is almost the same as for a skate sprint event although the race is twice as long, and competitors can fade at the end or drop off the pace if it's too fast.
American Kikkan Randall was first in the women's 3km prologue with a four second gap over Charlotte Kalla of Sweden and Justyna Kowalczyk, who finished within three-tenths of a second of each other. There are not Canadian women in the competition.
In the second event, the men's 15km classic pursuit, Harvey moved up to fifth. Maxim Vylegzhanin and Alexander Legkov of Russia worked together as a team and placed first and second via a photo finish, while Petter Northug Jr. placed third and Dario Cologna fourth. Harvey's time was within a couple of strides and 1.2 seconds of the podium.
"I think I'm skiing the best I ever have technically and I'm really happy with how things went today, especially in the tough (soft and slushy) conditions," he said. "It felt similar to yesterday. I was able to go fast, but I was just missing a bit of speed for the sprint finish.
"I have no expectations for the overall, but I want podiums in every race. I have been out here a few years now and am not intimidated skiing with these guys. I feel I belong in this top group, but this year is a good reminder to not take anything for granted. My slow start this year reminds me to appreciate the good days."
The other Canadians were Ivan Babikov in 19th, Devon Kershaw in 27th and Len Valjas in 33rd.
In the women's 10km pursuit, Justyna Kowalczyk regained the lead in first, followed by Therese Johaug of Norway and Anne Kylloenen of Finland.