For the first time in five years, a true world-class field will toe the line tomorrow for a race in North America.
While there’s no Northug in town, a solid international field is in Canmore for this weekend’s distance skate and classic sprint World Cup races. Cologna, Teichmann, Legkov, Kowalczyk, Majdic—the gang’s all here. Not to mention full rosters of Americans and Canadians jazzed to throw down in front of their home crowds.
But while it’s the biggest event on North American soil in eight years, the shadow of the 2010 Olympics hangs over these races. Nobody will be dogging it out on the courses this weekend, but many of the athletes have their eyes set eleven days in the future—the date of the first of six races in Whistler.
A tune-up? While it doesn’t do justice to the excitement and energy filling the venue here, it’s probably an apt description of Friday and Saturday’s races. Slovenia’s Petra Majdic is competing just 48 hours off the airplane from Europe, while Canadian Devon Kershaw said that he’s just coming from a couple of 22-hour training weeks.
“I’m pretty exhausted from all the hard training I’ve been doing,” he told FasterSkier on Thursday. “A lot of the events I want to do well in are at the end [of the Olympics], so I’m pretty wasted.”
In the weeks leading up to the Canmore World Cups, many athletes have been doing some high-volume and altitude training. The Canadians have spent stints at 6,000 feet the Mt. Engadine Lodge near Canmore, while a large group of Americans have been training in town here for the past few days, at 4,000 feet. Majdic said that she’d been training up high both in Slovenia and Italy.
As the sun shone down out of a cloudless sky with temperatures in the thirties, athletes and coaches basked in a festive atmosphere here today, testing skis and waxes while also fielding a small onslaught of attention from the press.
The athletes aren’t the only ones tuning up for the Olympics. With around 160 accredited media on site, the excitement surrounding the Games is palpable, as a scrum of 15 or 20 reporters descended on an informal press conference with the Canadian team Thursday morning.
Alex Harvey, another Canadian athlete, said he was doing two to three interviews a day after coming home from the Tour de Ski in January. And at a local race he did in Quebec before traveling to Canmore, he signed upwards of 100 autographs and took fifty photos with fans.
“It’s crazy,” he said, adding that he has enlisted the help of a media assistant in Quebec (his home) to help manage all the requests. “Without that, it would have been overwhelming for sure, because it’s hard to say no when you’re the athlete.”
In the frenzy surrounding the Games, one could almost forget that there are actual races happening in Canmore. But a 10/15k individual-start skate race gets things going tomorrow.
Snow conditions here are adequate—a hard-packed base of mostly man-made snow, perhaps a foot deep. The course sends the athletes around a hilly 5k loop—three laps for men, two for women. Watch FasterSkier’s course preview here.
With home field advantage and hilly trails that suit him, tomorrow could be a day for Canada’s Ivan Babikov, who lives here in Canmore—Kershaw said that he’d be “surprised” if his teammate wasn’t on the podium. Kris Freeman, who is focusing on the 15k skate for the Olympics, is also worth watching in the men’s event. But more likely it will be one of the Europeans taking the race here—Germany’s Axel Teichmann, perhaps, or Sweden’s Marcus Hellner.
As for the women, it looks to be a duel between Majdic and Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland. Russia’s Irina Khazova, who won a 10k skate in Davos earlier this year, is also starting. Top North Americans in the race are the U.S.’s Kikkan Randall and Canada’s Sara Renner, but neither should crack the podium.
A large group of Americans and Canadians will be racing this weekend as part of the “nations group.”
Unlike for the Olympians using the races as a tune-up, this weekend is one of the most important of the year for the nations group. And while all of the altitude and volume training by those headed to Whistler mean that tomorrow’s results should be taken with a grain of salt, they’re not totally meaningless.
Chris Grover, one of the American coaches here, said that these races are key for building athletes’ confidence in the lead-up to the Games—and his athletes echoed that today.
“Mentally, I’m getting after it,” said James Southam, an American Olympian racing the 15k skate. “If I can throw down a good performance, it can only bode well for my future.”
—Topher Sabot contributed to this report
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.