On the Canadian Nor-Am Circuit, things are going to be drastically different this year, both in the athletes competing, and in the events they will be contesting.
Here are three things to watch for:
1) New race formats! Cross Country Canada (CCC) has gone mad for the mini-tour concept, and with three on the schedule, expect some interesting results.
2) New faces. After a home Olympics, many of the top Canadian domestic skiers, both male and female, have opted for retirement. Also thinning the field, at least at the start of the season, is a surprisingly large overseas contingent.
3) The NorAm schedule combines with the U.S. SuperTour for early- and late-season racing – watch for some cross-pollination at both ends of the season.
Last year on the NorAm circuit, Graham Nishikawa of Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) bested Brent McMurtry of the Pierre Harvey National Training Center (CNEPH), and Drew Goldsack (AWCA), while Stefan Kuhn of the Canadian National Ski Team (CNST) finished less than 20 points behind Goldsack for fourth.
After a strong performance at the Olympics, Kuhn is starting his season in Europe, leaving him out of the mix, at least for the early races. McMurtry will also be racing the pre-Christmas World Cups, and the lack of presence of one of Canada’s best up-and-coming all-around skiers will open up spots for developing talent.
Nishikawa has a leg up in distance skiing, as last season he won a pair of distance races outright, and finished second in another two. Either Goldsack or rising star Graeme Killick (CNST) will present the largest challenge to Nishikawa. Goldsack is an experienced skier, and one of the strongest sprinters on the circuit. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Killick won two distance races at the Canadian National Championships last season, and is an athlete to watch. Chris Butler (AWCA) is the other name of note with slow-twitch talent, and with the retirement of distance specialists Dave Nighbor and Gord Jewett, Butler should be able to scoop up a few extra points.
On the sprint side, podium opportunities abound for fresh faces following the retirement of Sean Crooks – and due to the fact that Phil Widmer (CNEPH) started his season in Europe. Fred Touchette (CNEPH) and Lenny Valjas (CNEPH) are ideally situated to capitalize, but both are also starting their seasons in Europe and will be playing catch up when they return.
Across the board, look to U-23 skiers to step up. David Greer, Jess Cockney, and Kevin Sandau, among others, are in a position to force a changing of the guard on the circuit.
On the women’s side, the top four women from last season have all moved on from the NorAm series. Winner Dasha Gaiazova is now on the World Cup team after dominating last year, with six wins. Madeleine Williams, who finished second to Gaiazova, has opted for retirement, while third place Brooke Gosling has defected to the Central Cross Country (CXC) program. Rhonda Jewett has also opted for retirement, leaving the top of the women’s field open to rising stars.
Returning skier Brittany Webster (AWCA) headlines the list. Webster is certainly one of the strongest distance skiers on the circuit, and will have no trouble picking up points in longer events. Twenty-one year old Catherine Auclair looks to build on strong results from last year, while Kate Brennan (AWCA) is an excellent classic skier and sprinter. The vacuum at the top should allow her to easily move up a few spots.
On the sprint side, the departure of Gaiazova appears to open the field up, except for the return of Perianne Jones. The 25 year-old Vancouver Olympian was bumped from the World Cup squad, and will be racing domestically this season. She placed second to Gaiazova in the two NorAm sprints she raced last season, and despite Jones’s strong tendency towards sprinting, Canada’s lack of depth means that the distance title should be her series to lose. Sprint specialist Andrea Dupont of Rocky Mountain Racers (RMR) is also back for another season, and after a strong 2010 season on the sprint circuit, she could be poised for great results.
The changes to the schedule will also have a big impact on how things shake out. The three mini-tours put an emphasis on all-around ability, and for many athletes, it will be their first experience with this type of race format. Western Canada has two mini-tours – one in Rossland, B.C. from December 17 to 19, and the Western Canadian Championships held in Kelowna, B.C., on February 4 to 6. Eastern Canadian Championships, held in Gatineau, Quebec from February 11 to 13, is also a mini-tour.
As for prize money, there has been a slight change to how it is being distributed. Only the top five will receive cash, and the mini-tour has a separate cash breakdown.
In regular race weekends, the open category’s prize money will be $350, $225, $150, $100, $75, as well as an additional $50 to the under-23 winner.
For the individual events on the mini-tours, money will be paid to the top three only: $175, $150 and $100, respectively. The aggregate will pay out to the top six racers ($700, $400, $250, $200, $125, $75), and top three under-23 ($150, $100, $50).
Last season, some races were better-attended than others – most notably Pinawa, Manitoba, which was basically just a provincial-level race – but this season, CCC hopes for strong fields at all events, and they have made some changes accordingly. Last season, Pinawa was not factored into the regional spot calculations, which means that it didn’t count towards the athletes who were chasing the World Cup slot that is available on the circuit. This season, all races will be included in those calculations. When reached for comment, CCC’s Events Director Dave Dyer said “good crowds” are expected at all NorAm events this season.
Furthermore, Dyer said the schedule had been tweaked to allow for continued cooperation with the the SuperTour, in the U.S. The first SuperTour weekend in West Yellowstone from November 24 to 27 precedes the first NorAm by two weeks, with the goal of giving athletes enough time to travel and acclimatize to the higher altitude at Sovereign Lake Nordic Center in Vernon, B.C. Similarly, the end of the season allows for some cross border traffic, as Canadian Nationals in Canmore, Alberta, is a week before the SuperTour finals in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Dec. 11, 12 – Vernon, B.C.
Dec 17, 18, 19 – Rossland Mini-tour (World Ski Championships Sprint Trials)
Jan 6, 8, 9 – Thunder Bay, ON NorAm/World Junior Trials (World Ski Championships Distance Trials)
Jan 29, 30 – Orford, QC
Feb 4, 5, 6 – Kelowna, B.C. – mini-tour
Feb 11, 12, 13 – Gatineau, QC, – mini-tour
March 12-19 – Canadian Nationals, Canmore, AB