World Cup Preview: Canada Looks to Top Last Season, With A Target On Their Back

Audrey ManganNovember 18, 2011
Alex Harvey (R) and Devon Kershaw (L) celebrating their World Championships gold.

It will be hard to top Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey’s gold-medal performance at World Championships last winter, but Canadian National Ski Team head coach Justin Wadsworth has every intention of racing even better this winter. With a Senior World Cup Team and new convergence program for the Development Team, there are lot of athletes representing Canada to keep track of. Here’s who you need to watch for on the World Cup — and thanks to the neon maple leaf on their new One Way uniforms, they’ll be easy to spot:

Devon Kershaw

In a recent interview that aired in Sweden, Kershaw recalled waking up the morning before the sprint relay in Oslo. “The first words out of [Alex Harvey’s] mouth were, ‘How does it feel to know that, by the end of today, we will be World Champions?’ And I threw a pillow at him,” said Kershaw.

Though his younger teammate may be cockier, Kershaw was 8th in the overall World Cup standings last year. In addition to his new gold medal, he also won the sprint in Toblach, Italy, and podiumed twice in Germany a few weeks earlier. Though he got off to a rocky start in Bruksvallarna, Sweden, Kershaw will both be a contender in the Tour de Ski and in the hunt for the Crystal Globe.

Alex Harvey

Though his part in Canada’s World Champion sprint relay with Devon Kershaw stands out in his career, his impressive 5th in the prestigious 50 k is not to be overlooked; he could be a force to reckon with in the distance events as well as the sprints.

He took a break from World Cups last winter to briefly enter—and win—one last U23 race in Estonia, but Harvey is no longer a junior. Keep tabs on his progress in the overall World Cup standings throughout the winter, because he could be in the running (he was 10th last year). Harvey is already off to a strong start with a 10th-place finish in Bruksvallarna .

Ivan Babikov

Ivan Babikov.

Though he can be a slow starter, once Babikov gets up to speed he consistently produces top-10 finishes on the World Cup. One of his more notable results from last season was finishing 8th in the Lahti, Finland 20 k pursuit. In a time trial on snow in Canmore just prior to leaving for Europe, Wadsworth said Babikov was skiing “the best I’ve ever seen him ski,” and is confident that the work they’ve put in to get him out of the gate faster will pay off.

Len Valjas

His strength is in sprinting (in his second year on the World Cup circuit last season, he was 9th in the Drammen, Norway sprint), but Valjas had one of his “best distance races of his career” last weekend in Bruksvallarna, Sweden with an 18th in the 15 k freestyle in a field that contained Northug, Magnificat and other big names. “We’re gonna try to get Lenny into some distance races [more],” said Wadsworth. “we feel that’s important.”

Chandra Crawford

Chandra Crawford.

The leader of the women’s squad. With Olympic gold from Torino in her trophy case, and a history of injury problems now behind her, she seemed to struggle last year.  But she still has considerable speed; one of her best races last season was skiing with Dasha Gaiazova to 3rd in the team sprint in Dusseldorf, Germany. Crawford has traditionally excelled at city sprints such as Dusseldorf – with a city sprint in Milan, Italy, and Moscow, Russia, also on the schedule this year, she could make noise.

Wadsworth said that, in a recent on-snow sprint time trial in Canmore, she won handily and looked good.

Perianne Jones

Currently the Canadian Continental Cup leader, Jones was 12th in the city sprints in Stockholm, Sweden last season, and was tapped at World Championships for the team sprint, where she ended up helping the Canucks to 6th.

At the season opener in Bruksvallarna on Saturday, she skied to 20th, a notable showing given that she, too, has traditionally had stronger results in sprints. Though the shorter races will continue to be her focus, Jones said, “Many of the best sprinters in the world are all strong distance skiers too so you got to do them.”

Dasha Gaiazova

She picked up her first World Cup medal last season with Crawford in the Dusseldorf team sprint, and teamed up with Jones at World Championships for 6th in the same event. Though her status as the sole member of Cross Country Canada’s Senior Team put her camp participation in flux in the off-season, Wadsworth said she’ll be traveling and racing with the team this winter “just like normal.”

Alysson Marshall

In her first World Cup outside of Canmore last winter, she finished 33rd in the Otepaa, Estonia classic sprint. Only 22 years old last year, she also notched two top-20s at U23s. She’s benefitting from the convergence trip program this winter and getting some Period 1 World Cup starts. In the team’s Canmore time trial prior to leaving for Europe, Wadsworth said she looked just as strong as the senior women, and could be tapped for a team sprint if she’s skiing strong.

Graham Nishikawa

Nishikawa. (Photo: Erik Wickström)

With seven victories on the Haywood NorAm circuit in 2010-2011, the Continental Cup leader also broke into the top-30 on the World Cup with a 27th in Falun, Sweden in the 15 k. He could be a contender for the fourth spot on Canada’s relays, which is up for grabs with only three obvious distance leaders (Kershaw, Harvey and Babikov).

He was unhappy with a 45th in Bruksvallarna — “The first race after travel is always tough…I am happy just to be racing, but definitely looking for another step up” — he seems to be on track for a full rebound from a dislocated shoulder in August.


Kevin Sandau

As a U23 last season, Sandau knows how to get things done on the international stage: he was 5th in the 15 k at U23s. In North American competition, he was an impressive 2nd in the 50 k behind Kris Freeman at U.S. distance nationals in Sun Valley last spring. Currently only Babikov is a distance-specialist on the Canadian World Cup Team; Sandau could be on the rise this season to join him as a distance standout for the Canucks, and is another potential relay team option if he’s skiing fast in the first few World Cups.

Drew Goldsack

Goldsack is a bit of a wild card. Despite being a two-time Olympian, a foot injury in 2008 has relegated Goldsack to mainly North American races for the past few years. He competed in Vancouver in 2010, but other than a 40th-place showing in the sprint there, he doesn’t have recent World Cup results to indicate where he could be headed against major international competition. At Bruksvallarna, his first trip to Europe since 2008, he was 82nd in a 164-man field.

Canada's Gallivaere relay team last November: Gray, Babikov, Harvey, Kershaw

With the cards all laid out, what could you expect from the Canadians this winter? Wadsworth isn’t afraid to make predictions: “In the overall World Cup, for Devon and Alex, a top-five is a doable goal for this year,” he said. “I think for everyone on our World Cup team the goal is a podium at least once.” With Harvey, Kershaw, Crawford and Gaiazova currently in the FIS Red Group, Wadsworth’s goal is to bring the remaining three athletes on his senior team—Jones, Valjas and Babikov—into that top-30 list as well.

Taking a look at the strengths of the entire team, Canada stands out as a little sprinter-heavy, especially on the women’s side. With more World Cup weekends starting off with a sprint on the first day than ever before, this could work to their advantage. Athletes will be able to race in their preferred discipline with fresh legs, but also get more distance experience on the second day without having to worry about fatigue for the sprints.

As with most teams this season, the Tour de Ski will also “for sure” be a more prominent focus, said Wadsworth. Harvey, Kershaw and Babikov will stay in Switzerland over Christmas to prepare for the nine-stage event. In last season’s Tour, Kershaw and Harvey ended up 7th and 10th respectively, while Babikov finished the final stage in 21st overall.

L-R: Perianne Jones, Chandra Crawford and Alysson Marshall (Photo: Devon Kershaw and Len Valjas).

Wadsworth is also looking to rack up strong showings in relays and team sprints. The first relay of the year is this Sunday in Sjusjøen, Norway, and after the three obvious choices, the fourth man this weekend will likely be Nishikawa. Down the road, that leg could be anybody—“It could be the Continental Cup leader, it could be a convergence athlete, it could be Lenny if he’s coming into distance more,” said Wadsworth.

All eyes will be on the Canadian men this year for the team sprints, but the Harvey-Kershaw duo won’t make an appearance at the first one in Dusseldorf, Germany. Wadsworth thinks Goldsack and Valjas will be the strongest option to carry the mantle until the second team sprint in Milan, Italy.

The women will have the roster to fill their two-team quota in Dusseldorf, and has plenty of options. “It won’t be an easy decision; it never is to pick a sprint relay team,” said Wadsworth, alluding to his choice to leave Crawford out at World Championships and put Jones in. But after their third-place showing in Dusseldorf last winter, the women will be just as worth watching as the men this season.

“It’ll be exciting to see how it goes,” said Wadsworth.

Audrey Mangan

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

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