CANMORE, Alberta — The drawings hang in the windows of shops and on the walls of cafés in downtown Canmore.
“Welcome Austria! From: Kindergarten,” reads one, accompanied by a dozen different drawings of snowmen on skis.
“Good Luck Valentina,” says another, lettered over a crayon depiction of the Ukrainian flag.
Local school children not only attended Thursday’s classic race, riding busses from school to wave flags and cheer for the World’s best cross-country skiers, they plastered the town with welcome signs for every nation, often personalized for individual athletes.
According to Mike Norton, the Chief of Competition, crowds on Thursday surpassed organizer’s expectations.
“Thursday we didn’t think we were gonna have that many people on a weekday,” Norton said. “This is a good problem, but what the hell’s gonna happen Saturday or Sunday?” he continued laughing, clearly welcoming the challenge.
Those who make the short trip up to the Canmore Nordic Center will take in the freestyle sprint — held on a new course, they will hoping to witness North American victory.
The odds are in their favor, with American Kikkan Randall the clear favorite in the women’s race, and local hero Chandra Crawford the defending champion in the event.
Crawford won on a vastly different course the last time a World Cup skate sprint was held in Canmore, back in 2008. Since then improved fitness has allowed the 2006 Olympic gold medalist to challenge in longer, harder races, but Randall is still the woman to beat.
After winning the Quebec City individual sprint with apparent ease, and teaming with Jessie Diggins to capture the team sprint title, Randall is showing no ill effects from her injury modified fall training.
The significant climbs out of the stadium will present a different challenge than the winding and soft course of Quebec City, but Randall has surmounted everything the World Cup has thrown at her so far this season.
The Canadian team has not been in top form, on both the men’s and women’s side, qualifying just a single skier for the heats in Quebec. Crawford should not be counted out, but she will be up against some serious sprint talent.
Norwegian Maiken Caspersen Falla, second to Randall in Quebec and a surprising third in the 10k on Thursday, she has the finishing speed to take advantage of Canmore’s long homestretch.
Usual suspects Ida Ingemarsdotter (SWE), Celine Brun-Lie (NOR) and Natalia Korosteleva (RUS) will be top contenders as will the always dangerous Justyna Kowalczyk (POL).
If one had to pick a weakness for the Pole, it would have to be skate sprinting. A podium appearance would not be surprising, but the advantage she holds in classic sprinting will not be present today.
Look for Kowalczyk to push the pace hard on the early climbs and try to spread out the field, using her superior engine to her advantage.
Thursday’s silver medalist, Anne Kylloenen (FIN) is clearly in top form, and has traditionally had her best results in sprinting. She and teammate Mona-Lisa Malvalheto, who looked very strong in the early rounds in Quebec, will both be in the running for a finals appearance.
On the men’s side Swede Emil Jönsson heads a deep and talented field. Any of a dozen men could take top honors.
Russians Alexey Petukhov and Nikolay Morilov, a host of Norwegians, and defending Sprint Cup champion Teodor Peterson (SWE) are favorites for the final.
Eirik Brandsdal and Anders Gloeersen lead Norway and look for big Matias Strandvall (FIN) to bounce back from a disappointing Quebec performance, where the soft conditions proved his undoing.
The firm, fast track in Canmore will make for quick course times. Top times on the loop two weeks ago in a NorAm competition were just over two-and-a half minutes, a short sprint by World Cup standards.
Andy Newell (USA) skied well in Quebec and was looking strong in the 15k classic two days ago before a crash derailed his day. He will be satisfied with nothing less than a finals appearance.
The Canadian men have been flat of late, but are very familiar with the Canmore finish. Proper execution in the final 400 meters will be key, and home-snow advantage should not be discounted.
Alex Harvey has the best shot of moving through the rounds, showing good form in Quebec.
Both the U.S. and Canada will start a large contingent of Nations Group skiers. While the top-end of the field is as good as ever, depth is lacking, creating opportunities for domestic athletes to advance to the heats.
Qualification starts at 10:30 mountain time.