QUEBEC CITY – They piled into vans for five-hour drives from New England colleges, toting flags and banners. Others flew in from Alaska and the Midwest, to cheer their friends and family. And some simply walked over from their government offices to watch Alex Harvey, the Quebec native whose skiing exploits have been plastered across the pages of local newspapers.
“Of course, it’s not hockey, but people know his name and what he’s accomplished in the past few years,” said Pierre-Luc Pelland, 28. “We’ve just come to see how it looks.”
“It” was North America’s first cross-country skiing World Cup race in nearly three years. And Pelland, on lunch break from his job at Quebec’s higher education ministry, wanted to check out the spectacle unfolding Friday in front of the provincial parliament.
Joining him on the sidelines were hundreds of others, from the casual to fanatic. At the top of one hill were the parents and brother of American sprint star Kikkan Randall; at the bottom of another was the local retiree who says he’s been mountain biking with Harvey’s dad.
And then there was the pack of girls from Vermont’s Stratton Mountain School, sporting face paint and knee-high striped socks in solidarity with the style pioneered by the American women’s team, sprinting back and forth between vantage points.
“We were so excited,” said Brooke Mooney, a high school junior and skier at Stratton who bought herself and her teammates eight pairs of the socks from a New Hampshire K-Mart. “We spent hours this morning preparing—glitter, ribbons, everything.”
All the fans combined to make the Quebec City sideline feel like something between a winter festival, a football game, and a high school reunion.
“It was like being at a carnival on steroids today,” said Liz Kantack, who coaches at Stratton. “You see everyone you ever raced with, and their parents.”
The spectators in Quebec could be divided into several constituencies. First, there were the rabid fans, like Ken Schoville, 62, who recently retired from 31 years of ski coaching in northern Wisconsin.
On a trip that he dubbed “my fantasy tour,” Schoville had driven from Wisconsin to Calgary with his wife, where they ditched their car and caught a flight to Quebec. After watching the races here, the pair will fly back to Calgary, then drive to next week’s World Cup in Canmore.
“I’m just thrilled,” Schoville said. “Quebec is such a cool venue and place.”
Other particularly avid groups were the contingents from several colleges, including Dartmouth, Bates,
and Middlebury. Wilson Dippo, Bates’s assistant cross-country ski coach, had driven seven of his athletes to Quebec from Central Maine, and was expecting a roughly a dozen more to arrive in time for Saturday’s races.
“It’s a four-and-a-half, five-hour drive, so there’s no excuse not to be up here,” Dippo said. “There was no way I was going to let us not come.”
Then there were local, casual fans like Louis Cliche, 67, a retired litigation lawyer who said that he’s done “a bit of mountain biking” with Alex Harvey’s father, Pierre.
Cliche, a recreational cross-country skier, had read about the races in the newspaper, and made a point of coming out to support Harvey, and his teammate Devon Kershaw.
“If you like cross-country skiing and you’ve got a World Cup in your backyard, it’s a must,” Cliche said. “Especially since Harvey and Kirchner, or whatever his name is, are doing quite well.”
And of course, there were the parents, like Deborah Randall, 58, who had flown in from Anchorage to watch her daughter Kikkan Randall compete.
Typically, because of the time difference between Alaska and Europe, Deborah Randall said she has to watch World Cup races “at one or two in the morning,” on an Internet stream.
On Friday, she got to see her daughter compete from a few feet away—and without having to fly across an ocean to get to races in Europe.
“Being here is unbelievable,” Deborah Randall said. “I’m just so excited to be a part of it.”
For Schoville, the Wisconsinite on his fantasy tour, Quebec’s festive atmosphere was something he said he’d like to see transported across the border.
“This is the time,” he said, referencing the nascent efforts by Midwesterners to bring a World Cup to the U.S.
“Mitt Romney’s not doing anything right now,” Schoville said. “He did pretty well in Salt Lake—maybe we could get him on board.”
Disclosures: The writer attended college with Dippo, and Kantack has written for FasterSkier.
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.