CANMORE, Alberta – Twenty-nine Canadians, count them, put their bodies to the test Thursday in the first of three races at the Alberta World Cup. On tap was the 10- and 15-kilometer classic mass starts – not the easiest format to start with, especially not on Canmore’s challenging mini loops.
The women worked their way around the stadium three times and the men did four loops, and by the end, some slurred their speech, others didn’t want to rehash the suffer-fest, and guys like Devon Kershaw had a hard time seeing.
But the course was the same for everybody, and just think of how some of those nation’s group skiers felt. Even though several of the Canadians hail from Canmore, it didn’t make it much easier out there, certainly not for some in their first World Cup races (or first in a few years).
“Rough day to have a rough day,” said 21-year-old Patrick Stewart-Jones of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA), which is located on-site at the Canmore Nordic Centre, after finishing 58th in his first World Cup.
“There is no forgiveness in the World Cup,” he added. “I felt decent at the start, but after that, the wheels came off a little. I can’t be too disappointed, I just did a World Cup and I finished, and it was a beautiful day.”
His teammate, Graeme Killick, who is on Canada’s Senior Development Team (NST) as well, had done two World Cups in Otepää, Estonia, two seasons ago. Those didn’t really count, he said, after placing 40th on Thursday.
“I look on this as kind of my debut,” Killick said. “I’ve only done one World Cup, it was before U23s in Estonia, it wasn’t the greatest for me. … [Today was a] good experience, for sure. Couple things I might improve on. All in all, it was good.”
Something out of his control was breaking a pole on the first lap. After the finish, he still had one labeled “Newell.”
“Someone’s leg went through [my pole at] the bottom on the first lap,” Killick explained. “Luckily I got a pole pretty quick.”
The youngest of the Canadian bunch, Anne-Marie Comeau of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH) had one of the best results in 46th. She was just over a minute behind the top Canadian female, Brittany Webster (Highlands Trailblazers) in 38th, and Comeau’s only 16. (She turns 17 on Jan. 6).
“It is hard, but I like the trails here,” Comeau said. “It is bonne [French for ‘good’] to race against the best in the … countries.”
As for the 15 k skiathlon she plans to start Sunday: “I don’t expect anything,” Comeau said. “I just want to have fun and no stress.”
Far more experienced as a former Canadian National Team member, Webster, 25, said she felt the same.
“It’s great to be able to get this one out of the way,” Webster said in her first World Cup since racing in Canmore in February 2010. Back then, she placed 57th in a 10 k skate race.
“What I really like about this, too, is they made all [the distance races] mass start,” Webster added. “I think for Canadians and the U.S. Ski Team, it’s really good for us to have that opportunity because if you’re doing an individual start, you don’t get to see the pace as much. You’re kind of skiing your own race more so. It’s great to be able to ski with a whole crowd of girls and sort of see where they’re at, see how they climb the hills and see how they double pole and everything like that. It helps you race faster.”
Emily Nishikawa (AWCA/NST), who was 48th, said the spectators also helped.
“It was a great experience, really cool to have so many fans out here,” she said. “It was just so loud with all the crowd cheering. It was really cool to race on our home turf. I was really happy about that.”
In terms of racing, she’s hoping for a better result in Saturday’s skate sprint or Sunday’s skiathlon.
“I started a little bit fast … but my body was a little tired today and I lost a little on the last two laps,” Nishikawa said.
Another AWCA and Senior Development skier, Kevin Sandau placed 39th and said he was happy with how his body felt considering.
“I was able to really push over the hills so that was good for me,” he said. “I was hoping to be a bit closer to the leaders. Kind of midway through the race, I made a few bad tactical choices just with lane choices on the hills, so learn from that for the 30k. … If I can build on today, that should be a better day.”
Eighteen-year-old Frédérique Vézina (CNEPH) simply followed the lead of others in her first World Cup, putting her 51st.
“It was pretty tough, but really nice to see how fast those girls go,” she said. “The fastest in the world are here, it was nice to complete against them. … It was just a good experience.”
One spot behind her, 19-year-old Julia Ransom of the Biathlon Alberta Training Centre in Canmore was somewhat surprised with placing 52nd.
“I think it was a little better than I was expecting actually. I am happy with how I placed, in terms of Canadians,” she said. “I was so excited just to race. Getting onto the top uphill I just realized how much fun skiing is, how much fun racing is. I went in with no expectations and just went out and had fun.”
Back in the game, Frédéric Touchette (CNEPH/NST) placed 54th in his first World Cup since 2009 in Vancouver, British Columbia (where he was 21st in a 30 k pursuit and 33rd in a classic sprint).
“I haven’t raced much in the last two years because I was injured,” he said. “I am kind of getting back in the racing mode. I am not in as good shape as three years ago, but it is getting back. It is fun.”
— Gerry Furseth contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.