The Eastern Canada Cup series wrapped up in Mont Sainte Anne (MSA), Québec, with distance racing for over 300 skiers each day. As with Westerns, the second weekend brought results and execution a little higher in the athletes’ focus, but the almost universal use of the words ‘fun’ and ‘excitement’ remain a reflection of a return to racing after a season without.
MSA is just outside Québec City and is very accessible for most population centres in the province. It is a destination venue that is famous for challenging trails and a few brutal climbs that reflect 1991 homologation standards. Races are hosted by Club Nordique Mont Ste Anne on trails owned by the alpine resort. This is the home base of the Centre National d’Entraînement Pierre-Harvey (CNEPH).
“The race organizers and volunteers did a great job today, the course was challenging but fun and the conditions were good despite the rain we got the day before.” — Étienne Hébert
Saturday: Individual Start Classic 5km/10km
The women kicked off the weekend with a 5km race of truth and it was CNEPH’s U20 Liliane Gagnon setting the standard in 14:00.7. Chelsea’s U18 Tory Audet was second at 7.5 seconds back, collecting her second senior podium of the season. Last weekend’s double winner Laura Leclair was third (+16.7), putting a second CNEPH suit on the podium.
“I had a very good day!” Gagnon wrote to FasterSkier. “I surprised myself which is awesome. I knew the form was good, but I didn’t expect the race I pulled off. 5km classic individual starts are usually my biggest fear and I proved myself wrong.”
Gagnon was one of many who had process goals top of mind.
“I usually have trouble with individual starts because I don’t start fast enough. Today my goal was to start off quick and ideally keep that speed all through the race and I think I did a pretty good job. I really tried to stride long on the “false flats hills” and push hard on the top of the hills and I think it paid off!”
“I had a great race,” Audet wrote. “We had awesome glide but our kick was not ideal. The conditions were fast, which made this specific course very exciting. This course had a lot of uphills, which are my favourite! Uphills gives me the feeling of accomplishment every time I crest a new hill, and that motivates me for the next one!”
Enthusiasm flows from Audet, who at sixteen was affected more than many by a season without learning from real races.
“During my race, what stayed in the back of my mind was that a faster and more experienced skier started one minute behind me. I was driven to maintain that one-minute gap between us.”
That skier starting one minute behind Audet was Leclair, who wrote “Today was an overall good day. I think I lost seconds in the last portion of the race but I’m happy with the first half. Skis were good and conditions were super fast. Happy to be racing at my second home.”
Leclair is a Chelsea member, giving her the chance to race at both ‘home’ courses this month.
National Team Development Centre Thunder Bay’s Julian Smith his strong start with a third win in the new season, finishing the 10km in 23:51.7. CNEPH’s Phil Boucher was 24.7 seconds back, edging out TBay’s Pierre Grall-Johnson in third at 30.3.
Boucher was fresh from the US SuperTour in Cable, where he was third in the 15km classic and won the 15km free.
“My day was ok,” he wrote. “I was just not fast enough to win. Skis were good and my pacing was too. I just didn’t deliver the result that I was supposed to.”
Grall-Johnson had a more optimistic outlook on his day.
“Fun day today,” Grall-Johnson wrote, “first 10km of the season. Those are always hard distances, I am definitely feeling the fatigue of the past few months but still happy with how I pushed today… I think today was all about maintaining a high speed through the full lap, keeping the power high on the false flats and really pushing hard into the downhills. Our NTDC skis were awesome today, so looking forward to tomorrow.”
5th place Étienne Hébert, another CNEPH skier, explained the ‘return to racing’ experience.
“Definitely not a bad race in any way, my distance racing has clearly improved this year and getting consistent top fives and podiums early on helps build up confidence for the rest of the season. The race organizers and volunteers did a great job today, the course was challenging but fun and the conditions were good despite the rain we got the day before.”
What made the difference between 5th and the podium? “The guys in front on me just had a better day on Saturday.”
Sunday: Mass Start 10km/15km Free
Sunday was a sun day on the course and delivered the first mass start in 20 months for most of the skiers present. The excitement and the broken poles were real.
Antoine (Tony) Cyr, who returned from World Cup Period I with two top twelve results and a cold, pushed the pace early before finishing alone in 37:48.3.
“Tony started with a strong pace,” Boucher wrote, “and after that we just tried to drop each other by a big enough gap in the hills so that the other didn’t catch up on the flats. I bonked first, so I got second…”
“[The] skate race was good!” Grall-Johnson wrote of being the only non-CNEPH skier in the top eight. “It was one of those races that just flowed through. Antoine took it out a hard pace and then by the top of the first hill there were only three of us with a gap to the next pack, and then we just created a bigger gap over the rest of the first 5km. Tactics weren’t the deciding factor yesterday, I was very content to let Phil and Tony do most of the work and I just had to respond whenever they picked up the pace or tried to attack. At the beginning of the third lap Antoine and Phil pulled away from me on a long working section. I managed to catch back up to Phil who also had a little bit of an explosion and we skied together until he broke me going up a very steep hill with just about 1km to go.”
Behind the trio, there was a lot more action.
“Sunday’s 15km mass start was simply really fun,” Hébert wrote about his fourth place from a trio of chasers. “I skied the two last laps with my teammates Leo Grandbois and Felix-Olivier Moreau. Those laps were very strategic and exciting, lots of tactics involved to fight for that fourth spot. The start of the race was terrible for me, I got tangled up with other skiers and boxed behind which meant that the first lap was only about getting back in touch with the chasing group.”
Gagnon won the women’s 10km in 30:42.1, continuing the CNEPH Sunday domination with Leclair second at 12.9 back. Nakkertok’s Zoë Williams was alone in third at 25.6 seconds behind.
“My day was awesome!” Gagnon wrote. “Really did not expect taking another win today, but very happy that the race feeling is coming up strong.
“My teammate Laura and I really worked through this one together,” Gagnon continued. “Maybe not the best tactic all through the race but it ended working out pretty well and we got a lot of experience from it. I knew when I was going to ‘attack’; I was ready to go hard in that last hill, last kilometre and did exactly that.”
Williams had a plan for the mass start.
“Tactically my plan had been to chill for the first lap behind the leaders,” she wrote to FasterSkier.
Plans change, especially in mass starts.
“Unfortunately my pole got broken right off the start which separated me from the lead pack, but I had a lot of fun working with Bronwyn to reel people back in! (And big shout out to Gilles Bérubé for the super smooth pole hand off!)”
The ‘Bronwyn’ mentioned is Bronwyn Williams, 4th today, 3rd in the Nakkertok sprint last weekend. She’s also Zoë’s younger sister.
Audet pulled out early after experiencing back pain. Her youth didn’t stop her from making the wise choice as Trials approaches.
“Being up in the mix with the senior racers has been a goal of mine and I’m surprised that this is what I am doing,” Audet wrote. “I really enjoy racing with them, they have a lot more experience than I do and it is a lot of fun to race and learn from them.”
Brazil’s Jacqueline Mourao was the leader of a large group of ‘other nation’ athletes vying for an Olympic quota spot, finishing 6th (+1:28.1). Mourao, now 46, is a seven-time Olympian who rose to prominence as a mountain biker and started skiing in 2005 while renting a basement suite from Pierre Harvey.
Finding the Bar
After a season without racing, we now have four Canada Cup weekends to use to judge the state of skiing in Canada.
With male athletes who have raced the US SuperTour and World Cup period 1, there is a basis for speculation on where Canada fits into world rankings.
Boucher left the Cable SuperTour with a 1st, 3rd, and 16th results, the last coming in the sprint. Cyr recorded 11th, 12th, 32nd, 56th, 42nd, 36th, and a DNF in three World Cup weekends. Antoine Briand skied two SuperTour weekends, finishing 2nd and 26th in sprints, 27th and 33rd in distance. Boucher, Cyr, and Briand all train together at CNEPH which gives Boucher a unique perspective.
“Tony is in a league of is own in Canada right now,” Boucher wrote. “He is skiing well and his race efforts are so consistent. He is skiing at a World Cup level, which I have been struggling to do over the past year. That being said, I don’t need to compare to Tony to know if I am at a World Cup level – my results from last year speaks from themselves and, sadly, the answer is no. I don’t feel fast enough to get a decent result on a World Cup event.”
We can already see that splitting NorAms into Western and Eastern Canada Cups has reduced travel, and travel costs for racers and teams. This is good.
“I think it is pretty clear that splitting the Canadian field in two circuit results in a less competitive field,” Boucher wrote. “We can compare the 15km mass start skate in Cable since it was pretty much the same kind of course. In the super tour, we had a leading pack of approximately 15 guys and this weekend we were 3 battling for the win.
“So I’d say splitting the Canadian circuit is bad for the depth of the field of our Canadian races, but it doesn’t mean that the level of competition is not high. We still have great skiers in both Canadian circuits. It would just be more fun and more exciting to race against all the best skiers in the country.”
Less depth in fields, especially in sprint heats, is probably not good. FasterSkier is following this closely.
There are both new and familiar faces to watch from December, but the real test will be when the entire country meets at the Olympic Trials in Canmore from January 6th to 11th. This is the selection event for Beijing, U23/U20 World Championships, and World Cup period 4, which means most athletes have something to chase.
Canada has Olympic quota spots for four women and three men, and unofficially the three men’s spots were allocated based on World Cup period 1 results. With so few Olympic berths up for grabs, the focus will shift to earning World Cup starts for older skiers.
“I’m feeling reassured for trials, simply because last season was kind of a black period and I didn’t know we’re I stood. Now I know the shape is there, it’s going to be very stressful weekend, with a lot at stake but I’m confident the preparation is good and I’ll be ready.” — Gagnon
“Only thinking about racing, I think it will be an incredible event and I can’t wait to race for the win on the tough Canmore courses.” — Hébert
“With Trials being held in Canmore, I am sure the volunteers will put on another great event. The courses are something to behold in Canmore with demanding climbs and technical descents. I am sure the athletes will all be excited to race hard, and the spectators will surely be there looking on with anticipation. I think as long as everyone follows covid protocols and respects regulations, everyone should be able to compete, coach and spectate while feeling safe.” — Smith
For most of the roughly 600 individual skiers who have raced one or more Canada Cups this month, the return of racing is the return of measuring progress and the return of learning.
“I had no clue how to pace myself, there were tough climbs and I don’t have a lot of experience, and hadn’t raced on a course this difficult in 2 years.” — Audet
Racing in Canada, Racing at Home
“Racing in Canada is always fun! Skiing with teammates and with family and friends cheering you on is always fun. It’s a familiar feeling and it’s feels good to start off the season that way and hopefully later moving on to the big races in Europe.” — Gagnon
“A lot of excitement again this weekend. There was good support from parents and friends cheering on the side of the course which brought good vibes through the weekend. We also got lucky with weather, especially on Sunday with a beautiful sunny day. In Mont Sainte-Anne, the race organizers always have to deal with RCR, the group that owns the mountain, who often don’t even do the minimum to give skiers decent trail conditions all winter. So, the Club Nordique Mont Sainte-Anne organizing an event like they did last weekend really shows the commitment of the volunteers and the community around the mountain.” — Hébert
“It feels amazing to be back on the race course again! I have really missed racing and with a couple tough years of sickness and injury simply getting back on the start line is an incredible win. Some things have for sure changed, but honestly, at the heart of things it’s still the same. It doesn’t matter who’s on the race course for me; the goal is always to go as fast as I can between the start and finish line and figure out what I can change for the next race to go even faster!!” — Williams
“The weekend in MSA was exciting. The conditions were superb and the race organizers did a great job. There were lots of spectators respecting covid precautions and cheering loudly! The 10km classic interval start was fast and furious with quick conditions and great waxing by our staff! Sunday was fun to race a mass start and started off with a blistering pace and a course full of long uphills!” — Smith