MONT SAINTE-ANNE, Québec — It all started with a little buzz about Québec hosting a World Cup.
After the province’s native Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw struck gold in the team sprint at the 2011 World Championships in Olso, Norway, Cross Country Canada and the International Ski Federation got to talking.
The World Cup should feature a few races in Canada, and why not consider bringing it to the eastern part of the country?
Once FIS accepted Québec City’s application to hold a sprint weekend Dec. 8-9, 2012, the race was on to generate more attention toward the brand new site.
The director of events at CCC, Dave Dyer said the association almost immediately turned to Sport Canada, which governs the country’s sport policy and supports athletes and programs financially.
They needed international hype and some competitive racers to see Québec beforehand.
With the help of an under-$50,000 grant from Sport Canada’s International Hosting Program, CCC was able to pay the way of seven foreign athletes and three coaches to the Canadian Ski Championships, which ended Saturday in Mont Sainte-Anne, Québec.
The first to jump at the offer, Norway sent four racers – two juniors and two under-23’s – to Canada along with two coaches: head U23 coach Sjur Ole Svarstad and national women’s sprint team coach Roar Hjelmeset.
France was next in line for a trip to Canadian nationals. The team’s head sprint coach, Mathieu Fort, accompanied three athletes: Roddy Darragon (World Cup sprint specialist and two-time Olympian) and U23 racers Baptiste Gros and Renaud Jay.
Dyer said this wasn’t the first time Sport Canada had helped CCC host international competitors, but it was by far the most significant.
“We did it last time we were here [at 2007 Canadian nationals] in Mont Sainte-Anne and got a very modest amount of support,” he said. “But I think that as the profile of our sport and the team increases, people are taking notice. It certainly has helped us on the overall funding perspective as far as support for the team.
“I think the success we’ve had at the World Cups and hosting the World Cups has proven the benefits of inviting Europeans to come ski on our turf,” Dyer added.
He designated Canadian National Ski Team coach Eric de Nys to invite teams, and de Nys said he spoke with several coaches at U23 World Championships in Erzurum, Turkey, in February. The idea was to entice juniors to give them a taste for jet lag and racing outside of Europe.
“We had this pot of money and we were able to sort of talk to the Italians, the French, the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Germans, Japanese,” de Nys said. “Lots of them couldn’t come because they had nationals and OPA finals and things like that. But the French, the moment I said it, they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’ll come.’ ”
With pre-existing good relations with Norway and France, this furthered the effort to bridge the global gap. It also gave Québec race organizers a chance to host athletes in preparation for its upcoming World Cup, with individual and team freestyle sprints.
Dyer said this year’s sprint competition featured timed splits thought the heats, requiring more precision than seeding athletes by qualification time. A CCC Officials Level 3 Certification course was also in action at nationals.
Organizers and officials had just one day to practice at the Plains of Abraham, where the World Cup is scheduled, after unseasonably warm weather melted most of the snow on the historic park in downtown Québec City.
While they managed to hold classic team sprints there March 17 on a 1-kilometer loop, the open freestyle sprints were moved about 45 minutes away to the trails at Mont Sainte-Anne on March 22.
Dyer said the experience with timing, officiating and helping international athletes find their way around was useful nonetheless for organizers. It also made nationals one of the most competitive in years.
In his 30th year with CCC, Dyer said this was by far the association’s biggest international hosting effort. In 1986, they brought four Norwegians to nationals in Whitehorse, Yukon. The only other Canadian championship that was nearly as competitive was the one before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
By bringing overseas skiers here, Dyer said it benefited Canada’s own athletes.
“Whereas we might send 10 athletes to the World Juniors or to the U23 champs, there’s probably 85 juniors [at nationals] that get a chance to rub shoulders with Norwegians and find out they’re not superhuman,” Dyer said.
For most of the Europeans on the start line, it was their first time in Canada. Several soaked up the opportunity to race against some of the world’s best, including Kershaw, Harvey and Len Valjas.
“It’s a good experience because I never ran with in a final of the same level,” said 21-year-old Gros, of France, after placing fifth in the skate sprint A-final behind the three Canadian National Team athletes.
Earlier this season, Gros finished 13th in a World Cup freestyle sprint in Szklarska Poreba, Poland. His teammate, Darragon was fifth in Poland and 11th in the sprint at Canadian nationals.
While he had raced in other parts of Canada before, Darragon said coming to Québec was a first. On the tail end of his season, he was mostly interested in racing for a chance to see the World Cup venue.
“When the coach told us that [we were invited], we said, ‘Yes, we go, immediately,’ ” Darragon said with a smile. “We wanted to travel and wanted to discover the country.”
Although Darragon and his teammates didn’t get to ski on the Plains, he said they drove by it. Before flying back to France on March 23, the day before the distance mass starts, Darragon cut off his race suit above the knees. Shorts were better in hot weather, and 20 degrees Celsius was much warmer than what they were used to in France in March.
“It will be a great souvenir,” Darragon said of his suit, looking down at his bloody knee after falling across the finish of the B-final.
He said he’d be back next year, possibly a few weeks before the World Cup to train.
On the Norwegian side of the wax cabins, all four of their athletes raced the classic distance races on Saturday. In the 30 k junior men’s race, National Junior Team skiers Sindre Bjornestad Skar and Martin Loewstroem Nyenget captured first and second.
In the women’s 30 k, Britt Ingunn Nydal and Ragnhild Haga of the Norwegian National Development Team placed second and third, respectively, after Chandra Crawford (CNST).
“We probably knew we had a better chance here than at the sprint,” said Haga, who recently placed 33rd in a World Cup 30 k at Holmenkollen in Oslo. There, Nydal was 38th.
“We’re very happy being on the podium, both of us,” the 21-year-old added.
She and Nydal, 22, had one more 30 k remaining in Norway later this week. They planned to leave Sunday, but not before some sightseeing and a night out in Québec City.
“It has not only been the races, we’ve been able to look around also,” Nydal said. “It has been an amazing week.”
As for what they’d remember about their first trip to Canada, Haga said the heat. Skar said the size of things.
“Everything is big,” Skar said. “The cars and the roads and the shops, everything is much bigger than in Norway. In Norway, everything is not so big.”
“But it’s really nice here,” Nydal added.
“The weather is great,” Skar continued.
In southern Norway, he said there was no snow. Haga said skiing in such balmy conditions throughout most of the week reminded her of orienteering in the summer.
“It’s a little weird to go cross-country now,” Nydal said.