Canada's cross-country ski team prepares for World Cup finale on home snow
Ski Tour Canada in Quebec concludes season
When the world's fastest cross-country skiers of the season are crowned in Canada, it will be the first time in history the sport's crystal globes are hoisted outside of Europe.
Without an Olympic Games or world championship in 2016, the multi-stage Ski Tour Canada is the marquee conclusion to the World Cup season.
The eight-race circuit opens Tuesday with a sprint in Gatineau, Que., followed by a mass start at the foot of Montreal's Mount Royal on Wednesday, plus another sprint and a pursuit Friday and Saturday respectively on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City.
Then it's a flight west for another four races in five days starting March 8 in Canmore, Alta.
"It's the biggest event for any skier in the world this year," Canadian ski star Alex Harvey says. "It's a big goal and big target and a lot of points for the overall World Cup."
Almost half the points towards this season's overall men's and women's titles are available in the Ski Tour Canada races. There's also almost $870,000 in prize money for the taking.
Winning a World Cup race is laudable, but an overall title within Harvey's racing community is seen as a measure of a skier's strength, durability and versatility in both classic and skate-ski racing.
Eight sprint and marathon races over 11 days combined with the logistics of travel is a compressed test of those same qualities.
"You have to be a really well-rounded skier that recovers well from one race to another," Harvey said. "The international federation was inspired by stage racing in cycling with the Tour de France and other races.
"They started in 2007 with the Tour de Ski in Europe and now they're bringing it to Canada for the World Cup finale."
In the men's Tour de Ski this winter, just 52 out of 100 starters completed eight races in 10 days at four different venues in Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Canada's Harvey, Devon Kershaw and Ivan Babikov were among them with Harvey the top finisher in 14th.
Norway is dominating cross-country skiing with men holding down rankings one to five and women first to third in the overall World Cup standings.
For Harvey and the Canadian cross-country ski team, it's a rare chance to showcase themselves and their sport at home.
Harvey is ranked 15th overall. His best result this season was a silver medal in his second World Cup race — a 10k skate-ski in Ruka, Finland.
The 27-year-old from Saint-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que., owns four world championship medals, including a team sprint gold with Kershaw from 2011.
Harvey would love to stand on the podium in his own country. He'll have eight chances to do it.
"The best way to showcase the sport is to perform well," Harvey said.
Quebec City hosted a World Cup downtown city sprint in December, 2012. The Canmore Nordic Centre, the cross-country and biathlon venue for the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, last hosted World Cup cross-country races in 2012, 2010 and 2008.
"The last time we raced in Quebec in 2012, it was really crowded," Harvey said.
"There were over 2,000 fans around the course. Hopefully in Montreal, which is quite a bit bigger than Quebec City, if it can be as big or even bigger, it's going to be awesome."
The Canadian team skipped the most recent World Cup races in Lahti, Finland, to return to Canada and altitude train near Canmore. The team built its season around peaking for the Ski Tour Canada.
As the host country, Canada can enter 14 men and a dozen women.
Harvey, Kershaw from Sudbury Ont., Babikov and Jesse Cockney of Canmore, Toronto's Len Valjas, Graeme Killick of Fort McMurray, Alta., and Emily Nishikawa of Whitehorse are the 2014 Olympians leading the Canadian contingent.
"We'll start the tour with all 26 athletes," Canadian team coach Justin Wadsworth said. "That's a big part of the tour, for development purposes and just giving athletes who don't get a chance to race World Cup the opportunity to race them at home."