February 22nd, 2024

Host team wants to make the most of a rare cross-country ski World Cup in Canada

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press on February 8, 2024.

Antoine Cyr of Gatineau, Que., competes in the men’s sprint free qualifications at the Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre during the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, in Zhangjiakou, China, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. The 25-year-old leads a host team of 26 athletes into the first World Cup held in Canmore, Alta., in eight years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Canmore Nordic Centre feels like home to Antoine Cyr. The cross-country skier hopes that’s to his advantage at a rare Canadian World Cup stop.

The 25-year-old from Gatineau, Que., leads a host team of 26 athletes into the first World Cup held in Canmore, Alta., in eight years. Racing starts Friday with the men’s and women’s 10k and concludes with Tuesday’s sprint.

The Canmore Nordic Centre, which was the biathlon and cross-country venue for the 1988 Winter Olympics, has been a Canadian nordic ski hub since then. Cyr spent a lot of his life training and racing there.

“I know this track like the back of my hand. I’ve been here many, many, many times,” Cyr said. “Even though I’m from Quebec and it’s all the way across the country, Canmore feels like home this week. I feel like I’ve got home-court advantage for sure.”

Almost 200 athletes from 19 countries will converge on the Nordic Centre in the Bow Valley west of Calgary.

“We cross-country athletes spend five months of the year in Europe racing on the World Cup and it’s not often you get to come back to North America in the middle of the season,” Cyr said.

Canada last hosted a cross-country World Cup in 2019 in Quebec City, where two-time world champion and hometown hero Alex Harvey competed in his final races on the Plains of Abraham. Cyr made his World Cup debut in Harvey’s swan song.

“It was something else and something to remember for sure for the rest of my life,” Cyr said.

He and Graham Ritchie of Parry Sound, Ont., finished fifth in the men’s Olympic team sprint in Beijing in 2022, and fourth in the 2023 world championship in Planica, Slovenia.

A team sprint isn’t on Canmore’s race menu, however.

“They don’t come around often,” Cyr said. “Maybe we have one or two during the season. It would have been awesome to have a team sprint in Canmore, but I’ll be focusing on the other events and performing as best as I can.”

Saturday’s individual sprint is followed by a 20k on Sunday and Monday’s rest day before a second sprint Tuesday.

Cyr narrowly missed his first World Cup podium last season when he was fourth in a 15k classic race in Val di Fiemme, Italy. He’s posted a pair of top-10 results this season and ranks 13th in the men’s overall standings.

“If I can stay there after the weekend, it will be job done,” Cyr said. “Somewhere around top 10 would be good.”

Canmore is the home of several Canadian racers. Anna Parent, whose mother Rhonda Delong skied for Canada in the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville, France, is among those competing in their first World Cup.

“As soon as I could walk, I was on skis right here at the Nordic Centre,” said the 23-year-old. “It’s crazy that I’ll be racing my first World Cup in the place where I learned to ski. That’s really special and not many people can say that.”

Sonjaa Schmidt of Whitehorse became the first Canadian to win a gold medal at world under-23 championship this week.

She was first in Tuesday’s women’s sprint in Planica. Quebec City’s Liliane Gagnon was eighth.

“Sonjaa and then also Lily, they both had incredible results,” Parent said. “I train with them a lot and I’m really close to them, so it’s really cool to see that anything can happen. If they can do it, so can we.”

Calgary’s Micah Steinberg, a second-year NCAA skier for the University of Denver Pioneers, is ready to cut his World Cup teeth.

“I’ve never been tested in this field and it’s the best of the best,” the 21-year-old said. “It’s special to come home. I grew up in Calgary, but was out here every weekend and have lived out here for the past number of years.”

The world governing body of skiing continues to exclude athletes from Russia and Belarus from competition following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, backed by Belarus, in February 2022..

Led by Harald Oestberg Amundsen, Norwegian men have dominated this season holding down first to fourth in the men’s overall standings. Jessie Diggins of the U.S. tops the women’s rankings.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2024.

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