World Cup Weekend in France

As many readers know, I am a huge fan of competitive cross country skiing and have been involved in the sport as a competitor for many years and, more recently, as a coach with Team Hardwood. While I miss my Team Hardwood family a great deal, as well as the adrenaline and excitement of race weekends in Ontario, living in Switzerland puts me within a day’s drive of ski venues that host World Cup and international championship events on a regular basis, which seldom take place in North America. So while my coaching career is in hiatus, I can still participate in the sport as a spectator and watch the best in the world compete at the highest level.

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Switzerland’s Dario Cologna leading Russia, Germany and Kazakhstan in the 2nd Classic leg of the men’s 4 x 10km relay in La Clusaz.

While scheduling conflicts prevented me from attending the marquee events of the sport this winter, the Tour de Ski and the World Championships (both hosted in nearby Italy), I had a free weekend in late January that corresponded with a World Cup event being hosted in La Clusaz, France, which is barely 90 minutes away, so I made sure not to miss that one. I was eager to attend the La Clusaz World Cup because the venue itself is spectacular, and because the program featured mass start Classic races and team relays, which the Canadian men’s team, in particular, has had some success in recently. I was also looking forward to cheering for team member Len Valjas, who grew up racing for Team Hardwood and whose family I know well.

Me and Len Valjas at Pras de Lys (no comments about the height difference OK!!!)

Me and Len Valjas at Pras de Lys (no comments about the height difference OK!!!)

A week prior to the La Clusaz World Cup I got word that the Canadian team was doing some altitude training at the French ski resort of Pras de Lys, not far from La Clusaz. Considering I was doing a fair amount of training on my own in preparation for the Engadin Ski Marathon in March (the subject of a future post), I thought why not check out the trails at Pras de Lys and perhaps rub shoulders with Team Canada while doing so?! I arranged a meet-up with Len via Twitter and on the Wednesday prior to the La Clusaz races, I caught up with him as he, Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey were cooling down from a morning intensity session. Lenny was kind and gracious enough to spend a little while skiing with me. Of course his cool-down pace felt like Zone 3 to me! I spent the next couple of hours enjoying the scenic trails at Pras de Lys on my own under clear blue skies and glorious sunshine.

The cross country stadium against the stunning backdrop of the Aravis Range.

The cross country stadium against the stunning backdrop of the Aravis Range.

The following Saturday I hopped in the car and made the 90 minute drive down to La Clusaz, which is an attractive alpine ski village in the French Alps and whose nearby cross country ski area (called Les Confins) provides a spectacular setting for a ski race. Situated on a broad alpine meadow below the jagged peaks of the Aravis range, the trails at Les Confins are great for spectators, allowing them to see up to 80% of the race course from some vantage points.

Arriving at the race venue, the difference in popularity between the sport in Europe versus North America was immediately evident. Whereas in Canada one is lucky to see a few hundred spectators at a National Championship (consisting primarily of family members and other athletes), World Cup events in Europe are routinely attended by thousands of spectators who line strategic parts of the race course as many as 5 deep.

Enthusiastic fans from a local ski club.

Enthusiastic fans from a local ski club.

As for the actual races themselves, well, the weekend brought a mixed bag of results for the Canadians and Americans (for whom I also cheer enthusiastically). The racing began with a women’s 10km mass start Classic race, which was dominated by Marit Bjoergen (1st) and Therese Johaug (2nd) of Norway, followed by Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk. Bjoergen’s victory was remarkable considering she had just returned to racing after a month-long break to deal with a heart arrhythmia issue. A couple of US women did well, including a 15th for Liz Stephen. Canada’s Dasha Gaiazova, meanwhile, posted a season-best 27th place, but teammate Chandra Crawford dropped out the race due to poor skis and fatigue.

Kowalczyk leading Johaug, Bjoergen and Ishida early in the women's 10km Classic race.

Kowalczyk leading Johaug, Bjoergen and Ishida early in the women’s 10km Classic race.

The USA's Kikkan Randall midway through the women's 10km Classic race.

The USA’s Kikkan Randall midway through the women’s 10km Classic race.

Prior to the start of the men’s race I wandered around the race course with my World Cup souvenir mug of vin chaud in search of fellow Canadians. I eventually found a few clustered around a large maple leaf flag and we visited together until the men got under way. I also watched and listened as groups of rowdy fans competed with one another to make as much noise as possible with their horns and enormous cowbells, some of which were strapped around their waists with thick leather belts.

Once the men’s 15km race got underway the pack stayed together for much of the race until the pace accelerated near the end. Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan took the win with a last second lunge that allowed his foot to edge across the line ahead of Russia’s Alexander Bessmertnykh, who had already begun to celebrate victory. Switzerland’s Dario Cologna came in third. As for the North Americans, the day was pretty much a write-off, with Andy Newell’s 28th place the only bright spot. All of the Canadians finished well back thanks to a gamble on grip wax that didn’t pan out. Devon Kershaw didn’t even start the race due to a bout of food poisoning. Sometimes racing is like that – shit happens.

Canada's Alex Harvey (13) and Ivan Babikov (14) skiing with the pack, before the wheels fell off

Canada’s Alex Harvey (13) and Ivan Babikov (14) skiing with the pack, before the wheels fell off

Poltoranin lunges and steals the win from Bessmertnykh, who was celebrating too soon.

Poltoranin (right) lunges and steals the win from Bessmertnykh (centre), who was celebrating too soon.

Sunday was relay day, with the women doing 4 x 5kms and the men 4 x 7.5kms. While I had been looking forward to watching the Canadian men challenge for a medal, with Devon Kershaw still out with food poisoning it was not to be. We didn’t have an entry in the women’s relay either, as there were only 3 women racing in La Clusaz. I decided to stay and cheer for the Americans, nonetheless. I was curious to see what the US women could do, as they have really come on strong this year.

Unfortunately, the North Americans’ streak of bad luck continued in the relays. Things started well enough for the US men, with Andy Newell leading off strong and handing off to Noah Hoffman in 4th. Hoffman skied the US into 2nd place at one point before falling twice and dropping back almost a minute behind the leaders. The gap was insurmountable by this time and the team ended up in 10th place.

The USA's Noah Hoffman (in black) skied up into 2nd place at one point.

The USA’s Noah Hoffman (in black) skied up into 2nd place at one point.

There was more drama up at the front of the race as well. Four teams – Russia, Norway, Sweden and the Czech Republic – had been swapping the lead and roared into the stadium at the end of the final lap to set up a drag race to the finish. Norway was leading with 20 metres to go when the skier in the silver medal position, Russia’s Chernousov, suddenly caught a ski tip and face-planted in the snow just metres from the finish line. Chernousov was quickly passed by Sweden and the jubilant Czech skier who mere seconds ago had been destined for 4th place. After crossing the line, a distraught Chernousov collapsed in the snow, his body heaving with sobs. The image of his Russian teammates consoling him in the snow was definitely one of the most poignant of the weekend.

Chernousov (left) face-plants just before the finish line

Chernousov (left) face-plants just before the finish line

Chernousov being consoled by Russian his teammates

Chernousov being consoled by Russian his teammates

After medaling in a World Cup relay earlier in the season, the US women were certainly among the favourites to podium in La Clusaz. Unfortunately, the women’s 4 x 5km relay was a huge disappointment for them. Holly Brooks led off strong from the front row, matching the other leaders stride for stride for the first 200 metres before disaster struck and she was tripped and went down hard. While she recovered quickly she immediately had a 30m gap to make up to the field. After battling most of the first lap to close that gap, which she did, Holly was toast and she started drifting off the back and finished her leg over 1:30 behind the leaders. The rest of her teammates – Kikkan Randall, Liz Stephen and Jessie Diggins – did their best but couldn’t make a dent in that deficit and the USA ended up in 9th place – dead last. The race was won by Norway, to no one’s surprise, followed by Finland and Norway II.

In the end, the La Clusaz World Cup was one event that both the Canadian and US skiers wanted to forget and put behind them as soon as possible. Two months later, three of those skiers (Harvey, Randall and Diggins) ended up winning medals at the World Championships, so clearly it was an off weekend. While it would have been great to see a Canadian or American land on the podium in La Clusaz, I was happy to be there and support these amazing athletes!

Keeping myself hydrated and warm with a cup of vin chaud!

Keeping myself hydrated and warm with a cup of vin chaud. Sante!

You can watch a few video highlights from the relay races here:

Here are more photos from La Clusaz, LOTS more photos:

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