The Canadian cross-country team is looking solid against its European counterparts, further closing a gap that has existed on the men's team for more than a decade.
At the annual Tour de Ski contest in Europe the team didn't win any medals but managed a few top 10 placings over eight days of competition, taking place at five venues in three different countries. They also ranked well in the overall rankings, where each skier is given a cumulative time over the eight days, which finished with a brutal 475 metre hill climb in Italy.
Leading the way on New Year's Day, George Grey and Alex Harvey were 17 th and 18 th respectively in the 5 km prologue event at Oberhof, Germany. Sara Renner led the women's team in the women's 2.8 km prologue, finishing in 27 th position out of close to 100 starters.
Devon Kershaw, recovering from an illness over the holidays, found his legs on day two in the men's 15 km classic race. He placed 10 th .
"I didn't have a sprint gear at the end, but it was a solid day for sure," said Kershaw. "I struggled to find my energy in the first five or six kilometres, but I was able to settle in with the pace and stay out of trouble in the mass start where lots can go wrong."
Ivan Babikov was 23 rd and Alex Harvey 27 th . Sara Renner was 21 st in the women's 10 km event.
Kershaw was the top Canadian once again in the sprints the following day, placing 16 th - the only Canadian to crack the top 30 after the qualifier.
The Tour de Ski moved to the Czech Republic, which kicked off the contest with another sprint. This time Alex Harvey was the top Canadian in 19 th place, while Devon Kershaw was 21 st after breaking a pole in his last heat.
"It was a good day because a city sprint is not usually my cup of tea," said Harvey. "I skied really strong in my heat and was fighting for the top three the whole way. I had great technique but just wasn't strong enough coming down the finishing stretch."
Next up was a marathon event in Cortina, Italy. On the men's side Ivan Babikov was the strongest Canadian in the 35 km freestyle race, moving from 36 th spot at the start to ninth place.
"That was one of my best races of my career I'd say," said Babikov. "That was a really hard race with a non-stop gradual uphill from the beginning. Lots of people weren't able to handle it because we are getting tired, but I just tried to pace myself and kept gaining time on the lead group."
Devon Kershaw was 17 th and Alex Harvey 21 st .
Sara Renner was 23 rd in the women's 15 km race.
Alex Harvey was the next Canadian to break the top 10 with a ninth place finish in the men's 10 km classic race. Ivan Babikov was 18 th .
Sara Renner was 19 th in the women's five kilometre race.
Harvey was the top Canadian once again in the second-to-last stage, a cross-country mass start distance race at Val di Fiemme, Italy. He placed 13 th and believes he could have placed higher if his skis were running faster.
"I felt good today, but I'm a little disappointed because I blew up at the top of the course," he said. "I really felt like I could have fought for the podium today."
Devon Kershaw was 22 nd and Ivan Babikov 25 th .
Sara Renner had one of her best days with a 14 th place finish.
The last event was the 10 km hill pursuit race, which starts with a six kilometre classic race around a stadium before switching to skate skis and climbing 425 metres to the top of Alpe Cermis. Ivan Babikov won this event in 2009 and came close to repeating that feat with a fourth place finish.
"I am pretty satisfied, but I do think I was giving mercy to myself and I could have taken a little more pain," said Babikov. "I just tried to keep fighting the whole time and never give up. I tested myself to the limit and passed as many people as I could so I have to be satisfied."
Babikov finished ninth in the overall Tour de Ski rankings. Devon Kershaw placed 21 st on the final day and 16 th overall, and Alex Harvey 31 st and 22 nd respectively.
Sara Renner was 24 th in the women's race and 17 th overall.