Canada's senior national cross-country team headed to Sweden last week to take part in a series of tune-up races at Bruksvallarna. Although the events are classified as FIS level, a step below the World Cup, the field was anything but amateur.
In the opening classic race on Nov. 16, there were 140 racers in the men's 10-kilometre event. Quebec's Alex Harvey placed fourth overall, just 2.4 seconds back of the podium. Kevin Sandau also raced for Canada, placing 34th.
The podium was all Sweden, with Daniel Richardsson in first in 22:15.3, followed by Marceus Hellner in 22:20.5 and Lars Nelson in 22:21.6.
Harvey said the team is coming off a hard training schedule.
"I arrived in Sweden 10 days ago and we've had a really hard block of training," he said. "I wasn't 100 per cent today, but the body felt good and I had lots of energy. Today was about testing new things including skis and doing a quicker start than usual because it was a course with fast conditions, but you also want to use the weekend to get back in your normal routine."
In the women's five-kilometre race, Canmore's Chandra Crawford placed eighth behind seven Swedish skiers. Emma Wiken was first in 12:33, followed by Charlotte Kalla in 12:35.5 and Ida Ingermarsdotter in 12:42.4. Crawford was a little off the pace in 13:06.87, but still finished ahead of 69 other skiers. Perianne Jones was 134th in 13:10.6.
"I was a lot better than I expected today," said Crawford. "It felt great to get a race bib on and hit the start line after a very long and grueling training season. All of my objectives today were process goals. I was happy with my result, but also that I met my goals of pace, pushing my speed and my technique that I've been working on. The skis were so great today too, and our team did an awesome job."
In the men's 15km freestyle race, Ivan Babikov — who has struggled last year in shorter distance races — placed third for Canada behind World Cup starts Johan Olsson (31:17.3) and Daniel Richardsson (31:28.4). Devon Kershaw was 10th and Kevin Sandau 32nd for Canada.
"That was a great start for sure," said Babikov, who was sitting in eighth at the midway point in the race. "I started out pretty slow on the first loop, but then went out on the second lap and got into a good temp. I made up some time on the final loop and was really happy to finish third."
No Canadian women raced in the women's 10km freestyle race.
The final race was the sprint, where Chandra Crawford placed second overall between Ida Ingemarsdotter of Sweden and Katja Visnar of Slovenia.
"My theme this year is to be fast, female and fearless," said Crawford, who leveraged her Olympic sprint victory in 2006 to create a program called Fast and Female. "The women's program took a lot of risks this summer and I feel like that paid off today. I just attacked and it was exciting out there."
Crawford was sidelined for a few years surrounding the 2010 Games as a result of ankle issues, but started to come back strong last season with two World Cup medals — including a team pursuit bronze with teammate Dasha Gaiazova.
"I feel really positive about where I am right now, for sure," she said. "I feel so strong from the adversity I've been through. There is so much out there that can go wrong and when you get through it you are just so appreciative of the opportunities you have."
Gaiazova and Perianne Jones also qualified in their heats and finished the day in 13th and 18th respectively.
On the men's side, only Alex Harvey made the cut. He missed the final, but placed second in the small final to rank eighth overall.
The Canadian cross-country team is looking to better its results from last year, which broke all records for the national program with five athletes on the podium, and Devon Kershaw placing second overall on the World Cup tour with five podiums and strong performances at the Tour de Ski. Harvey and Len Valjas also made the podium for Canada, as did Crawford and Gaiazova.
The World Cup season gets underway this weekend, Nov. 24-25 in Gaellivare, Sweden, before the tour moves to North America for races in Quebec City (Dec. 7-8) and Canmore (Dec. 13-16).