Three Canadian cross-country skiers are in for a grind over the next 11 days in the Tour de Ski, the sport's version of the Tour de France.
They take this event very seriously.
This year, Ivan Babikov, Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw are a major threat in the race that starts in Oberhof, Germany on Thursday and that more than 100 kilometres later ends in a punishing climb up Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
Harvey of St-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que., and Kershaw of Sudbury, Ont., became the first Canadians to win a world championship Nordic event last March in Oslo when they won gold in the team sprint.
Babikov, of Canmore, Ont., won the final stage of the Tour de Ski three years ago.
Kershaw, the cappuccino-sipping, guitar-playing skier who became only the third Canadian to win a medal at a World Cup several years ago, is an explosive sprinter, but is a contender in all disciplines, which is necessary for a skier that wants to finish in the top 10 in Italy.
The tour encompasses sprints, Classic skiing, ski skating and endurance events as it crosses five cities. "If a skier doesn't like Classic, they still have to go fast in the Classic and not lose too much time," said Harvey.
Kershaw described the conditions in Germany on Wednesday as "pretty horrible" but hopes volunteers will work to create a workable track. "You just have to save energy every chance you get," Kershaw said. "There are a lot of venues."
The athletes will get help from a large black Tour bus that will follow them from stop to stop, and give them a chance to shed wet clothes, relax, stretch, eat, sleep and receive massage therapy. And CrossCountry Canada has also assembled six of the world's top technicians to ensure the skiers have the correct waxing.
The Canadians will have the best "athlete-to-waxer" ratio for each stage of the tour.
Kershaw said his previous three World Cup efforts have been "solid" and his body is feeling good. "This is a race that I hold dear to my heart," said Kershaw, who finished seventh overall last year. Harvey was tenth.
Kershaw plans to put his world championship win to the back of his mind this season. "I don't really ski well when I load myself up with a whole bunch of expectations," he said. "Every year is a new year and every day is a new day."
Before Christmas, Kershaw was the lone Canadian to advance to the finals of a World Cup in Davos, Switzerland, but got boxed in and couldn't find room to make a charge for the podium. He finished fourth, for his first top-five finish of the season. But he said, he felt "so amazing" in every round and in total control.
Harvey was ninth in that World Cup on Dec. 11.