CANMORE, Alta. - Canada's Olympic cross-country skiers are looking for a confidence boost over the next two days, as they compete in a hometown World Cup that's seen as a tune-up to the big show coming in Whistler.
For the Canadians, it's a rare chance to race before friends and family without the jet lag and fatigue that afflicts them on the months-long European circuit.
Sara Renner, the 2006 silver medallist in the team sprint, said a strong finish for a Canadian is possible in the 10-kilometre women's freestyle race and the men's 15-kilometre freestyle race scheduled for Friday.
There are also classical style sprints on Saturday, where Canadians will test themselves against such international stars as Sweden's Emil Jonsson and Hanna Falk.
"This is where we live and where we train. So being in Canmore and having a World Cup and racing on trails we know, it's a chance for us to shine before the Olympics," Renner said in an interview as she tried on a new Olympic sweater.
"I think everyone feels so comfortable here. We're in our own homes and we have the perfect preparation."
Chandra Crawford, the gold-medallist in the 2006 skating sprint, will have a final opportunity to race Saturday in the individual classical style sprint with the top women in the world.
She's been honing that technique for the past six weeks on this course and says she's looking forward to at least reaching the top 30 in the World Cup field.
"This is probably the hardest, longest World Cup classic sprint going right now," she said.
The 1.6-kilometre sprint will force skiers to use their long, striding technique up several steep pitches, rather than allow them to just use their poles to propel themselves.
Devon Kershaw, a member of the well-regarded men's team, notes that his teammates have just come off weeks of hard training, and haven't yet fully recovered.
"I'm feeling pretty beat up. I don't expect much for this weekend," he said.
"The main thing that matters is the 16-day Olympic Games and I will be ready for that."
Many eyes will be on transplanted Russian skier Ivan Babikov as he races Friday for Canada in his adopted hometown.
The 29-year-old's skiing style is well adapted to the extreme hills and climbs in this ski area that skirts the edge of the Rocky Mountains.
Known for his climbing, Babikov showed impressive endurance in the final race of the Tour de Ski in Europe, a gruelling uphill race to the top of the Italy's Mount Cermis that he won in January.
His drive to the summit made him the top Canadian male on the European circuit this year, and helped solidify his nickname "bulldog" among his teammates.
Now he'll be a dark horse in the 15-kilometre men's skating race on Friday before a world field that includes Swiss superstar Dario Cologna.
The top two male racers on the circuit, Norwegian Petter Northug and Czech Lukas Bauer, are skipping the race. The Norwegians haven't sent a single member of their Olympic squad to the races here.
Inge Braten, the coach of the Canadian World Cup team, said George Grey, of Rossland, B.C., is also a potential contender in the weekend's races - after recovering from a back injury during the World Cup circuit.
The World Cup in Canmore will see about 220 elite athletes in action, including over 30 Canadians.
Evidence that the team is in a relaxed mood as they compete on their home turf arrived in the form of three-year-old Aria, Sara Renner's daughter.
She skied into the middle of the news conference, with balloons attached to her poles as she hopped happily across the finish line.
"Having a World Cup at home I really feel like I'm at ease," said her 33-year-old mother.
"It's nice to be normal and live at home and come up to the Nordic ski centre and do a ski race. It's what I've been doing since I was a kid."