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Jan Hudec of Canada speeds down in the second practice for the men's Alpine Skiing World Cup Downhill race in Rosa Khutor near Sochi February 9, 2012. (WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS)
Jan Hudec of Canada speeds down in the second practice for the men's Alpine Skiing World Cup Downhill race in Rosa Khutor near Sochi February 9, 2012. (WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS)

Canadians get sneak preview of 2014 Olympic hill Add to ...

Jan Hudec, Canada’s newest leading man of the alpine slopes, had no idea what he was going to find when the ski team arrived in Sochi, Russia, this week for a 2014 Winter Olympics test event.

He’d never even seen a photo of the alpine skiing venue. Suddenly, he became less of an athlete and more of a tourist, snapping photos of scenic vistas.

Most importantly, after two training runs, he’s seen what the Olympic course is like and concludes: “The run on the downhill is one of the probably coolest downhill runs we’ve ever had in ski racing.”

Fresh from winning a World Cup in Chamonix, France, last weekend, Hudec and his downhill teammates, Erik Guay of Mont-Tremblant, Que. (who finished third in Chamonix) and young upstart Ben Thomsen of Invermere, B.C., (fifth) hope to continue their momentum for this week, and along the way, gather invaluable information about the hill that could change their lives in two years.

Thomsen is waiting for no one. The 24-year-old placed third in the first training run on Wednesday and was the top Canadian, at eighth, on Thursday. He’s pushing his 30-year-old elders, Hudec and Guay, the reigning downhill world champion. Guay was ninth on Thursday before the run was cancelled because of fog, while Hudec was 19th, all struggling with the upper section of the run. “I like new venues,” Thomsen said in a conference call. “I like a new challenge.”

But the course “was a little bit different than I would like,” he said. While many other skiers fell afoul of the tight, twisty turns at the top, which caused a few to miss gates, Thomsen found the difficulties at the bottom, where the terrain is flat, and rolling and requiring long, gliding turns. That’s not his specialty. He’s been working this year on the gliding, which Hudec does well.

More than the other two, Thomsen suddenly feels pressure to repeat the fifth-place finish he delivered last week, even though he started 50th on a course that he thought he couldn’t produce fast times. Still, he’s embracing it.

“As silly as it sounds, I’ve set my bar pretty high this weekend,” Thomsen said. “I’m itching for a podium. I don’t think I’m ready for a podium. I can shoot for the stars and I can work really hard this weekend and who knows?”

His effort last week and his training runs this week have boosted his confidence. He’s now racing in the top group and says he knows he belongs.

So do Hudec and Guay. All three feed off each other, Hudec and Thomsen more so because they are both underdogs. Hudec is returning from six surgeries and Thomsen had to fight to get onto the team.

Head speed coach John McBride said he plucked Thomsen out of a prospect training camp a couple of years ago, not because of his quick times, but because of the way he did things. Thomsen is paying him back. Along the way, he’s accepted the largesse of Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who paid some of his costs for a training camp, and of other athletes such as Hudec and Guay, who have let him stay at their homes, and given him a lift to the airport.

The new downhill course gets a thumbs-up from Guay and Hudec, who say it has some great sections and long jumps with great landing spots. The venue appears finished, the hotel has never been occupied, and the railway station is “exceptional,” according to Guay.

Guay said the top of the course is “a bit tight and turny” for a downhill and is completely different from Chamonix, where the team had such success on a straighter, flatter course. It’s sometimes more like a super giant slalom course at the top, but even though Guay also does super G, he struggled with the upper turns during training runs this week.

Hudec, the designated athlete representative for this event, said the course has a lot of potential and could be set differently to give it a better flow. He’s hoping he gets a chance to pass along athletes’ concerns. McBride is not so hopeful that organizers will listen to feedback and suggestions. “They have the ability to do what they want,” he said. “There’s no guarantee.”

For now, he’s keeping the speed skiers focused on the task at hand. And he believes the team will be competitive regardless of the set of the course.

The men’s downhill race is on Saturday.

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