The weather was mild and the snow was still lodged in the Finnish conifers during the last race of the season, at the end of March, in Lahti. In this classic 20 kilometer mass start event, Antoine Cyr snatched an eighth position, for the second time this season.

A few weeks later, he returned from a cycling weekend with his girlfriend in his native region of the Outaouais. Comfortably seated in the dining room of the house where he grew up, the now resident of Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges looked back on the best season of his career with La Presse.

A season characterized by a lot of volume, but above all by the confirmation of finally being part of the elite of his sport.

“As an athlete, you know where you can end up, you think you’d be able to make top 10s, but until you do, you don’t really know. This year, to break into the top 10 several times, it really clicked and took a weight off my shoulders,” revealed the 24-year-old cross-country skier.

Seven times, precisely, Cyr has finished among this select club. He did it in three different contexts, namely in the World Cup, the Tour de ski and the World Championships, and in different types of events, that is to say in the relay, in the sprint and in distance, thus testifying to a versatility of which the skier is not a little proud.

His most impressive feat remains his fourth place in the classic 15 km mass start, in the penultimate race of the legendary Tour de ski on the equally prestigious Val di Fiemme slope. On this carpet embedded between the mountains and in the heart of the Italian forest, the Gatineau resident was amazing, from start to finish. The more the race progressed, the more he took the lead. His push in the last kilometers of the course could have put him on the podium if the race had been a few meters longer. “It was a toenail away,” he recalled of the gap between Francesco de Fabiani and him.

“It opened my eyes, not just for me, but for my Canadian teammates, to think that we are capable of finishing fourth in the World Cup and to think that we are capable of aiming for the podium. It just has to be done. »

In his mid-twenties, in a long-developing sport, Cyr is where expected. For many years, it has been considered the finest project in Canadian cross-country skiing. With his successes of the last season, he lived up to the expectations placed on him since the retirement of his mentor Alex Harvey.

With good reason, his work will always be compared to that of his most illustrious predecessor. The proof, most observers speak of his last campaign as the best for a Canadian cross country skier since Alex Harvey. It remains that it is first and foremost Antoine Cyr’s best season.

Cyr may not be prodigious, but only time will tell what impact he has had on his sport.

Certainly, it went well. He is the undisputed leader of the Canadian team, even if it happened a little in spite of him. “It puts a bit of pressure,” he admits. I never wanted to take a leadership position. Not because I didn’t want to, not because it’s not my personality. I think I can be a very good leader. »

Cross-country skiing remains an individual sport and too complex to start meddling in the affairs of others. “I focus on playing my sport and practicing my profession as best I can. This is how I set the best example. »

Whether he likes it or not, and especially if his results continue to improve, his name will always be attached to that of Harvey. If some want to monopolize all the light and deny the past, it is quite the opposite for Cyr. “I don’t really mind, because it’s an honor. To be put in the same sentence as Alex was my dream. »

The interview took place in the room, on the very chair where his dream took shape. “It’s funny because I’m in my parents’ kitchen and I remember the mornings, at 4 or 5 a.m. before school on Fridays, we would get up to watch Alex sprint, and I sat here with my dad, in front of streaming sites to watch the races. »

From idol, Harvey became a friend. “We write and call each other almost every weekend. He’s really behind us, but Alex has retired and he’s not coming back.”

Hence the importance of “trying to go our own way, make our own mark”.

His workout plan is “the skeleton of the workout plan that Alex was doing,” he proudly admits. The former champion’s recipe seems to be working well for the 24th overall skier of the 2023 season.

As in the world of road biking, to which he cheerfully refers, there is a kind of hierarchy in cross-country skiing. And it’s hard to climb the ranks and earn the respect of other competitors. Especially those who are well established at the top of the pyramid.

He believes he has managed to find a place for himself in this private club. “Especially in mass start. […] I had the impression of having more of my place, of being crushed less on skis. »

He does not hide it: “It’s fun to see that you’re climbing a little in the hierarchy! »

“The month off” is soon coming to an end for Cyr and the Canadian team. “Cross-country skiing, first of all, is a super tough sport. Second, when you train, there is no downtime. Nearly 900 hours of training and more than 40 international races later, “physically and mentally, you’re burnt out,” he admits. That is why April is a month of almost complete rest. “It’s always been super important to me to let go more in April. It’s mentally tough to quit. But I have to, because on May 1, I want to look forward to getting back to training. This rest, he needs it. “You really have to rest, turn the brain off. For a sporty beast like him, rest notably involves long days of cycling and kitesurfing. Everyone has their own way of resting.