You’ve seen it on the World Cup, and now it’s happening at the domestic level: double poling a classic distance race, as seen at Canada’s NorAm opener in Canmore, Alberta.
The top men went without kick wax for the 10-kilometer classic interval start on Saturday, Dec. 5, double poling around a 2.5 k biathlon loop.
Kevin Sandau of the Alberta World Cup Academy powered to the win in 24:42.9 minutes, edging his AWCA teammate Knute Johnsgaard (National U23+ Development Team) by 2.9 seconds. Ian Murray (Capital Region Training Group) skied the fastest last lap to edge Brian McKeever of Canada’s Para Nordic Ski Team by 3.5 seconds for third, 9.5 seconds back from Sandau.
In an email, Sandau, 27, explained that double poling was essentially a no-brainer on the Canmore Nordic Centre’s biathlon trails — flatter than the usual race course with shorter climbs.
“Off the start I knew I needed to be aggressive as it was going to be a fast race,” he wrote. “Just gunned it off the start and trusted my body could clear the lactate from my arms on the downhills. Felt pretty solid throughout so wasn’t a bad plan.”
Johnsgaard explained he would have preferred striding over double pole, so considering that, he was happy with second place.
“Of course I would have liked to be 3 seconds faster! I was being extra careful not to do any skate or step turns, perhaps too careful,” Johnsgaard wrote in an email. “I just tried to pace things right and find the fastest part of the track. I was outside the track almost the whole race.”
For Murray, third stood as his NorAm career best.
“At the age of 37 I guess you could say I am coming into my groove,” Murray wrote. “I was 22nd on the first lap which was a bit slower than I hoped to start. Kevin Sandau passed me when I was on my second lap and that kicked me into gear. I have been focusing on ski marathon racing the last couple of years so I’m still figuring out the pacing for the 10 and 15km races.”
McKeever explained that he tried to build into the race, but was missing a few gears. “[I] was overly cautious about not skating, and consequently was not aggressive enough,” he wrote in an email.
In his first time double poling a distance race, Colin Abbott (Yukon Ski Team) in seventh (behind CNEPH’s Alex Dumas in sixth) observed that the pacing is different.
“You don’t max out aerobically as easily so the concern for pacing is trying not to burn your arms too soon in the race,” Abbott wrote. “I went out maybe a bit faster than was ideal, and definitely slowed on the last lap but don’t think the end result would have changed much if I started slower.”
In the women’s 5 k classic race, Sophie Carrier-Laforte of the Pierre Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH) won the two-lap race in 14:31.5, followed by U23 Development Team member Katherine Stewart-Jones (NDC Thunder Bay), 10.3 seconds back.
Thunder Bay had two on the podium with Alannah Maclean in third, 17.9 seconds behind Carrier-Laforte, and another athlete in fourth: Jenn Jackson (+30.8)
“I was aiming for a podium this week but didn’t expect to get it today,” Stewart-Jones wrote in an email. “It’s a very short race so I planned on going out really hard and just try to hold on to the same pace. On the first lap, I focused on skiing efficiently and then just went as hard as I possibly could on the second [lap].”
She added that her double-pole work this summer appears to have paid off.
While Stewart-Jones’s first lap ranked fourth and second lap was second-fastest among the women, Carrier-Laforte skied the fastest last lap. Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers) was fastest on Lap 1, but faded on Lap 2 to place fifth (+36.0). Maclean posted the second-fastest opening lap.
On Sunday, Dec. 6, Sandau repeated with a win in the second race of the season: the men’s 16.5 k freestyle mass start. The races were once again held on Canmore’s biathlon trails, this time on a 3.3 k loop.
Sandau won it in 38:59.9, again ahead of Johnsgaard, who finished 36.6 seconds back in second. About a minute and 3 seconds behind Sandau, McKeever placed third, four-tenths of a second ahead of fourth-place finisher Patrick Stewart-Jones (AWCA).
For Sandau, the race and the victory were even better than the day before.
“The 15km skate played out a lot more to my strengths and really let me test out my fitness,” he wrote. “I knew before the start I just wanted to go full throttle right from the gun. It was a mass start, and there was a crazy westerly wind, so I knew this race was going to be easier to bunch up and make it harder to break away.”
He strategized his pace changes for the bottom of the five-lap course, where there were two “decent climbs,” he explained. His fourth time around, he broke away from Johnsgaard and skied the rest of the race alone.
“I knew once I could break away from anyone, I could really start to put some time in because they had to fight the wind just as much as I did at that point on,” Sandau wrote.
Johnsgaard anticipated that Sandau would be the man to beat, “so the two of us started hard right out of the gate to try and lose the field as soon as possible,” Johnsgaard wrote.
They broke away around 5 k, and while Sandau’s pace felt fast, Johnsgaard explained holding on until the last 3.3 k lap.
“By that time I was hurting pretty bad and lost a lot of time on my last lap,” he wrote. “I thought everyone would catch back up to me but luckily we had opened up a big enough gap earlier on.”
McKeever noted the superior shape of Sandau and Johnsgaard compared to him and the rest of the field. “It went as well as it could have,” McKeever wrote. “I played the tactics right and made the most of the day.”
Dahria Beatty of the U23 Development Team and AWCA charged hard on the last lap of the women’s 10 k freestyle mass start to win by 8.8 seconds in in 27:07.5. Frédérique Vézina placed second and her CNEPH teammate Cendrine Browne (NST U23 Development Team) took the final podium step in third, 13.7 seconds behind Beatty. Another CNEPH skier Jaqueline Mourao, originally from Brazil, was 1.4 seconds off the podium in fourth. Mourao turns 40 later this month.
“It’s always amazing to be able to win a race!” 21-year-old Beatty wrote in an email after her second senior NorAm victory. “I ended up leading most of the race. My original plan had been to sit back for the first lap in the pack and then if I felt strong push the long climb that was on both the second and third lap.”
As she approached the climb on the second of three laps, she explained she tried to keep the pace high to “string out the pack.”
“On the final lap on the same long climb I had a ski lengths gap coming off the downhill so I took advantage of that small gap and just skied as hard as I could without looking back,” Beatty wrote. “I didn’t let off at all until the final 500 meters when I finally checked to confirm the gap my coaches had been telling me I had.”
Vézina wrote that, while she made a race plan and executed it well, mass starts are a toss up.
“You can expect some things but at the end you can really make intelligent decisions once you are in the race,” Vézina wrote. “I’m happy with the way I managed my race.”
Despite a broken pole at the beginning of the race and losing contact with the leaders, Browne was pleased to see where she stacked up at the start of the season.
“You always ask yourself if you are in shape or not compared to the other skiers,” Browne wrote. “The tactics didn’t play out as planned … I was planning on leading with Dahria but it didn’t really work out because I had to make my way back to the front.”
On Tuesday, the final day of NorAm racing in Canmore, Beatty went on to win the women’s 1.5 k classic sprint final by 2.51 seconds over Browne. Earlier in the day, Browne topped the qualifier in 4:36.2, and Beatty was 6.8 seconds off the pace to qualify in fifth.
Browne and Beatty both won their quarterfinals before facing off in the semifinal, where Browne took first by 1.62 seconds over Beatty in second. In the final, Beatty explained that for the first time in a race, she screamed in elation as she crossed the finish. It was her first senior sprint victory.
“Going into this race I wanted to ski in the top two in all heats to avoid being stuck at the back of an accordion-effect after the herringbone climb. In all my heats I was able to do that,” she wrote. “Everyone’s skis were icing after this climb so it was easy to lose time kicking it off at the top. For the final I asked my coach to put a less sticky wax on so I would ice less and I think that made a big difference. I was still able to make it up the hills but more importantly I was able to crest the hill super aggressively on both laps, thus carrying more speed into the downhill.”
With two big climbs separated by two downhills, Beatty explained that it made sense to push hard each time up. That made pacing simple; she simply wanted to be in front.
“When I came down the last hill in the lead I went into sprint mode and didn’t look back,” she wrote. “I had to look at the results afterwards to realize how far behind the others were.
Another great thing about today was the rain waited until the women’s race was over, bonus.”
Browne was pleased to win a sprint qualifier for the first time in her career and did so by four seconds over Jenn Jackson. Later in the final, she edged Jackson by 0.25 seconds for second place. Jackson was third, ahead of Andrea Dupont in fourth, Vézina in fifth, and Marie Corriveau (CNEPH/National Junior Team) in sixth.
For Browne, 22, it was her second podium in a senior sprint.
“In the semi final, my plan was to climb the last hill faster then Dahria so I would have more speed than her in the downhill. I had the same plan in the A final but it didn’t work out as well,” she explained. “I had a pretty high level of energy today but I still tried to manage it in the quarter final and in the semi final. … My skis were great. I had great kick and my skis were fast, and that helped me a lot.”
Bob Thompson (Thunder Bay NDC) made the top 30 to qualify for the heats in the 1.5 k men’s sprint, but was more than 17 seconds off the pace in 20th. Johnsgaard set the time to beat in the qualifier in 3:51.05.
In the quarterfinals, Thompson placed second to Julien Locke (Black Jack), but came back to beat Locke in the semifinal by 0.15 seconds. Thompson went on to win the men’s final by 1.24 seconds over Patrick Stewart-Jones.
“Definitely great to finish the day and the weekend with a win, seems I’m becoming notorious for coming off a poor qualifier and then figuring things out in the heats,” Thompson wrote in an email.
After the quarterfinal, he switched from grip skis to zeros/rub skis, he wrote, “and they made a huge difference.
“I definitely let my skis do a bit of work so I tried to keep the first lap in control and just keep a solid position in second or third and then just make sure to stay close over the top into the downhill to get the draft,” he added. “Tough day to try and lead into the downhill and finish.”
“Bob was really strong in the finish today and I have to accept that,” Stewart-Jones wrote. “The final was a little bizarre because the pace started out fast, but then on the top of the climb on the second lap it slowed right down because it was so narrow and no one could get by the leader. The pack bunched right up and from there on it was pretty much a 6 way drag race to the finish.”
Andy Shields (NDC Thunder Bay) placed third, 1.35 behind Thompson. Sandau was fourth, Locke fifth and Johnsgaard sixth.
“The classic sprint was a big turnaround from how I was skiing on the weekend,” Shields wrote. “Distance skiing so far this year has felt terrible. Luckily my sprinting pep is still strong. I went on wax for the quarter and it was unbelievably fast.”
With wet snow and rain before his semifinal, Shields switched to zeros, “which had crazy grip but lacked a bit in glide,” he wrote. “The techs were able to tune my zeros for the final. … Happy with now having NorAm podiums in both skate and classic sprinting, as well as podiums in both skate and classic distance.”