Clouds heavy with building snow and a winter-storm warning already in effect cast a second anticipatory shadow over a jittery group of racers gathered on Wednesday for the first Frozen Thunder race of the season at the Canmore Nordic Centre in Canmore, Alberta.
At stake for some of the top Canadians participating in the day’s classic sprint was the opportunity to secure the final spot on the men’s World Cup team for the first period of World Cup racing starting later this month. Nearly 12 centimeters of snow had fallen the night before on the two-lap race track, and for many stepping out onto the freshly groomed trails, months upon months of training prep was in the barn.
“That World Cup spot. That has been a goal for pretty well the whole year,” said Bob Thompson, who trains with the Thunder Bay National Team Development Centre (NTDC), on the phone after Wednesday’s races.
Thompson, 26, was not the only one hoping to book a plane ticket for World Cup Period 1, which starts Nov. 24 in Kuusamo, Finland, and continues through December. Sixty-six skiers started Wednesday’s men’s sprint qualifier and anyone in the hunt for that World Cup spot would have to outperform them all, excluding the Americans and Canadian World Cup Team member, Len Valjas, who was prequalified for the World Cup.
Even with the competition’s added edge, many racers went about business as usual on race day and in the days leading up to the event, Thompson explained.
“It’s been fairly carefree the week we’ve been here,” said Thompson, who arrived in Canmore with his NTDC teammates on Oct. 23. “The morning [of the sprint] I wouldn’t say things were a bleak atmosphere or super serious, it was just kind of everyone was doing their thing.”
Thompson went about his warmup the way he normally would on race day. In retrospect, he saw his plan as well-executed and his warmup as strong, despite breaking a pole during his intensity segment. For him, the qualifier went “really well,” he said.
But Julien Locke, of the Canadian U25 Team and Black Jack Ski Team, was the fastest man in the open men’s qualifier and thus earned that coveted World Cup spot. Locke, 24, posted the top time of 3:37.81 minutes, nearly a second ahead of Valjas in second (+0.97) and 3.57 seconds ahead of the third qualifier, Dominique Moncion-Groulx of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AIAWCA). Thompson qualified fourth, 4.15 seconds off of Locke’s winning time.
“I didn’t have regrets or second thoughts on how I raced,” Thompson said. “Julien had a great race, props to him. I’ll just have to come back next time.”
Locke could not be reached at press time, but he spoke with Cross Country Canada (CCC) in a video posted on Twitter after the race.
“I’m really excited to have won the race this morning and qualified for Period 1 World Cup, but the Olympics is the big goal this year,” Locke said. “It’s super important to go get results on the World Cup, and I’m excited to have a chance to do that.”
According to CCC High Performance Director Thomas Holland, Locke and the rest of the World Cup Team (excluding Alex Harvey and Cendrine Browne) will head to Gällivare, Sweden, on Nov. 10, where they’ll compete in a weekend of International Ski Federation (FIS) races from Nov. 17-19. Meanwhile, Harvey and Browne, who train out of the Pierre Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH) with coach Louis Bouchard in Quebec, will train in Davos, Switzerland, in advance of the World Cup opener in Finland.
But let’s get back to Frozen Thunder. With the qualifier behind them and the heats slated to take place in a zero-elimination King’s Court format, many racers approached the rest of Wednesday adamant on getting in some solid race efforts.
(Article continues below)
“The King’s Court format that we use in the heats was a great showcase for athlete development whereby every athlete entered in the race gets to race all 3 heats,” Holland explained in an email. “The format sees men and woman and para-skiers in some of the same heats – super fun event for all the athletes.”
In the first heat, Thompson, Locke, Valjas, and Moncion-Groulx went head to head, yet with the heats starting one minute apart on the two-lap track, there was a constant influx of skiers and some overlap.
“I think comments were made that we were dogging it a little bit,” Thompson said of that initial round. “There were other heats that we were basically skiing in the first lap with that were going faster than us … they were running pretty quick through the starts.”
In the second heat, Locke and Valjas paired up with Knute Johnsgaard (Canadian World Cup Team/AIAWCA) and American Cole Morgan, of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF). Thompson and Moncion-Groulx faced another American SVSEF skier, Kevin Bolger, as well as NTDC Thunder Bay’s Andy Shields. Four men advanced to the senior men’s final: Bolger, Thompson, Locke and Valjas.
In the final, Thompson recalled creating what he saw as “a bit of a gap” between himself and Valjas, yet Valjas, a seasoned World Cup sprinter, caught him in the lunge to the line for first. Overall on the day, Valjas placed first, Thompson second, Locke third, and Bolger fourth.
With the King’s Court format, female racers competed in the same same qualifier as the men, with Dahria Beatty (U25 Team/AIAWCA) emerging as the fastest female qualifier in 4:20.66. Her time was 8.56 seconds clear the second woman, American Chelsea Holmes, of Alaska Pacific University (APU), and 10.03 seconds ahead of Katie Weaver (Hollyburn Ski Club) in third. The third-placed Canadian woman in the qualifier, Annika Hicks (AIAWCA) clocked in fourth (+13.25).
In the heats, the women continued to race with the men. In the all-women final, Maya MacIsaac-Jones (U25 Team/Rocky Mountain Racers) took the win, Hicks placed second, Holmes third, and Frédérique Vézina (CNEPH) fourth.
Frozen Thunder racing continues Friday with men’s 10 k and women’s 7.5 k distance races, starting at 9 a.m. Mountain time. In a press release, CCC anticipated a turnout of 115 participants.