The field wasn’t as deep as usual and the stakes weren’t quite as high, but the final NorAm weekend at Parc National du Mont-Orford left participants with plenty to talk about.
They skied atypical courses, some saw crashes and everyone braved unbearable temperatures at the two-day event. Some notched their first wins of the season; others raced with old rivals.
While Kevin Sandau of the Alberta World Cup Academy had already locked up the top regional spot and its reward of World Cup starts, he had to face his season-long challenger again in Orford, Quebec. Brent McMurtry (Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre) came out on top of their first race on Saturday, winning the 10 k classic interval start and essentially securing the overall NorAm title.
Sandau responded with a resounding victory in Sunday’s 20 k freestyle mass start. In temperatures that barely allowed racing at -17 degrees Celsius, he beat AWCA teammate Pate Neumann by more than 30 seconds. McMurtry was third, 1:42.2 behind.
“I was hoping to sort of redeem myself after two pretty terrible skate races and didn’t feel spectacular,” McMurtry said in a phone interview on Sunday. “Kevin made a hard attack, like, three kilometers in. I had chased back onto him, but I just didn’t have the body to be able to follow.”
While it wasn’t McMurtry’s day on Sunday, Sandau said he felt much better in the second race after placing fifth in Saturday’s 10 k.
“[Saturday’s] course was a bit flat for me and didn’t have the greatest warmup,” Sandau said. “[Sunday] I was able to hurt the body and really push the climbs. I was able just accomplish what I wanted to do and that was to blow the field open right away.”
Saturday’s 10 k Classic
In the men’s first race of the weekend, McMurtry took advantage of the one-lap course, with mostly rolling terrain and a two-kilometer downhill finish, by doing what he does best: start hard and try to hang on.
McMurtry kept up the pace for 6 or 7 kilometers, catching Drew Goldsack (AWCA) around the halfway point, he said. Goldsack stayed with him and later passed McMurtry, pushing him for the last kilometer to the finish. He finished behind Goldsack, who started 30 seconds ahead of him, but won the race in 27:30.2.
“I was pretty gassed on the double pole coming into the finish,” McMurtry said. “But happy with the way the body felt and happy to have another strong classic race.”
Goldsack was second (+24.0) for his best result of the season, after suffering a concussion and shoulder injury at a NorAm in mid January. Another Academy member, Gerard Garnier, notched a career-best in third (+44.0).
Neumann was fourth (+45.8) and Sandau finished fifth (+1:05.2).
Saturday’s 5 k Classic
For only the second time this year, the women raced 5 k at a NorAm. Previously 12th in the 5 k classic in Canmore, Alberta, on Jan. 20, Kate Brennan (AWCA) nailed her pacing in Saturday’s interval start. She won in 15:52 and said it wasn’t too complicated: she just went for it.
The victory was her first at a NorAm in more than seven years on the circuit.
“I just kind of went out with a sprint attitude in mind,” Brennan said. “It was just basically a 1 k climb right in the middle and once I made it through that I just kind of stayed on my feet.”
The winner by 7.2 seconds over Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers), Brennan said she was “pretty happy with it.”
Amanda Ammar (Canmore/Track ’n Trail) was third (+22.2).
Sunday’s 15 k Free
In the women’s second race of the weekend, Brennan said the not-so-technical course turned ugly with a few kilometers remaining. The pack of nearly 40 starters stayed together on the relatively flat course until a crash broke it up around 12 k.
“I narrowly avoided that,” Brennan said. “I skied through two people as they careened down a hill, rolling. I was just lucky there.”
Earlier in the race around 7 k, she lucked out again when a spectator threw a pole at her. She lost hers when someone stepped on it, but within seconds, saw someone she knew. She didn’t have to say anything; they just made eye contact.
“He just javelined it and I caught it,” Brennan said. “It was a really messy race, really messy.”
The crash left those standing with a shot at the podium. Eight women remained within 10 seconds of one another until the finish.
There, Andrea Lee (National Development Centre-Thunder Bay) squeaked out her first NorAm victory by 0.5 seconds in 43.18.4. Brennan was second, and Ammar was once again third (+0.9).
For Lee, who had several top-10 results this season, the win marked her first time in the top three at a NorAm — ever. Her previous best was fourth in a freestyle sprint on Jan. 14.
Sunday’s 20 k Free
In the men’s distance mass start, Sandau skied his own race despite a busy start.
“It was sort of a funny race because right off the start, there were some guys that were three lanes back and made their way to the [front] and got pretty antsy,” Sandau said. “I was worried that I was going to have to lead out.”
He instead relaxed and stayed with the group for the first 3 k. Then at the first climb, he dropped everyone.
“I just made my way to the front and did an attack and in the end it was only Pate Neumann that could respond,” Sandau said after winning the 20 k in 48:06.2.
Neumann, who was second (+31.4), wrote in an email that he hadn’t been in the best position to follow Sandau at the time and it took him a while to close the gap.
“Once I caught back up to Kev, I tried to ski as efficient as I could behind him,” Neumann wrote. “It seemed like he was constantly attacking and I knew we were putting good time into the chase group so I clung onto his ski tails as long as I could before eventually loosing contact at the end of the 3rd lap.”
With one lap to go, Sandau solidified the victory and distanced himself from McMurtry and the chase group. After losing contact with Sandau, McMurtry said he waited for the pack to catch him and skied conservatively to the finish.
“I was pretty confident that I was the strongest coming into the finish,” he said, after edging Erik Carleton (RMR) and Aidan Lennie (Nakkertok) for third. “[I] knew that if I was fifth place or better that I won the overall series.”
Carleton finished 0.8 seconds after McMurtry in fourth and Lennie was about one second off in fifth. It was Lennie’s first time inside the top 20 this season.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.