Once again, there was a great weekend of racing on the Nakkertok trails in Gatineau, QC. It was almost like the pandemic pause hadn’t happened: lots of racers, live results on Zone4, great support for media.
But it isn’t really just Nakkertok. ENGNE, a coalition of local clubs, puts on great races using Nakkertok trails and the NakkerTrak snowmaking magic.
As with the first Western Canada Cup (WCC) race, the theme of the weekend was smiles and rust.
“The mood at this weekends races was super fun!,” wrote Laura Leclair. “Even if it was pouring rain on Saturday, people were very happy to put a bib back on. Super grateful towards all the volunteers who stand in the rain in order to run the event smoothly!”
Leclair is a CNEPH team member from Chelsea Nordique, one of the ENGNE host clubs and a double winner. Her thoughts were echoed by National Team Development Centre (NDC) Thunder Bay’s Julian Smith, who also won both events.
“The race went really well today, it was super fun, the volunteers put on a really good event. It was really wet and rainy this morning, but that actually made it for a really fast day.”
A number of athletes wanted FasterSkier to know that the volunteers got the worst of the Saturday rain before the athletes were on course. Smith put it best:
“I want to thank the organizers profusely because they were true champions. It was a terribly miserable day to stand still outside for 10 or more hours and they did so with smiles and cheers!”
Luckily for these volunteers, Sunday brought sunshine for an individual start.
Canada is in a sense divided by Thunder Bay, though it is not equidistant from the eastern and western borders. The west has more space, but the east has more people. Sovereign Lake draws volunteers from the local population of 43,000, noticeably smaller than Ottawa/Gatineau with 1.3 million. The population difference also affects the number of athletes, with 12 million Canadians living close enough to drive to Nakkertok for a weekend. As in, almost a third of all Canadians.
Nakkertok hosted about 480 racers, continuing the trend as the largest event on the continental cup circuit in North America.
Thunder Bay is neither east nor west, but is within flying distance from both. The only races in driving distance are in the US.
NDC TBay sent their team west for WCC 1&2 before heading east for ECC 1 – 4. This will give the viewers a few hints about the relative strengths of the two solitudes.
FasterSkier is trying to bring the Eastern Canada Cup to life from a sunny Sovereign Lake parking lot while this reporter’s partner is doing yet another double workout day at ladies camp. Both Western Canada Cups were held at my home venue, which makes it easy to capture athletes before or after their cooldown ski, record video of the race itself, talk to officials, and feel the vibe from the volunteers, the parents, the siblings, and a few hundred recreational skiers who have never seen a race before. So how is this going to work? And how can it be better for Eastern Canada Cup 3&4 next weekend? Or for the National Championships in Canmore in January?
Pre-pandemic, the key to getting good content remotely was to email questions to the athletes at the magic time when they could read the message at the venue, then reply at the first convenient pause with wifi, often the airport. When a ‘surprise’ athlete made the podium, it was usually someone FS had been tracking. Now we have a Tory Audet earning her first FIS points and her first senior podium on the same weekend.
Luckily, Julian Smith helped FasterSkier out with some videos that bring the weekend closer.
Saturday: Free Technique Sprints
Saturday started with a downpour on the volunteers setting up, but the action heated up quickly as most racers got their first race in a bib in twenty months. The men raced first, unusually.
CNEPH’s Étienne Hébert won the qualifier in 2:39.86 in his first official race, edging out two TBay skiers who had raced WCCs the previous weekend: Smith by 1.15 seconds and Pierre Grall-Johnson-Johnson by 2.03
In the heats, it was the Smith show again, winning all of his heats. Hébert took second in his first sprint day, ahead of Grall-Johnson-Johnson who, like Smith, had done all three rounds at Westerns the week before.
“I felt strong but a little stiff in the qualifier which maybe have been due to warming up in as much water proof clothing as possible,” Smith wrote to FasterSkier. “But the heats, the skis were running fast and the body felt snappy.”
Hébert was thrilled to be racing again.
“It’s amazing to finally put a bib back on and race against the other Canadian athletes. Stress levels were somewhat high before the sprint but it quickly got replaced with excitement. Having the possibility to race, especially before Olympic trials, is great and I want to say that Nakkertok did an amazing job this weekend. We train all year as a team for those moments when you get to put the CNEPH suit on and show everyone how fast we are. This weekend was only the start and we’re all excited for MSA next weekend.”
MSA is Mont Sainte Anne near Québec City, the home of CNEPH, and like Nakkertok, a keystone race venue in Canada.
“Saturday’s sprint had a lot of positives,” Hébert wrote about the results. “I got to see that my form was really good and that I can already compete at a high level. Tactics can still be improved but that will come with simply racing more.”
“Tactics was the key factor in the sprint on Saturday. Pierre and I had a gap on the rest of the field after the first climb but Julian got back in touch before the last downhill and used the slipstream to get ahead. thought I could just stay behind [Grall-Johnson] until the finish and pass him but he slowed down too much on the second climb which allowed Julian to come back.”
Grall-Johnson had his own view of the final on his home trails.
“Knowing the course very well, as I grew up on it, I was pretty confident in what tactics were best but these races are always good opportunities to try out new ones,” Grall-Johnson-Johnson wrote. “In the final I decided to go out hard from the start and see if I could create some separation, I was able to get a few meters on the first climb but had a pole go deep through the snow which almost made me crash with loaded legs and then on the second climb I had very little energy so I was caught and then conceded in the downhill due to a very advantageous draft going into the finish. Overall though happy with a third place.”
Leclair won the qualifier in 2:55.08, just ahead of CNEPH teammate Liliane Gagnon at 0.29 seconds back. TBay’s Bronwyn Williams and Shaylynn Loewen followed at 2.96 and 3.25 behind.
In the heats, Leclair won her quarter, came second in her semi, and then edged Loewen for the win.
“I was pretty confident in Saturday’s final heat,” Leclair wrote to FasterSkier. “I knew that my teammate (Liliane Gagnon) and I could work together in order to position ourselves in the front. I knew we were stronger in the last uphill and Lili and I were able to make a gap between the other skiers.”
“Unfortunately, Lili fell in the last corner (I swear I did not tackle her ) so I was alone for the last downhill. The other girls caught up because of draft, but I was able to take the win.”
Williams took third, followed by Chelsea’s U18 Tory Audet, who qualified 5th. Audet also lead the list of new names to watch. Twenty months without racing is a long time in the development of junior skiers, which means more welcome surprises are coming.
Sunday: Classic Interval Start 10km/15km
Smith won the 15km in 35:21.3, giving him four wins in four race days, and then summarized the event in a short sentence to FasterSkier.
“The weekend was a blast!”
Smith later added a little more detail: “The Sunday weather could not have been more different. -4 and bright sunlight was a welcome change and the track was set for a blistering 10/15km for the seniors.”
Grall-Johnson was a close second, 4.6 seconds back.
“Today it was a relatively flat course with lots of laps so I double poled 90% of the race other than the stride zone,” Grall-Johnson wrote. “It was a great fight between Julian and I today, we were going back and forth in the lead, unfortunately Julian pulled away in the end but despite a crash on the first lap I was happy with how I was able to refocus and push mentally.”
Hébert was third at 25.1 seconds back, changing podium places with Grall-Johnson.
“The last two laps of 2.5km is where the order of the podium got decided,” Hébert wrote. “Julian and Pierre finished stronger than I did. We were, all three of us, really close after 10km, inside 10sec I think. I’m looking forward to a course with more climbs because striding felt really good but my muscles got stiff in the double pole which definitely caused me to lose some time.”
The women’s 10km also had a double winner, Leclair in 28:05.3.
“I am not usually a classic skier but I worked hard on my technique this summer and I am super happy to see it paid off,” Leclair wrote. “I felt really good, the conditions and skis were super fast and I just went for it. For some reason I didn’t get any split during the race so I wasn’t sure where I was but I just skied my best.”
The next three places were U20 athletes: Audet at 25.8, Gagnon at 32.5, and Big Thunder’s Sarah Cullinan at 54.3.
Gagnon is well known to Canadian fans and raced at U20 World Championships in Vuokatti last season.
Audet, who recently turned 16, has less public history as a skier.
“This was my first U20 podium, and my first FIS pointed race,” she wrote. “I was only eligible for a FIS license last year, and since there were no races, this was my first FIS pointed race.”
In her first weekend, she raced up in U20/Open and it paid off for her with a 4th in the sprint and 2nd.
“Having not done a sprint in over a year, and never with older athletes, I had no clue what to expect. My goal was just to race fast and see how far I could get. I knew the trails quite well and had raced them in previous years, which was good because I knew what to expect.
“As for race tactics, I have limited experience in sprints so at the beginning of the day, I didn’t have any tactics. It was not until I hit semis and made the mistake of leading the pack that I started to think about tactics. I was drafted on the hill and I lost my spot in the finals, but regained it as a lucky loser. When it came to the final, I decided to try a different strategy: to get out in 3rd or 4th and draft off everyone. It was was really fun because I got to observe everyone else’s tactics, to see the lines they were taking, and learn from their extensive experience.”
With U20 athletes on the podium at both Eastern and Western Canada Cups this weekend, it is clear the next generation made good use of a season without races.
Sprinting heats: Robert Smith caught the reactions to a crash. (Click to enlarge.)
Getting In The Mood For Racing
“Everyone just seems to be happy racing again and I think that really helps in making the events fun. Its the first time many of the volunteers have helped with racing events, either for a long time or just first time ever so obviously you have to be patient and understand that everyone is a bit rusty but overall energy is great!” — Grall-Johnson
“I could feel that everyone at the venue was really excited to be there. Saturday’s weather was suppose to be horrible but we got kind of lucky with the worst of the rain falling before the qualifier. Despite this, athletes and everyone else at the venue had big smiles on. Seeing everyone again after a year and a half was exciting. I got to see the athletes and coaches from Monteriski, my home club, and all the competitors I didn’t see for the entire pandemic. Excitement is really the mood that was present last weekend.” — Hébert
“I am super stoked to be racing back in Canada again. It was great to be at home in front of friends and family and super cool to see how everyone has been training!” — Leclair
“Our wax techs did an incredible job so a huge shout out to our staff and the organizers [who] put on a great event for a second day. It is just so exciting to be racing in Canada again, and having friends and family cheering from the sidelines makes it even more special.” — Smith