With just over a year before the 2019 Canada Winter Games, the River Bend Golf and Recreation Area is set for an even bigger cross-country skiing stage.
From Jan. 19-21 it will play host to the Haywood NorAm Western Canadian Cross Country Ski Championships and Peavey Mart Alberta Cup 5/6, which will feature elite skiers from Canada and the United States and will also serve as a test event for the games.
“This will probably be the highest level and largest in terms of athletes cross-country ski event that’s been held in Red Deer,” said Tom Marr-Laing, president of the Parkland Cross-Country Ski Club and also the Chief of Competition for the event.
“Over the last four years we’ve held three Alberta Cups and we had 400 athletes at one point. Majority of those are a younger focus.”
Some top local skiers will race at the event that could feature more than 400 athletes when all the entries are finalized.
The event will feature sprint races on Friday, followed by 15 km classic mass start races on Saturday and Sunday will be relay races.
“We’ll have the little tykes, as young as five and six and all the way up to the senior folks, the really elite people as well as a masters category and para-nordic. There’s a wide community of skiers that will be involved,” he said.
“We nurture that opportunity, we want the little guys to rub shoulders with the really fast, big guys. Some lights will go on and some kids will say, ‘Hey, I want to do that’ or I’ve seen that person on TV. It’s pretty cool.”
Local names to look out for include, Anna Zimmerman with the Alberta Ski Team, Owen Pimm with the Alberta Development team and Ethan McDonald with Alberta Sport Development Centre-Central, who are all vying for a spot on Team Alberta for the 2019 games.
While those athletes will get a chance to compete on their home track, the trails they will race have undergone a massive transformation over the last 24 months including about $1 million dollars worth of infrastructure and technology upgrades.
One major change that was made in the summer was the widening of the trails at River Bend in order to meet the Canada Winter Games standards.
“The trails at River Bend were built in the 80s and the sport has changed a lot in that 40 year period, particularly with the classic style technique– skate skiing,” Marr-Laing said.
“That required us to create wider trails. The stadium that is there now is about twice the size of what we used to have and we’re going to need every square inch of that.”
That’s why it’s important to host a test event, according to Marr-Laing, so the organizers can pinpoint any potential problems with the course or track and have time to fix it.
While the weekend will serve as a “test event” for the Canada Winter Games, in reality, numbers wise it will be more than double the amount of competitors that participate in the games.
“We have to manage 400 or 500 athletes this January, in 2019 it will be about 160 athletes,” he said.
“This is the reason why Canada Winter Games does test events, you learn a lot and we’re learning a tremendous amount.”
Cross-country ski events are always highly reliant on weather and it will be no different at Westerns later this month. With very little snow falling to start the winter, they’ve had an unanticipated challenge: making snow.
Snowmaking has been a big part of the process in the last month, including getting a snow gun functioning all day and night since Dec. 26. There was very little base before that point, but after several good days of snowmaking, all systems appear to be a go for the race. Volunteers from the Parkland Cross-Country Ski Club have put in plenty of hours to make sure the course will be ready next month.
“In cold weather, the guns are really productive. It pumps out tons of snow. We just have to move it,” Marr-Laing said.
“All this is new for this community and the club, but it’s coming together and we’ll have the event. We’re all looking forward to hosting it.”