Sailing past the competition

Red Deer’s Peter Martel is the fastest snowkiter in the world, sailing past 350 competitors in blizzard conditions with a broken steering line at the Red Bull Ragnarok in Norway.

Red Deer’s Peter Martel is the fastest snowkiter in the world, sailing past 350 competitors in blizzard conditions with a broken steering line at the Red Bull Ragnarok in Norway.

Martel, who placed third in last year’s race, used the competitive power of teamwork to propel him to the top of the podium at the 2016 Red Bull event held April 1. The two Alberta snowkiters he trained with blew past most of the competition as well.

Marie-Eve Mayrand of Calgary clinched the top spot in the women’s kiteboarding race, while Josh Barker of Gull Lake placed third in the men’s division.

Martel congratulated his fellow Albertans, saying “They were the underdogs, while I had already podium-ed … I was hoping, with them being so strong and doing so well (in training), that they would place …”

He credited his training with Barker and Mayrand for his own win, saying the three snowkiters motivated each other to get out for at least weekly practices — usually at Sunshine Meadows, near Banff. “We made it a team effort, pushing each other on” to go faster and farther.

All their strength was needed for the 100-km Ragnarok course. Martel, Barker and Mayrand were among only 25 competitors to finish the race — Martel with the top time of four hours, 49 min.

The event that attracts participants from 30 countries is called “the biggest and toughest” snowkite competition on the globe. It’s held on a gruelling, five-lap course on a mountainous plateau in Hardangervidda — the same location used for the ice planet Hoth in the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back film.

Conditions were initially ideal — sunny and about -2 C — but the wind proved wildly unpredictable.

Martel recalled leading a field of competitors on snowboards and skis when he entered a“wind hole” in the course. Other kiters noticed his sail going slack and managed to avoid the poor wind conditions. “They could navigate around me … I watched as six or seven competitors passed me by — and that was discouraging,” he admitted.

Martel had to hike in knee-deep snow to the top of a hill to catch the wind again, and then used all of his skills and knowledge to catch up to the competition.

In the endurance sport, “you have to use your body in the most efficient way to get the most impact,” explained the 29-year-old, whose sailor’s sense of navigation and core strength as a former speedskater helped him make the most of the conditions.

But on the last lap of the race, the wind picked up considerably and the temperature dropped to about -8 C. “There was near-zero visibility” recalled Martel, who had to navigate by following snowboard and ski tracks in the snow.

At one point, he hit an outcropping and went tumbling. Martel “gift-wrapped” himself in this steering lines. Panic set in when he realized one of the lines had snapped in two. “When I was able to calm down, I had to react quickly …” He untangled himself, then haphazardly tied the two broken ends together in a knot that held to the end of the race.

Since Martel was racing in blizzard conditions, he didn’t realize he was the first to cross the finish line until one of the Red Bull organizers told him.

He recalled the fantastic feeling of sharing the podium with Barker, as well as second-place winner Reinhold Gehrer of Austria.

Martel is additionally thrilled that kiteboarding will be an event at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He noted the snowboarding half-pipe was a trial sport at the junior Olympics before being accepted into the adult Winter Olympic Games.

The Red Deer electrician who also owns the Element Kite Paddle Surf business, would like to see more corporate sponsorship for snowkiting. Martel said his future participation will hang on whether he can keep up with the high cost of going to international events.