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The Eh Game

Skiing on stored snow gives Canada’s World Cup Nordic athletes an early-season edge

Jim Morris
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(The Canadian Press)

When the weather turns warm in the spring most Canadians are happy to see the snow start to disappear. That's when Michael Roycroft starts to horde the stuff.

The genius of Roycroft's cold madness is now evident as Canada's World Cup cross-country and biathlon athletes are skiing on snow stored over the summer at the Canmore Nordic Centre.

"It's the only game in town in North America,'' Roycroft, area manager for the Canmore Nordic Centre west of Calgary, said with a note of pride.

Being able to train on snow, without travelling to Europe or South America, gives Canada's Nordic teams a huge edge heading into the World Cup season, which begins late next month in Gaellivare, Sweden.

"For us, the more time on snow the better,'' said cross-country skier Perianne Jones of Almonte, Ont. "To be able to have it in our backyard is an incredible opportunity.

"There are not many places in the world where you can ski right now. We're kind of getting a leg up on the rest of our competitors.''

The snow storage, called Frozen Thunder, began in 2009. The Canmore centre has one of the largest snow-making systems of any Nordic facility in the world. In the spring a blizzard of snow is produced over a four to five week period.

"We actually create a big pile in a specialized storage pit,'' said Roycroft.

The frozen labours is then protected from the hot summer sun by a thick layer of sawdust.

About 17,000 cubic metres of snow is stored. That's equal to the amount of granite that went into the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Come October, when temperatures begin to drop and skiers are tired of training on roller-skis, the snow is spread on the trails. It takes five dump trucks over 30 hours to cover a two-kilometre stretch of trail at about half a metre thick by five metres wide.

"It looks amazing,'' said Jones, who teamed up with Olympic champion Chandra Crawford to win a bronze medal in a World Cup team sprint race in Milano, Italy, last season. "It feels amazing.

"It's probably the best skiing in the world right now. It's a ribbon of white snow around the Nordic centre.''

Crews begin laying this year's track soon after Thanksgiving. The snow has survived warm temperatures and some rain.

"That's why we lay it out so thick,'' said Roycroft. "We know that we are going to lose up to 70 or 80 per cent. But really, it just needs to stay until the first few weeks of November.

"When we get it cold enough we can start to make some new snow and augment it where necessary.''

The quality of the snow is good enough the centre will host the WinSport Frozen Thunder Classic on Oct. 26. The event will draw more than 100 Nordic athletes from Canada and the United States for a sprint race.

It costs about $70,000 to produce the snow, store it, then make a track, Roycroft said. Helping with the cost this year was WinSport Canada and Own the Podium.

"There are places in Europe where they will actually make to five kilometres of ski trail available from this type of process,'' said Roycroft. "We'd like to get there eventually but we're not quite there yet.''

Canada's cross-country skiers won an unprecedented 14 World Cup medals last season. The para-Nordic team won 21 medals.

Roycroft believes having access to early-season training is one reason why Canada's Nordic skiers are gaining ground on their European competitors.

"If they don't have access to snow in the early season they are at a distinct disadvantage,'' he said. "What we are doing is levelling the playing field for our Canadian athletes to compete with the very best.''

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