NEWS
10/17/2011 06:08 EDT | Updated 12/17/2011 05:12 EST

Summer snow stored under sawdust jumpstarts Kershaw's cross-country season

CANMORE, Alta. - The ribbon of bright, white snow threading through the otherwise-brown Canmore Nordic Centre lessens the wear and tear on world champion cross-country skier Devon Kershaw.

It's too early for snow, but the Nordic Centre stored piles of it under sawdust over the summer to bring out and groom into almost two kilometres of ski-able trail in mid-October.

Kershaw and Alex Harvey won a gold medal in the team sprint in Oslo, Norway, this year for Canada's first world championship in cross-country skiing.

Kershaw is currently training hard on the summer snow during the day and sleeping in his own bed in Canmore at night. He's conserving his energy for his extended road trip of European races that starts next month.

"I'm about to embark on a five-, almost six-month journey overseas," the Sudbury, Ont., native said Monday. "I won't be coming home at all to Canada this year because neither Canada nor the U.S. have any stops on the World Cup circuit.

"I won't be home until late, late March and to be able to have good skiing here in Canmore at this time of year, when it's very crucial to be skiing, it's amazing for me.

"It allows me to stay home a few extra weeks before I pack up that duffle bag and those five T-shirts, the ones I'm going to be wearing for a long time."

The Nordic Centre stockpiled about 18,000 cubic metres of snow created last January and February. Weather-induced attrition left the facility west of Calgary with 11,000 to work with this fall. Spreading the snow thinly to make a longer track was risky.

"The key thing is the depth," manager Michael Roycroft explained. "If we were to go with only 30 centimetres (depth), we probably would lose it, so that's why we went to 40 to 50 centimetres. That guarantees us until November when we can start blowing new snow onto the old stuff."

Canadian cross-country ski team head coach Justin Wadsworth says only Finland's team would have access to snow-covered trails at this time of year and those are above the Arctic Circle.

"For here, in North America, it is really unique," he said. "Two kilometres doesn't sound like a lot, but for us, it's massive. The difference between roller skiing and skiing on snow is quite a lot.

"We get almost three weeks of training here, on snow at home and then buzz right over (to Europe) ready to go."

The Nordic Centre started the project, called "Frozen Thunder", since 2009 when they managed just 400 metres of track in October.

Olympic gold medallist Chandra Crawford called it a "gerbil loop" because the skiers travelled back and forth 200 metres at a time. Last year, it was extended to one kilometre.

"This is no gerbil situation," she stated Monday. "This is Frozen Thunder.

"It's a tremendous advantage to be ahead of everyone else and be on snow in a critical phase of the year right before we go away. Doing those final intensities on snow instead of on foot, it's going to make a big difference."

The men's cross-country team comes off a breakout season, building on momentum from the 2010 Winter Olympics where they posted seven top-10 finishes in Whistler, B.C.

In addition to the world gold won by Kershaw and Harvey of St-Ferreol, Que., Kershaw stood on the World Cup podium four times, including one victory, in the gruelling multi-stage Tour de Ski.

Kershaw finished eighth overall in the World Cup standings and Harvey was 10th, which was a first for Canada to have two in the top 10.

Ivan Babikov of Canmore, Alta., has posted multiple top-10 results during his career. He and Len Valjas of Toronto join Kershaw and Harvey on the men's World Cup team.

"We expect to be on the podium at certain times of the year," Kershaw said.

Crawford, also from Canmore, is relieved her struggles with ankle and foot injuries since winning her Olympic gold in 2006 are behind her.

"I'm really enjoying the non-Olympic year," she said. "It's not even a pre-Olympic year. It's like my life was back before 2006 with training, friends and family and really more of a tranquil situation. I'm using that energy to work harder than ever."

She'll be joined by Perianne Jones of Almonte, Ont., and Daria Gaiazova of Banff, Alta., on the women's team. The Canadians have a camp in Beitostolen, Norway in early November before their first races Nov. 11-13 in Bruksvallarna, Sweden.

The Nordic Centre was the site of the cross-country and biathlon competitions for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The facility is a provincial park and falls under the jurisdiction of the Alberta government.

The "Frozen Thunder" project cost between $20,000 and $25,000. Roycroft says the cost is reduced by about $10,000 when the increase in the sale of trail passes — the early-season trail extends the season — is factored in.

The cross-country skiers are deemed by Own The Podium to have strong medal potential at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and are thus among the most-funded sports. OTP determines which Canadian athletes have Olympic medal potential and doles out Sport Canada money to their respective sport federations.

Cross Country Canada will receive $1.16 million from OTP this winter. Another $417,000 is going into a Nordic consortium project to find ways to improve Canada's performance in both cross-country and biathlon.

Kershaw says the team can now afford to have more wax technicians travelling with them in Europe. Wadsworth says OTP money, combined with sponsorship money from the group B2ten, paid for a fully-equipped bus to transport the men's team during last year's Tour de Ski.

"No one had ever used a bus like they do in cycling for the different stages," Wadsworth explained. "(It gave them) a place to recover, to have a massage and relax before their races.

"For most of the Tour we had two guys in the top four."