Snow has only just begun settling on cross-country ski trails around Whistler, but athletes from the Callaghan Valley Training Centre already have an early race under their belts.
The entire nine-man team went to Canmore, Alta., last month to participate in Frozen Thunder for the first time. The annual preseason gathering brings together the top skiers from around North America, as well as a few from Europe, for an open sprint race on a 2.5-km loop of stockpiled snow. Only 16 made it through to the sprint heats due to the narrow track, but CVTC athletes put in solid performances compared to a field of elite racers in the qualifier.
"I was very happy with the results in our first time trial of the year," said CVTC head coach Chris Manhard. "For us, I thought it was exceptionally good for the beginning of the season."
Sebastien Dandurand was the closest to reaching the heats, placing 21st. Making their way into the top 30 were Martin Schrama (29th) and Colin Foley (30th), while Sam Morris and Paul Dupuis finished 33rd and 34th, respectively.
Schrama, a U23 skier, said he was very pleased with his result, which should give him a nice confidence boost before the real season gets underway.
"It's actually pretty cool because a lot of the World Cup racers were there, and we don't normally get to race against them because they're always off in Europe, so it was pretty interesting to see how you do against those guys," said the 21-year-old.
Schrama, who's in his third year at the national training centre, said he's getting anxious for races to begin, and some of the most important ones are coming up very early in the season.
Trials for the FIS Ski World Junior/U23 Championships take place back in Canmore in early January, but the Haywood Nor-Am Cup events scheduled in B.C. for December will both allow chances for skiers to earn an advance entry into the world championships. Those races, taking place Dec. 7 and 8 in Vernon and on Dec. 14 and 15 in Rossland will be big ones for CVTC skiers to focus on right away.
Schrama said qualifying for worlds while collecting a couple of domestic podium results along the way are his big goals for the upcoming season.
"The ones in January that are designated as trials are the very important (races)," he said.
Manhard's team is a young one this season, but he still thinks his mix of junior and U23-aged skiers are capable of competing for spots at this year's world championships, which will take place in Italy in late January.
"Next year, everyone will be closer to the top of their age group, and I would expect them to qualify for the world juniors next year," he said. "This year, I'm hoping they're going to... but after the first races I would say there's a good possibility that, even though they're young, there's a good chance that they could qualify for the big races."
It was a busy summer for the CVTC athletes as they prepared for the race season, including one three-week stint at Park City, Utah, and another lengthy training trip to the Haig Glacier in Alberta's Kananaskis Country. Though most of the skiers on the team this year are new to the program, Manhard said he's been seeing strong progression from the athletes.
"I would say all of them have made a big leap and I would hope that would continue," he said.
"Mostly we're just fine-tuning now with a lot heavier, harder intensity and building up the engine a bit, so when they do come into race season they're fully ready for the hard effort they're going to have to make."
Foley, one of five skiers in their first year with the CVTC, said he feels like he's fitting in nicely so far.
"It's been working out really well. There are couple of guys who moved out here from Ontario, so I already knew them pretty well, and I'm getting to know the guys from B.C. pretty well now, too," said Foley, who hails from Ottawa.
Schrama said his three years with the CVTC have been eye-opening for him, helping shape him as a young adult as much as a skier, and the Fort McMurray, Alta., native has been happy to see himself making improvements as the winter approaches.
"I'm really pleased to be out here, I couldn't ask for any better," he said.