In the sport of ski mountaineer racing, the Europeans reign supreme. The top racers are professionals that earn a living racing. They have funding support, sponsors and coaches and fans ski out along race routes to cheer competitors along.
This winter, Revelstokians Melanie Bernier and Andrew McNab are heading to Europe to spend a full season competing against the world’s best and to see how they measure up.
Bernier and McNab are part of the small Canadian ski mountaineering (SkiMo) team – a small group of dedicated racers who largely pay their own way to races around North America, partly for the competition, but also for the thrill of exploring new mountains.
Both have been to the World Championships before, but this time they and teammate Reiner Thoni will be racing on the six-stop World Cup circuit, as well as in three classic, multi-day races.
The hope is that getting in some races before the championships will help them see how they measure up.
“You train as hard as you can at home and it’s always a surprise to see how you measure,” said Bernier. “I think that’s why doing a few World Cup events before the World Championships will be great but you’ll be able to see what you need to work on before.”
Bernier grew up in Quebec City before moving out west to Whistler and then Revelstoke. She did her first race on the Spearhead Traverse in Whistler and the next winter she also entered races at Sunshine Village and near Nelson. Her impressive results led to an invitation to the Canadian SkiMo team and a trip to the 2008 world championships, where she finished 20th overall.
McNab, who was born and raised in Revelstoke, entered his first race in 2007 at the urging of his friend Jeff Colvin. He went to his first world championship in 2010.
“It’s a whole different ball game over there so it was pretty cool to see how those guys race,” he said. “It’s a profession in Europe. I got my ass kicked and got to see what the potential of the sport really is.”
The following year, in 2011, McNab cracked the top half of the men’s field and Bernier surprised many, including herself, by finishing fifth in the sprint and in the top 10 overall. “I wasn’t expected to finish fifth in the sprint,” she said. “I was over my head with that.”
After that event, they decided to spend a winter in Europe before the next championships, both to be better prepared for the race and to enjoy European skiing.
“I’m a skier that races, not a racer that skis,” said McNab. “It’s always been a dream to be able to have the full European season and learn as much as I can from racing and about skiing.”
McNab has been working in Calgary for the past few months to save up money for the winter, and he said he’s not feeling at the top of his game. Bernier has been training hard in Rogers Pass, wearing her spandex race suit under her hard shell, and skiing 2,300 to 3,000 metres a day on her skinny, lightweight racing gear.
McNab has set himself a fairly modest personal goal – to do better than last time, though he and Thoni, who is the North American champion, also want to post the best result for a North American team in the team race.
Bernier is aiming to be the first Canadian to stand on the podium, but a top five finish will do, she said. “I think it’s achievable because last time I came so close and I’ve been working hard,” she said. “I’m scared to say it out loud because that means I need to go with it.”
The Canadian Ski Mountaineering Team receives almost no financial support so Bernier and McNab are hosting a fundraiser at the Last Drop this Saturday, Dec. 15, to help pay for their trip to Europe.
The night will feature live music by local duo 45 Minutes, a talk about what exactly SkiMo racing is, some ski videos by McNab, a silent auction and more.
They have set up an online auction at www.revyskimo.myevent.com, with items from the Alpine Club of Canada, Trans Canada Fitness, Mountain Goodness, Jade Mountain Wellness, Salomon, Rab and more.