I'd expected to come last. After all, this was my first race and I was new to skate-skiing. So when I found myself out in front, with hundreds of skiers rushing towards me, I realised something had gone wrong.
I've always loved classic cross-country skiing, but speed-wise it's no match for freestyle skate-skiing, and on my last few trips I'd found myself being overtaken by skiers using this more modern technique. It first came into vogue in the 1970s; a racer used this “herringbone” technique in a race he thought he'd lost, and came first. By the late Eighties it was so popular that races had to be split into two disciplines. Manufacturers have also adapted their skis, making them slightly shorter, with no need for wax or fishscale effect on the bottom to stop you slipping backwards.
I struggled at first to keep my balance out of the tram tracks that “classic” skiers use. However, with a bit of practice on a trip to Norway I managed and, dizzy with success, I entered my first race – in Canada.
The place most skiers go in eastern Canada is Mont Tremblant, a pretty, traditional Québécois village which, in addition to downhill trails, has kilometres of cross-country tracks. But Canada's biggest race is held some 120km away, in Gatineau, in the far south of Québec. It is part of the greater Ottawa region, which Queen Victoria cannily agreed to make Canada's capital, symbolically uniting the French-speaking province with neighbouring Ontario, the biggest English-speaking province.
Just four kilometres from the centre of Ottawa, Gatineau Park stretches 50km into the Laurentian Mountains. And with its 200km of trails, it's where the Gatineau Loppet is held every February. Anyone can enter, from beginners and children doing the 5km “mini-Loppet” to athletes who fly in from China to compete in the longest race at 51km.
On the day of my race, despite clear blue skies and sunshine, the wind-chill meant the effective temperature was below minus 40C. Race headquarters looked like an Invisible Man convention – everyone had their faces covered in tape against the weather.
Panicking slightly, I went back to Greg Christie, whose shop in the charming village of Old Chelsea at the park's entrance had hired me the skis, and he daubed a thick cream over my cheeks and nose to protect the few square millimetres of my face not covered by a balaclava.
I'd been prepared to bring up the rear, and the staggered start would mean I wouldn't be in anyone's way, even if I attempted the longest race – or so I thought. The organisers had implored us not to go out on to the wind-swept starting area until the last minute, and when I finally got myself organised, I was alone and missed the initial loop. So instead of being behind the pack I was ahead of it, and all 238 other skiers had to overtake me. To stay out of the way, I abandoned my freestyle pretentions and resorted to poling along in the tramlines to the side of the track.
My skate-ski days might have ended there, had it not been for the encouragement of my fellow competitors. A girl, whose breath had frozen into an icy Dali-esque moustache sprouting from her balaclava, exhorted me to carry on. A pair of identical twins issued identical encouragements in French.
I was by now stone last and finally agreed with the “sweep”, who follows the final skier on a snowmobile to make sure nobody is left stranded in the park, to turn back.
Clearly I needed tuition, so the next day I went for a lesson. The temperature was still minus 26C in the park, but without the wind this felt positively balmy, the sun even warming my face a little as instructor Frank Roscoe, from the Skinouk Club, analysed my technique.
“You look like you're heading for a dump in the woods,” said Frank frankly, observing my squat style as I tentatively stuck one ski out then the other. What I needed to do was to learn to balance, he explained, so I could “commit” to the forward ski. So he had me go up and down the track, throwing my centre of gravity over the leading ski, like an ice-skater. And it did indeed feel elegant, if precarious.
He then explained the six types of skate-skiing, reckoning that I was doing a mix of all six at once.
Depending on the steepness and curvature of the slope you are climbing, you can do one-skate, two-skate, offset, diagonal V-skate, free skate and marathon or half-skate moves. Learning these often curiously asymmetrical styles isn't easy. But their essence is the same – you have to commit to balancing over that forward ski if you want to develop a fast, elegant style.
Over the next week, I went back to Gatineau Park every day to practise my new skills. One of the joys of cross-country skiing is that you quickly generate your own heat. After climbing through woods of beech and birch, with trees often bent double by the snow, I was positively glowing. Only on the open parkways, where in the silence I could even hear maple leaves rattling over the snow beside me, did I feel the cold. But there are warming cabins where you can stop for picnics, and even stay overnight.
With my newfound skills and confidence will I be back for another attempt on the Loppet? I think so. And this time I might even stay the course.
Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com) flies from Heathrow to Ottawa from £497 return.
Greg Christie’s (001 819 827 5340; gregchristies.com). Ski hire from C$50 (£24) a day, including boots and poles.
Club Skinouk (001 819 595 9001; club.skinouk.ca). Skate-ski lessons from C$60 (£29) for 90 minutes.
The Gatineau Loppet (gatineauloppet.com) takes place from 26-28 February 2016, with both classic and freestyle races from 5km to 51km.
Colin Nicholson travelled as a guest of Québec (quebecoriginal.com) and the Outaouais region (tourismeoutaouais.com).
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