Elite racers break new ground at ITU Winter Triathlon

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Photo: Ruby Pratka

Winter triathlon elite medalists Claude Godbout, Marc-André Bédard, Annie Gervais, Dušan Simocko, Evelyne Blouin and Pavel Andreev pop their champagne corks at the medal ceremony.

The 34 athletes lined up on the Plains of Abraham for the start of the ITU Winter Triathlon Elite races were among the best in their sports. Quebecer Marc-André Bédard and Slovak Dušan Simocko are world-class biathletes. New Brunswick-born Quebecer Joël Bourgeois is a two-time track Olympian. On the women's side, American Amber Ferreira has won two national snowshoe titles and completed several Ironman triathlons.

But none of them had ever done anything quite like this.

Saturday's triathlon saw the debut of a brand-new format - a 5-kilometre snowshoe race, followed by 12 kilometres of speed skating and 8 kilometres of cross-country skiing.

Pavel Andreev of Russia owns the previous winter triathlon format, winning four world titles in the footrace-mountain bike-ski version of the event. But he readily admitted skating was his weak point.

"I've been speedskating twice in my life before now, and I played a little hockey when I was about twelve," said Andreev before the race. "Fortunately I'm a quick learner so I hope it won't be that hard. I'll be happy if I do well, and even if I'm some distance away from the winners, if I get to the finish line that will be OK." Andreev laced up a pair of borrowed clap skates [speed-racing skates with a movable blade] with a four-leaf clover sticker on the ankle and hoped for the best.

"It's hard to say who will win and that's the beauty of it," added Bédard, a Vancouver Olympian and multiple Pentathlon des Neiges medallist, who recruited several athletes for the new triathlon. "Everyone brings their strengths and weaknesses from their own sport."

Bourgeois and Ferreira led after the snowshoe stage, but British Columbia speedskater Jay Morrison and Annie Gervais of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu were fastest on ice. Andreev, Bédard and Bourgeois managed to stay with the pack on the men's side, but Ferreira faltered badly on skates and saw her podium chances melt away.

During the final ski leg, Simocko of Slovakia broke away from the pack. Bédard was on his heels, with the crowd packed several rows deep along the course clanging cowbells and cheering him on.

Simocko, wearing an electric yellow racing suit, came down the home stretch first and took gold in one hour, four minutes, 33.1 seconds. Bédard finished second (1:05:03.4). Andreev was third overall (1:06:19.7) after a powerful ski section.

"I'm a little bit unsatisfied," said a slightly downcast Bédard. "I started to have some cramps near the end of the race and Dušan just took off...I knew I couldn't blast off like he did." Bédard had unwittingly sown the seeds of his own defeat. "I found out about the race when Marc told me about it," said a gracious Simocko at the medal ceremony.
Andreev had one word for his skating experience.

"Horrible," he said in Russian. "The most horrible experience of my sporting life... but I know I could have won if I was a better skater. The first thing I do when I get home will be to buy myself some skates."

Annie Gervais won the women's race in 1:14:44.4, followed by Quebec's Claude Godbout (1:14:58.2). Godbout, a top biathlete, is also Bédard's wife. Multiple Pentathlon des Neiges medallist Evelyne Blouin of Quebec City took bronze (1:15:19.4) in a local sweep.

Godbout and Bédard had also won parallel silver medals at the Pentathlon des Neiges two weeks earlier. "What can I say, we're united in life and united in competition," said Godbout. "We always have the same placements. It was tough, skating and snowshoeing are not my strengths."
"I couldn't have asked for a better day," said Gervais. "I think this [winter triathlon] is going to get really big."
If Canadian triathlon officials have their way, it will become Olympic-sized. "It is our ambition to be part of the winter Olympic program," said ITU secretary general Loreen Barnett, a Canadian. "Now no one can argue that the sport of triathlon does not take place on snow and ice. We need to show the IOC that triathlon is truly a global sport."

At least one other country has signed on. "It's not really a secret anymore that we intend to bring this kind of event to Finland," said Toni Niiranen, director of the Finnish Triathlon Association, who also competed in this week's Age Group races. Niiranen mentioned Lahti, in south-central Finland, as a candidate city. Organizers said Monday that the city of Chamonix, in the French Alps, had also expressed interest.

Quebec Winter Triathlon spokesperson Claudie Bérubé confirmed Monday that a second edition will be held next year. Event director François Calletta said organizers would apply to Triathlon Canada to hold the national winter triathlon championship on the Plains.

Full race results are available on the event website, triathlonhiverquebec.com.