For the next two weeks, some of the world's best snowboardcross racers will be trying to find the fast way down the slopes at Tabor Mountain Ski Resort.
Tabor is the site of back-to-back NorAm Cup weekend races, with races set for this Saturday and Sunday and next Thursday and Friday.
Racers from Canada, United States, Japan, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, England and Korea are entered this weekend, with an even more diverse international lineup expected next week.
"This is going to be one of the biggest races in North America, there are already 100 competitors coming from all over the world and we're going for two weeks," said Tabor owner Fern Thibault. "People are coming from all over the world, it's a huge event. They planned that (back-to-back events) because they want to be here, and that's exciting. Team Japan came (Tuesday) and Team USA showed up today, and they're all here for two weeks."
With support staff included, Thibault figures there could be as many as 250 snowboardcross team members coming to the city for the next two weeks. He met with mayor Lyn Hall, council members and city staff Wednesday to plan a function for the racers.
"The snow is good, we have enough to put on a race, and that's another reason they're coming here," said Thibault. "They've heard about our track and they want to race it. It's similar to what we had for Canada Games, just a bit more technical."
Tabor has a unique dirt track setup built for last year's Canada Winter Games. The berms, jumps and rollers which make up the technical features of the snowboardcross run were built by moving dirt. Because of its design, not as much snow is required to make the course and the time and labour needed for course preparation is a fraction of what would be required on a flat featureless slope.
The quality of racers is a huge step ahead of the junior-aged athletes involved in the Canada Games races. Thibault said many of the racers have World Cup experience. He expects more Europeans at Tabor next week, many of whom are competing this weekend in Europa Cup races at Grasgheren, Germany.
"This is as high a level as you're going to get," he said. "These are the best in the world and they're coming from World Cups to be here. The higher-end athletes will be here for sure."
Among the NorAm field this weekend is 18-year-old Meryeta O'Dine of Prince George, Thibault's daughter, who practically grew up sliding on the snow at Tabor. O'Dine, the 2015 Canada Games champion, is part of Canada's development team, having posted a 16th-place result in her first World Cup race, Dec. 12 in Montafon, Austria. She's also raced the Europa Cup circuit, finishing ninth Nov. 26 in Pitzdal, Austria, after starting her race season in August with second- and third-place finishes in South American Cup events in Brazil.
"She wants to win this one," said Thibault. "She's been amazing, she's rising fast."
O'Dine is ranked 13th in the Europa Cup points standings and 36th in the World Cup.
Tabor hosted two days of NorAm ski cross racing two weekends ago. With the four NorAm snowboardcross races this weekend and next week serving as test events, Tabor will then meet the six-race criteria needed to launch a bid to bring a World Cup event to Prince George.
"That's our next move," said Thibault.
In snowboardcross, four racers start at the same time and battle each other for positions all the way down the hill. Thibault said the course will include the large jump at the bottom, which wasn't part of the ski cross course two weeks ago.
Today will be a practice day. On Saturday, qualifying runs begin at about 9:30 a.m., with elimination races starting at 11:30. Sunday's races also start at 11:30 a.m. There is no admission charge for spectators. Snow and highs near 1 C are in the weather forecast for Saturday and Sunday.
The technical director of the race at Tabor this weekend, Jeff Grell of California, invented the high-back bindings now commonplace in snowboarding.
"He's a bit of legend," said Thibault. "If it wasn't for him we wouldn't have these bindings."