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Credit: Zander Bohle

It is the end of July and I am sat in the visitor centre at Beecraigs Country Park, just outside of Linlithgow. And it is pouring with rain.

The town of residence for 15th and 16th century Scottish monarchs, its patron saint, St. Michael, is behind the town’s motto, ‘St. Michael is kinde to straingers’.

I had to question this somewhat as I left the National Cycle Network (route 745, by the way, as my Google Maps team car radio kept muttering in my earphones) and looked up Preston Road towards Beecraigs – a 1.5mi stretch of tarmac averaging 6% but tipping up to 18% as it made its winding way to the country park. Not very kind, St. Michael.

Having enjoyed a headwind all morning riding from Stirling, the cup of soup and warm baguette slices were devoured in seconds as I overlooked the countryside.

This spot – with the ground damp after a few days of thunderstorms and situated just west of Edinburgh – was one of the last I expected to meet a member of the British Nordic Skiing team.

For a start, there was definitely no snow around.

Enter Zander Bohle. An intriguing name, you might say, for a 17 year-old from Linlithgow, but Bohle has Norwegian blood in him from his father’s side, giving an insight into his natural talent on the blades.

“I’ve always been brought up by going to Norway, going skiing every winter, and then I decided I wanted to try cross-country skiing out. And I did try it out and then I thought, ‘This is fun!’.”

Many will be familiar with the concept of skiing: stick on some skies, a helmet, clumpy boots that just feel as good for walking as bricks would be, maybe some poles and scoot down a slope – you even get a tow up the hill!

Not so in Nordic skiing. Nordic, or cross-country, in Bohle’s words, involves “going uphill, downhill and on the flat. Your poles are up to your shoulders, and you’re using all your power and good endurance to get around the course, going as fast as you can.

“It’s like cross-country running, but with skis.”

The practice of cross-country (XC) skiing dates back five millennia to Scandinavia, and was used in a whole raft of settings, even being used for transportation in war but is now used widely in recreation and sport.

It was introduced to the Winter Olympics back in 1924. Unsurprisingly, all but one of the six men to stand on the podiums for the 16km and 50km races were Norwegian. The other? Finnish.

Since, then, however, British skiing has seen a significant rise, with the likes of Andrew Musgrave making an appearance at the last three Winter Olympics for Great Britain, and now the likes of Bohle and his fellow team mates being developed in the junior ranks.

That snow, though, or lack thereof, does it put British skiers at a disadvantage?

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Credit: Alan Telford

“No, not really”, Bohle answers confidently. “Many of the skiers from London are now becoming big, you sometimes see them at Hyde Park roller skiing around. There are loads of roller skiers around these days, too, just generally.”

Other ways Bohle stays on top throughout the season is cycling and a lot of running, getting in as much cardiovascular fitness but also power training with weights and speed sessions.

Getting “snow hours” remains a crucial factor for preparing for race season, though, and fortunately for Bohle and his teammates, just north in Aberdeenshire is the mecca for XC skiing in the UK.

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“Huntly, up in Aberdeenshire, is the hub in Britain, that is where the Olympic guys are from. There is a Huntly Nordic Outdoor Centre, and that’s where most of the people train and develop skills. We went up for a race in 2013, and they [the British Nordic development squad] approached me and we went from there.

“I saw the Olympic athletes in 2010 in Vancouver – Andrew Musgrave, Andrew Young – and I thought, I can do this. They had developed through the same pathway, so I thought if they could do it, then I can do it.”

And so he did. Bohle started racing internationally, and qualified for the Junior World Championships in 2016. All of that takes commitment, on average 16 hours a week, with several double days – all of that from a young man fresh out of high school.

“I found it hard balancing it with school work. Last year, I took the training a bit easier, but last year wasn’t great; I got sick, I didn’t get good results. Now I am just full-time athlete training as much as I can, and in the next couple weeks I am moving to Norway to get those hours on the snow.”

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Credit: Zander Bohle

“Moving to Norway” is a massive step, particularly when it is for the nine months Bohle is planning on going for. After leaving school, he decided to take a gap year, working through the summer as a tennis coach to save up for a move many talented athletes before him have made for those crucial “snow hours”.

Despite the lack of snow hours, Bohle remains optimistic for the future of British Nordic. With the performances of the seniors, he expects they will act as showcases of a fantastic sport that has potential to grow here.

“I think the funding is on its way,” Bohle says as we wrap up our conversation. “If Musgrave and the other seniors bring home more medals, there is potential for further investment to open the sport to more people from more backgrounds.

“I do think they need to see those results though, but those are on the way.”

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Credit: Lecht 2090

Bohle ends his sentence with a bit of a hint. I ask him if he is targeting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. However, although he would like to, his eyes are on 2026 and the more immediate season this year.

“The seniors are still performing at such a high level and getting great results and training hard. It [2022] is in my mind, definitely, but I have many years ahead of me.”

The rain rattled against the windows of the visitor centre. “It’s going to be a wet training session”, Bohle grimaces. He glances out the window, his face appearing far more defined than the usual 17 year-old – maybe it’s his love of a cold-based sport.

His session in the hills around Linlithgow, however, was to be a tempo session in the rain today, but in just a few weeks time he will be swapping the rollers for the snow of Norway.

We part ways and I consider the ride back to Stirling. Perhaps it would clear up? I returned to the saddle, enjoying the descent from Beecraigs far more than the brutal ascent.

Down Preston Road, turn right, dismount. Rain.

‘Sod it,’ I thought. ‘Let’s get a train’.

Posted by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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