The Madison Winter Festival may one day consume the entire city. With each passing year, the prospect grows easier to imagine. Conceived by Russian Style Ski School czar Yuriy Gusev and launched as the Capitol Square Sprints in 2005, the Nordic skiing extravaganza has since grown to the point that organizers last year felt compelled to re-christen the event with a grander name. And if its scale does not yet approach that of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, the introduction of even more new events and an expansion to include Elver Park suggest this year's Madison Winter Festival does not lack for ambition.
Since its formative years, the event has been built on a foundation of cross-country skiing opportunities for beginners, people with disabilities, families and recreational skiers, as well as races for high-school, age-group, national-caliber and world-class athletes. But by 2008, the event had grown to encompass snowboarding, snowshoeing, snow-tubing and other activities -- drawing thousands to the Capitol Square and nearby businesses throughout the weekend. The ranks of sponsors and other supporters has likewise swollen to include the City of Madison, the International Ski Federation, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, Becker Law, UW Health, REI, Group Health Cooperative, Findorff and too many other brands to count on one skier's fingers and toes.
The core of this year's Madison Winter Festival is scheduled for Friday through Sunday, February 13-15, on and near the Capitol Square. But the fifth annual event gets an early start this year, with the Elver Winter Skill Games scheduled for 4-8 p.m. on the evenings of Monday through Thursday, February 9-12, at Elver Park -- rendering the Madison Winter Festival a week-long event and bringing it that much closer to citywide.
The city's new snow-making equipment at Elver help buffer the west-side park from capricious variations in winter temperatures and snow cover and make Elver an obvious candidate for festival expansion. The event schedule at Elver begins with snow carving and snowshoeing on Monday, with rentals available at the park's shelter. Beginners and experienced snowshoe enthusiasts alike will be able to try their skills on an obstacle course. These events are followed by ice-skating lessons and an ice-skating obstacle course on Tuesday at the Elver rink, with rentals again available at the park's shelter; and Nordic ski lessons, obstacle course and rentals on Wednesday. Madison Winter Festival's Elver Winter Skill Games wrap up on Thursday with sledding and a cardboard derby on Elver's enormous sledding hill, which, like the park's exquisitely groomed Nordic trail network, is the best in the city.
The focus shifts back to the Capitol Square on Friday night, when attempts will be made at both the world and U.S. 100-meter Nordic skiing records.starting at 7 p.m. In addition to the returning events of previous years (competitive and recreational Nordic skiing for all ages and abilities, snow-tubing, snowshoeing, ice carving, snow sculpting and an outdoor expo), a handful of intriguing new events render the festival's main weekend all the more tantalizing.
None are moreso than the introduction of Cyclo Frost, a cyclocross race adapted for winter conditions. Scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday, February 15, the Cyclo Frost race will be capped at 50 riders who will compete for 30 minutes on a course including both pavement and snow and be complicated by steep hills and the same kind of obstacles confronted by warm-weather cyclocross racers.
Also enjoying its festival debut this year is an All City Ice Race organized by the venerable Madison Speed Skating Club. Scheduled for 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, February 14, on Lake Monona, the race will be held on a groomed 111.12-meter short track and feature competition in speed, hockey, figure and recreational skating divisions further subdivived by age group and gender.
The Frosty 5K Run/Walk also joins the Madison Winter Festival schedule this year. Sponsored by Movin' Shoes, the run and walk starts at 10 a.m. Saturday, February 14, from the Capitol Square, and finishes at the Alliant Energy Center's Willow Island. A Frosty 1K Kids' Run/Walk is also scheduled for that Saturday morning, starting at 9 a.m.
Registration fees, deadlines and other details for all the above events, as well as information regarding equipment rental, logistics and everything else you may care to know about the Madison Winter Festival is provided online by organizers.
One of the few things festival organizers haven't published online is the extent to which the festival may continue to grow. It is not, however, difficult to imagine even more events in coming years: a curling bonspiel or pond-hockey tournament, an iceboating regatta, ski jumping at Blackhawk, old-fashioned toboggan runs…