PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Jessica Stanley doesn’t know a whole lot about biathlon competition.
But the Concord, N.H., social worker and Aroostook County native said Wednesday that she knows an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience when she sees it. So she drove hundreds of miles through a significant snowstorm to get to the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle for the first of two International Biathlon Union World Cup events being held in Maine.
The World Cup Biathlon, a competition combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, is coming to Presque Isle Feb. 4-6. Opening ceremonies for the competitions begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 3, at Gentile Hall at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. The biathlon competition will then move to Fort Kent Feb. 10-13.
The competitions will be the largest sporting events ever held in Maine with an estimated 120 million people watching the races televised by a number of European networks.
Stanley was at a convenience store in Houlton just as a light snow began to fall on Wednesday. She left her home on Monday evening after writing “biathlon bound” on her car’s rear window. She stopped to stay with relatives on Tuesday night, but drove the rest of the way Wednesday.
“It has been a really rough ride the past few hours,” the former Caribou resident said after stocking up on drinks and snacks. “It was snowing really hard the entire way, but I never thought of turning back. All of my friends have been talking about the biathlon for months, so I knew I had to come. Five of us will be attending the opening ceremonies, and we’re going to watch a few races. I can’t wait.”
Officials from throughout Presque Isle said Wednesday that biathlon fever has definitely hit the area as the city welcomes an influx of athletes, coaches, members of the media, support staff and tourists. Hotels throughout the area are booked solid, and stores are selling clothing, pins and noisemakers to people participating in or attending the events.
The Presque Isle competition is expected to draw at least 15,000 spectators, while organizers in Fort Kent expect about 20,000 in attendance at the 10th Mountain Ski Center. There will be about 700 Europeans — including 250 athletes from 30 countries, their coaches and support staff, spectators and foreign media — in Aroostook County for two weeks for the events.
A huge contingent of the athletes, coaches and support staff flew into Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle on Monday evening.
Leigh Smith, manager of Bradley’s Citgo & Convenience Store on North Street in Presque Isle, is a short distance away from the Nordic Heritage Center. He said Wednesday that he has already seen a boost in business due to the biathlon.
Smith has stocked the store with biathlon merchandise, including sweatshirts, T-shirts, vests, blankets, cowbells and pins.
“We have had a lot of adults and kids in here already,” Smith said. “The cowbells and the lapel pins have been our biggest sellers.”
Cowbells are must-have items for biathlon fans. The din of thousands of fans ringing bells as the athletes race around the course is the predominant noise inside the venue.
“We haven’t seen a lot of the athletes because their schedules are so regimented and because of their strict diets,” Smith said. “But we have lots of volume coming in from support staff and volunteers who are heading to the venue and visitors. I expect that we’ll see a huge media crowd as the week goes on.”
Smith said that he isn’t sure how much of an impact the additional business will have on his bottom line, but he has ordered extra product and he expects to see an increase in local traffic in the long term.
Mary Lawrence is serving on the organizing committee as coordinator of volunteers. She said Wednesday that she is “all set” for volunteers, with approximately 525 helping out with everything from guest services to competition needs.
“The majority are at the venue right now,” she said Wednesday. “We are looking forward to the coming days.”
Along with competitions at the venue, the city is hosting a number of events to lure visitors into the city’s downtown and into its restaurants, stores and art galleries. Theresa Fowler, executive director of the Presque Isle Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday that the city has already seen an influx of athletes and visitors who are out shopping. Management at Tim Hortons on Main Street has reported a big increase in business, according to Fowler. She said that the Chamber is promoting a number of events that she feels will be “very well attended.”
They include the Presque Isle First Friday Art Walk 5 to 9 p.m. Feb. 4. Visitors are invited to take a self-guided stroll through the downtown and university galleries to hear live music, meet local authors and artists and experience the atmosphere of the downtown. Artwork will be on display at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and at Merchants on the Corner, Morningstar Art and Framing, Freddy P’s Bar and Grill and the Wintergreen Arts Center. Cafe Sorpreso in downtown will be showing “The Red Balloon,” a 34-minute film from 1956. The screening will commence at 8:45 p.m. and will be accompanied by Parisian desserts.
A Biathlon After Hours celebration will be taking place at The Aroostook Centre Mall from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday. The fete will include live performances of bluegrass and Celtic music and an all-day arts and crafts show with demonstrations and free rides on the mall train.
Friday events wrap up at the Northeastland Hotel, where karaoke begins at 9 p.m. at the Main Street bar.
On Saturday, there will be skiing and music from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Quoggy Jo Ski Center. Biathlon After Hours continues at the mall with the crafts fair and honky-tonk and Celtic music from 4 to 8 p.m.
There will be music at the Presque Isle Inn and Convention Center and a Super Video Show at The Crow’s Nest, both beginning at 8 p.m. There will be a DJ dance at the Northeastland Hotel at 9 p.m.
The Presque Isle Fire Department Auxiliary will host a winter festival from 5 to 8 p.m. downtown on Saturday. Main Street between State and Academy streets will be closed during that time. The fete will include a sled and wagon parade, horse wagon rides, games, music, food and more.
The events wrap up Sunday with a musical show by Fireman Fred from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Aroostook Centre Mall. The arts and crafts fair and free train rides will continue all day.
For information on the biathlon and additional events, visit http://discovernorthernmaine.com.