Skiers of all ages and abilities will be taking the National Capital Region by storm when the Gatineau Loppet launches its 31st annual event next month.

The largest gathering of cross-country skiers in Canada, the Gatineau Loppet is expected to bring 8,000 people — including 2,500 participants — from 23 countries to Gatineau Park for the three-day event, which runs from Feb. 13 to 15.

“We’ll have people who have been on the World Cup circuit and people who are making their way up there,” said Alain d’Entremont, president of the Gatineau Loppet, who announced the 2009 event lineup recently.

But the event also attracts “average people that ski anywhere from five times to 100 times in a season.”

Himself an avid skier, d’Entrement said the Loppet — which is Scandinavian for “long-distance ski marathon” — uses the 200 kilometres of cross-country ski trails available in Gatineau Park, “the largest cross-country ski centre in North America east of the Rockies,” he said.

While many of the skiers are local, the participants will be coming from as far as Poland, the U.S., the Netherlands, Estonia, Germany, Austria, England, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, Lithuania, Russia, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, France, Luxembourg, Spain, Israel and China.

This means that people from all over the world are seeing the National Capital Region — a boon for tourism as people go to restaurants and stay in town, d’Entremont said.

Events include the ski show starting on Feb. 13; classic race day, which features 29- and 53-kilometre races, and the Nor­way/Gatineau friendly ski competition on Feb. 14. Freestyle day, the children’s two-kilometre race and the Gatineau Loppet Challenge will be Feb. 15.

New this year is the Gatineau Loppet junior event for high school students. The five-kilometre and 10-kilometre races allow young people to discover Gatineau Park.

“This year, we’re working a lot with schools and younger people,” said d’Entrement. “They’re the skiers of tomorrow.”

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