Sunday, December 26, 2004

From the shuffle to the shift

Beginners move forward on cross-country skis by shuffling.

After a while, the shuffle slides a little farther and the skier often thinks this is how it works. Those pictures of the people with one ski lifted behind seem like just artistic fiction. You can slide along just fine without any ballet stuff. This is true. Up ahead, the trail will descend and you’ll have to deal with a whole different range of challenges.

Many skiers are content to shuffle and survive. Shuffle on the flats and climbs and survive on the downhills. If you like where you ski and you arrive happy and unbroken you have succeeded. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Just don’t dismiss the idea that someone else may take skiing a little further and that one day you may find yourself doing it too.

Beyond the shuffle is the shift. You can slide a long way with two-thirds of your weight on one ski and one third on the other, but you really get into top gear when you shift your weight completely from one ski to the other. The shift is the key to every advanced technique to move you forward in classical or skating. In fact you can’t skate without it.

Groomed or naturally firm surfaces give you the best place to practice. Put your poles aside and try your stride.

Kick forcefully downward as your foot passes under you. At this instant step completely onto the other ski and follow through with the kicking foot. It will rise behind you naturally, just like the pictures.

Your arms are vital to success. To counterbalance your leg following through behind you, swing the arm forward on that side, straight down the track. Your legs and arms must swing in line with the track, not crossing your body. The opposite arm will swing back behind you.

Think of your arms and legs as pendulums swinging across each other on each side of your body. Their momentum moves you forward. Their cycle times your stride.

You may find it helpful to think more about what’s happening behind you than in front of you. Think about timing the follow-through of leg and arm. They’re very important to balance and timing, both of which you need to perfect the weight shift.

In skating, the weight shift happens more automatically. You can’t shuffle on skate skis. Your legs just get farther and farther apart while you curse the whole concept. You may find that a period of skating improves your classical skiing by forcing you to shift weight. The pole timing is very different, though. In skating you use the poles together, double-poling most of the time.

One skate form uses opposite arm and leg movement. The diagonal V is great for climbing hills. It’s like a herringbone with glide. Instead of just planting your ski, skate it, but use the poles singly, as in classical, instead of the more tiring double-pole.

Once you master the weight shift you will ski faster and more easily. Experiment with the stride. Slow it down to see how it may help you at slower speeds. And don’t turn your back on the shuffle. You can always drop back to that to rest and regroup.

If you use higher-performance classical skis, their stiffer camber makes shuffling less of an option. Carry kick wax with you to add grip if you get really tired and want to gear down significantly.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Christmas Gift

How can you not like a region with a climate so indifferent to human desires? Good old New England.

Close to three inches of rain in places, and howling winds, while the midwest digs out from a foot or two of snow.

My physician is a runner. He'll ski cross-country sometimes, and bike a little in season, but he's basically a runner. His suggestion for winter exercise is studded running shoes. Apparently, dedicated runners in northern climes are studding up their shoes with sheet metal screws, the way mountain bikers did with their tires before really nice studded tires were available for them. Crunch, crunch, crunch, go for a jog on the armor plate left behind by a heavy rain followed by a hard freeze.

Groomers will chew the frozen concrete where enough remains to till. We will ski on it and hope for better days. It's fast skating. You want to be first down any hill, so you have something in which to set an edge. Be considerate, and use alternate-edge braking techniques so you don't just scrape the whole thing bare for whoever comes after you. There's a reason they call the wedge a snowplow.

Monday, December 20, 2004

More Descent Advice

Don’t lean back. Cautious skiers make this common mistake. Nothing will hurt you more than leaning back. Weight those tails too much and the tips will spread that much faster. You risk getting “thrown into the back seat” where you have no control. Stay up and forward on your skis. Stay in the driver’s seat.

If you want to try descending with your skis in the tracks, practice on short, moderate hills in fairly fast conditions. You have to have enough speed to feel the techniques work. Pick a downhill with definite turns in it, preferably an S-turn so you really feel the transition from one turn to the next.

Alpine skiers out on the open slope will rotate the torso opposite to the direction of the turn, to set the edges more firmly and prepare for the next turn. They are taught to face down the slope, even as the skis are traveling across it.

On cross-country skis in the track, you need to rotate your torso to keep from getting thrown out of the track. It helps to tuck slightly or completely, with your pole grips together out in front of you. Swing those pole grips toward the outside of the turn. You will feel very quickly if you have rotated too far or not enough. You will also feel how the technique gives you much more security when descending at speed.

Everyone has limits, of course. It’s good to know what they are before you hit them at 30 or 40 miles per hour on a screaming descent. Practice pulling one ski out of the track so you can do a half wedge to slow down. Then practice stepping out of the track completely, onto the flat-groomed skate lane, where you can use a full wedge or series of turns to scrub off speed.

The best way to control speed is not to get it in the first place. Skiers going down a hill are supposed to have the right of way over skiers coming up, but if you come ripping around a curve and ambush someone spread out across the trail in a herringbone, it doesn’t matter who was in the right. You are also supposed to ski in control. Watch out for other trail users.

Enjoy the gift of gravity. It’s going to be there anyway. You might as well get some use out of it.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Safe Descent

Races may be won on the climbs, but tours can be ruined on the downhills.

A lot of beginning cross-country skiers dislike the climbs, but fear the downhills. Gravity will not be denied. The steeper the hill, the stronger its power.

Beginner lessons teach the wedge or snowplow for skiers to control speed going down. Place the ski tips together and push the tails apart with your heels. Drop your knees inward to set the inner edges. What could be simpler?

On any skis, downhill or cross-country, the wedge only goes so far. Typically, a beginner who tries to negotiate a whole hill in the wedge will feel the tips spread irresistibly apart, until the hapless skier is hurtling straight down, out of control, with the skis about three feet apart and no hope of getting them back together. Most of us have been there, especially if you took up skiing as an adult. Even if the skier started as a child, some of them never outgrew that straddled stance.

By weighting one ski at a time in the wedge, you can turn back and forth. You don’t really carve a turn. You just go in the direction the ski is already pointed. You can use this effect to help you, not to go around corners, though it works for that, but to control speed more effectively than a simple wedge.

The danger of the wedge is that you get caught with your weight between the skis. You can’t unweight what you never fully weighted. If one or both skis try to wander off and get into trouble, you end up going along for the ride.

By weighting one ski at a time, back and forth, constantly shifting, you improve your chances of staying in control. If the ski you’re on takes a quick swerve, you can shift fully to the other ski. If the other ski gets sidetracked by a rut or a bump, you don’t have weight committed to it, so you can snap it back into line.

As you gain proficiency and confidence you can start narrowing the wedge to make it into a parallel turn. But there will be times when the alternately-weighted wedge will still be the expert’s choice. If the snow is fast, verging on icy, and the trail is rutted up from previous traffic, the wedge provides the most stability. Just don’t get lazy and stop shifting your weight.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Mass Production

Every outdoor activity has its industry to provide gear. Mass production is what makes products affordable, because some company makes them in quantity.
Mass production giveth, but it also taketh away. Once a company is devoted to large production runs, perhaps from a factory in a distant land, it has a strong interest in moving a large quantity of those products at regular intervals.

Frugality does not help the economy. Money that stays in your pocket is not the circulating blood of healthy commerce. So how does one separate the wise from their money?

Outdoor explorers are frequently independent-minded people who value other things besides money and the mere ownership of objects. This makes them lousy consumers. But in order to thrive, a mass-producing industry needs consumers to buy things.

REI started as a buying group for outdoor enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest. In order to increase their buying power and scour the world for good gear at the best available price, members paid a small fee and pooled their orders to buy the largest quantity they could. Now it’s a giant retailer. Retailers like Eastern Mountain Sports, LL Bean and Land’s End all either expanded or transformed themselves to profit from what people would actually buy, not necessarily what the company originally offered. Does anyone here remember Land’s End as a small-boat hardware company, or did I just dream that? I was pretty young at the time.

Companies like The North Face, Jansport, Kelty, Lowe Alpine Systems, Sierra Designs and many more began as small operations run by outdoor adventurers for outdoor adventurers. But economic reality caught up with them, just as it does with every supplier and retailer.

Intrepid adventurers, whether they’re going halfway around the world or just tackling nearby terrain in adventurous ways just don’t spend a lot of time shopping. Products had to be made cheaper. The product mix had to be changed to expand profitable sectors.

Anyone who has been adventuring since the early 1980s has seen the changes in what were once outfitter stores. Most of them look more like clothing stores. Many more people will buy an image than will actually go out and put gear and clothing to the hardest test. In an attempt to be popular and bring in enough money to survive, outdoor businesses at every level have tried to broaden their appeal.

Outdoor adventuring used to be entwined with environmental concern, if not activism. Not everyone was careful, and standards only improved as environmental science pointed out more and more areas to improve, but generally the outdoor community of the late 1960s and ‘70s stressed clean ethics.

As a climber in the 1980s I witnessed a shift in behavior that seemed to exemplify the down side of popularization. Young rock jocks were writing their names on sandstone cliffs in the desert southwest of the USA and leaving piles of celebratory litter at the base of climbs all over. At the same time, you could no longer leave your pack at the bottom of the climb and count on finding it there when you returned for it.

Flamboyant lycra came in. The outdoors became just another gymnasium for preening prima donnas.

Along with the arrogantly accomplished came the trooping hordes of mall shoppers on their brief forays to see if the life was as much fun as the look. I suppose an SUV looks a little more appropriate on a dirt road than on curb-lined suburban boulevards, but my Ford Escort is parked right next to them there in the woods.

By encouraging consumers to buy equipment and venture outdoors, some advocates might hope that these people will be transformed, elevated to the next level of appreciation by their exposure to the natural environment. Indeed, some people will be transformed. But plenty of others just take their consumer mentality with them wherever they go.

Then there’s the money. It’s hard to walk away from a few million in income, even if it comes from the creation of thousands of tons of landfill-fodder, as is the case with nearly any consumer-goods industry. Money. You can’t take it with you, but you darn sure need it while you’re here.

Unfortunately, the mass-producing industry responds more and more to its own needs, trying
to detect and fulfill consumer wants, but still having to empty the warehouse of masses of produced products regardless of their actual effectiveness. The marketing department becomes more important than the design department. Make it look good. Make it sound good. Make it sell. Empty that warehouse.

Customers providing their own muscle to move their toys want some credit for their efforts. That drives the demand for lower prices, putting pressure on suppliers to keep production costs low enough to preserve profits. The industry is not a cynical creation of evil geniuses, although I have my questions about certain bike companies. The industry is a creation of all economic forces. So I don’t suggest a particular remedy at this point. This overview just collects my observations for further study.

Personal adventure brings the irreconcilable difference between durability and rapid consumption into direct conflict. Stuff that holds up doesn’t turn inventory very fast. People who don’t live to shop don’t shop often. But gear that doesn’t perform can actually kill people, and too much planned obsolescence can drive people away from an activity.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Want fries with that?

How would you like a free gift with your purchase? How about a free hot wax on those new cross-country skis?

Few things are more useless than a single coat of hot wax on a new ski, especially a racing ski. So you’re not being terribly clever when you bend a shop to throw in a free hot wax, because it will be gone in the first 15 minutes of skiing.

Probably every ski shop in the world offers a free wax or will agree to put one on if you try to play “smart shopper” and ask for it. What’s 10 minutes out of their life to lather on a quick coat of something that melts and scrapes easily? If they use one of those cheesy roller waxers it scrapes even more easily, because the wax never really penetrated the ski base. So by all means, get the freebie. It’s worth exactly what you paid for it.

To prepare a new ski for a life of speed and fun, you need to apply more than a single coat of wax at the beginning of its first season. A minimum of six coats, of varying grades, will just get your ski started. No shop in their right mind will do that for free, nor should you ask them to, since it takes care, patience and a sense of responsibility, not qualities you would expect from someone you’d just asked to work without pay.

Waxing is not technically difficult. It’s not really tedious, either. I find brushing my teeth much more boring than brushing out the wax on my skis, perhaps because I can watch the improvement in the skis more easily than I can admire the buffed shine on my molars.

Not all ski bases are created equal. Racing bases accept and hold wax more easily than touring bases, but they need the wax more. Their porous structure makes them more vulnerable to damage if they don’t have wax. Touring bases are designed to withstand neglect and abuse. Their extra hardness also makes them resist wax penetration. Within those categories, base hardness varies with the price of the ski.

Skis with a waxless grip pattern tend to be made of harder materials than bases designed for grip wax. This even applies to the few models of racing no-wax skis. The grip pattern is machined into the base. Harder material is more durable. So even though the base is sintered, which means it is made by pressing particles of heated base material rather than pouring liquified melted plastic, it’s a denser block of harder plastic so the pattern won’t wear down too quickly over the life of the ski.

Some touring skis use extruded bases with molded patterns. This can produce an excellent all-around base for grip and glide, but it’s also barely worth hot-waxing. Nothing will penetrate that surface.

Wipe-on products like Swix F4 will definitely help any waxless ski perform better. If the ski has a sintered base, you may want to use hot wax on the glide zones, outside the grip pattern, but use the F4 on the grip zone to keep snow from sticking. On bases that don’t take hot wax well, smear the paste product over the whole base.

Some skiers rely on the wipe-on products for higher performance skis, like skating skis. That’s really not adequate for very long, because the paste does not get into the base enough, and the fluorocarbon particles don’t protect the base material even if they do enhance its slipperiness. The paste waxes work over a wide range of temperatures, but proper hot waxes work better because they are made to match more specific temperatures and changes in humidity.

The one thing you can count on is that the free hot wax on a brand-new, dry base is a waste of everyone’s time. Pay for the good job or do it yourself. Your skis will thank you for it.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Myth of Combi

The skating technique of cross-country skiing has led to the development of skis designed just to skate well. But many skiers who have little or no experience skating feel intimidated by a ski that will force them to skate.

“Can’t I have a ski that will let me do both techniques?” they ask.

The quick answer is yes. The complete answer is that the resulting ski will do both techniques badly. The poor performance might even discourage a skier who blames himself (or herself) when the equipment bears a large part of the blame.

I hesitate to let anyone blame their equipment when the operator provides 90 percent of the performance in human-powered activities. But the equipment at least needs to give you a decent chance.

You truly can skate on any ski. It’s even appropriate and helpful to skate through turns or skate because the skis aren’t gripping properly for the traditional stride. That is, in fact, how skating began. But in its current form, with snow groomed expressly for it and races dedicated entirely to it, skating has become a well-developed art all its own. The skis make it easier, and easier is good, when you’re the motor.

So what about this combi thing?

If a ski can flatten out to let you get a grip in the traditional stride, it will drag a lot when skating. You might think a slow ski is okay because you’re not a racer, but a skate ski that drags will tire you out and make you think skating is harder than it actually is.

Skating is really easier than classical cross-country skiing. The better your ski glides, the easier skating gets. So drag is one strike against the mythical combi ski.

Skate skis are a little shorter than traditional skis. They’re not as tiny as some mutant skis were in the 1990s, but they’re definitely shorter than classical length, even though classical skis are a hair shorter than they used to be. So our mythical combi ski is either going to be very short for classical or somewhat awkwardly long for skating.

If a combi ski is short enough for skating, but soft enough to let you flatten it for classical, it will not only be slow but will handle badly downhill.

Are you picking up a pattern here?

There are plenty of con men in the ski business who will smile at you and tell you combi skis will be just fine. In the sense that they won’t cause you instant bodily harm, yes. In the sense that any skiing is better than no skiing at all, yes. But you must realize that the limitations of the ski will affect how you feel about skiing. If you don’t know the limitations exist, you might mistakenly blame cross-country skiing in general, or yourself. You might get discouraged and quit. And that’s the last thing anyone wants you to do unless they’re just short-sighted boobs looking for a quick sale.

If you can only afford one ski and want to try skating in addition to the classical skiing you might already know how to do, just buy a nice classical ski. Try a few skate strides on it if you like, but rent real skating gear, and maybe take a skate lesson, to feel what a difference the right ski makes. You may decide to have specific skis for each technique.

You can get away with combination boots if you choose them carefully. The Salomon Pro Combi is an adequate little skater on a budget. It has some of the vital lateral stiffness you need for skating, and the supportive ankle cuff you want. Look out for combi boots with an impressive cuff but a soft sole. They twist easily, making the cuff irrelevant. Later, if you commit to skating you will enjoy a more specific boot. Remember that the more classical skiing you do in your combi boot, the less stiffness it will retain for skating.

The more expensive, better-performing boot is the Salomon Carbon Pro Skiathlon, which allows for the use of Pilot bindings on the skate ski.

Even the binding you choose will make a difference. Skate bindings need a really snappy return. Classical bindings need to allow a nice, full flex, so they tend to have softer springs and a slower return. Combination bindings use a flexor that splits the difference. That in itself isn’t so bad, but some retailers will sell the inexpensive step-in touring binding to combi skiers, because the flex is technically the same as the more expensive manually-operated combi binding, but the mechanism is a bit sloppier, which makes the skis harder to control. It’s a very minor thing, but adds to the fatigue and can be avoided. At the very least, the sales person should tell you that you may feel a difference.

Skate poles should be long enough to come up somewhere between your chin and lower lip when you’re standing up straight. Classical poles come to the collar bone for high-performance skiing, somewhat shorter for recreational touring. If you skate with short poles you will be forced to lean down further. A short pole can also drop in front of you when you’re skating. You might then run over the pole and crash, or at least break your pole. Long poles are awkward for classical, but not as awkward as short poles are for skating.

Try it all in cross-country skiing. Just don’t look for it all in one place. Ski early and often, and have fun.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

On Snow

One storm of wonderslush that freezes up, followed by a couple of one- to three- inch dustings and suddenly we're on snow.

Nothing points out the inadequacy of your dry-land training like actual skiing. Nordic skiing is a full-body activity. Isolating muscles with specific exercises does not work them in the same integrated way that skiing does. Even roller skiing presents different challenges to balance and steering. Snow gives way laterally in ways that a rolling wheel does not.

The variable movements an experienced skier makes for stability and fine steering control are automatic. Because they follow no pattern, you can't train for them. They are what tires you in the first few outings.

Coordinating even strong muscles requires a period of adaptation. I'm out there today, double poling, wondering where my power went. In my case, just not enough devotion to training. Aerobically okay, generally fit, but poling adds another whole level.

The thing is, when you finish, the whole body feels flushed out. Every muscle has contributed, so every muscle has been refreshed. The metabolic glow lasts a long time and the peace will saturate you.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Know your bindings

Cross-country ski bindings have to do slightly different jobs on different kinds of ski.

Touring bindings are made for ease of use in classical technique. Classical refers to the walking-type motion also called the diagonal stride. Modern system bindings usually offer the tourist the choice to step in without having to manually open and close the binding.

Racing bindings operate manually. This helps make the binding a little lighter and eliminates the risk that someone else’s pole will punch you out of your automatic binding in the melee of a mass start. The flexors may be more firmly anchored for more precise handling. Sport tourists on lighter gear will appreciate that.

Among racing bindings there are two types, classical and skate. There are also two types of skate binding, the flexor style and the Salomon Pilot, using a spring-loaded lever that attaches underneath the boot sole rather than an elastic flexor at the toe.

The wider the ski, the wider the attachment of the binding should be. This has led to back-country versions of both the Rottefella NNN and Salomon Profil system. They use a heavier, wider attachment bar at the toe of the boot. Both come in manual or automatic versions.

Back-country is a bit inaccurate, since these bindings are best used on heavier touring skis in more civilized settings.

The best binding for real back-country is the heavy version of good old 75 millimeter, especially if you like to find little private hideaways to do a few turns. This is not the flimsy old 3-pin of the 1970s touring boom, it’s stronger, adapted to a thicker boot sole.

The BC system binding works well on touring skis from 60 mm to just over 70 in width. Don’t bother to trudge around on a wider ski than that unless you’re looking for some turns or breaking trail in deep snow, both places where 75 mm is far superior.