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.

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