Friday, November 26, 2004

Are the Trails Open?

"Whenzit gonna snow? Whenzit gonna snow?" Everyone seems to be asking. People, people, how long have you lived in what used to be called snow country? Have you paid no attention to the changing climate? Don't do this to yourselves.

It will snow when it snows. Even in the legendary past, nothing was guaranteed. All the positive vibes in the world won't make it snow. Wheedling, threatening, reverse psychology, none of these will make it snow.

It wouldn't be so annoying if I didn't know that all these upbeat cheerleaders for the coming winter are just going to turn into bitter vials of verbal acid by the first of the year if they don't get a rapid return on their emotional investment. Either that or they'll continue to chirp inanely about how great it would have been if all that rain we just got had been snow.

A positive attitude is great. Now shut up and keep its radiance to yourself, because it verges on delusional. Be prepared for anything. That could mean days of crisp powder or a tropical deluge in January. We have had both.

The truth will set you free. If you can go out running in the rain in January, or bite the bullet and stomp out a quick 20 on the fixed gear in what you thought would be the middle of ski season and still have a good outlook, I am truly impressed. If you don't get what you like, learn to like what you get. And shut up about the weather. It's not listening and I wish I didn't have to.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Skiing with Ludwig (from 2003)

The comparison of a human life to the seasons of the year is overworked, but the low slanting sun, the growing cold and long nights of late fall and early winter give us the choice to surrender to the dark and cold or rise up and defy it.

It’s easy to slide to a halt, this time of year.

Bill Call is a cyclist in his 60s. He can be seen almost daily, riding to the library or the store or one of his other haunts around town, in all seasons and all weather.

“You get on the machine,” he says. “You tell yourself that whatever else happens that day, you get on the machine.”

Self-propelled transportation takes on a ritualistic quality. The more ancient forms, like Nordic skiing and kayaking, came from primitive cultures or the primitive ages of cultures that evolved, so they held ritual significance because everything in a simple culture holds that kind of significance.

A group of Zen monks on Japan’s Mount Hiei runs as their discipline. Each monk is equipped to commit suicide on the spot if he should ever fail to complete his grueling nightly route. That’s too extreme for most of us, but it illustrates how physical discipline and physical motion through the landscape can take on a spiritual dimension.

Something drives us onward.

Down in the ski shop we hear the sound of someone working out relentlessly on a Nordic Track in the apartment above us. Over the years we have heard many sounds from that living space. Bitter arguments, loud laments, harsh words from spouse to spouse or parent to child. Generally only the louder, more passionate sounds penetrate the floor, but low-frequency vibrations and thin little noises of life come down to us as well. The couple in there now could be described as seniors, just to create a quick image. They’re active, gray-haired people. Along with the indoor training, we often see them headed out to play tennis or to walk during the warm months.

I don’t even know their names, but we hear the sound of their relentless defiance of deterioration, their embrace of physical capability. I don’t even hear music or television, though the volume may simply be too low. To pound away on an indoor machine for as long as we hear it, without any sugar-coating of entertainment, is real discipline.

Simply put, it’s easier to stay in shape than to get in shape. Learn that young and remember it always.

I find that indoor training goes better with music. Over many years I have collected a library of tunes with tempos suited to different kinds of workout.

My all-time favorite Nordic Track piece is Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. As far as I’m concerned, old Ludwig doesn’t need to roll over for anybody. I crank up the Seventh until the walls bulge, and hope I survive it.

From a technical standpoint, the symphony also provides a good progression of intensity. It starts out at a good walking pace through the introduction and first movement. The pensive second movement holds the pace fairly low. In the third the music intensifies in preparation for the buoyant rage of the fourth. It is that fourth movement that calls survival into question.

The last movement rises through a series of crescendoes that provide a killer interval workout. You won’t get to warm down until the music stops. The version I have runs 44 minutes or so, and the speeds go from almost too slow at the outset to too fast and too intense at the end. It’s worth chasing, though, like the last two laps of a short-course bike race, all out for the line.

It’s almost better to start the workout feeling slightly depressed. The Seventh isn’t some bouncy, Up With People kind of tune. Written in 1811 when Beethoven was enduring hard times and increasing hearing loss, it has been described as exuberant, but the tune will crush you if you do not rise to meet it. The slow second movement speaks to the lower feelings of life while the third prepares you for the challenge of the fourth. It gives you nothing, but rather demands that you look inside for the strength to listen and to keep up. And that’s what staying in shape is all about.

"Real" Skis

Customers will often come into the shop and ask, “How much is your basic ski package?”
I’ll start to describe the package and they’ll say, “Oh, are these cross-country skis? I wanted regular skis.” Or “real skis.” They act as if cross-country skiing was invented by bored downhill skiers who thought it would be a hoot to invent a way to ski up a hill once in a while.

The fact is, nordic skiing is thousands of years old and downhill, or alpine skiing as we know it, with locked-heel, releasable bindings, has yet to see its hundredth birthday. The Telemark and stem Christie turns which form the foundation for downhill turning technique both sprang from Norway. The sidecut, or shape of a ski to aid turning may have been invented by Telemark pioneer Sondre Norheim, and was certainly espoused by him.

When skiing left Scandinavia and made its way to the steep slopes of the Alps, among other mountains, skiers still practiced the skills of crossing country, but the downhills looked like a much more serious threat and the uphills looked like something requiring ropes and climbing gear. The Alpine ski began to evolve into what we know today. Progress was slow in Silicon Valley terms, but very rapid compared to thousands of years of Scandinavian winter travel.

Nordic ski evolution has also leaped ahead in the last few decades. Interestingly, the innovations that launched downhill skiing in the second half of the 19th century also marked a period of nordic development that jazzed up cross country skiing a lot compared to the straightforward shuffle skiers had used with toestrap bindings and straight-sided skis. As skiing spread, skiers devised skis suited to the specific area and type of skiing. That’s still true today, leading to an inviting array of ski shapes and sizes. Wood still lurks inside many modern skis. So do more exotic materials.

Think of it. Recreational cross-country skiing, particularly racing, took an element of daily winter life, the ski, and turned it into a piece of sporting equipment. The equipment itself developed, fed by the interest in competition. It’s a story as old as the hills or as new as the automobile. Can you say “NASCAR?”

We’ll never know for sure who first decided to make a snowshoe long and skinny, with a pointy, upturned tip and a smooth running base. We owe a huge debt to that visionary, though. Skiing has joined the host of traditions native to one land and people that have been shared with the rest of the world, so that many of us can join the evolution, pay tribute to its past and enjoy its future.

Just open up a can of pine tar and listen to the people as young as their early forties who say, “Wow, that brings back memories.”

Pine tar is used to protect the bases of wooden skis. This was true of both alpine and nordic skis until other materials replaced wood, beginning in 1947 for alpine skis, with the Head aluminum ski. Other materials soon followed. By the 1960s, fiberglass and related materials dominated downhill ski construction. But nordic skis lagged, probably held by a sense of tradition and the time-tested ability to build a ski that both grips and glides using a material far older than skiing itself – wood. Thus many school racers as late as the early 1970s would have used wooden skis.

Pine tar probably ranks second to klister in the list of cross-country ski demons. Yet both pine tar and klister become harmless servants with careful handling. They present none of the problems of nuclear waste, or even four quarts of used crankcase oil, for instance.

Wooden skis tie nordic skiing to its roots even today. On the best of winter days, with a green or blue kick wax, a well-built wooden ski bounds over the snow delightfully. The old Bonnas I picked up have a shape to rival any mid-width touring ski today, and they’ll lay down a fine Telemark turn in soft snow. I don’t beat them up, preferring to save them for those sacramental, soul-skiing days, but I know I could get a lot out of them if I pushed.

Heat modern ski substances, base materials or waxes, and you get a smell not unlike oil dripped on the exhaust manifold of your car. I suppose there’s a certain romance there, but of a modern, gritty sort. It’s something of Mad Max or Days of Thunder. Heat a wooden ski with pine tar on it and a smell of old sailing ships fills the air. It takes you back to the Age of Discovery.

Admittedly, discoveries are still being made, astounding ones in faraway lands like Antarctica or out in space, and nearby in labs and field studies in an ecosystem near you. But the time when people set out more or less blindly, on foot over land or in windships at the mercy of nature still ranks as the time when journeys into the unknown were more convenient to more people, because so much was still unknown.

It’s easy to believe that the world is small and lacks mystery because you can see a television show about just about anything. But how much have you seen for yourself? I don’t mean Borneo and Chile, cover stories in Outsider-Than-Thou magazine. I mean within one, five, 20 or 100 miles of you.
Wooden skis are getting hard to find. They require special care. You don’t need them to launch your own age of discovery. Just remember that the past touches the future at all times.

Sometimes this interface is a sharp juncture, like the time when synthetic skis finally surpassed wooden ones. Then the watershed is an event in itself. You date yourself a bit by how close you were or are to that event. Some people are still tying memories to pine tar. It’s not the pervading smell in a ski shop anymore, but whiffs mingle with the modern atmosphere. For some the smell is new, a mystery. For others it summons a time when that smell meant skiing, was inseparable from it. At the moment, it’s where a long past touches an immeasurable future.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Maintaining Training

This is a tough time of year. I admire anyone with the self discipline to train on indoor machines. I envy anyone with the schedule flexibility to train outdoors every day during the meager hours of daylight.

Training methods vary from very specific, high-intensity workouts with roller skis and other dry-land simulation to high-intensity snacking on comfort foods while desperately scanning the sky for snow.

Roller skiing is great. It trains most of the muscles used in actual cross-country skiing, in ways much like they are used on snow. But it isn’t perfect. Very adept, competitive roller skiers may fall short on actual snow because they haven’t mastered the subtleties of on-snow technique.
Hey, if it isn’t perfect, there’s my excuse to save the expense. Roller skis aren’t cheap, upwards of $300 for a good set. Why buy anything but a good set? If you’re into it, go for it. But you don’t need it just to carry fitness into the first part of the season.

Walk, don’t run. Use poles to start adding upper-body conditioning. Better yet, mix walking and running. Running can give you a quick aerobic or interval workout. Walking or ski striding, where you consciously spend more time supporting yourself with one leg at a time, will help condition your muscles for skiing. Hiking uphill helps slow the tempo to be more like ski timing.
Ice skate to develop skating muscles. You can’t do much poling when you ice skate, but you can train your legs and supporting muscles.

Weight-train to develop specific muscles you want to target. You can figure out what these are by going through the motions of striding, skating or poling and paying attention to which muscles engage. Weight training is not an ideal method, because you risk developing unhelpful bulk, but it is better than nothing. The kinds of small weights and resistance devices you will use fit neatly into a home exercise space.

Racers in days of yore used roller boards to train for poling. You basically haul yourself up an incline over and over again using your arms. Roller boards are coming back. Sometimes even the roller ski crowd has to make it through a period where the roads are too messy for roller skiing, but the trails aren’t ready to groom.

Like many nordic enthusiasts, I’m still cycling. This time of year I spend a lot of time on the fixed-gear bike. It keeps me in a medium sized gear and functions well in wet weather. Because it can’t coast, it keeps my legs moving, which not only helps keep me warm, it keeps me from slacking off. I get a lot of workout in a short ride.

Working in the bike and nordic ski business, I get good deals on gear, but my retirement plan consists of either strategically-timed hypothermia when I’m finally too old to work, or a large cardboard box in a warm climate until I succumb to some disease for which I cannot afford the prescription drugs. So I know about trying to keep it cheap. But some cost-cutting moves are false economy. Buy decent gear. Cheap gear might actually hurt you.

My el-cheapo workout plan includes running, pole running, hiking, cycling and indoor exercises with and without weights. I have an old Nordic Track for times of absolute desperation. Anyone who can stand more than about 40 minutes on that deserves a medal.

The fixed gear cost about $50 to build. In today’s dollars it might be more like $100, but try to buy any other kind of lightweight bike for $100. That’s pretty reasonable. The frame is a classic now, but it was just a beater in 1980. Find a yard-sale road bike. Strip it down to one chainring in the front, one cog in the back and a single brake. You or your mechanic might need to make some other adjustments to get the chain line right, but you’re really just subtracting the parts you don’t need and adjusting for their absence.

Track cogs thread onto the same threads as old-style freewheels. If your yard sale junker has a modern cassette-hub rear wheel you have to buy a Surly adapter, available through bike shops, or find an old style wheel.

Real track hubs use a smaller, left-hand thread for the lockring holding the cog in place. Some of them have threads on both sides, so you can have two gears. That can be very helpful in hilly country.

Functional running shoes might cost $40.

If you ski, you already own poles. If you run in the woods, you shouldn’t bash them up too badly. Inexpensive touring poles can take some abuse. If you have nicer poles you should pick up some cheap ones to use for running.

The shorter days, cloudy skies and leafless trees really drain the energy out of a lot of people. I know I like to nap and snack more during this season. That’s probably why so many of the holidays involve feasting. Stuff yourself, drink some wine and wait for the sun to start moving north again. But remember that all of calendar winter takes place during that opening flower of daylight. The energy you manage to generate now will be returned to you with interest once ski season really gets started.

Friday, November 19, 2004


Explore Cross-Country is the title of my winter cross-country ski column. I take an exploratory approach, as the title says. I don't race. I don't seek out only downhills, whether lift-served Telemark or climb-to-descend back-country. Keep it simple, relatively affordable, and explore.

All material copyright Tim White unless otherwise noted.