Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Ultimate Combi Boot

Thanks to duathlon racing events, a nordic discipline presently more popular in Europe than the United States, there is now a combination boot that uses the Salomon Pilot binding for skating, but attaches to the Profil flexor-type binding for classical.

The weakness of combi boots has always been that they needed flexibility under the ball of the foot to allow classical striding, but that flexibility seriously reduced their lateral stiffness for skating. Salomon's new Carbon Pro Skiathlon takes advantage of the fact that Pilot boots have always been able to snap into Profil bindings. The carbon sole plate gives springy flexibility to the forefoot, while the double-bar Pilot binding retains a large amount of control in skating.

Like any combi boot, it does not do each tehnique as well as the boots specifically designed for them, but it does them much better than any previous version.

The boots aren't cheap. As part of the Carbon Pro series, they retail around $350 US. But specific skate and classic boots would end up costing at least $500.

The performance of the boot depends on the carbon sole plate. The carbon layer provides strength and flexibility with less weight and bulk than the plastics used in the Race Skate 9 and Race Classic 9. The 9s are great boots. They provide excellent fit and performance, and some different fit options for different-shaped feet. But they aren't as light as the boots in the Carbon series. The flexible carbon sole of the Skiathlon will retain its performance better than any previous version of combi boot. If you really want to use one boot for both techniques, the best you can do right now is the Skiathlon.

A couple of testers have said they like the support of the taller boot on long descents, especially when they are getting tired.

Most testers have rated its skating performance as merely adequate, but that's reasonable when they're coming from dedicated skate boots. The Skiathlon has a softer cuff and looser ankle strap, adaptations for classical skiing, as well as a forefoot very similar to the Carbon Classic. If you haven't skied a Pilot boot before, you may feel the performance is a significant step up from your previous boot.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Consider this idea

Snow in the flatlands is such a waste. Especially when it’s a big storm, no one can put it to use. But I have a plan.

Mobile groomer squads could go wherever major snowstorms have just hit, to pack and track as much terrain as the local topography allows. That way local cross-country skiers could get right out on a quality product without anyone locally having to tie up a doomed permanent investment in the equipment and personnel.

This would require some sort of government funding, but it’s socially valuable. It would be good for morale, health and fitness. People wouldn’t curse the snow anymore. In places where snow doesn’t come often enough to support a permanent facility, mobile grooming would take advantage of the transient conditions.

The mobile groomers would use large military-style transport planes to bring in state-of-the-art machines. There would have to be several of these strike forces, because, as recent weather has shown, a large storm can affect a number of communities nearly simultaneously.

The groomers would lay down track in public parks and on any private lands where the owners had agreed to allow free access. Depending on the local economy, a local business might provide rental gear, or a mobile rental unit could be sent to meet the residents’ needs.

Some areas that only occasionally receive snow have very enjoyable terrain for cross-country skiing. But a big dump makes too much work for the few local skiers to go tromp out a track for themselves. Mobile grooming would pack out the trails so more people might be inclined to try it.

How much could it cost? Not as much as even a minor skirmish overseas, let alone a protracted war. It would provide another alternative for people who might otherwise be lured into self-destructive habits.

Mobile grooming would be good for society. Write to your senators and representatives today.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Long and Short of It

How long should your cross-country skis be?

To help you get a ski that does exactly what you want it to, the ski industry has manufactured confusion. Bear with me while I try to explain a little of how things got that way, what’s good about it and what’s not so good.

Cross-country skis are shorter than they used to be. But some are shorter than others, and sometimes shorter is not better.

Fischer Skis changed cross-country ski design profoundly in the very early 1990s with a micro skate ski called the Revolution. Skating was a very new technique. Not all ski areas groomed the trails wide and smooth enough for it, and many people were intimidated by the strangeness of skiing in the V-stance skating uses. The Revolution was 149 centimeters long, shorter than many people’s poles, especially skate poles. It was meant to make learning to skate easier.

When Fischer designed a ski that short with a mid-section stiff enough to support adult weight, they wanted to use the technology in more places, to try to make all cross-country skiing easier. Unfortunately, the shorter ski only focused on some aspects of nordic skiing at the expense of others.

The experiment caught on. Soon even racers were sporting around on dinky little skis. After all, anything worth doing is worth overdoing, right?

The short ski fad quickly brought the inadequacies of short skis out in the open. Racers demanded skis that would actually glide, so skate skis began to grow again. The one-size-fits-all ski disappeared, and almost no one missed it.

Shorter touring skis had many advantages for both recreational tourists making sedate strolls around the groomed trails and intrepid back-country adventurers who could use a maneuverable ski more than a long, speedy one. A three size system seemed to work well enough, with broad fit ranges based on weight. The sizes generally run somewhere around 160 cm for the small one, 175 for medium and 190 for large, no matter who makes them.

Shorter skis need to be wide, but really wide skis need a wider binding attachment and a laterally stiffer boot than most lightweight touring gear. Recreational compact skis wider than 65 millimeters don’t fit in the tracks at touring centers at all, and require a heavier binding.
Wider skis won’t help you if you can’t edge them strongly. All you can do is stand on them like a big, wide shelf.

Skis for groomed terrain can be somewhat shorter than the old long models because modern grooming provides a firmer, more reliable surface. You need a ski long enough to support the length of your stride, but you don’t often need the extra floatation the really long ski provided. But classical skis still tend to run between 110 and 120 percent of your height, and skate skis end up somewhere between 106 and 110 percent. It has nothing to do with your height as such. It relates more to your leg length. Those lengths represent the optimum balance between tracking, gliding and maneuverability.

If you don’t ski vigorously, you can get away with shorter, wider skis. But short, wide skis will tire you out quickly if you really try to drive them hard. They’re better suited to times and places when you don’t plan to drive them hard. You may get tired, breaking trail or skiing long climbs and descents, but it won’t be at that edge of anaerobic metabolism enjoyed by racers and other people who enjoy searing lungs, thudding heartbeat and burning muscles, and flying through the landscape as fast as they can push themselves.

If you just like to get a lot of glide for your effort, comfortably below the pain threshold of high performance skiing, longer, skinnier skis will do a better job for you there as well. Try to demo several models if you can, to get an idea what length will work best for you. There are even some models that sort of bridge the gap between compact and traditional.

Between the compact sizes and the traditional ones, a good nordic ski fitter can tailor a ski to your needs. One very tall, slender woman looking for a touring ski would have fit a 160 cm compact based on weight. With her stride length, a ski that short would be a tripping hazard. She was tall enough but light enough for a traditional 200 cm ski to fit her at the short end of her acceptable range. Another skier, a very portly gentleman, was short enough for a 190 compact to fit him like a traditional ski. If he’d tried to buy a traditionally-built ski for his weight it would have been over 130 percent of his height. He would have hated it.

Last year, Fischer muddied the waters again with their tongue-depressor Cruiser series, skis both ugly and ineffective. Other companies offer proven designs that give tourists really good performance. Unfortunately, the Fischer tongue depressors have created a fashion for fat, ugly tips, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the ski behind the tip is as unsatisfactory as the Fischer. Again, only a demo can tell you for sure what will work for you. Some people like the tongue depressors. Hey, if it feels good, do it. Lots of things are ugly to look at but fun to ride. Just don’t suck down a bunch of manufacturer propaganda or buy just for a name. Even the big names can launch a turkey, but most of them can never admit it.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Loosen up, Baby

People confuse tightness with control. They think of the iron fist. This leads to no end of trouble in skiing.

Tension strikes most often on the downhills, but it creeps in everywhere in cross-country skiing to make life harder.

Loosen up. Enjoy life. Git down.

Git down. This is distinct from “get down.” “Get down” is what you say to the cat when it’s on the kitchen counter, or the unauthorized dog on the couch. “Git down”is what you do when the music is good and you just gotta move with it.

Cross-country is a dance. It has its learned steps, but you respond to changes in the surface, the pitch, the tempo, mixing and matching those learned steps in combinations for the moment. Some muscles are tight, but the flow comes from knowing how tight to make the tight ones and how relaxed to keep the rest of them.

Most skiers hate to fall. Beginners especially hate to fall. So they tense up when things seem to be going out of control. Things just go out of control that much faster.

Look at a professional downhill ski racer. They fall pretty frequently. They almost never look tense, even as the whole thing explodes around them in a blast of snow and flying skis. That’s because they are trying to control the situation to the last. As a pilot friend of mine says, “you keep flying the plane.”

A military saying also springs to mind: “In an emergency, you don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to your level of training.” Military sayings are hip right now. Many are annoying, but that one makes a very good point. As you gain experience you will build a repertoire of quick, correct responses to various situations. You won’t always be right. But you will learn that stiffening up, drawing your body up and locking your knees is never right.

Git down. Never bend your waist unless you have already bent your ankles, knees and hips first. You may discover that by flexing from the ground up you no longer feel like locking your knees and sticking your butt out behind you like an awkward puppet.

I have been the awkward puppet many times. Only 12 years ago I despaired of ever learning to ski the wild ungroomed snow of what we loosely call the backcountry. The guy I was with, a skier almost since birth, was laughing so hard I wondered if he would ever inhale again.

You learn to find your speed range. Mine is only medium fast. If you like to go really fast, focus on steering at high speed and stopping quickly in emergencies. If you prefer more controlled speed, focus on techniques to keep yourself in your comfort zone without scraping away all the loose snow that people behind you might have wanted to use.

By starting to flex at the ankles and working your way up you will keep your springs and shock absorbers working all the time. You’d be amazed how much more secure you might feel on a downhill if you crouch right down in a tuck. Your center of gravity is instantly lower, so you feel less force throwing you off the outside of a turn. You are going faster than you thought you liked, but you are back in control. If you do fall, you are more likely to skid out and slide than catch an edge and get tossed airborne into a trailside tree.

Don’t tuck if you haven’t learned how to come out of it to slow down when you need to avoid another skier. But if you are rising from a tuck you have more control than if you were trying suddenly to crunch yourself lower.

Git down when you stride, too, just nowhere near as low. Remember to keep the joints flexed so you can apply power at the right time and follow through smoothly. As you get tired you will be tempted to stand up more. That is appropriate, but remember to mix it up, slowing down and standing up to rest, flexing down and springing along for short periods to keep yourself loose.

A trudging stride on soft skis will lull you into skiing without shifting your weight fully from ski to ski. You get perfectly good exercise and a pleasant slide through the woods. Those are both good. Try to practice some more dynamic techniques occasionally to help you out when things start to go a little faster than you might prefer. Git down. Loosen up. Throw a little jazz into that stately waltz. You can always slow down again.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Those sticks in your hands

Ski poles tend to just hang there without calling much attention to themselves. But these trivial sticks do an important job.

Humans have been picking up sticks for many thousands of years. How complicated can it be to hold a stick right? But add a simple webbing strap to that stick and it becomes very complicated indeed, at least to look at some of the improvised gripping techniques one can see on any sunny Saturday in winter.

Even the most modest touring pole comes with a strap that will adequately support your hand and transfer your poling power to the snow without demanding that you apply a crushing grip to the slim, smooth handle found on most cross-country ski poles. Your fingers merely guide the pole using that slim handle. So relax your forearms, if you haven’t already, and let the pole do its whole job, from strap to tip.

The basic pole strap is just a loop of flat webbing. It may come out of a vertical slot in the grip or a horizontal one, but in either case it should flow smoothly around your hand without any uncomfortable twists or wrinkles.

Put your hand through this loop from underneath, so the outer part of the loop goes around the back of your hand and the part nearest the handle crosses your palm, extending between your thumb and index finger. Close your hand lightly around the pole. You should then be able to press downward and the loop will tighten around your hand to support as much weight as you want to put on it. Do not just reach through the loop and grab your pole, so the webbing just goes under your wrist like a sling. That will provide a little support, but nothing like the support and control you get from holding the pole properly.

As you go up in quality to better and better poles, you get progressively better straps. At first these are only wider, which is nothing to sneer at. Wider straps do spread the load over more of your hand. But the newer strap systems support the hand much better than any single loop. I am no fan of needless complication or change for the sake of change. These new straps really work.

The fancy straps show their strength first in skate skiing. Because a skate skier uses the poles vigorously and forcefully, at a fast cadence in a shorter stroke, the control and support provided by a full, surrounding harness become indispensable aids to smooth skiing. Traditional straps tend to ride up around the fingers, requiring constant fidgeting to shift them back into place.

Biathlon competitors skate with the traditional straps so they can get out and deploy their rifle quickly. Most of us do not have to worry about weapon handling when we ski, but if you like to be prepared for anything in these uncertain times you might want to consider all your options.

When you buy the pole, you get the shaft. The basic touring pole has a cylindrical shaft that is the same diameter all the way down its length. It also has a fairly large basket to work in ungroomed snow. For slower skiing a pole like that is a fine workhorse. If you are skiing in ungroomed snow you probably aren’t blazing along anyway. If you tour at a leisurely pace even at groomed touring centers you also don’t run into the limitations of poles like that. But when you try to ski faster, the heavy, unbalanced pole will take energy from you and be harder to manage as you get tired.

Better poles have tapered shafts and are made of lighter materials than the basic pole. Poles intended for faster skiing in groomed areas also have smaller baskets, further enhancing balance and light weight. The more you pay for the pole, the lighter it will be. Be warned: once you use light poles you will never go back to heavier ones.

Before we get into poling technique, let’s give a quick nod to adjustable poles. These have telescoping shafts so you can adjust the length for different types of use. They usually have symmetrical baskets for use in deep, ungroomed snow. They are a vital tool for real back-country skiing because you can set them at full length for striding when terrain allows, mid-length for climbing, when a slightly shorter pole is more useful and less fatiguing than a long one, and at downhill length for going...down hill. You will feel much more secure and be able to use more correct downhill technique if you can set your poles to that length. You can keep your hands low and in front of you, where you want them, and plant your poles to time your turns.

You’ll see skiers using poles as outriggers, walking sticks and even just sort of waving them one at a time down the trail because the guy in the lesson said so. Occasionally you will even see someone using them efficiently.

Poling rhythm matches skiing rhythm. Plant the pole as you plant the kick zone. Plant it at an angle, so the basket is pointing back. Apply increasing force as your hand comes down and back. About the time your hand passes your body, the pole basket should be lifting from the snow. Keep swinging your arm back to follow through smoothly.

Do not hold your hands out to the sides. Your hands want to swing up in line with your shoulders, not winged out in the “flying stork” technique. Arms and legs move parallel to each other, parallel to your direction of travel.

You do not need to jam the poles in with great force. Only after the pole is securely planted should you increase the force on it. You can swing at the ground and miss if you try to put too much sting into the pole plant itself. You aren’t hammering a nail.

People ski without poles so they can concentrate on foot and leg technique. Less often you see someone ski with poles alone to feel how the pole stroke works from beginning to end. I don’t mean double poling, where you push with both at once. That’s a great technique in its own right. But you can use a level stretch of trail to work on single poling by itself. Just as when skiing without poles you then can add them to the leg motion, so too can you pole along and then start kicking and gliding in the same tempo.

Use the parts of the body together, but with an awareness of what each part is doing. You can apply this idea to many activities. Cross-country skiing happens to use a lot of simultaneous but separable motions you can study individually and then combine into a stronger whole.

A Learning Progression

Most people start cross-country skiing on fairly wide touring skis. These days, the skis are quite likely to be shorter, compact models rather than the long, traditional skis.

Beginners start with the classical diagonal stride. It is a lot like walking. You can take this technique a long way, once you master the basics of climbing hills, descending safely and stopping where and when you want to.

You can ski a lot of different terrain. This led to the many shapes cross-country skis have developed, because certain shapes do very well in certain terrain. If you decide you want to stick to a particular type of skiing, get the skis that do it best.

For classical skiing on groomed terrain, a skinny, pointy ski goes fastest. But high-performance classical skis can be some of the most difficult to master. You have to learn to propel a stiffer ski, which takes precise timing when you plant the kick zone. At the same time you have to learn to balance and maneuver on a much skinnier ski than your sedate touring model.
You might jump into both challenges at once, but I took a different approach more or less by accident. It worked out well.

I had toured on moderately wide, traditionally long skis. The same pair took me tramping on hiking trails, skiing to Zealand Hut, ski camping, and touring on groomed trails. It was too long and skinny, with too light a boot for the rough stuff, and too wide and soft to go really fast on groomed trails. However, it did use kick wax, so I could vary the grip to suit conditions. It gave me a chance to start challenging my technique by waxing lighter and shorter. But those skis would never challenge me the way real high performance classical skis would.

Under certain conditions, skating is simply the most effective way to get around on snow. Because of that I got drawn into it. If I wanted a quick, effective workout and a fun flight down the trails, skating was the answer.

Ski skating uses a stiff, skinny ski, but it’s easier to learn to propel yourself on a skate ski than a high-performance classical ski. It feels weird and difficult to go from a sedate touring ski to the V-shaped stance of skating, but once you get over that hurdle you can concentrate completely on balance and steering on the skinny ski. You don’t have to worry about kick timing.

On a touring ski you can shuffle along without fully committing your weight to one ski at a time. On a high-performance classical ski you can’t get away with that. You must shift your weight completely. Beyond that, you also need to time the kick correctly, firing your energy down through the ski just as your weight passes over the foot. It is a distinct skill that calls for practice on flats and uphills to train your muscles to make all the variations unconsciously.

By skating you can learn to balance on one skinny ski at a time and control your speed on downhills as a completely separate project from all the timing issues of fast classical striding. You will still have to learn all that when you finally undertake it on racy classical skis, but you will be more secure on the skinny sticks and more accustomed to going fast. Even if you are a conservative skater, classical tends to be a slower technique. You will probably have become more comfortable with the kind of speed you’ll achieve on your classical equipment once you do master the kick timing.

You can certainly start nordic skiing with any of the disciplines and just stick to that. If you want to dive right in on high-performance classical skis you will have mastered the most difficult form of the art. If you only want to skate you can certainly specialize there. But if you have a general interest in checking out all that cross-country has to offer, the progression I have described here may help with that advancement.