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.

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