Monday, February 26, 2007

Meanwhile, Out on the Snow

The big storm arrived a couple of days ahead of the start of the Massachusetts vacation week, so the touring center had time to groom the trails several times before the crowds needed them. Deep snow meant it was time to use good skis.

Fast classical skiing requires a lot more finesse than a slow shuffle on touring skis. Fast skis have a stiffer camber, requiring better timing and balance in order to get any grip. It can be very frustrating, and drives many skiers to wax further forward or give up altogether.

Acting on a couple of tips from Peter the Great, I shortened up the wax and went out to practice.

Tip number one: when you kick forward with one ski, imagine kicking a tennis ball straight down the track in front of you. You have to keep your weight fully on one foot to kick with the other one. Imagining the ball keeps you pushing your foot forward, rather than kicking down and back with the weighted leg.

The first tip wasn't a new one for me, but when I combined it with the second one the results were remarkable. It was a new way to get to a precision I had felt before, but could not always produce on demand.

Tip number two: throw your hand forward as you throw your opposite foot forward. Arms and legs swing on alternate sides, just as they do when you walk or run, but the timing and direction matter more when you are balancing on a long, skinny stick sliding down a slippery track. Make sure the arm swings straight forward. Follow a natural arc almost like bowling, with your pole trailing. The arm swings up with a slight bend. The pole stays angled with the tip back. Peter tells students to imagine tossing a horseshoe.

Throwing the hand seems to make the leading foot come forward automatically. The foot touches down slightly forward of the knee. It's a long step. It even works on climbs. Because the foot leads, the body following it plants the wax firmly on the way over the top. In the dynamic process of skiing, one stride flows into the next. For fast touring, it's a relaxed, easy lope. Let the racers gasp and puke. Just doing the stride correctly, over and over, you'll cover a lot of ground faster than you thought you could. You can also make a colder wax work, making your glide even better. It does not take more effort, more strength. It just takes timing.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sounds Like Instant Winter

A major storm seems to be headed this way. Predicted totals would be impressive in any year, not just one in which the Nordic areas have been living on a starvation diet.

As always, I'll believe it when I'm shoveling it -- or, in this case, driving in it. It will squat squarely on the first day of my work week, and day one of the twelve-day marathon of Massachusetts Vacation Week.

Two feet of fluff will lure skiers into the back-country, where the base is thin and avalanche hazard will be high. With very cold air in place, the snow will have little density. Once it settles, the initial 18 to 24 inches could quickly become 12 to 18. Fortunately, what fell in the last storm was also light and dry, so the layers will merge securely for the most part. I have not kept tabs on high elevations, so I don't know what crust layers might lurk there. Thin cover will likely be more of an issue than shearing between layers over an ice crust. And with the storm on a Wednesday, the steep slopes will have sloughed by Saturday.

In past winters we have seen the storm track shift so that the second half buried us. By April we had long ago forgotten what a disappointment January had been. But we've also seen one-storm winters, in which we waited and waited for that one big payoff and then clanked through the rocks under two feet of dust when we tried to wail on it.

On the groomies at Nordic centers the news is all good. The big machines may flatten two feet of pow' into eight inches of solid cover on the trail, but that's eight more than we had before.

Cold weather is predicted to continue through the week. After that, from a commercial standpoint, the weather doesn't really matter. But for real skiers, let's hope March brings what the rest of the season could not. And then it's on to kayaking and biking, unless you're really obsessed. But the really obsessed don't read me.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

It's Like Cat Food

Nordic skiers are a finicky bunch. Laying out wax for them is like throwing down canned food for the cats. They're never grateful.

We got all these requests for Start Green glide wax. Start Green. Start Green. It's legendary. Get it!

The Start rep didn't want to sell us just a truckload of the legendary Green glide wax. And we naively figured if the Green had such a following, skiers like the other colors, too.

Five years later, we're still trying to get rid of the other items from the Start line, some of them perfectly nice kick and glide waxes. They just don't have a fan club.

Start and Rex both have grip tape, a miracle product that replaces conventional kick wax. Rex's is particularly popular, because the dispenser spits out a double strip, to do the whole kick zone in one pass. Do people ask for anything else in the Rex line? Heck no. Fortunately, the Rex rep doesn't mind feeding us just the tape...for now.

A skier asked today whether we did anything with the Rode line. I said we didn't. I tried to soften it with a little humorous apology for our boring Swix line, but the skier was already storming out, snapping over his shoulder, "Rode Multi-grade Purple! The only kick wax you'll ever need!"

Indeed. Then why does Rode offer a fat catalog full of all these other kick products no one will need?

I'm sure every one of these legendary products is just excellent. I promise I'll try them once I've used up all the leftover cat food on our wax rack. Someone's got to ski it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"I Hate Classical"

A woman handed me her skating skis.

"These need some base work," she said. "They need a good waxing. I can't put it off."

"We can fix that," I said. "Do you want them right away?"

"No, I don't want to rush you. But it means I'll have to do classical today. I hate classical."

With a few inches of fresh snow, the classical was great. The skating was less than ideal.

"Why hate classical?" I asked.

"After skating, being able to go so fast so easily, it's just horribly frustrating," she said.

"Yeah, but with the fresh snow today, classical will be much better than skating. Just wax long, and do that trick where you put a layer of the next colder wax over your layers of blue kick wax. That's working really well today. Just gear your mind down. It's all part of the dance on snow."

"You're right." She smiled. "That's the attitude I need."

Off she went.

Your own demands and expectations often create the difference between a perfectly enjoyable outing and a disappointing one.

Skating is great. I love the surge of power when the timing is just right. I love the leap of a freely-gliding ski, waxed to perfection. I love the constant subtle shifts of angle and poling. But I hate to plod through soft snow in a V-stance. I hate the drag of a slow skating ski when anything inhibits the glide. Dirty snow, deep new snow or really slushy old snow turn skating into a waddle.

Sometimes classical is faster than skating. Certainly when fluffy new snow has only been groomed one day, it is easier to wax long and kick lightly to fly forward on the classical tracks. Out on the skate lane, your angled edges just dig in. Unless you pole like a monster in a narrow V2, you can't help gouging deeply into snow that really needs another day and some more passes with the big machine to set it up.

Another writer compared classical to a fixed-gear bicycle and skating to a multi-speed. This seems true at first glance. You can stride faster or slower in classical, but you can't make changes as significant as from Diagonal V to V1 to V2, and all their variations. But the tempo changes in classical almost qualify as multiple gears. A cyclist on a fixed gear will ride uphill at a slower tempo than on the flats, and a much faster one on a descent. A classical skier goes the opposite way. Uphill, stride shortens and tempo speeds up to put the least stress on each individual moment of grip.

Double poling and double poling with a kick count as separate gears. Fit skiers can use these techniques over a greater range of terrain than recreational tourists will. So the classical skier has about four gears, compared to about seven for a skater. How you choose to use them is up to you.