Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Nordic Skiing Caught in a Bind

Once skiing became recreation instead of Scandinavian transportation, it became a relationship between professionals and the leisure classes in the the countries to which it spread. As such, the ski industry was basically a shady enterprise designed to separate wealthy fools from their money so the professionals could pay for their own skiing lifestyle.

When skiing was re-democratized in its purely downhill form in the 1960s as family fun, the relationship between industry and customers was already established. The middle- and working-class skiers just represented another pool of chumps to exploit.

Industry ski bums envision spending a great deal of time on the snow. For a time it was true. For the most part, we professionals do get to spend a lot more time skiing than most of the customers ever will. Even the leisure classes spread their time among many gratifications. Only those dedicated to competition spend more time on snow than the lucky grunts living their hand-to-mouth existence for the sake of skiing.

Unfortunately for the ski bums, once large amounts of money come into play, the industries harvesting those dollars need more foot soldiers. The machine provides less time to ski while demanding more real business acumen and ruthlessness.

Cross-country skiing threw a twist into the ski industry business model by opening the sport to many new participants of even lesser means and by opening thousands of square miles of terrain to the floppy-shod masses looking for a place to shuffle. No longer did one need to work as an indentured servant to the corporate ski industry to get cheap skiing. You just had to master the deceptively simple equipment.

And so cross-country skiing nearly died. Touring centers worked on better and better grooming. Manufacturers worked on equipment that was easier to master. The public worked on clogged arteries and butts big enough to show drive-in movies on. The alpine ski industry embraced snowboards. Alpine skiers accepted $50, $60 and $70 dollar lift tickets. Anything was better than trudging around in funny little shoes on funny little skis up and over boring terrain while gasping for oxygen.

Even the Telemark revival movement of the early 1980s has gravitated back to fat, heavy boards and monster boots after initially trying to showcase the possibilities of only moderately heavy Nordic touring gear.

The crux of the biscuit is the binding.

The Nordic boom traveled in flexible shoes with duck-bill toes clamped to long skis by snap-down toe pieces. These evolved in a variety of widths, most commonly 75 millimeters across the toe, with 50 millimeter models used on skinny racing skis. The boot soles twisted under hard turning forces, leading to things like the wedge heel plate that fit into a v-groove in the boot heel, and a variety of wicked teeth and spikes on flat heel plates, as well as more drastic devices to secure the heel when the foot was flat on the ski.

By the mid 1980s many companies were trying to eliminate the duck-billed boot entirely and replace it with much more modern-looking contraptions. Out of that bizarre world of mutants emerged Rottefella's first New Nordic Norm binding, with a steering plate behind the toe piece and a rubber flexor to provide springiness, and Salomon's Profil system, which improved greatly on what Rottefella began.

Salomon used a flexor and a big, single steering ridge that ran the full length of the boot sole. The system used a fixed-length jig, so there could be no mistake in drilling the holes for mounting. Rottefella insists to this day on maintaining an adjustable-length plate which makes things more complicated to no advantage for the skier.

Now as the 21st Century no longer seems shiny and new, Salomon has moved on to more complicated attachment systems and Rottefella continues to put out annoyingly fragile bindings in a variety of pretty colors from a large number of licensed vendors. Imagine being buried in an avalanche of cheesy children's toys. They're cute, but you're still being crushed to death.

Snowshoeing is booming. Nordic is technologizing itself to death the way mountain biking did. For the dedicated addict, many of the new devices are really neat and desirable. For the average poor slob who gets to ski four or five times in a good year, eternally reliable 75-millimeter mediocrity would probably have been fine.

For the addicts to get their high-grade goodies, lots of other people have to buy up the rest of the production run. Otherwise the equipment manufacturers can't afford to stay in business to service the addicts' needs. This relies on a steady supply of incoming participants or old participants upgrading their equipment. Newbies will accept simplified explanations for the most part, but upgrading intermediates want things explained in more depth. Here's where it gets difficult. A shop employee has to explain the fine points of the new gear without overloading the mental circuitry of the customer.

To jazz up high-performance Nordic, some shops try to offer stone-ground bases and special hot boxes to cook the wax into the base material. Will this usher in a new age of Nordic participation? It's doubtful. The up-front cost for facilities like this requires a large clientele to pay it off. These shops have to use the Internet to farm customers from all over the country to try to recoup the investment. Meanwhile, you still have to get on the skis and exert yourself to make them go. How much was that lift ticket again? Doesn't sound so bad, now. Later we'll go snowshoein'.

Two days ago I was out on my classic skis in a heavy snowstorm, sliding past everyone, including a little convoy of the touring center's regulars. Back in the building, one of them asked me what I had used for wax. On the glide zones I was using stuff a full grade colder than the range we were in, because I'd put it on two days earlier and hadn't had time to change. For kick I had Start Terva Green we don't even carry anymore because the only Start wax anyone wanted to buy was Start Green glide wax. Do I hotbox my skis? No. Have they ever been stone ground? No. Would I do either one? I don't know. Probably not. Wax often. Wax carefully. Always handle your own skis.

I don't see Nordic racing becoming a big money category in the United States before the next North American ice age. There are too many more reliable ways to get your exercise and your competitive ya-yas. And you're not likely to talk anyone but a racer or a dedicated and well-funded poser into getting regular stone grinds. You are chewing base material off each time you get them ground. It makes your Nordic addiction that much more expensive, and, therefore, hard to sustain.

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