Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Catching up with a friend

A guy I used to ski with a lot came by the shop the other day to visit. He also used to live right around the corner. Somehow, even before he moved, we did less and less together as his employment changed and our schedules didn't match. We're always glad to see each other. We just don't manage to do more than chat in passing.

He was born in this area. He grew up skiing the way people do around here. He skied cross-country and downhill. Like most people, he found the downhill more interesting until he destroyed his knee in a silly fall at Sunday River.

Funny how the drastic injuries seem to come from unspectacular crashes. He was actually trying to get up from a minor fall, but his ski tail was trapped in such a way that he blew his knee apart just by trying to rise.

When I met him he was developing his Telemark skills so he could ski freely in the woods on his heavy touring gear. He had the advantage of a lifetime of downhill skiing, so he learned rapidly. We started on almost the same level as free-heel downhillers, but his overall ski experience and well-practiced disregard for personal safety have propelled him farther than I care to go.

As Telemark skiing started to evolve in the late 1990s, I went through only a couple of stages of mutation with it. I never found a plastic boot I liked, and I never got a super fat ski. My friend has stayed nearer the edge of that advancing front. During his visit he said something about "reverse camber skis." I looked blankly at him.

"We used to call it a bent ski," he said. "It makes a longer ski ski like a short one, but still gives you the float of a big ski in soft snow.

It sounds like sort of a variable wheelbase, as if you could change your bike from a short, tight criterium bike to a comfy open-road tourer. In soft snow, the "bent" ski floats on its whole length. Set on edge, the pre-bent section initiates a turn instantly. On hard pack the contact area is actually shorter. As a downhill tool it sounds very functional.

"I wouldn't have anything narrower than 95[millimeters] under the foot," he said.

A ski that wide automatically implies a big boot.

Downhill skiing and ice climbing seem to call for quite a bit of pricey gear for a limited activity. That's why I have let my ancient ice tools gather dust, and I ski on old stuff.

The Telemark turn is completely irrelevant on wide, downhill-only skis. It feels nice to assume the position, but the skis are going to come around no matter what. The shape and flex of the boots may make some of them more comfortable than a hinged AT setup for approaches, but I think we passed the exit for "light weight" more than a decade ago.

When I shifted my focus from pointless athletic endeavors to pointless attempts to make art and music I made the final turn away from endless gear and trip cravings. Really, from my 20s I only wanted to live in a place where I could keep myself in halfway decent shape with locally-available activities while I concentrated on my pointless attempts to create. They didn't even seem pointless for the first couple of decades. That only sank in fairly recently. Certainly the sustained distractions that disrupted my happy plan did not help me develop those creative endeavors. So here we are.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Forget everything you knew about brushing

According to the latest issue of The Master Skier, all those groovy metal brushes we've been accumulating are mostly useless. Just keep the copper and one medium steel and use the rest to strip loose hair off of the cat. Take the nylon brush you tossed in a drawer back out and return it to a place of honor.

The article assumes you will be using fluoro waxes, powders and liquids. The powders and liquids do not penetrate the base material, so metal brushes will merely strip away your excessive investment in speed. Nylon will stroke those tender substances gently into the surface of the ski, reducing (but not eliminating) the costly sloughing of fabulously expensive magic pixie dust.

For those of us on Planet Budget, skiing almost entirely on hydrocarbon waxes (yawn), metal brushes are still great. If you want to spend all afternoon trying to get a nicely cleaned base structure with a nylon brush attacking Swix CH6, be my guest. In fact, the block fluoros, like Swix HF, also penetrate the base and will benefit from the kind of soft, super-fine steel brush you can't buy anymore.

The blue nylon brush is still the brush of choice for final polishing in any wax regime. The fluoro-addicts approve. We shop grunts have never abandoned the blue nylon for a nice streak-free shine.

I've picked up some good tips from the Master Skier over the years. I also invariably come away deeply grateful that I never succumbed to the deep neurosis necessary to take up Nordic racing. You most emphatically do NOT have to turn yourself and your skis into a set of science experiments to have a rockin' good time going fast enough. Conversely, if you want to do really well at Nordic racing you WILL have to take on the science experiments.

You will need several sets of skis. Skis are disposable items to the real racer. The real racer will get base material milled away by the stone grinder to renew the structure and strip away the layer clogged with fluoro residue and heat-sealed from hot ironing after inadequate shaving of micro-hairs. The real racer will have several sets of skis in both classic and skate, to be ready for all conditions. Your race skis need to have the right flex, which is built in, as well as the right structure and wax, which are applied, but not always easy to change.

I haven't noticed anyone talking about the need for several sets of poles of slightly different length for different snow conditions, but maybe that's this year's secret weapon, to be revealed next fall in time to stimulate pole sales for the manufacturers.

"If you don't understand what I'm saying, I'm not talking to you," the saying goes. The articles about arcane training methods, nutritional supplements and massive investments in equipment and chemicals are aimed at the skier who is that obsessed. On the plus side, the magazine is free, so a recreational skier can peruse it for useful tidbits. Who knows? You might develop an obsession and become another good customer for the high end ski market.

Because recreational Nordic touring has lost most of its participants to snowshoeing, the cross-country ski industry needs to make more and more money off fewer and fewer people. Some in the bike industry feel the same way: develop the high end, get people in a higher income bracket hooked on buying continuously-obsolete, ultra-sophisticated equipment, and let the dirty-footed masses go somewhere else. Even though such an approach invariably leads to diminishing returns, it keeps getting tried.

I suggest a different approach to racing: Make everyone wax identically. Y'all can argue about it for as long as you want beforehand, but in the end you have to settle on a wax and use it. If one skier missed the wax, relax: everyone missed the wax. The winner will be whoever did the best they could with the conditions that day.

That'll never happen. But maybe we can introduce it as a novelty race and see if anyone else enjoys the logic of it.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Ski season approaches

As part of our preparation for ski rental season I cleaned up the high performance rental boots and freshened up their size markings.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Customer Methodology 101

1: Call first thing in the morning to extract a promise that a certain job can be done by closing time.
2: Don't bring in the object in question until lunch time or later.

Advanced play:

3: Don't pick up the item for a week or more.

4: Bitch about the price.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Rock Ski Winter

After two years of deep, heavy snow, the pattern shifted to leave us essentially in a drought.

A storm scheduled for tomorrow may put us back in full operation at the same time it seriously interferes with the cellist's travel arrangements for a work-related trip she's had planned for many months. The snow would help us salvage some of the Massachusetts vacation week business. We're not looking at a Baltimore-Washington amount of snow, but the projected four to eight inches would cover the dirt, ice and windblown debris we've been grooming for four weeks.

I enjoy the challenge of skiing the absurd. I like figuring out the timing and weight shifts I need to negotiate a field of obstacles. It's not my preferred format, but it adds interest to bad conditions. For routine conditioning I would rather lay down a steady rhythm on a well-covered trail. But a little skedaddle around shriveling remnants not quite covering an assortment of reefs and shoals is fun the way miniature golf is fun.

When a winter acts like this, you get into skiing shape and want to use something better than rock skis if your rock skis are really obsolete, shabby or improperly sized. Even with the nasty conditions on our local trail network, sections have good enough cover to let you rip right along. People start looking for a better quality rock ski. It's like wanting a sporty beater bike for abusive conditions or high theft risk areas.

Seeing as it's February, I won't mind getting back into something more like skiing. The groundhog told us we were in for the long haul. After an early taste of bike season, March could put us back into ski season for most of its 31 days. Or we could continue on crumbs and crusts tossed from the banquets dumped on other parts of the country with less appetite for them than we have.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Knights of Old had Squires

In days of yore, the chivalrous heroes who dashed around on quests and crusades, rescued suitably wealthy damsels and duked it out for the local earl had little sidekicks who took care of the nuts and bolts, so to speak, of arms and armor. These breastplate-polishers and horse-waterers dealt with the mundane details of the chivalry business. I can only imagine what they said to the knights while performing these vital but unheralded tasks.

"What do you do with this f#%^%$%^ing sword?! Chop f$%^&^%$ing rocks with it? Do you lie in the salty surf in this armor? It wouldn't hurt you to OIL something once in a while!"

In the present day, the knight has been replaced by the athlete. Take cross-country skiers, for instance. Most of the racers pay lip service to the concept of thorough, frequent and meticulous waxing, but the majority of them have used a lot more quickie smear-on crap than they might admit.

These knights need squires. Racers on a well-supported team might get products and services for periods of time, but every one of them has to fall back on their own resources eventually.

Big bike races rely on squads of mechanics who keep the machinery running. Cross-country ski teams rely on wax technicians. Freelance racers have to polish their own bases or live with the consequences. A lucky few manage to get someone else to bring the love.

A couple of days ago my associate in Nordic technical matters undertook the full prep on our own noble knight's two sets of skating skis. Sir Smears-a-lot had been resorting to the wishful-thinking paste a bit frequently of late. He IS a busy man. So squire G put the racing sticks in the lovin' oven for a rebirth of speed. A few hours in the sauna with the base prep wax was followed by an overnight rest. After that Big G laid in a coat of moly-fluoro base wax followed by some XIMS HF6.

Our skating champion paced and fretted for hours as he waited for Big G to finish the meticulous process. It did involve a lot of ironing and scraping. It was worth it, though. The knight came back bursting with enthusiasm. Now squire G has a permanent assignment as Minister of Speed.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Snow, Lies and Ski Reports

Promoters of skiing look for any way they can make conditions sound inviting. At its worst, this means sheer ice referred to as packed powder because that's what it was three weeks ago and big, brown patches of bare ground called "thin cover." But the psychology never stops.

Nordic skiing has always tried to wear the white hat. Reliance on natural snow and small budgets forces a measure of honesty. Cross-country ski centers find creative ways to interpret how many kilometers of trail they have, and refer to a portable toilet as a restroom, but we don't get paid enough to defend claims inflated far beyond that. And of course we describe our snow conditions as charitably as possible.

To keep enthusiasm alive, some operators resort to such entertaining fiction as the Inaccuweather 15-day and hourly forecasts. I suppose some veterans of such a weather-dependent industry as Nordic skiing might believe that a forecast further than three days out has any value at all, but not many. Especially not one who spends summers sailing the New England coast. But when it's time to spin the ski report, out comes the 15-day fable.

"Snow is mentioned on ten of the next 15 days in the forecast," this expert might say. Let's not say that the probability is 10 or 20 percent and the snow is merely showers or flurries.

I understand how the fervent desire to believe in something like a good, snowy winter, eternal life or the human race living in peaceful, prosperous harmony can cancel out rational intelligence. The rational leader looks for ways to sustain belief in wavering followers. Their lives will be better if they believe. The collection plates will be more full. The truth is as fuzzy as a snow cloud on the horizon. Think of the possibilities, not the likelihood.

It's funny how flakes in the air can add up to so little on the ground. We had two or three days of snow, sometimes falling thickly, and netted perhaps six inches of very compressible fluff. To the north and east, parts of Maine and the adjacent Canadian provinces got the real stuff, measurable in feet.

Snowshoe hiking has largely replaced cross-country skiing for the average tourist. With somewhat shallow snow, those who still ski have the advantage. There's no point to plodding around with something like a couple of cafeteria trays on your feet when you don't need to float over knee- or thigh-deep snow. Meanwhile, we sliders can slither on the compressed snow, provided the surface beneath was fairly smooth.

As for the future, I readily admit I do not know. But it is winter and we could get snow.