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.