As our little corner of New Hampshire faces the second horrible winter in a row, we have plenty of time to think about how we can go forward into an uncertain future. Undetermined it may be, but probability favors more wet and warm winters than bountifully snowy and crisply cold ones.
When cross-country skiing reached its height in the early 1980s, skis were all sized the same way, by traditional lengths. Grip patterns were becoming more popular than kick wax for traction. Materials were evolving rapidly to make skis easier to maintain than traditional wooden models had been. Trails only needed to be six or eight feet wide except perhaps on downhill turns. Many touring centers didn't even add leeway there.
Grooming was rudimentary. Because touring centers in snowy regions still expected to get at least a couple of heavy storms, grooming centered more on packing loose snow than grinding up frozen stuff. Tilling equipment for those frozen conditions represented the major investment for touring centers trying to expand their offerings.
The emergence and explosive growth of skate skiing from about the mid 1980s ushered in big changes in trail and equipment design and in grooming needs. As overhead costs for touring centers increased it was harder to run a commercially competitive center without investing in trail widening and grooming machinery. But people still had the money to spend on winter fun and winter still seemed to be delivering its part of the bargain most of the time. Cross-country could still say, "We're a lot cheaper than downhill!"
Cross-country is still cheaper than downhill, but only because downhill is ridiculously expensive. And the industry has done such a good job discrediting traditional size touring skis that consumers are more confused than ever about what to get and where to use it.
Because Fischer started the compact ski craze with the Revolution one-size-fits-all micro skating ski, the compact ski genre started with something ridiculously short. If the compact ski had developed from the other end of the spectrum, slightly shortening awkwardly long skis rather than creating a whole class of awkwardly short ones, skiers might have drifted to a new norm on downsized long skis rather than being fed the attractive but less workable notion that they could get around perfectly well on some dinky waddling board.
The short fat ski is a creature of soft ungroomed snow. It requires a substantial boot and binding to make it work to its full potential.
The short skinny ski is a creature of groomed trails. Skinny is relative. A traditional or near-traditional length touring ski at 60, 62 or 65 millimeters is wide enough to provide flotation in ungroomed snow. A compact ski of those widths is not. Also, the longer ski has more length between tip and grip in which to make the transition from a good turn-initiating front end to a properly supportive kick zone.
The more skis require groomed trails the harder they are for people to use in the casual way they liked when cross-country was popular.
We could save cross-country skiing in this country by rolling back the options to a few simple choices that will really do what the advertising says they will. Make them versatile and make them cheap. People are more likely to buy something on the off chance they get to use it if they don't have to worry about where they'll find the money.
By scaling back the skis, touring center operators can scale back on the costs. Someone could operate a center with smaller trails if they could get grooming equipment that would fit them. Smaller centers could operate on land that might have gone unused in the winter -- certain kinds of cropland, woodlots not currently being harvested, golf courses, parks. With a little imagination, anyone interested in skiing could learn to exploit short-lived snowfalls in many places.
Skating screws up the balance. It's great fun, but it needs that wide, smooth, expensively-prepared trail. There will still be a place for centers that cater to skating, as long as the climate doesn't warm so much that no one can count on operating enough days to cover the overhead.
Ironic that cross-country faces collapse because they tried to broaden their appeal. I'm saying that they just chose the wrong way to do it.