Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Dependent Users on Snow

Fumbling to find that perfect classical stride I pondered how perfect classical skiing and all skate skiing depend completely on a prepared trail.

Thousands of years ago, when skiing was transportation, regularly used trails would develop a firm surface from the passage of many skiers. Natural changes to snow can also provide firmer footing at times. But a skier had to be ready to break trail if they took a route less traveled or they happened to go out first after a snowfall. Skis provided a way to travel independently.

As skiing spread around the world in the 20th Century and became more of a game than a necessity, increasing numbers of recreational users had decreasing patience for a surface that wasn't ready for them. In powder country, downhill skiers love the freshies, but cross-country skiers and skiers who have to make do with something less than champagne powder seek out improved surfaces. These are usually provided by expensive equipment driven by  -- hopefully -- skilled operators.

In many places, the snow itself is manufactured using expensive equipment under challenging conditions. While this happens mostly on downhill ski areas, unreliable winters have forced cross-country areas to take it up as well. The cross-country loops with man-made snow are usually short because of the cost in money and effort. Cross-country skiers will pay for a groomed trail, but they won't pay a lot.

Groomed-trail techniques on groomed-trail skis are fantastic fun. And in a pinch you might be able to trudge around on a skinny classical ski to tromp out a track in ungroomed snow. But to get a surface that will support the laboratory-perfect beauty stride you need more than just a couple of wobbly parallel ruts with pole-marks next to them.

Skis and snowshoes, once tools of the intrepid wanderer, are now toys of the vacationer who goes where many have gone before, and who gets nervous when skis or snowshoes sink from sight in soft snow.

New to the list of dependent users are the riders of fat bikes.  Originally conceived as an "expedition bike" that could go over terrain that would stop even a conventional mountain bike, they've seen a surge of popularity as toys for people who don't want to ski in the winter. They also provide an alternative for winters with little snow or such weirdly variable conditions that cross-country skiing becomes impossible, or at least so unreliable that it hardly counts. But a fat bike is an expensive item, even at $800, to keep around "just in case." So the fat bike user is more commonly not a skier. They look for any consolidated surface that will support their wheels, because even a four-inch-wide bike tire can't break trail in deep snow.

The real go-anywhere ski is the archaic, disrespected and discarded traditional-length touring ski about 55 to 60 millimeters wide, even up to 65 or 68. Your hip, modern skiers use short, wide skis  -- 100 to 120 mm -- that require wide bindings and wide boots, but those are so adapted to ungroomed snow that they can't take much advantage of firmer tracks and faster striding when those are available.

Perfect tools for specific conditions make you dependent on those conditions. Buy all that equipment if you like. Just understand the tradeoff.

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