Striding "n Gliding in the snow
In cross-country, skiing it’s all about grace.
With a ski that is about two-fingers wide and can be balanced on a fingertip and with bindings that resemble paper clips, first-timers are likely to find out what is feels like to fall from grace – repeatedly.
A little, blackdress and a martini glass may make the wearer feel graceful – at least for the first drink.
Wearing what looks like technicolor bowling shoes does not.
But those who have mastered the “diagonal stride,” used in classic, cross-country skiing, are vision of grace and beauty
Sleek and swift, they glide by with barely a whoosh of a sound. Arms swing like pendulums, poles dance and legs alternate in a lazy, long stride.
It looks easy, effortless, elegant.
It doesn’t look all that hard.
That all depends on your balance and your level of comfort with slipping on snow, says Vail Ski School instructor and freelance photographer Peter Fredin, who has been cross-country skiing “for a long time.”
Fredin, a lanky man with a wide smile and a patient way of speaking, sees a lot of snow-newcomers on the Nordic track out on the Vail Golf Course.
Cross-country skiing, he says, is often perceived as the least intimidating of snow sports involving skis.
“If you can walk, you can snowshoe,” he says. “A lot of people try cross-country skiing, because they don’t like or fear alpine skiing.”
As with anything, cross-country skiing can be whatever the doer wants to make of it.
It can be a nice workout – going at a moderate clip for an hours burns as much as 130 calories per hour or almost twice as much as just walking.
Or a whooper of a workout – biathlon competitors expend as much as 600 calories for every hour they speed skate on the snow.
Or it can be a leisurely activity, a sort of meditation, done out in nature, where finding the right rhythm comes with repetition.
Cross-country skiing’s origins hark back to Scandinavia, where snow and sliding has been a way of life since the ice ages. According to historical depictions, peasants in Norway, Sweden and Iceland made their way through snowy fields on thin planks and ropes for bindings as early as the 15th Century. Ifsnow sports were related, cross-country skiing would be the great-grandfather of alpine skiing, the grandfather of telemark skiing and you’d call snowshoeing a son.
Nowadays, cross-country skiing is popular with a wide segment of people who like getting out on the snow.
“We see everything from athletes looking to add a twist to their winter routines to recreational skiers, who just want to get out there,” says Kathryn Middleton of the Vail Nordic Center located in the golf clubhouse.
Skate skiing – a trendy and more aerobic version of cross-country skiing – is attracting lots of young locals, she says, but overall “we see people of all ages.”
The shop, which sports sleek and stylish attire, rents and sells cross-country skis for every size – even for children who just recently gave up thumb-sucking and toddling.
Five-year-old Christopher from Wisconsin, who is vacationing in Vail with his parents, Sondra and Jon Beck, is a veteran at cross-country skiing.
His skis are tiny, but the smile he offers when asked if he likes cross-country skiing is huge.
The nod that goes with it is equally vigorous.
“We’ve always cross-country skied,” says Jon Beck. “And he is just along for the ride.”
As they set out on the 17-kilometer track, the Becks are very matter of fact about the activity upon which they are about to embark.
“It’s something we do to relax and spend time together. We don’t go very fast. We talk a lot,” says Sondra Beck, while helping her son click into his bindings. He shuffles off showing off good form and utter disregard for the fact that his jacket is still unzipped.
Back at the shop, Karen and Rollo Everett are shopping for boots. Like the Becks, they’ve been cross-country skiing since their children were small.
“What’s the difference between eight and 34,” asks Karen Everett, in an effort to figure out how long the family has been on the cross-country skiing track by the difference in age of one of her children.
“Well being from Illinois, there aren’t any mountains,” says Rollo Everett, 62, when asked why they took up cross-country skiing.
“We like to exercise and it feels safe,” he says, while his wife explains, that though they have given alpine skiing a try, they wouldn’t venture out on the mountain without a ski instructor.
The beginner is well served by venturing out onto the track with a ski instructor as well.
What looks like walking on skis, isn’t quite that simple.
Executing the “diagonal stride” takes a bit or coordination, a sense for timing and a good measure of balance.
Middleton, who cross-country skis herself, says it is a great exercise to learn balance, “and it helps with all the other snow sports.”
Being an advanced alpine skier definitely helps, says Fredin, while going through the roughly one-hour routine he uses to impart the basics of cross-country skiing to the complete novice.
“People who have never been on skis take a little longer,” he says.
The big surprise is that gliding and kicking – the motion executed with legs and feet – isn’t as fluid from the start as envisioned.
Despite the the pre-formed track leaving little room for impromptu acrobatics, the whole motion feels wobbly – very wobbly.
Luckily, Fredin knows a great way for getting up – falling isn’t a rare occurrence during the first dozen strides.
“Here is what you do,” he instructs and demonstrates at the same time.
The move – unnamed as of yet – involves rolling from the side back onto your back. Bringing the skis parallel to the body, one continues rolling onto the stomach and then simple gets up on one knee and then both.
It’s easier than it sounds and the most important move to master in the first half-hour on the track.
Other moves taught for the basic cross-country skiing repertoire include several forms of “ascender” and “descender” – techniques to survive a downhill stretch and, likewise, not to avoid death from exhaustion on an uphill stretch.
There is the “half-herring,” where one foot comes out of the track and pushes its wearer uphill in a one-sided waddle. Or the “full herring” executed with both feet after stepping out of the track onto the wider skate-skiing track. To descend, Fredin recommends removing hands from pole straps to avoid injury. “Feathering” these edgeless weightless skis to the side, a plow is gently formed to break the speed just so. To keep from being hurtled down a hill, Fredin advised beginners to lower their body and hold the poles like one would hold a lunch tray.
While the terrain is mostly flat, even the slightest bump in the serene landscape is terrifying to the beginner.
With nothing for traction other than a roughed up “kicker” area right under the binding area, descending is much like sliding down an icy walkway in slippers. Ascending is easier said than done, with skis that grab little and edges that aren’t made for carving.
But that’s where the challenge comes in and the calories go out. After about an hour of instructions, even the most uncoordinated of beginners is ready to go out for a loop, says Fredin.
“Some people take a little bit longer, but with all these moves it just takes about mileage to become more comfortable,” he says.
Speed is a matter of taste. Grace can be acquired.
Geraldine Haldner can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at firstname.lastname@example.org