X-treme: Roll on the good times

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Rollerskiing started as a means of summer training for cross-country skiers in Scandinavia and Alpine countries. Recently, it has evolved into a sport in its own right, having gained year-round popularity in snow-free countries.

Cross-country skiing is one of the most physically taxing sports in the world. Competitors race across wide, flat plains and up hills - there are no lifts in this sport. Unlike their downhill cousins, cross-country skiers rarely have the luxury of gravity to propel them.

When I meet Christopher Richards and Gerrard Evans at Richmond Park, they're dressed in cycling shorts and T-shirts, offering little indication of what is to come - until they don helmets and pull out two pairs of poles measuring around 5ft in length.

The shaft of the rollerskis is made from rigid aluminium or composites of wood or plastic, with solid rubber wheels. The plate binding crucially allows the heel of the foot to move freely while skiing.

"In the past, summer training for cross-country skiiers involved running or working out in the gym," recalls Richards. "About 25 years ago, someone came up with the idea of rollerskiing, but it didn't catch on for quite a while."

There are two basic types of cross-country skiing. The oldest form resembles a straight-legged running movement, with competitors directing their skis in a straight line over the snow. The second involves moving the skis in a skating-type motion (similar to in-line or ice skating), with poles for propulsion.

"During the 1980s, the idea of skating on skis came about, and then the advantage of training on a rollerskis became more apparent," says Richards.

"Due to modern racing rubber, which has very low rolling resistance, rollerskis have become much faster. Our sticks are much longer than downhill poles because we're using them for propulsion as well as balance."

Evans and Richards are joined by Hugh Pritchard and Andrew Hallett for the training session. The former pair are training to take part in a Masters event in Grindelwald, Switzerland. This week of racing will attract top-class skiers from across the globe for a selection of relays and races up to 50km.

The latter pair are members of the British Biathlon Squad (cross-country skiing and shooting). Most of the team are army-based, and, as the only civilian members, they have to train every day.

Around 7pm, the park is closed to motorists, leaving them a free run with assorted joggers and cyclists. When they move off in formation, their movements don't look very fluid - it seems like hard work as they dig their poles into the asphalt. In addition to the arm movements, speed is obtained through the sideways "skating" motion of the skis.

"It has a nice balletic swing to it, almost like dancing," says Richards. "You need to be reasonably fit and have a decent sense of balance.

"Rollerskiing is very close to the real thing; the big difference is when you fall over at speeds of up to 40mph. Ideally, you need space to stop safely, otherwise you ski onto a bit of grass and do a face-plant.

"You do get the occasional scrape. When you're learning, you tend to fall over quite a bit - what we call `Tarmac rash' - but it's nothing too serious," assures Pritchard.

Skiing fast without any obvious means of stopping quickly requires considerable control and a keen eye. "Sometimes it's wise to ski with a torch on your head," says Pritchard.

Rollerskiing in Richmond Park is close to the real thing in more ways than one: you'll find considerably more roving stags here than in your average alpine country.

Call the English Ski Council for additional information (0121-501 2314)