Skate expectations: Head to Norway to master skate-skiing's V-shaped gait
Like many cross-country skiers I have long basked in a feeling of superiority over my downhill rivals. Speed? Pah! Who needs it? It is surely more worthy to go under your own steam. But recently, to my annoyance, I have noticed that I am forever being overtaken by other cross-country skiers. They are practitioners of the modern skate-skiing or "freestyle" technique, whereas I (like most British cross-country skiers) adopt the "classic" technique – my skis kept parallel by grooves cut in the snow.
Skis held in a V-shape, these speed demons fly past me, pushing off from the edge of their stationary ski like ice skaters, while they create the sort of herring-bone patterns in the snow that I only leave when going up a steep hill. This "new" technique has its roots in the Seventies. One of the pioneers, a Finn called Pauli Siitonen, tried it in the middle of a race he thought he had already lost and went on to win. By the late Eighties it was so ubiquitous in cross-country races that they had to be split into two disciplines. The new style soon spread to the amateur sport.
So, more out of envy than curiosity, last April I asked one of Headwater's resident guides in Venabu, Norway, to show me how it was done. Hungarian-born Robert Molnar first kitted me out with freestyle skis. To my untrained eye these appeared indistinguishable from classic skis. However, they are slightly shorter, with no fishscale effect on the bottom to stop you slipping backwards (as you are always pushing off with your skis at near-right angles). They require no waxing either. The poles used are longer, so that you can propel yourself more easily on the flat area either between or to the side of the tram lines reserved for classic skiers.
"As soon as you feel tired just put one ski in a tram line and push with the other," Robert told my group. "Poppycock," I thought. "I've been cross-country skiing for years – how tired can I get?"
Well, my first problem was a lack of co-ordination. Though shorter than classic skis, skate skis are still about 2m long. Lifting each one without catching it on the other, particularly when negotiating the abnormally long poles, was a struggle: I skittered around like a newly born foal, then collapsed in a tangled mess.
But with time the good strokes outnumbered the bad and I built up a rhythm. So much so that I was soon relying too much on my poles. Robert swiftly confiscated them and got me to climb a small hill to show me the power in my own legs – and he did this again, and again, and again.
This far north, they have snow at low levels until early May – and Nordic countries have far better cross-country trails than those in most French Alpine resorts. At one point ventured off-piste across the plateau to see the Dørjuvet canyon, its cliffs half-hidden in the haze of the bright sunshine. (We approached it timidly because its cornices hide 100m vertical drops into the ravine.)
Inevitably, by the time we'd finished skate-skiing, I was exhausted and, sure enough, I limped back with one foot in the tramlines to the rustic Fjellhotell.
On the second morning I was back to my old-style technique, climbing a steep mountain pass to be greeted by a spectacular view across the jagged peaks of the Jotunheimen mountain range. From there, I enjoyed a delicious cruise back into the valley. For downhills – with either technique – you tuck yourself into an egg shape and anticipate the turns by pointing your body in the direction of the course – and you can go very, very fast. Anyone who tells you that cross-country lacks adrenalin rushes has obviously only ever done it in a field.
But I was keen to try skate-skiing again: I asked Robert for a few more tips on how to develop the curiously asymmetrical style for going uphill, as I explored the sheltered, wooded trails to the south of the Fjellhotell.
I am sure that I would benefit from more skate-skiing coaching in the future, but I'm not quite ready to give up the classic technique entirely. It is still the one that racers use for longer distances, such as the 160km Troll Løype race (which passes through Venabu on its way to Lillehammer), as it is less tiring. However, having once vowed that skate-skiing was not for me, I am well and truly hooked.
Why run, when you can fly?
The writer travelled to Venabu, in Gudbrandsdalen, Norway, with Headwater (01606 720199; headwater.com) which offers a week's full-board at the three-star Fjellhotell from £1,039 per person, including return flights, transfers, guided cross country tuition and equipment hire.
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