Masters

The Pos­i­tive and Neg­a­tive Im­pact

SkiTrax - - Contents - by J.D. Down­ing

The 2016-2017 marks a some­what ar­bi­trary an­niver­sary sea­son of sorts in the cross-coun­try world. Roughly 30 ski sea­sons ago, the en­tire cross-coun­try world fully em­braced the con­cept of sep­a­rate com­pet­i­tive Clas­sic and skate tech­niques in our sport.

A year ear­lier, in­ter­na­tional elite racing had largely aban­doned the ob­struc­tions and in­fight­ing of the early skat­ing years to come up with of­fi­cial poli­cies and rules for com­pe­ti­tions in both tech­niques. But in terms of ac­tual grass­roots adop­tion of sep­a­rate tech­niques, 19861987 was ar­guably the sea­son it all came to­gether.

Thirty years is typ­i­cally enough time to eval­u­ate pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive im­pacts of most ma­jor changes in sports. For starters, with two tech­niques, cross-coun­try ski­ing today is clearly more di­ver­si­fied vis­ually and func­tion­ally.

Al­though it's gen­er­ally well known that skat­ing on cross-coun­try skis was per­formed in­for­mally in and out of com­pe­ti­tions long be­fore Bill Koch took it main­stream in the early 1980's, as a youth skier in the 1970's, I can tes­tify that I never once did the kinds of di­ver­si­fied types of ski­ing that youth skiers do today.

Twenty-first-cen­tury recre­ational cross-coun­try ski­ing pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity to go out and en­joy ei­ther tech­nique in the con­di­tions, ter­rain and type of snow that best suit Clas­sic or skat­ing (yes, tech­ni­cally they are “freestyle”). With two tech­niques and new race for­mats to at­tract mass au­di­ences, our sport has been able to buy more years as at least an oc­ca­sional spec­ta­tor sport and ex­tended the run as part of the Olympic fam­ily.

On a func­tional level, the rise of skat­ing on a recre­ational level cre­ated a sec­ond boom in cross-coun­try ski re­sorts world­wide and led to a rapid adop­tion of groom­ing ma­chin­ery orig­i­nally in­tended for alpine re­sorts. The im­prove­ment in terms of groom­ing prod­uct pro­duced by big, heavy, pow­er­ful snow­cats was un­de­ni­able, and is cred­ited by many long-time in­dus­try ex­perts for push­ing cross-coun­try ski­ing out of the “gra­nola age” and into the “main­stream lite.”

The skat­ing boom of the late 1980's and early 1990's also pushed man­u­fac­tur­ers in cre­ative di­rec­tions that have im­proved the over­all func­tion of the gear we use. The big­ger mar­ket that de­vel­oped in the early skat­ing years com­bined with the unique de­mands of skat­ing ver­sus tra­di­tional tech­niques cer­tainly drove the in­dus­try to pro­duce new and some­times ex­cit­ing prod­uct ad­vances.

As men­tioned in pre­vi­ous columns, waxes and ski per­for­mance have also evolved, with a sim­i­larly sig­nif­i­cant push dur­ing the orig­i­nal skat­ing boom. And some would ar­gue, that with waxes, we risk tak­ing the sport be­yond sus­tain­abil­ity in terms of cost, com­plex­ity and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts.

Un­for­tu­nately, high-tech waxes with a dark side aren't the only reality checks that the ad­vent of skat­ing has in­tro­duced or am­pli­fied. As a par­ent of two teenagers and a coach with sev­eral ju­nior pro­grams, I know first­hand how much the gear equa­tion for cross-coun­try fam­i­lies has changed in the past 30 years.

Th­ese days, en­try-level com­pe­ti­tion skiers need to in­stantly come up with two iden­ti­cal sets of skis, poles and boots. This amounts to a 100% in­crease in the amount of gear re­quired, on top of over­all cost-of-pro­duc­tion in­creases just to take part in cross-coun­try racing – not to be ac­tu­ally com­pet­i­tive, which takes a big­ger ski quiver, grinds, high-tech waxes and the knowl­edge base (coaches, techs, etc.) to put ev­ery­thing in mo­tion.

Some Masters read­ers may ask “But I am per­fectly happy just be­ing a one-tech­nique skier, so why can't the youth?” The sim­ple an­swer be­ing that the youth don't have the choices given to Masters. It is al­most im­pos­si­ble to find any struc­tured pro­gram that doesn't man­date both Clas­sic and freestyle racing for youth. Yes, combi-equip­ment is a won­der­ful con­cept, but on a prac­ti­cal level, it is not widely adopted. Yes, you can tech­ni­cally Clas­sic in a freestyle race – but how many peo­ple are go­ing to do that if they don't tech­ni­cally or phys­i­cally have to?

The in­creased buy-in has un­ques­tion­ably had a neg­a­tive im­pact on the com­pet­i­tive side of our sport in grow­ing fur­ther and faster around the world. While we have seen largely steady, if not mildly in­creas­ing, num­bers of recre­ational skiers (both Clas­sic and skate), we've seen a steady de­cline in the num­bers of mo­ti­vated Masters, es­pe­cially un­der the age of 50. Our grass­roots num­bers of youth and ju­nior rac­ers are hold­ing up pretty well, but on a rel­a­tive scale to the num­ber of club and school pro­grams, as a sport we aren't at­tract­ing nearly the num­ber of youth per dol­lar in­vested in ski education as 30 years ago. Then we come to the trails. To those Masters who have only ar­rived to our sport in the past 30 years, you prob­a­bly have only known the su­per­high­ways we have de­vel­oped in the age of skat­ing. But once upon a time, the nar­rower groomed trails with one to two Clas­sic tracks pro­vided a dis­tinctly more in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence. There is a rea­son other than cost why ev­ery winter we see hundreds of thou­sands of North Amer­i­can cross-coun­try skiers de­lib­er­ately choose not to ski at nearby groomed ar­eas and in­stead opt for nar­row skied-in Clas­sic trails. There is a feel­ing of con­nec­tion with the wilder­ness that is ar­guably re­duced on the wide trails that skat­ing re­quires.

More es­o­teric is also the re­duc­tion in the el­e­ment of “play” that comes with the ter­ri­tory th­ese days. In sum, the big flat-prod­uct snow­cats that give us the per­fect choice of both Clas­sic and skate op­tions also take away the fi­nesse and in­tu­itive ar­ray of skill sets that made up our sport prior to the mid-1980's. Not only have the equip­ment, wax and ski trails changed, but as well com­pet­i­tive skiers them­selves have mor­phed into power-based ma­chines. I se­ri­ously doubt if we would have ever seen the non­sense sur­round­ing the new In­ter­na­tional Ski Fed­er­a­tion Clas­sic-pole-length rules if skat­ing had never gone main­stream in cross-coun­try ski­ing.

Ul­ti­mately the ad­vent of sep­a­rate com­pet­i­tive tech­niques has been a mixed bag. Our sport will un­doubt­edly need to con­tinue to ad­just in the decades and years to come as cli­mate change and other global pres­sures put new wrin­kles into the equa­tion.

Nar­rower groomed trails with one to two Clas­sic tracks pro­vided a dis­tinctly more in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence than the su­per­high­ways of today.

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