The Positive and Negative Impact
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.