Cross Country Skiing

Ever since man strapped on longboards, the activity known as skee or shee has been divided between a mode of transport and a recreational activity. While whizzing down snow covered hills was admittedly more fun, ancient Norsemen found that they could traverse broad snowfields quickly by gliding on long, treated pieces of wood. For centuries the same boards served both as transport and sport. But as technology advanced, it was determined that wider boards provided somewhat more control for downhill skiing, while a longer, skinny board provided less resistance when gliding across a flat snowfield. Slowly but surely, the two sports branched apart. By 1950 it was easy to discern between the two; the cross-country skier looked more like a sleek track athlete with knee socks. His heels were free, enabling him to "kick" his long skis forward.

Today's skiing enthusiasts are slowly bringing the sports back together. Cross-country enthusiasts are no longer content to glide peacefully along, they're embracing a shorter "shaped" ski and the art of backcountry skiing. Many even ride lifts at downhill resorts and disappear into the woods. At the same time, many downhill skiers are no longer content to simply carve down meticulously groomed trails. They're using "telemark" technique, and even tramping uphill on free heel skis with slip on traction aids called "skins." So in a way, the divided family tree is grafting its branches together in new, unexpected ways.

The point of all this is that Cross-Country Skiing is growing, changing, evolving. So whatever is reported on this webpage could indeed be "old news" even as it is being published. Please bear this in mind as you use this site.

The Allure of Cross-Country

Ask most downhill skiers about cross-country and they'll likely give you a perplexed look. "The lift takes me to the top of the mountain, I glide down at exciting speeds...why would I want to walk around on skis?"

To answer that question, let's start with all the things you won't get with cross-country.

First off, you probably won't have to travel far. While your downhill counterparts are driving to a distant resort, you need only travel to the nearest field, park or public pathway. Secondly, you needn't wait for conditions to be perfect, or for snowmaking equipment to ensure sufficient cover. In many cases, a community baseball field with a mere 3" of snow is all you need. You don't need a pricey lift ticket, which often entitles you to wait in line. You won't have to park miles from the base lodge, relying on resort busing to ferry you to the slopes. And last but not least, you needn't be concerned about reckless, out-of-control skiers and snowboarders threatening your safety.

Of course, Cross Country is not limited to back yards and ball fields. Many skiers prefer the structure and perceived safety of an organized, groomed, ticketed trail system. Skiing as an activity is known for the ambiance and camraderie of the "base lodge" scene, and certainly X-C is no different. But while the base lodge at a downhill ski resort may be about beer and rock bands, X-C does tend to be more about herbal tea and meaningful conversation.

Competition

Olympic competition includes pure skiing events, combined events (skiing and jumping), and biathlon events (skiing and marksmanship).

In addition to the Olympics, the biannual Nordic World Championships are the ultimate competition. This is held in various locations around the world, as determined by a governing body. 2007 will be held in Sapporo Japan, and 2009 is slated for the town of Liberec in the Czech Republic. The competition was held once in the USA, Lake Placid NY in 1950. The only U.S. skier to win a medal of any kind was Vermont native Bill Koch, who garnered a bronze in the 1982 30K in Oslo, Norawy. The 30K event was discontinued after 2003. Current Nordic World Championship men's events include 15 km race, Double Pursuit, Sprint, Team Sprint, 4 x 10 km Relay, and 50 km. Women's events include 10 km race, Double Pursuit, Sprint, Team Sprint, 4(3) x 5 km Relay, and 30 km. Men used to compete in 10, 18 & 30 km events, and women formerly competed in 15 & 20 km events, all of which are no longer held at the world level.

An annual prize, the Nordic World Cup, is based on points collected from a series of weekly events held around the world. Bill Koch took first place overall in 1981-82, and third in 1982-83. While these finishes made Koch a household name in other parts of the world, the Nordic World Cup is little known in the USA. It's unfortunate that Koch made his meteoric rise on the World Cup stage at the same time American Phil Mahre was dominating alpine World Cup with three consecutive championships.

In addition to these, other long-running events are extremely presitigious in the Cross Country ski community. Sweden's Vasaloppet is the longest-running long distance event, a 90 km marathon held annually in Dalecarlia, Sweden, on the first Sunday of March. Norway's Birkebeiner might be a little more well-known, and spawned a similarly-named event in Wisconsin decades ago.

Participating in this Sport

There are three main styles of cross-country skiing.

Classic style is the oldest, best-known technique. If you picture someone skiing upright, smiling, skis kicking along straight in a track, that's classic. It's also known as old school, although that tends to refer more to ski type than anything else. It is the easiest to learn, but not easy to perfect. Classic style is easiest in a grooved track, although it can be employed on groomed and ungroomed surfaces as well.

Skate style is an outgrowth of racing. The purpose-skate ski is very narrow at the front, and generally equipped with "Pilot" type bindings. The skate skier uses the narrow tips of the skis to slice across the trail and propel along rapidly, much like a pair of giant hockey skates. Skate skiing is more difficult for the novice to learn, but much easier to "master" than classic style. It is generally done on groomed surfaces, and not an appropriate style for tracked trails.

Backcountry style is sort of a catch-all term for anything that doesn't fit the two above. The skier might "skate" on a groomed surface, do telemark turns going downhill, and classic style elsewhere. Where a classic skier is likely to sidestep up a steep hill, the backcountry skier will strap on non-slipping "skins" to the bottoms of the skis and ski straight up the hill.

Skis, Bindings & Boots

Until the 1950s, most recreational cross-country skis were difficult to discern from alpine skis. Prior to that time, people didn't distinguish between the two sports very much. Ski lifts were at exotic places like Cannon NH and Sun Valley ID, and they were mostly conveniences for the wealthy so that they could enjoy the segment of the sport aided by gravity. Most recreational skiers tromped up a hill, across a meadow, down a hill somewhere, and so on. It wasn't unusual for older ski trails, such as the Nose Dive at Stowe, VT, to have an uphill segment. Skiing was skiing. As rope tows and other lifts proliferated in the 1940s, people began to lose their enthusiasm for the uphill stuff. The sport more or less divided, and sport-specific skis were introduced.

Mainly as an outgrowth of racing, cross-country skis went the opposite direction of their downhill brethren. Skis became markedly narrower, boots less constricting. By the early 1960s the lines were clearly drawn; alpine skiers had wide skis with hard boots firmly "bound" to the ski, while cross-country skiers had lightweight boots -- even shoes -- attached only at the toe. The downhill ski evolved shorter and wider, while the XC became long and skinny. The three-pin binding system dominated the sport for years. Skis that once required a special "gripping" wax underfoot, with "sliding" wax on the ends, evolved to "waxless" designs. With the advent of skate skiing, XC skis began to get shorter. Today's "classic" XC ski has gotten quite short; the average adult male skis on 180s versus the 210s of the late 1970s. With the exception of the skate type, modern XC skis are substantially wider than they were just a few short years ago.

Bindings The three-pin binding is still widely used, but this is mainly due to the large number of skiers who simply don't feel compelled to upgrade their equipment. The newer "NNN" and "SNS" type bindings are an improvement, are easier to use, etc., but if the skier enjoys the old style, more power to 'em. You can bet they're having fun if they've used that same equipment for so many years.

If you're new to the sport, what type of binding should you have? Well, it's all a matter of preference. If you are scouring garage sales for your skis, the old 3-pin type is probably what you'll find. NNN is made by Rottefella, and is the most popular type sold today. The NNN type is the retail and rental standard, and found on XC skis under the brand names Alpina, Rossignol, etc., all of which are Rottefella. SNS is the third type, and generally regarded as a more technically advanced type of binding. The SNS standard is owned by Salomon and is the preferred binding of many XC ski racers. SNS Profil type are a single axis system, while SNS Pilot style have two axes and are used mostly for skate type skiing.

Key Links...

  • FIS World Cup XC Site schedule, info, results and standings for professional competition.
  • Timo's XC Ski Page Here's an enthusiast who freely shares his know-how. Good site.
  • XC Ski World Leading XC website, link goes directly to recreational section of site.
  • XC Ski Areas Site by the XCSSA serves as a directory to hundreds of U.S. and Canadian cross country ski areas, nordic centers, and xc trails. Includes snow reports and information for snowshoers also.




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Masthead photos used by permission:
Ralf Roletschek
Creative Commons
US Army/public domain
Erik Charlton.