Cross-country skiing is a sport of paradoxes. This is supposed to be the winter outlet for ``gorp'' eaters, right? Simple, back to nature, rally round the campfire, and let the downhillers debate who's got the most dollars in their skis and pad in their pants. Wrong! The most eye-opening technological breakthroughs in recent years have come not in Alpine but in cross-country skiing. The world's fastest cross-country skiers now skate instead of stride, and there's an entire new brace of skis to accommodate them.
Telemark skiers, those incredible athletes you see kneeling their way down the steepest of slopes on free-heel Nordic gear, are undergoing a mini-revolution of their own. In the space of a few years they have mirrored the long evolution in Alpine equipment: from wooden skis and supple leather boots to plastic. One top telemark racer even devised a homemade rig that has a leather boot protruding out of an alpine plastic boot shell. He gets heel-lifting flexibility from the leather boot (which is clamped onto a Nordic three-pin binding), and control from the torsional rigidity of the Alpine boot shell. He also gets a lot of flak from the purists.
Debate is now raging, in fact, over implications in some of the latest ``breakthroughs.'' Is it in the best interests of cross-country skiing not to coach young racers in the classic diagonal stride, which is, after all, what most cross-country skiers learn and enjoy? And is the only fitting limit on the ancient sport of telemark skiing merely that of a free heel?
While the elite skiers debate, the ``revolution'' in Nordic technology continues. A few years ago, Salomon introduced the integrated boot and binding system. Like most of progress, it seems ingeniously simple. A metal loop on the end of a boot slips over a peg on the binding and allows greater freedom to stretch out, while better boot construction and integration with the binding provide more control. The innovation was so successful there are now at least nine licensees with versions of the system.
Meanwhile, the average weekend tourer slogs along, blissfully unaware of the technological wars being fought over his and her allegiance. The top seller among all cross-country boots and bindings remains the trustworthy old 75-mm boot and three-pin binding.
But that will change, according to Ski Business magazine, as manufacturers increasingly retire old equipment for new. Reasearch is under way on three-part systems (integrated skis, boots, and bindings), expected to be aimed at the low-price market within five years.
These will probably be waxless, since that is the kind of ski most of us now use. Companies hope to come up with newer bases that will glide better over a broader range of snow conditions. New concepts may surface as early as next season.
And this is the sport that once required torching your wax base into your old hickories! Some gorp, anyone? World Cup update
The homestretch US leg of the ``White Circus'' begins this weekend, with the men racing a downhill and super-giant slalom at Aspen, Colo., and the women doing the same at the 1988 Olympic site, Mt. Allan, Alberta. Then next week, the women come to Vail, Colo., where the World Cup downhill and super-G titles will be decided, if they weren't in Canada.
The men have one more slalom at the finals in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (March 20-22), but the women's World Cup slalom is history. Four out of the five top finishers are Swiss, including slalom champion Corinne Schmidhauser. She won the final race (as she did the opener last November), leaving American Tamara McKinney second in the standings.
McKinney led the field in January, but had a hard time finishing races in February. Ski team officials cite as reasons travel fatigue and the pressure from being alone at the top among her teammates, a high-visibility position with which McKinney has historically had trouble. (She has won more than half of all US World Cup points this winter.) Nevertheless, everyone seems delighted with her big comeback (including a bronze in the combined at the world championships) after last year's poor season. There is hope the rest of the team will follow suit. A tip for smoother movement
Here's one I like from Jimmy Ackerson, an instructor examiner, in the Professional Ski Teacher Newsletter. On a gentle slope, imagine your body only a skeleton. Start making medium turns, never putting your skeleton in a situation where something might stress or break limb or joint. This should allow a slow but smooth and flowing run. ``Then turn up the volume knobs on your muscular activity one click, being careful not to turn up the knobs too many clicks.'' With each click you'll find yourself moving more dynamically, with less severe angles and vertical movement. ``You'll be doing not too much, not too little, but just enough.''