SKIERS surge from the starting gates in 30-second intervals, their vigorous skating strides taking them quickly up a distant incline and out of sight. A few knots of shivering spectators cheer them on.
This is top-level collegiate skiing, with 15 schools competing at one in a series of ``carnivals,'' or ski meets, in northern New England. The cross-country competitors skimming along a 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) course at Stowe's Trapp Family Lodge are gripped in a kind of competition TV viewers may only glimpse during the next two weeks of Winter Olympics coverage.
For TV producers, cross country has minimal entertainment value. It is unlikely to get the air time given to spectacles like ski jumping or downhill events. But to winter sports fans, cross-country skiing is a study in pure athletic endeavor. Nothing flashy, just superb conditioning mixed with finely tuned technique.
Losing its rustic image
``The image of the sport is changing,'' says Ruff Patterson, director of skiing at Dartmouth College and a 10-year veteran of the US Ski Team coaching staff. His day at Stowe is spent sprinting, on skis, to outlying points on the course where he shouts encouragement and gives racers their mid-race times.
Cross country is becoming more competitive, Mr. Patterson says. It's losing a rustic tinge as ``just great outdoors exercise.'' He mentions that high-tech materials in skis and poles have quickened the pace of skiers. Not least, he adds, race courses themselves are much more meticulously prepared and faster than in the past.
The race at Stowe this gray, brittle day highlighted another change in the sport. It was a ``freestyle'' contest, with skiers relying on a skating motion, with skis alternately splayed to the side. This allows skiers to move across the packed snow faster than the ``classical'' style, where the skis stay parallel and the skier thrusts each ski forward in turn.
Patterson says that in the early 1980s ``people went crazy in the traditional countries'' when international competitors first started using the skating technique. Eventually, a compromise was struck, he explains, and freestyle races became separate events. To him that made sense, though ``pockets of resistance remain.'' The Olympics include both classical and freestyle events.
The wintry collegiate ``carnivals'' in the East are a training ground for Olympic athletes. The meets date back to the late 19th century, when a group of Dartmouth skiers traveled to Montreal to test their skills against McGill University's athletes.
Over the decades, Eastern skiers - both Alpine and Nordic - have been well represented in the Olympics. Dartmouth has had athletes on every US Olympic ski team since the Winter Games's inaugural in Chamonix, France, in 1924, notes Dave Bradley, a veteran skier in the Upper Connecticut River Valley region that includes Dartmouth. Mr. Bradley was a ski jumper on the 1940 US Olympic team, which never competed because of World War II.
Even with poor snow conditions for most of the last 10 winters, the Upper Valley area has managed to nurture plenty of skiing talent. In communities like Hanover and Lebanon, N.H., and Norwich, Thetford, and Woodstock, Vt., schoolchildren quickly get involved in cross-country and even jumping programs.
`Training group' is key
Mr. Patterson's athletes at Dartmouth come from Alaska, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as northern New England. The coach grew up in Sun Valley, Idaho, in a family of Alpine skiers. He gravitated toward cross-country, he says, partly because his boyhood was rich in ``aerobic'' activities. Mountain climbing and running prepared him for cross-country's training regimen.
Training is the heart of cross-country skiing, Patterson says. To build a winning team, the ``training group'' is everything. Daily workouts begin in summer. Kids who may never make it onto the six-member squads that race at the carnivals can still contribute to the team if they enjoy the training and urge others on, he says.
A former Dartmouth skiing director, John Morton, notes that many cross-country coaches, in order to sustain interest, spice their training with breaks in the routine, such as some time at an Alpine area where the chair lifts do the work. ``A lot of cross-country skiers think it's a great day off to go Alpine skiing,'' he says.
But the dedicated ones learn to love the training, Patterson says. He recalls freshmen being aghast at three-hour runs. Three years later, the students counted those sessions as among their most memorable times on the team.
The development of cross-country skiers of Olympic caliber can pose problems. Mr. Morton points out that athletes in this sport typically reach their peak in their mid-to-late 20s. ``It's very difficult for a graduating senior to race for six more years,'' Patterson says, ``but the sport has always been that way. The people who get good set aside many other things in life to make room for skiing.''
The whole arena of Nordic skiing - which also includes jumping and biathlon (a combination of cross-country and marksmanship) - is evolving quickly in the US. Morton, who is team leader and chief spokesman for the US Olympic biathlon team, says that five ``areas of excellence'' have been established around the country to develop top biathletes. They stretch from Anchorage, Alaska, to Jericho, Vt.
As for jumping, it ceased to be an officially sanctioned intercollegiate sport more than a decade ago. But club and youth-program activity is still strong in the Midwest and East, Patterson says. ``I was really sad to see it go,'' he says of jumping's demise. But he acknowledges the problems of limited participation and liability it presented.