As revolts go, the incident hardly ranks with tossing tea overboard or storming the Bastille.
But when American Bill Koch stepped out of parallel tracks during a 1981 Nordic World Cup race and began skating with his cross-country skis, he helped launched a sport revolution.
Koch argued that skating was more efficient than classic skiing - that it slashed as much as 15 percent off his time - and he proved it in 1982, becoming the only American ever to win the overall Nordic World Cup title.
Today, classic diagonal skiers and “freestyle” skate-skiers coexist peacefully, even if the former do privately resent being passed so often - and seemingly so effortlessly - by the latter.
The two camps compete separately, but their recreational comrades share the same groomed trails at popular skinny-ski hangouts like Mount Spokane, Central Washington’s Methow Valley and at Rossland, British Columbia’s Blackjack trail system.
Fitness Fanatics ski shop owner Robin DeRuwe says her freestyle clients range from pre-teens to one fellow in his 70s.
“Anyone can skate,” she says, “but generally it appeals to people who have been skiing for a while, or are a little more physically fit.”
Jon Quinn-Hurst, coach of the Inland Empire Nordic Club Junior Racing Program, says skate-skiing requires a little more athletic ability than classic skiing, particularly balance.
“And it takes a lot of practice at first, learning to transfer your weight from ski to ski,” says Quinn-Hurst.
But once a skier masters the technique - “which can take as little as three weekends, with a good instructor,” according to Quinn-Hurst - skate-skiing can become a Zen-like experience, enthusiasts say, allowing skiers to enjoy the scenery as they whisk along.
In fact, skate-skiing can become so rhythmic and natural, says Quinn-Hurst, that “top freestyle racers prefer to train skiing classic style, because it requires more effort.”
The efficiency of freestyle skiing is linked to its fluidity. While the classic technique involves stopping one ski and kicking forward with the other, skate-skiers keep their boards in constant motion, transferring their weight from ski to ski.
Different techniques mean different equipment.
The most common classic skis on the trails these days are no-wax models with rough scales in what’s called the “kick zone.” Freestyle skis are smooth, and take glide wax from tip to tail. They have a stiffer camber, and are lighter and shorter than most classic skis.
Freestyle boots are stiffer than most classic boots, too, and the poles are longer, though still light and strong (and expensive).
The cost of a decent freestyle outfit - skis, boots, poles and bindings - start at around $400, more than twice the cost of beginner classic gear. That’s why DeRuwe and others suggest renting or borrowing equipment your first few times out.
Both DeRuwe and Quinn-Hurst strongly recommend beginners take lessons from a certified instructor. Fitness Fanatics and the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department both offer ski-skating instruction, as do destination resorts such as Freestone Inn and Sun Mountain Lodge in the Methow.
Fitness Fanatics’ instruction-and-rental package costs $25 for group lessons, $40 for private. Fitness Fanatics and Mountain Gear rent skate-ski gear for $12 and $15 a day, respectively.
Silver Star Mountain Resort, near Vernon, British Columbia, offers a variety of training camps for recreational skiers at its National Altitude Training Centre.
Next weekend, the Spokane Langlauf Association will sponsor its annual competition on Mount Spokane. Association President Paul Smith predicts about 100 skiers will compete in Saturday’s 7.5. and 15-kilometer “Intergalactic Hyperski Freestyle” events, compared to about 350 in Sunday’s classic Langlauf races.
“For a while we couldn’t get anyone interested in skate-skiing,” says Smith, “but two or three years ago there was kind of a big jump in interest.”
Even so, he estimates the number of local cross-country skiers who skate is still only 15 to 20 percent of the total.
Smith and Quinn-Hurst do both, as does Fitness Fanatics’ DeRuwe.
“There are days when conditions are better for skating,” she points out, “and days when they’re better for diagonal skiing. I do whatever’s best for the conditions.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go Mount Spokane State Park maintains 24 kilometers of groomed track and two warming huts. Skiing is free, but vehicles must display Washington State Snow Park permits. The cost is $20 for the season, $7 for one day. For more information, call 238-4258. The Methow Valley Sport Trail Association maintains nearly 200k of groomed trails in the Winthrop-Mazama area. Day passes are $13, half-day $10, and three-day passes cost $30. For more information, call (509) 996-3287. The Blackjack Cross-Country Ski Association maintains 40k of trails near Rossland, British Columbia. Daily fees are $7 (Canadian) per person, $15 for families. More information is available at (250) 362-5265 or (250) 362-7301. Silver Star Mountain Resort near Vernon, British Columbia, grooms 87k of Nordic track, and offers a variety of training camps beginning in early November. All-inclusive five-day camps cost about $560 (Canadian). For more information, call (800) 663-4431.
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