I expect all of you will be well familiar with skiing, that glamorous sport that involves hurtling from the top to the bottom of a snow-capped mountain, while dressed in an impossibly chic ensemble in all the very latest colours. And then there’s the après-ski, that exclusive mélange of cool parties, warm cocktails, and hot sex. That’s downhill skiing, and cross-country skiing is not at all like that. Cross-country skiing is what Russian snipers wearing white parkas do. [BTW, if a Russian sniper wearing a white parka is on your tail, you will never out run him. You should just sit down and await your fate. I saw a movie about that once.]
Downhill skiing requires a mountain, and, as you know, all mountains have snow on top of them. Mountains are everywhere, so downhill skiing is more or less everywhere … except Florida, because it has no mountains. Cross-country skiing, on the other hand, requires flat terrain and cold snow. Very cold snow. Lots of it. This is why the sport is unknown outside of those places that are under permanent snow coverage for three or more months of the year. Like Russia (with its white parka-clad snipers), Sweden, Norway, and the North Pole. Oh, and Montreal too.
Now, downhill skis are attached rigidly to your ski boots, which in turn grip your feet like a pair of John Gotti’s concrete socks. So your maneuvering is all done by subtle adjustment of your weight on the skis. And so long as you believe that to be the case you won’t need to panic too much. Compared to downhill skis, cross-country skis are much, much longer, and much, much narrower. So balancing on them is much, much more challenging. You attach them only to the toe of your boots. The attachment is not rigid like a downhill ski boot, but floppy, as though someone had tied your big toe to the ski with string. And your heel just sits loose. Also, if you were to fall over, unlike downhill ski boots, they won’t automatically come off. No, they will stay attached to your skis come what may. Nobody has yet found a way to detach a cross-country ski-boot from a cross-country ski.
Real, proper, expert cross-country skiers will head out across the virgin snow pack, clad in Lycra with a backpack strapped on. The purpose of the backpack is unclear, but from a distance it can look like a sniper’s rifle, which is probably the look they are going for. The Lycra, too, is strange, since the temperature is going to freeze their nuts off, but it remains the look of choice. I guess they cycle a lot in the summer, and favor the opportunity to assert bragging rights with their ‘Linford’s lunch-box’. Unfortunately, at 20 degrees below zero, Linford’s lunch-box is quite a bit emptier.
This -20 degree temperature aspect is quite important. The reason is that the snow becomes hard, compact, and quite slippery at this temperature. At warmer, more comfortable temperatures, it will be wet and slushy, and instead of gliding through it your skis will get stuck in it, much like they would in a field of cream cheese. This is not so much of an issue when careening down the side of a mountain, but is much more problematic on the flat. So cross-country skiing is done in Baltic temperatures, where you don’t have to ask if it is Centigrade or Fahrenheit, because they’re not much different.
For recreational cross-country skiing, there are trail parks offering ‘groomed trails’. These comprise pairs of ski-width trenches in the snow which look and function like railway lines. With one ski in each trench, you can shuffle off to wherever the track takes you.
Unlike with downhill skiing, where you hurtle along at ever-increasing speed until you either reach the bottom or hit something, with cross-country skiing you apply a gentle push with your poles, together with a not-too-aggressive push-off with your stationary ski, and you suddenly find yourself gliding smoothly along. You’ll glide for about a foot – maybe two if you’re real good – but will then come to a halt and will have to start off again. Real experts can time the push-off of one stride with the stop of the previous stride’s glide. It’s a lot like walking, only slower, and with many more opportunities to fall over.
The train-track metaphor is a good one (or it could be a good simile, I’m never entirely sure), because, as with a train, you cannot actually steer a pair of cross-country skis. They only go where the track goes. So, if the track goes round a bend, you go round a bend. The only real problem is when you come to a junction, because cross-country ski trails don’t have ‘points’ as such to switch you from one track to the next. You just have to hope both skis take the same fork, otherwise you’ve got a bit of a problem.
Speaking of falling over, this is something that cross-country skiers must never do. The reason is not at all obvious. Sure it seems pretty much self evident that it must be exceedingly difficult getting up again with two 6ft-long slippery poles attached to your big toes – and it most certainly is. But that is not the reason. The reason is that in minus twenty degree temperatures, and dressed in Lycra, your butt-crack freezes over and you can no longer bend over. So if you should fall, you will keel over like a mythological Greek adventurer staring into the face of the Medusa, and freeze to death where you land. Perhaps your arms will drop off, Botticelli-style. In any case, you’ll remain there until the spring thaw, when someone will pop over and collect the bits. So don’t – just don’t – fall over.
I might have implied that cross-country skiing takes place on flat terrain, but you would be mistaken. There are hills and valleys in cross-country ski parks, just like in any other park. The hills are impossible to climb. Every smooth glide forward, comes with an equally smooth glide backwards again. The solution to this conundrum is to apply the exact correct grade of wax to the base of your skis, which provides the grip necessary to ascend. Trouble is, there are different waxes for every different snow condition that you are likely to encounter, and you can be sure that you will be find out that you have applied the wrong wax to your skis. This can be a cause of great anxiety at the start of every skiing session, as you agonize over which of the 175 available waxes is the correct wax for the conditions. But it really doesn’t matter, because the right wax, even if you manage to identify it and apply it, will wear completely off within the first 20 minutes, and there will be none left by the time you actually need it.
So the only way to ascend the hill is to adopt a grossly duck-footed stance, with your feet (attached, let’s not forget, to 6ft-long wooden poles) in the ten-minutes-to-two position. Adopting this posture, you can work your way up the hill in 3-inch increments. Providing, of course, you don’t tear one of the dozens of tendons involved in this maneuver which, for reasons God himself only knows, are affixed right behind your private parts. Even if you make it to the top of the hill, you will arrive exhausted.
But what goes up must come down. And at the end of every uphill section comes a downhill section. This is where you learn that those gentle glides you initiate with a casual push on the pole don’t always come to a grinding halt 12 inches further down the track. No, with a bit of a slope to help, the glide will continue a little bit further. In fact, it will gain speed, and will do so relentlessly. At this point, you would doubtless find yourself reflecting on something you had probably picked up on earlier, but had not bothered to think too deeply about, because there hadn’t been much cause to do so: There is no way to slow down on cross-country skis. Nope. None. You just keep going, faster and faster.
This a particularly troublesome issue because of one of the immutable rules of the cross-country ski trail: At the bottom of every hill is a bend. Now, bends are not a problem, you will recall, because, like a train on a railway line, the skis just follow the track. And that would be true, if not for the fact that, like with trains on a track, it only applies up to a certain speed. If this speed is exceeded, all bets are off. And at the bottom of every hill, just as you reach the bend, this speed is most assuredly being handsomely exceeded. So why, you might ask, do they always put a bend at the bottom of every hill? And the answer is simple. It is to avoid that ****ing big tree that you would slam into if you were to go straight on.
So at last, your cross-country endurance marathon is almost over. You have managed to avoid falling over. You have successfully negotiated the bend at the bottom of the hill, and have even climbed the other side without doing irreparable damage to your marital prospects. All you need to do is complete the last quarter-mile section which, although squirrely, has at least none of the major hazards which are now behind you. Your quads, thighs, calves, groin and glutes are all ready to throw in the towel. Even so, all you have to do is keep your skis in the tracks for five more minutes and all should be well.
But no. All of the skiers who have come before you have also had quads, thighs, calves, groin and glutes which have thrown in the towel, and in the process of dragging themselves to the finish line they have managed to totally obliterate what was left of the groomed trail, of which there is now no sign whatsoever. So as you approach that gentle downhill S-bend, knowing that all you need to do is focus on keeping your skis inside the tracks that lead home, and let your speed and momentum do the rest, it comes as something of a shock to observe that the groomed tracks have all been ground away to nothing, and that each of your skis is now accelerating in whatever direction they have a mind to head in. One ski wants to go left. The other wants to go right. And in between is a ***ing big tree.