To skate or to classic? For me, that's often the question of the day from December through March. Ideally, I typically split my skiing time equally between both techniques and the 50/50 split has been made much easier by the PistenBully grooming we've been fortunate enough to have the past two winters. In the past when we were limited to snowmobile grooming we could only set track in soft conditions. With the PistenBully we aren't as constrained by conditions, plus the track that is set lasts longer and can take more abuse from skiers and the weather. Consequently, my choice is no longer dictated by whether or not we even have a viable classic track.
When skating became popular in the late '80's and early '90's it was the focus for pretty much everyone who was interested in racing. Races turned skate-oriented and often didn't even have a classic track, or if there was a classic track it was used for passing and for downhills. I was right there with everyone else and had no interest at all in skiing classic. Skating was faster, seemed more dynamic and fun, while classic had become old school and boring.
But, in the last ten years or so I've changed my tune and rediscovered the joys of skiing classic while still indulging in the speed of skating. Interestingly, the demand for skate clinics far exceeds that of classic. Yet, in the actual skate clinics, it's readily apparent that a good percentage of the students will never pursue skating seriously enough to ever become proficient at it.
Why is that? I'm convinced that the biggest obstacle to most novice skate skiers is physical conditioning. Many wannabe skaters underestimate the demands that skating will place on their bodies, particularly when they are developing their technique and learning to become efficient. Skating requires a much higher level of strength and aerobic conditioning than classic skiing and that's especially true when an out of shape beginner is flailing up a hill with a V1 that just isn't coming together. Even a long, very gradual upslope that appears unthreatening can grind your morale to dust if you're unable to pace yourself because the technique and fitness aren't quite there.
Classic, on the other hand, can be performed by simply placing one foot in front of the other as fast or as slow as you want. Sure, to become faster and more efficient at classic requires a lot more skill and finesse than simply walking down the trail, but if your goal is to get outside and get some fresh air and exercise on snow, then you can get the job done. This is what's commonly known as shuffling, and we get our fair share of shufflers in Seeley. There is no equivalent to shuffling in skating. Classic shufflers can still enjoy themselves. Skating "shufflers" I would have to describe as suffering. That isn't to say it's impossible to skate slowly, but it's a hell of a lot more fun if your technique is refined and your fitness level is reasonably good.
The new Seeley Lake Nordic Club board out for a team building shuffle.
Over the last ten years I've reverted more and more to classic skiing, and like I said, these days my goal is a 50/50 split between the two techniques. Sometimes my choice is weather dependent. If the overnight temps have fallen well below zero I'm getting my classic skis out. There's a couple of reasons for that. The first is that the snow in the skate lane will be the texture of sandpaper and the probability of good glide is slim to none. The classic track, on the other hand, is going to be packed harder and is going to be faster. That realization came to me on a super cold day about 25 years ago when I was working my tail off skating up Whitetail Hill and a good classic skier cruised by effortlessly in the classic track. That was a soul-crushing eye-opener. The second reason I like classic when it's cold is because my circulation ain't what it was 30 years ago and when I'm skating in single digit temperatures my hands are blocks of ice. With classic there's that nice arm swing that drives warm blood into your fingers with each stride.
I like skiing classic when there's been a big dump of fresh snow. Even with the PistenBully the skating lane can sometimes be super soft while the classic track is firmly packed. There's nothing more satisfying than the right kick wax on fresh snow in a solid track.
Classic can be as fast-paced or as relaxed as you make it. If I've had a big skate ski the day before, classic is a great way to use slightly different muscles, dial back the intensity and get in a good recovery workout. If I want to enjoy several hours of skiing I'm also more likely to ski classic. LIke it or not, I'm having to face the reality that the golden days of youth are way in the rearview mirror and unless there is an afterlife that looks a lot like this one, those days aren't coming back. But, I still love to get out and ski nonstop for 3 or 4 hours. Skiing classic gets that done without feeling the overwhelming need for a 90 minute nap when I get home.
So, when do I skate? There's nothing better than skating when the snow is fresh and packed firm, when it's granular and lightning fast, or when we've got that slight corn glaze that makes you feel like a super hero. Nothing is more satisfying than the sensation of flying when you're free skating in fast, forgiving snow.
I skate three times a week with the kids that I coach. We skate exclusively for a variety of reasons, (one of which is kid-management) and they love it. They want to go fast, they want to be dynamic, they're young and bullet-proof, so skating suits them well. Most coaching days I'll get in about 10k before the kids show up and I generally skate it so I don't have to deal with changing gear before they arrive. That helps take some of my edge off which makes me more prepared for wrangling a bunch of 10-12 year-olds.
Skate or classic? It's a matter of personal preference. I've rediscovered the joy of classic and the challenge of mastering the little subtleties of doing it well. But, I still love the power and speed of skating and won't give it up.