Double Poling and the Future of Classic Skiing

Poltaranin double-poling to victory in Toblach. Image by Fischer/Nordic Focus, and stolen from Fasterskier.

Poltaranin double-poling to victory in Toblach. Image by Fischer/Nordic Focus, and stolen from Fasterskier.

Six or seven years ago many of the top World Cup sprinters started double-poling sprint courses that had previously seemed implausibly difficult for double-poling. People predicted that the end of classic skiing as we know it was near. Around the same time the top long-distance skiers started double-poling more and more classic marathons. People predicted that the end of classic skiing as we know it was near. Last season a handful of World Cup guys double-poled World Cup classic races in Davos and Toblach with mixed success, but including a win by Alexei Poltaranin in Toblach, and other podiums. Again, people are predicting that the end of classic skiing as we know it is near.

I’ll come right out and say it: I don’t think that the end of classic skiing as we know it is near. There is simply too much valuable fiber mass in the legs to ignore. The amount of strength and specific training that it takes for the top athletes to be able to tap-out their central system capacity (Max VO2) in double-poling is extreme. Already, we’ve seen a return to more striding among World Cup sprinters – even on many of the same courses that looked like double-pole courses a few years ago.

What is very clear is that upper body power and the speed component of classic skiing is a big deal. With sufficient upper body power, faster skis become very enticing, and giving up kick becomes a course-dependent consideration. I think that classic racers in all disciplines from sprint to marathon, and at all levels from World Cup to citizen racers, can benefit from a focus on building better upper body capacity, and on optimizing speed in their classic ski selection and preparation.

Many of you will recognize these as unoriginal ideas. We’ve focused on double-pole capacity for a long time. It was almost 20 years ago that guys like Kris and Justin Freeman were junior skiers getting tested on the treadmill at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, and contributing to a data set accumulated by Dr Ken Rundell that showed that the single best predictor for success in cross country racing was time to exhaustion in a progressive double-pole test. And during the 1998 Nagano Olympics Bjorn Daehlie (who won the 10km classic) talked about the importance of preparing to be able to ski on “slick” skis in order to be able to win. But even if strong arms and fast skis aren’t new ideas, then I think they’re worth revisiting before we all rush to the dump with our kick waxes!

This year, for the first time, we’ve had customers asking us about double-poling skis for long distance racing. From the service perspective it’s really worth considering which skis will be the best to choose for a double-pole-specific application. It’s certainly something that the ski companies have their eye on, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see specific double-pole skis emerge for a certain level of long-distance-focused racers. At any rate, it’s worth reviewing what kind of skis the top guys are choosing for these feats of double-poling prowess!

In last year’s World Cup the success of a number of top racers who went without kick wax in Davos and Toblach came on skate skis. Skate skis (and boots) have also usually been the call for World Cup sprinters who decide to go without kick wax. In long-distance racing, on the other hand, the overwhelming tendency is for the top guys to go on classic skis. But within that group, there have been some racers who have gone for very stiff and high camber classic skis, and some who have gone toward the other extreme, with very soft and low camber skis. It begs the question – who’s got the right idea?

I believe that a lot of this is course dependent. I think that in general, classic skis will provide the best double-poling performance at average double-poling speeds. But that’s not to say that the World Cup guys are being dumb to choose skate skis. World Cup courses tend to have a lot of vertical (at least compared to marathons), and the downhills are generally fast and often technical. The decision to go without kick wax is strong bet on downhill speed outweighing the inevitable disadvantage of double-poling uphill. My guess is that the skate ski choice is made with an eye on aggressive descending, and accelerating through corners (using the turning technique known otherwise as “skating”). In long distance racing the courses are usually less technical, and the ups and downs are more gradual. Optimizing speed and performance for something closer to average race speed than peak descending speed makes a lot of sense. Control and edging are much smaller issues in a marathon setting than in a World Cup setting. For the customers we work with who are looking at double-poling marathons, we’ve suggested taking cues from the long-distance crowd, and going with classic skis.

Chris Klebl headed for gold in Sochi (Photo: Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee) - stolen from Fasterskier.

Chris Klebl headed for gold in Sochi (Photo: Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee) – stolen from Fasterskier.

Back around 2005 I started working with Chris Klebl, an adaptive athlete who has since won an Olympic gold in his sit-ski in Sochi. Chris was just getting into the sport, and was looking for help with skis, so we started looking at the way his sit-ski would load his skis, and what sort of skis would offer the best performance. Over several years, we tried a lot of different ideas. A big part of the equation was control, but in Chris’s case control meant the ability to get in and out of the track, and to turn the sit ski in corners. We ended up seeing a handful of different solutions that worked in different conditions, but the majority favorite were a couple of pairs of very soft Fischer 902 ski, with flex values right near the bottom of the range of what was available. Not only did the soft tip and tail profile give Chris more maneuverability, but the speed on those skis was generally really good. I thought of that project with Chris when we started looking at double-pole skis, and it made sense to me that there would be a parallel. After all, Chris has been double-poling tough courses all along!

As we look at the direction things are going in long distance racing, I get the sense that we’ll see the softer and lower skis win-out over the stiffer and higher camber skis. And if we see companies start to develop double-pole specific skis, I think we’ll see some pretty low cambers. If kick isn’t an issue, there might be good reason to strengthen the bridge stiffness a bit. But I’d be surprised to see really high cambers win out for a variety of reasons that I won’t bore you with.

I grew up classic skiing. I LIKE classic skiing. I will keep on classic skiing.

I grew up classic skiing. I LIKE classic skiing. I will keep on classic skiing.

You might well ask where that leaves those of us who like classic skiing the way it has been! Well, I’m not throwing away my kick wax anytime too soon. As soon as double-poling becomes prevalent at the high end, I think there will be a big opportunity for somebody to come in and upset the apple cart by using kick wax, and employing the major muscle groups in their legs to better effect! I can hardly wait to help some enterprising strider snipe a major victory from the double-polers. But I don’t think it’ll come to that. Classic striding will be around for a while yet. But I think techniques and materials will need to evolve to favor more speed at the top levels.

The important lessons for all of us, whether we’re forward-looking elite racers, or competitive masters marathoners, are simple:

Work on your double-pole! Watch some high level long distance racing – you can see full coverage of all the Ski Classics marathons at http://www.vismaskiclassics.com/. You’ll see that these guys put a lot of body weight onto the poles in their double-pole technique, and that the legs end up doing a fair amount of work (in fact), hoisting the body mass up and over the poles. Review the timing, and the range of motion of the arms. When you can double-pole with your body mass, and a relatively high hand position, you’ll be gaining time.

Bob Gray on the podium at the Masters World Cup. Fast skis, strong arms.

Bob Gray on the podium at the Masters World Cup. Fast skis, strong arms.

Practice skiing on “lean” skis. Take Bjorn’s advice from 1998, and figure out how to stay relaxed and effective on slick skis. When you have the confidence to go for speed in your classic ski set-up, you’re setting yourself up for success. You don’t have to be a young elite athlete to find success with speed prioritized over kick. You can also be a gnarly old elite; just ask Bob Gray who sniped a medal at Masters World Cup in Russia last year against a stacked field, by making the last minute call to go with super-fast wax and almost no kick!

Evaluate your classic skis and wax for speed. There is a really strong tendency when we’re talking about classic ski preparation to declare that a given solution “works”, or even “works great!” Example: “Rode multigrade violet works great! That stuff always works great!” Generally the statement that something “works” means that you can kick. Consider holding yourself to a more ambitious standard. I can tell you that most of the time we’re looking for optimal speed when we test classic wax and skis. If you need some ideas for getting more speed out of your classic set-up, get in touch. We’ve got ideas. More importantly, we’ve got a ton of really fast skis and wax to sell you. That was the point all along, in case you didn’t pick up on it.

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