By Teemu Virtanen
Since the new season, the ninth one, is already on and the next event will take place a week from today, Kaiser Maximilian Lauf in Seefeld, Austria, we could travel back in time to the moment when FIS dropped a bomb on us by regulating the length of ski poles. That happened right before the Season VII was getting started and many of us felt that it was a direct attack against double-poling specialists and long distance skiers, yours truly included.
It was a desperate move that didn’t really change anything as Visma Ski Classics pro skiers just continued double-poling as they have always done albeit with shorter poles. But it’s still a bit of hot potato causing some heated arguments for and against, but the truth is that the technique will remain and it is often the fastest way to ski from point A to B. Naturally, Reistadløpet reinstated classic technique in our tour as the course is perhaps the toughest one anyone can find in long distance skiing anywhere in the world.
Let’s take a look at the article that I wrote in the aftermath of the FIS decision and see if anything has changed. This is our “Weekend Classic” special piece and as it is quite long, it is divided into two parts; the first one for today and the second for tomorrow. Happy reading and keep training hard and work on your double-poling – it will never go away!
DOUBLE POLING, A THREAT OR THE FUTURE?
Double poling or diagonal striding? Which technique is more beautiful and which one is more “classical skiing”? Double-poling as a part of the classic skiing technique has always been an effective method of moving fast on flat and easy parts of a race course. Even in the 80s some elite skiers, myself included, tried skiing without kick wax, and considering the gear we had and the track conditions of the time, it worked quite well. So, it is quite amazing that it has taken so long for double poling to become a dominant technique in classic skiing. The reason for its sudden popularity can be traced back to the advent of the long distance skiing championship, Visma Ski Classics.
When long distance skiing events took a step towards professionalism and a group of elite skiers started to approach the sport from a pro athlete’s perspective, a realization of the superiority of double poling took place very quickly. The courses on these races allowed intensive double poling, and it proved to be the fastest way to move forward. Then of course, this sudden interest in skiing without grip accelerated the development of the technique so much so that even skiers in the World Cup circuit have tried to imitate the long distance Pro Team athletes in certain races.
That is when FIS, the International Federation for Cross-Country skiing, woke up from daydreaming and decided to do something to stop the evolution of classic technique skiing. But as history has proven time and time again, evolution is an unstoppable force shaping the very existence of everything around us. The question then arises as to why this “kill the evolution” movement happened at all. Is cross-country skiing in turmoil because of double poling or is it just facing an inevitable change that was bound to happen at one time or another, the fact that long distance skiing has evolved as a sport.
With a good sense of humor, we could state that good old wooden skis should be brought back or even more radically the use of poles should be completely prohibited. That would enforce diagonal striding as so far I haven’t seen anyone double-poling without poles. But who knows, evolution has proven to be resourceful and maybe one day even that would be possible.
Seriously speaking, no one really has the right answer to whether double-poling will take over or diagonal striding will remain, and only time will tell us what the future has in store for us. But right now there is a heated debate among the fans, pros and people behind the scenes.
The two-time (editor’s note; three-time now) Vasaloppet winner and one of the best long distance skiers in the world, John Kirstian Dahl, is not fond of the new rule as he thinks it will not stop the development of the sport. On the contrary, he believes that double-poling has made the sport more exciting:
“In my opinion the double-poling versus kick wax consideration at a World Cup event has brought a new dimension to the sport. It’s more interesting to watch those races where somebody is double-poling and someone else is using kick wax. Like what happened in Toblach this year.”
According to him, this new development in the World Cup races has its roots in the fact that the courses have become much shorter and more stadium-like for easier TV viewing. He would like to see traditional long courses making comeback, such as the Holmenkollen 50 km race with two long laps.
John Kristian continues: “It’s cross country we are talking about here. The FIS regulation book of tracks should be burned and forever forgotten. It’s the nature of the sport that some courses are flatter and some are longer depending on where the races take place.”
Toni Roponen, the personal coach for Matti Heikkinen and Riitta-Liisa Roponen, two of Finland’s great hopes for the upcoming World Championships in Lahti (editor’s note: both are still skiing and most likely will be at the World Championships in Seefeld this winter), is also rooting for harder and longer courses in the World Cup circuit.
“We shouldn’t do what has been done in ski jumping where there are too many rules and regulations hindering the audience from understanding what’s going on,” Toni says with a serious tone in his voice. “Nobody will double pole in Lahti next winter, and that’s the only way – to make courses much harder. Cross-country skiing is a TV sport and by adding more cameras on the course, we can easily extend the laps. It doesn’t have to be just around the stadium area in front of an audience.”
He thinks that regulating the pole length is not the way to go because the main problem is not double poling itself but skating in classic races when using the aforementioned technique. He has a unique point of view about the matter:
“I’m pretty sure that shorter poles will increase the use of skating in classic races rather than solve the problem. I strongly urge a tighter control and harder penalties for those who use skating in classic races. Let’s say that we do what’s done in football and dismiss those skiers who use skating. They would be prohibited to participate in the upcoming races, or at least the next one. That would put an end to unnecessary skating and also limit the development of double-poling. FIS, Ski Classics and all the ski organizations have been too soft in terms of penalizing athletes using skating in classic races and that’s why we are now facing this unwanted aftermath of the ill-judged decision made by FIS.”
Martin Holmstrand, the team director for Team Serneke and a skier himself, wrote a well-received blog comment right after FIS announced its decision about shorter poles. He also thinks that the new rule came about without a proper thought process and a clear understanding of its ramifications.
“This is a hasty decision without any noticeable change to the sport,” Martin firmly comments. “This will give us dire consequences in practice. No one thought about long distance skiing when this rule was discussed behind closed doors. How do we control this? Also, it seems quite weird that so much effort is put into stopping one single part of classic technique. Nobody seems to be interested in saving double-poling with a single kick in the same way, let alone the old techniques that have already disappeared.”
Both Toni Roponen and John Kristian Dahl agree with Martin that we shouldn’t try to stop this evolution from happening. They realize that it may lead into a scenario where diagonal striding becomes obsolete in the competitive world of Nordic skiing, but they still believe the real classic technique will remain popular among recreational skiers. It is a part of our history and lifestyle, and thus it should be greatly appreciated and preserved.
To be continued tomorrow....