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The Valley Reporter
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Waitsfield, VT 05673

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Killing it softly

No reasonable-minded skier should dare complain about the lavish amount of snow that has fallen on The Valley since before Christmas. To have every skiable trail, downhill and cross-country, open for the holiday week is a true blessing for skiers and for the local economy.

Business at Ole’s was unusually brisk and reports of record days came drifting in (yes, there’s a bad pun there) from across The Valley at Sugarbush and Mad River Glen.

Soft snow, however, can present challenges for cross-country skiers, especially skaters. Every time you try to kick off a ski, the pressure from your effort pushes the ski into the soft snow, and at times it can feel as if you have engaged the emergency brake. Pole plants that you expect to find purchase at the surface of the snow end up probing the deep, as much as two feet below the surface, and your timing and rhythm goes all to hell.

So there you have it from the unreasonable spoilsports of cross-country – the joy of abundant, soft snow can still give you the great pleasure of complaining about something.

What remedy is there for this situation? You could always hope, of course, that the snow would just ease up and that groomers, by making multiple passes around the trails, could pack down a firm, fast surface. But to wish that would make you a truly irascible and unpardonable spoilsport. So the solution lies in you and your skiing technique.

Simply put, soft-snow skiing requires a soft touch. Think of that soft surface as something you want to caress, rather than bludgeon into submission. Be especially gentle in the kick phase and especially if you are skating. That starts with proper mental imaging of what is needed. Don’t think of kicking off of a ski to generate power; think instead of making a smooth, balanced weight transfer from one ski to the other. The less edge you put into the snow the better.

If your balance is good, you’ll find your glide ski easing onto the snow rather than crashing down and becoming instantly submerged. Balance, balance, balance – the three magic words of good cross-country technique.

A gentle touch is also important when it comes to your pole plants. A little extra forward angle with your poles when you plant them can help, pushing back in the snow rather than straight down into the snow. And by being less forceful with your poling, you will probably find the need to be more active with your lower body, where your bigger leg and butt muscles do most of the work. An active lower body will make you a better cross-country skier in the long run, regardless of the snow conditions.

Now, a quick switch of gears. Most of you have presumably not been following World Cup cross-country racing this winter, if for no reason other than that much of the U.S. media has decided to stick its head in the sands of oblivion when it comes to cross-country racing. But U.S. skiers, especially U.S. women, who in the past have largely been distant also-rans at the elite level, are truly killing it this winter.

The big star of the U.S. show has been Kikkan Randall, now the world’s top-ranked sprinter. Along with teammate Holly Brooks, Randall won a pre-Christmas team sprint when the World Cup visited Quebec City. This week, Randall won two of the first three stages of the Tour de Ski, a seven-event stage race modeled after cycling’s Tour de France. Meanwhile, other U.S. women – Brooks, Vermonter Liz Stephen, Jessie Diggins, and Ida Sargent – have been logging solid results to back up Randall.

The U.S. men haven’t had quite the success to match what the women have accomplished. But guys like Vermonter Andy Newell, Kris Freeman and Noah Hoffman have consistently registered top-30 results to earn World Cup points. Nothing spectacular but better than the U.S. has typically done in years past.

Universal Sports (Channels 37 and 237 on Waitsfield Cable) is covering the Tour de Ski, which continues through this weekend. Watch for Stephen, a tiny woman who goes uphill with the ease of a butterfly, to do well in the Tour-ending hill climb. Meanwhile, Randall will be in the hunt for the overall Tour de Ski title. You go, girls!


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