Cross-Country Skiing


I went cross-country skiing with my family last week. I hadn’t skied in more than a decade, and I never had skate-skied before. It looked like fun, so I rented skis and took a one-hour introductory lesson. Then I headed out on the trails.


I was looking forward to gliding through the snow like I knew from classic Nordic skiing, yet I was very surprised how much fun skate-skiing is. The gently rolling trail followed a creek along the edge of the hills. Even though the water was flowing toward me, I felt like I was going downhill! When I turned around, I really was going downhill, which was even more fun.

Skate-skiing really was exhilarating – it felt like being on a bike that planes perfectly, with none of the push-back you sometimes get when you try to pedal harder. On skate skis, you don’t push off, but just step forward with your feet at an outward angle, and then your legs just go. Every second step, you use your poles to balance and get a little extra propulsion. As I skated through the sparse forest, speed built quickly. I was breathing hard and enjoying the “taste of the effort”, but it seemed effortless. And I covered a lot of ground quickly. I wasn’t the only one enjoying it: A woman and daughter came flying toward me, their arms waving from side to side beautifully in sync with their strides. Their smiles were as big as mine.

It was fun to be out in the mountains, too. I’ve cycled through these places in summer, but it was very different now. The quality of light, reflected by the snow from all sides, was so much more luminous. We have very little snow pack in the Cascades this winter, sadly, as you can see on the hills; definitely too light for February. However, there was still enough snow on the trails to ski.


The next three days were pure bliss. Every morning, I rose before sunrise, and headed out on the trails. I explored new trails every day, including one on the last day that had a wonderful flow of ups and downs. On the downhills, I learned to step around corners, rather than snowplow and lose speed. Approaching the limits of my skills and capabilities was exhilarating, and it was good to know that if things got out of hand, I could just sit down and stop on my behind (which I did do once.)

The snowplowing for tighter turns was fun, too, since you adjust your arc by weighing the outer or inner skis. The skis are aligned in a triangle. Weighing the outer ski pulls you into the turn, weighing the inner ski widens your arc. It reminded me a lot of riding on gravel or mud, where you play with the traction of your bike’s tires. But here, it’s easier because you don’t face a sudden loss of traction – you are always sliding and working with it.


I expected to be sore from so much skiing, like I used to be after classic cross-country skiing. However, it seems that skating uses similar muscles as cycling, and only my hands got a little tired from gripping the poles.

If you live in a place where snow prevents you from cycling, now I envy you! I now dream of having a groomed trail behind my house, so I could ski for an hour or two every morning…



About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into high-performance components for real-world riders.
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29 Responses to Cross-Country Skiing

  1. cbratina says:

    Welcome to the club! We are long term XC skiers, though Nordic. We are lucky enough to have a loop available through a wildlife sanctuary we can reach through our back yard, though it is only a mile long. Our 30 yr old started doing laps this winter. Next you need to try overnight ski trips carrying a pack and covering 10-15 miles per day. Like cycle touring.

    • I used to do overnight trips during my Ph.D. research in geology. Coring lakes is much easier in winter, when they are frozen, and the ice provides a stable platform to work on… It’s a lot of fun, especially since you get to go places where few people ever go.

  2. Jeff Potter says:

    I’m happy to read that you enjoy the Magic Carpet Ride!

    Skiing is like biking with no moving parts. Each component is just a stick, giving near-frictionless glide anywhere there’s snow.

    You got a taste of the *abandon* that is the heart of skiing, of committing yourself with no safety net the instant before. I love how every exertion contributes to glide. Then there’s the marvelous discovery that commitment equals stability: 100% weight transfer is key, no halfway measures if you want to take flight.

    I prefer other languages for the names of the ski-skating moves. Our initials convey nothing: V1, V2A. Ugh! Such things can’t be popular! “Double-dance” is better! Oh, you aren’t limited to kicking with every other poling: a variety of syncopations are possible. (And the poles aren’t there for balance: pure propulsion!)

    It’s nice you didn’t get sore: many tense up and say skating takes more work than classic or is straining. It used to be that worldclass roadies would all XC ski. I’m sure some still do.

    I find it wonderful how all skiing, incl alpine, is so similar in terms of posture and work. Skating is essentially 10% faster than classic. But on a hiking trail classic is faster. I enjoy them both so much. …Out my back door! Skating can require a lot of machinery and space, but during Crust Season, coming up for us in Michigan, a whole new ski world opens up with fast skating everywhere.

    Lastly, like biking, XC skiing in North America is trapped in misfiring marketing myths that hurt its potential. Racing is the only technique that is officially taught! Touring is not considered to have its own needs but is described as a skill-phase on the way to a supposed pinnacle which emphasizes low-skill speed! For instance, the upright posture of someone carrying a rucksack or wanting to sight-see is given no respect in official instruction. Neither is the multi-point stability needed when skiing soft ungroomed trails. There are wonderful techniques not taught at all, from days gone by, that are still super-fun! …My friends and I are working to help the sport reach (regain) a wider, higher level by hosting events and publishing info/videos that include the whole range and emphasize social connection.

    • Oh, you aren’t limited to kicking with every other poling: a variety of syncopations are possible.

      My teacher tried to get me to do all the different poling techniques, but as a beginner, I found it easiest to stick to two: V3 and granny…

    • Jon says:

      Man, this makes me want to move north (not much XC skiing in North Carolina). If skate skiing is as fun as ice skating, but with scenery then I’d be in heaven. I get “flow” and happiness from just ice skating laps. Being in nature too would blow my mind, and believe me, it needs blown.

  3. dhdaines says:

    Nice article and beautiful pictures! I count myself lucky enough to live in one of those places you mention at the end – except that after skiing for an hour this morning I’m going to grab my bike and ride to work, on the same trail (well, on the part of it that is cleared for joggers and walkers)

  4. GuitarSlinger says:

    I get what you’re saying about ‘ Skate ‘ style X-country skiing … but in all honesty I prefer the ‘ Classic ‘ technique . The ‘ glide ‘ is more intoxicating .. the exercise more all around [ proven fact ] and intense .. ‘ classic ‘ technique opens up more terrain [ including back country skiing which is my personal domain ] and overall is much more versatile , practical as well as usable . Sometime if they’re available to rent .. give ‘ Adventure ‘ X- country skis [ much shorter and wider … also known as GlideShoes in some circles ] and the terrain they afford a go . Suffice it to say serenity combined with the sublime barely comes close . And if its adequate amounts of snow you’re wanting … head out my way [ Colorado ] We’ve got more than we know what to do with right now and are more than wiling to share .. even with you ‘ Flatlanders ‘ [ humor absolutely intended ]

  5. Giovanni Calcagno says:

    Skate-skiing is easier to learn, you don’t have to deal with waxes, is faster and a better training for cyclists but one is limited to the groomed trails. I ski inbound and outbound in the Alps with Telemark gear (plastic boots and wide skis) and I found that’s a good strength training too.

    • The classic technique is great, and I won’t give up my classic skis. When it snows in Seattle, we get to ski all over the city… through soft, deep snow where classic skis are the most efficient mode of transportation. Cars don’t go, buses don’t run, bikes have a hard time on the hills, leaving the roads to those who ski.

  6. Neil says:

    I find that while cycling through the winter is possible in Ottawa (as evidenced by the hearty souls I see doing it), but I am just not comfortable with the idea. Instead, I embrace the season, and get out skiing as much as I can! I enjoy both classic and skate skiing, and my observation from this year is that from -15C and up (14F), Skate is great, but any lower than that, and I find Classic is the way to go. Oh, and I find classic better when there’s lots of fresh snow on the ground too.
    Happy skiing!

  7. Jeff Potter says:

    I don’t think ski-skating is any more conducive to bike fitness. The hip/leg/ankle flex angles in both skate and classic are the same. I first learned this when a US coach translated a Norwegian Team training video series. Herringbone is the same, too!

    Personally, I’d ski a lot of whatever kind of trail was closest. Less drive time is the best way to more bike fitness!

    I think with all skiing — incl BC, tele, bumps — if you hit it hard you get a max workout for the legs.

    The tempo of skating is slower making it actually less like high-cadence biking. At altitude this lower tempo goes even lower and can impair bike fitness — classic should then be emphasized. (I discovered this back when I lived at altitude and noticed my legs would weaken from too much skating. The net load is greater but the work is less ‘sharp’.) Many bike racers do like skating but I think it’s only because it seems simpler and it is a bit faster. I find working on all ski technique to be very satisfying: I suppose classic is slightly more difficult but it’s all a lifelong learning thing. And my advanced classic is faster than a fit beginner’s skating — this used to drive bike-racer skiers nuts.

  8. Chris Lowe says:

    Where specifically did you take lessons? Skate skiing has been on my to-do list for a few winters now.

    • I took a one-hour lesson at Sun Mountain Lodge near Winthrop. The instructor was great, and he went with our level, so there was no redundancy, and we learned a huge amount. Definitely recommended. I tried skating on my own for an hour before the lesson, and it was fun, but with the right technique, it was more than twice as much fun.

      • Chris Lowe says:

        Thanks! Lots of places offering lessons, makes it a bit daunting to pick one. Also if you haven’t done so you should try stand-up paddle boarding. Can be a very good core workout and it’s also a great and inexpensive way to get out on the water. Standing up gives you a much better view, especially down into the water. Also a much harder workout when there’s a headwind!

      • Stand-up paddle boarding is fun, but as someone who enjoys the sensation of extra effort resulting in significant speed, I prefer kayaking…

  9. Joe Ramey says:

    It made me smile to read the joy in your description Jan. I love to skate ski, and classic, and doing tele turns. But mostly I love to skate. Our trails are the best in Colorado and therefore the best in the CONUS. There is just a minor oxygen problem up there.

  10. Jan, have you tried fat biking at all? Any future focus on fat bikes in BQ? The Methow is supposed to be great, though it’s probably late this mild winter.

  11. Michael says:

    What a great time it sounds like you had. Planing on skis sounds exhilarating.

    As for me, I am a winter-phobe, tormented and waiting with restless anticipation until spring when cycling becomes pleasant again. The suspense is killing me. Single digits and teens at night here in Maryland the last two weeks and more to come this week. Worrying about slipping on ice and the dangers of shoveling snow just add to the mood-crushing bleakness of winter. And I live in a pretty mild weathered state!!!

    I can’t imagine how anyone retains their sanity north of the Mason Dixon line!!
    Well.. There is the visual beauty of winter that is enjoyable, and I know the winter weather is necessary. But I seem to thrive in the warmer weather.

    Maybe one day I’ll be able to move south and enjoy year round comfy weather cycling.

  12. Timo says:

    Well, I live in Northern Finland but I do not let snow and ice to prevent cycling! I do also ski and skate occasionally and plain old walking is necessary for everyone. Even though I ride bicycle a lot, I also believe that you should not stick to one type of exercise too much. Your article was very interesting considering your background as an extremely devoted bicycle enthusiast! Nice to see such unexpected jump off the saddle.

  13. Tom Howard says:

    Excellent post. My wife and I did some backcountry skiing just last weekend (kick and glide on ungroomed trails) and the conditions were excellent. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to develop a custom rack that would allow you to carry your skis while cycling to the trailhead.

  14. Stephen Poole says:

    People may prefer classical, but IMHO skating is usually easier (technically and less work done) and faster. Classical can be as fast uphill, but not on the flat or downhill on groomed tracks. Skating means one can use one’s legs when going fast, rather than being reduced to double poling only. In conditions where grip waxing is difficult – as often found here in Australia – skating saves a lot of aggravation.

    And classical seems to kill one’s lower back much more. NB: I’m not saying classical isn’t fun too, but skating has it’s good points. Off-track skiing in soft snow isn’t one of them though.

    By the way, the planing thing applies to skis too – the right flex makes a huge difference!

    • Your last comment made me think about the fact that I am comparing 30-year-old budget classic skis with brand-new skate skis that probably are a lot higher quality. It reminds me of cyclists who replace their old Nishiki with a modern carbon bike and tell everybody how steel is hopelessly slow and carbon is so much better in every way. When you compare a high-end steel bike with a high-end carbon bike, the difference becomes much smaller. I wonder whether high-end classic skis also would narrow the gap in speed and – dare I say it? – enjoyment to skate skis?

      • dhdaines says:

        Yes, the quality of skis makes a tremendous difference – it’s similar to what you’ve found with light, supple tires, but the difference is even more dramatic. I recently “traded up” to some lightweight, stiff classic skis and find myself going 30-40% faster with the same amount of effort on rolling and downhill terrain due to having so much better glide.

        Fast classic skiing is almost a totally different sport than touring – if you look at classic racers they spend very little time “classic skiing” (i.e. in diagonal stride) and double-pole through everything (possibly with a kick here or there) until it gets so steep that they have to essentially run uphill on their toes.

      • Michael says:

        I anxiously await the test results in the fall issue of Ski Quarterly! 🙂

    • jeffoyb says:

      Skiing and winter are such favorite topics of mine! Sorry to go on and on but there’s so much crossover with biking, it seems.

      As for those who dislike winter, I’m not sure that anyone who is active in winter doing some kind of fresh air fun can be found among those who complain about winter. Maybe it’s a chicken/egg thing but I have a hunch it’s not biological or a fixed character trait: it’s learned in both directions. Maybe if those who tend to dislike winter would find a fun group to do things with for one whole winter their whole view of it would turn around. Really, one cannot be cold while being active and if sanely dressed. (The frequency of cold weather medical conditions is likely hugely exaggerated by those looking for excuses or who aren’t willing to attend to the nuances of how their own bodies work.)

      I note that among (racing) ski experts that ski flex is rated the most important determinant of ski performance! They don’t at all have the simplistic “stiffer is better” view that mainstream bikers have. Flex must match both conditions and skier. (Next most impt is base structure. Last is base wax. Actually, ski length, shape, and base-grooving are ignored: I’ve never seen even one hint of a test of these aspects. The ski world is possibly lamer than biking!)

      About Stephen’s mention that skating is less work. This might have a physics tie-in of interest to BQ people. 🙂 Can something be faster with less work if the basics are kept the same? I think the upshot of the physics here is that skating lets us work MORE and so is faster. It’s like when someone is fitter they are faster because they can work more without being impaired. Nobody gets faster at doing essentially the same activity by working less, do they? Skating has a longer measured power-phase, so we can put more power into our motion. This is the only source of its greater speed. However that power is delivered at an angle to the trail and at a slower tempo so not all the increase (once vectors and timelines are compared) goes into faster forward speed. The equation comes out with a measured 10% gain for skating.

      And about Stephen’s mention of more low back effort: I suppose that is true, but our low backs need it! Classic creates a stronger low back and core. Part of it is teaching our bodies to relax while working that part of the body. Personally, I don’t “feel” that my low back is working more while classicking. I suspect that my low back is now “educated” and used to moving around like any other part. I suppose it’s also stronger, and that’s a good thing. (Altho, I find that I can still hurt it while doing something like pushing a car out of a snowbank. One needs to attend to different kinds of fitness to keep usefully balanced health.)

      Jan, about comparing new to old gear, you’re onto something! But here we run into the terrible state of skiing technology due to it being such an unpopular sport. Really, it’s not so much age of skis as it is purpose. All skate skis are race skis. There is no such thing as skate touring. (Sure, superfun skate touring is done in crust conditions but it uses race skis.) So you have to compare classic *race* skis to skate skis. XC ski gear has basically had no development in the past 20 years. With Jan’s 30-yr-old skis there might be a difference, esp due to material fatique and scratches, but in general, it can be hard to detect. Savvy top adult racers often have ancient skis in their “quiver,” ready to give great results in certain conditions. There are a few minor outlyer gains, but they have nearly all been in tiny fractions that haven’t actually affected race times. (25 yrs ago they discovered the toxic $100 fluoro additive which can make skis superfast in some conditions for certain fairly short amounts of time.)

      Now, there has been a big change in touring skis as of about 15 years ago, but the market has ignored this and ski-makers don’t play it up. Recreational skis are now shorter and easier to maneuver. Boots can now be bought with cuffs which are wonderfully more supportive without interfering with proper action. The binding revolution is 25 yrs old but they totally transformed the potential for enjoyment. And the combination of this has also created the mt-bike equivalent of skis, robust and well-suited for enjoying ungroomed trails anywhere there’s snow. It has also let telemarking blend in with stride skiing like never before. But there has been no PR effort put into promoting any of this. This is all just the generic rental ski gear of today. A micro-amount of $ is put into a shrinking “roadie” racing side and the rest is ignored. The US XC market is so small that we’re lucky that Euro makers even offer us inventory but it has been deemed not worth trying to grow. No “leaders” in US skiing have thought to push it, either. (Occasional columnists mention it, tho. I’m not the only one who has noticed it.) Indeed, the conservatism of skiing would make you blanch, even if you’re used to the backwardness of so much biking.

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