Out of Season

Fall is the transition time for outdoor sports, and, for semi-serious cross-country skiers, it’s time to strap on the old roller skis. Even the most accomplished skiers, however, who roller ski through all the dry seasons, can’t escape the fact that it’s a little bit ridiculous using ski poles with no snow on the ground. There’s something about it that makes people want to shout at you, “Hang on, lycra boy, winter will be here soon enough without you getting all enthusiastic about it.”

But if you shell out anywhere between $275 to $400—as I did— for a pair of roller skis with bindings (you generally use the same boots as you do when the snow flies), and if you’re willing to accept that there is just no way for you to look cool on roller skis, you can’t beat the sport as a way to train for your time on the snow—if it comes.

On their poles, roller skiers use carbide steel tips with no baskets. These tips need to be kept sharp enough to hold a pole plant on asphalt, and occasionally to defend against territorial dogs or cyclists. As the pavement gets colder, a proper pole plant gets even more difficult. Some newer models of roller skis have inflatable tires and larger wheels that allow skiers to handle looser and softer surfaces, such as crushed limestone. Those sorts of surfaces make poling easier as well as gentler on the elbows. Skiers with any sense at all also wear a helmet, and the more thin skinned or accident prone will take the extra precaution of sporting elbow and knee pads as well.

But why not just use in-line skates, which can be considerably less expensive? It’s not just a plot to sell more specialized equipment to gear geeks. Andy Turnbull is a nordic racing specialist at Hoigaards and has been roller skiing since the late 1970s. Turnbull explains that in-line skate wheels are generally too fast to allow a skier to work on proper snow technique—you end up turning over your stroke too quickly. (Nine out of ten roller skiers appear to be skate-skiers, but there are also ratchet-wheeled skies for those who ski in the classic, kick-and-glide speed-walking shuffle.) Also, you don’t get much of an upper-body workout.

If it seems like most roller skiers are operating without brakes, that’s because they are. Upper Midwest ski guru Lee Borowski recently wrote that he thinks all roller skiers should have brakes on their skis, but because brakes are mostly sold as extras, the majority of skiers hit the road or trail without them, relying on techniques like snowplowing or running off into the grass (if there is any) to stop their momentum.

Almost any experienced roller skier can offer personal stories of spectacular wipeouts, although most don’t result in serious injuries. Recent history, however, does offer a cautionary tale: In 1999, one of the greatest skiers of all time, Bjorn Daehlie of Norway, crashed on the road during a training run. The resulting injuries and back problems led the most decorated winter Olympian of all time to withdraw from full-time racing. I like to tell myself that story when I recount how once, on a construction detour off a bike path, I managed to dig a ski pole into a sewer grate, promptly snapping the pole, ripping my arm back, and nearly flipping me over backward. (I knew I was going to be okay when, despite badly skinned knees, thighs, and elbows, my first impulse was to look around to see if anyone had seen me take such a monumental and embarrassing dig.)

Is it worth the snickers of other trail users and the dangers of road rash to get a jump on the ski season, which can be madly inconsistent and El Niño-dependent? Andy Turnbull pointed out that the Twin Cities had roughly nine days of natural, skiable snow last winter. He said, “Sometimes I think I ski on snow in order to train for roller skiing rather than the other way around.”

—Dan Gilchrist