The rollerskiing question

Every once in a while I think I should take up rollerskiing. Usually, recalling the couple of times I tried it decades ago encourages me to have a drink and calm down until the urge goes away.

Of course nothing is so good for dryland simulation as rollerskiing, and after a winter like the one just past, it’s the best way to retain muscle and movement memory. The prospect of less snow in the downstate region makes actual time on snow even more precious.

Rollerskiing is a training aid, not a shortcut to proficiency. And it’s another set of equipment to feed and maintain. Still, no harm doing a little research.

What I didn’t expect, was that my rollerskis are so enjoyable to ski on that I love to do it on its own merits

Mark Vosburgh, ‘Rollerskiing for the Rest of Us? A Beginner’s Guide’ FasterSkier June 2 2014

Decades of design changes in rollerskis and boots have happened since I tried them; for one thing, skate boots had not yet evolved to have the stiff plastic cuff used today. So I went on an Internet scouting mission.

Cut to the chase

I’ll just answer the natural question first. I’m still not sure about buying. But I wrangled enough information that I’m closer than I’ve ever been to pulling the trigger. The short list of attractors and repellers is:

Incentives:

  • Specific, aerobic exercise
  • Partial replacement for skiing
  • Maybe I’ll finally get better at skate technique!

Concerns:

  • Road rash and busted @ss
  • Limited low-risk venues in the immediate vicinity
  • I’ll probably still suck at skate skiing- grrr

I now have some idea of the design and engineering characteristics of rollerskis, practical first steps, what I can expect to get from using them, and general care and maintenance. To get deeper in the weeds on all that, read on. At the end is my first-cut list of candidate rollerskis.

What do I want in a roller-ski?

  1. Stability (shaft riding below height of axles is better). This is both a concern as well as an incentive for rollerskiing. A flat ride leads to better glide.
  2. Usable on rough or poorly-maintained pavement (wheels at least 100mm in dia., probably softer compound or pneumatic tires). More on this in a bit.
  3. Brakes and/or speed reducers (brakes are usually brand-specific; speed reduction can be mechanical or by swapping wheels and bearings)
  4. Smooth ride for my weight (ie, vibration dampening)

In my youth I spent foolishly on outdoors equipment I didn’t need or use. Over time I’ve tried to temper my enthusiasm for things by asking myself if I know what I’ll actually do with it. I found this video by former US Ski Team member Andy Newell helpful in answering questions I didn’t know to ask:

Skate, Classic, or Combi?

Newell settles the Combi question (insofar as an elite athlete’s preference bears on a recreational skier), and some reading supports concluding that Combi rollerskis (like Combi snow skis) are a poor compromise.

At the same time, ski instructors warn that classic rollerskiing may reinforce a habitually late or lazy kick, which is something I have problems with. Classic ski striding simulation can be made reasonably specific through ski striding or bounding.

Yet rollerskiing is super-specific for developing double-poling and skating technique, which are hard to simulate otherwise.

So if I get rollerskis, skating they will be.

Where to do it

Best guess is I’d start with some easy loops or back-and-forth on a small street or at an industrial parking lot, move on to some agility and balance drills for handling and specific training, and after that consider doing something that might be like low-intensity interval training, eg., repeats up a slight incline.

I’ve XC skied for years and it took me about a month of roller skiing to feel comfortable.

Mark Vosburgh, FasterSkier June 2 2014

I’d be well-advised to think of the first phase like a driver’s ed class, and begin in controlled and low-hazard areas. A couple of ways to approach the literal first step come from veteran ski instructor Keith Nicol, and an outdoors company in Wisconsin:

Keith Nicol shows some first steps
Rollerskiing in a parking lot with cones

Venturing beyond the driveway or parking lot, smoother sections of a paved rail-trail come to mind. The most advanced phase would be something like Westchester Bike Sundays. Unfortunately, well-paved roads with wide shoulders and backcountry roads with basically no traffic tend to be found as short and discontiguous segments.

Comfort on the pavé

The prevalence of cracks and bumps in most all roads around here gives me pause about the stiffer or lower-profile rollerskis. Larger diameter wheels are the answer.

On the other hand, the 125 and 150mm pneumatic tires on V2 rollerskis can suffer a flat unlike solid PU or rubber wheels. The tires are hard to get off the rims, as shown in the screenshot and video below.

Jenex tire changing station in action- URL: https://youtu.be/EX_YA-5Bohs
Video of changing V2 tire with regular home tools

At a guess, and this is only my speculation, a couple of decades ago V2 skis captured a segment of skiers who needed better vibration damping and rough pavement capability than other rollerskis could offer at that time.

Today, one end of the rollerski lineup has wheels about 80mm in diameter, and are best used on really smooth pavement or dedicated biking/training tracks. At the opposite end are Skike and Powerslide, trail-use rollerskis/blades with 200mm wheels and extra-rugged construction. In between are the V2 series with 150mm air-filled tires. And between the V2 and the 80mm-wheel rollerskis are models with 100-110mm solid tires, and stability and vibration damping features.

I hate changing tubes and fixing flats. That doesn’t push the V2 out of consideration, but it sounds like the Pursuit rollerskis, with 100mm wheels and a spring-steel fork for vibration damping, will get the job done. And if I’m picking places to start out, might as well pick ones where the pavement is in somewhat better condition.

Safety

Boy, it’d be great to feel like I’m gliding free on snow while on rollerskis- but everybody on wheels runs the risk of hitting the deck. I have a bike helmet and warning lights, but I’ll need more to guard against road rash and bruised joints.

I started very slowly with full knee, elbow pads, helmet and gloves on flat terrain and built gradually

Mark Vosburgh, FasterSkier June 2 2014
  • Knee pads (and elbow pads maybe)
  • Wrist guards
  • Hip guards, maybe
  • Summer gloves

Not to forget tools for field maintenance (spare ferrules, diamond file, tools to remove/replace ferrules and adjust wheels)

I’ll want whatever brakes go with the brand. And wheels for the speed I want to go at, or speed reducers. Not sure when it happened, but at some point brakes became a Thing:

Maneuverability to avoid bad spots is important to know, but hard to assess without trying multiple models.

First cut candidates

There must be more than a dozen brands and a total of something like a hundred models of rollerskis. Picking specimens of interest turns a wish list into something tangible to talk about. In accordance with my priorities, here’s some skis I’d like to try out, and my quick take from research on the Interwebs:

  • Pursuit fork flex- stable, smooth ride.
  • V2 Aero 150- very stable. Great for rough pavement or smooth dirt.
  • Marwe 590XC or 610XC- fast, stable, very ski like. But no brake available.
  • Skike or the V2 Nordixc. Can use regular sneakers, and definitely good on rough pavement, but not a very ski-like ride or feel. None of the cross country ski types review them.

Pavement rollerskis are typically $200-$400, not including bindings and boots. Bindings will add about $80-$100, and boots could be repurposed from winter instead of buying a summer pair. Skike and Nordicx are $500-$600, but don’t need bindings or boots. Add a pair of poles with special ferrules for use on pavement, and a diamond file, maybe another $100-$200. Plus safety equipment.

All up it could be $600-$1000 expenditure. Many people would call it reasonable. I’m still kind of on the fence, partly because I’m cheap, and partly because I don’t have a lot of room for unused athletic equipment. Some shops have rentals, but I haven’t found anything like ‘demo days’ in the region. Too bad, because that could really help make up my mind.

Time for that drink, and see if the urge to open the wallet goes away. Any feedback leave a comment or a pingback. Thanks for reading.

Appendix

Recon of due diligence:

Notes on rollerski design

Typical rollerskis have a 590-630mm wheelbase, and weigh 1.5-2kg per pair without bindings, riding on 80-110mm diameter hard rubber tires. Skate wheels are narrower than classic wheels. Trail versions have 150 or 200mm tires and weigh 4-5.5kg. Shafts of aluminum are stiffest. Carbon fiber is stiff and more absorbent of vibration than aluminum. Other shaft material is similar to that used for skis (eg, fiberglass composite, wood, air core). Long wheelbase rollerskis are more ‘ski like’ in feel; short wheelbase is more maneuverable for the beginner.

De rigueur these days are braking systems, usually as an add-on accessory. Having the shaft rest slightly below the axle of the wheels increases stability. Smoothing vibration can be through material selection (eg: wood vs aluminum), use of dampeners between wheel and shaft, or pneumatic tires.

Miscellaneous info

Web retailers specializing in skating have the widest range of brands and models. Traditional ski shops tend to have only one or two brands. The Nordicskater carries a wide range of rollerskis, including V2 and Skike. Multiterrain rollerskis are at Rollerski.co.uk, including Powerslide and Skike brands.

Skike has models allowing a free heel, and they even have one with ratchets for classic-style. The Jenex V2 ‘Nordixc’ rollerski is a classic-skiing rough surface model that allows use of standard sneakers. Skikes have what looks like a better-engineered fixation for the shoe.

There are summer-version ski boots for rollerskiing with breathable uppers, at Boulder Nordic Sport

In the reviews Marwe 620 gets a lot of love from the racer types, but the Pursuit Fork Flex also does well:

The winter that was, part 2

Preamble

The coronavirus epidemic made typical free-time concerns fade in urgency and motivation. But at long last, the skis have been cleaned, waxed, and put away for storage, and it’s time to take a break and do some processing of data that doesn’t involve health and safety.

What’s in a ranking anyway?

Any list or ranking order is a way to grade something according to a set of priorities or values.

Last year I experimented with scoring predictability, quality, and inconvenience of the ski areas whose conditions I’d surveyed. Predictability came down to the length of ski season; quality the average skiing conditions; inconvenience was the drive time with a slight exponential multiplier.

This year I recorded the data of ski conditions for 41 ski areas across 20 weeks’ time, and plugged them into Excel. In all, I updated my report table 49 times from Nov. 15 when Craftsbury opened till the end of March, by which time no areas were open even though Bear Notch was still grooming and updating, an average of almost 2.5 times per week.

Ranking

The top eleven places for skiability this year were:

  1. Craftsbury Outdoor Center
  2. Mt. van Hoevenberg
  3. Osceola Tug Hill XC Ski
  4. Lapland Lake
  5. Bretton Woods
  6. Trapp Family Lodge
  7. Jackson Ski Touring
  8. Cascade
  9. Great Glen Trails
  10. Garnet Hill
  11. Rikert

If you wanted to live somewhere close to reliably good cross-country skiing, the usual suspects are the best bets: Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the Adirondacks (northern or southern), lake-effect snow country in central NY, or the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The chart below maps the percentage of time an area had any kind of skiable conditions, and the length of their ski season. (I edited the areas represented to maintain legibility):

Quadrant graph showing skiable conditions and length of season for 2019-20
Skiable conditions by percent of season and length of season in weeks for 2019-20

This year, fourteen weeks was a bit above the median for all the areas I tracked- call it a ‘passing grade’ for length of season. Percentage of skiable conditions for the season confirms how poor the snowfall was in the lower latitudes and elevations.

Optimizing the experiential opportunity

No matter where we live, distance is a large factor in choosing whether to ski at all, and the farther we have to drive the choosier we’re likely to be. Last year I tried out some calculations to balance the conditions:distance valuation. This year I reworked it and call it ‘Qi’. Qi estimates the perceived utility of a ski area in relation to distance from NYC. Here’s the top ten ski areas for this season, ranked by Qi:

What the heck is ‘Qi’? To find out, read on

But what is ‘Qi’ anyway? Warning: you are about to enter the nerdopolis zone.

Behind a curtain of charts are assumptions

Quality and predictability

We want to know that we can plan for having some kind of skiable conditions because mobilizing (even if only ourselves) requires motivational and logistical effort. So we like places that have predictably decent conditions.

If you’ve ever looked at ‘State of the touring centers’, you know I record ski conditions as ‘Good skiing’, ‘Skiable’, or ‘Minimally skiable’ throughout the season. Total number of times an area reported skiable conditions divided by 49 updates through the season yields the percentage of instances that one could ski at any given area. Higher percentage means better chances that conditions were skiable on any random day.

But to make it more in line with human expectations of quality, I set ‘Skiable’ conditions to be worth 0.8 that of ‘Good skiing’, and ‘Minimally skiable’ only 0.6. Hey, none of us would turn down a day of skiing, but poor conditions don’t call to us the way fresh snowfall on a solid base does.

Calculated altogether, the adjusted skiing quality as a percent of the season says something about both predictability and quality. To score a 100%, a ski area would have to have to maintain good skiing conditions at every check throughout the entire season, a practical impossibility on account of weather. 85% would probably qualify as a very good season.

aside: snow farming/making skews skiability

Craftsbury did quite well with an adjusted quality of 78%. But they have both a pilot snow-farming operation as well as snow-making for a couple of trails. Weston of course is the real anomaly in the graphic, b/c they maintained a 1k manmade loop for 15 continuous weeks. TBH, I’m trying to figure out how to account for that, but ski areas don’t typically report the extent to which trail conditions are supported by manmade or farmed snow. Craftsbury is an exception in that regard as well, usually differentiating between the conditions you could expect on supplemented parts of the trail vs. the ‘woods’.

Assigning a value to time (and carbon)

As to inconvenience, that’s basically drive-time from midtown Manhattan, with its own adjustment. As with last year, I apply an exponential multiplier to drive-time in hours, resulting in a number that becomes progressively more imposing with greater distance. For example, the ‘inconvenience’ of going to Prospect Mountain is about double that of going to Minnewaska, which is itself roughly twice that of driving to Fahnestock. To illustrate the effect, if you were to think of driving to Fahnestock as the equivalent of a $15 time-carbon cost, you would sacrifice over $60 for a trip to Prospect Mountain. Seems like a reasonable multiplier.

The Qi of skiing: your day off matches their ski conditions

Quality divided by Inconvenience = Q/I, or Qi. It’s a dimensionless quantity which can be used to compare any two ski areas for the same season, based on their skiability and proximity to NYC.

This season, the highest Qi score was that of Lapland Lake’s. They had ‘Good skiing’ for the equivalent of about 10 weeks out of their 14-week season. So despite the time-carbon cost, it was likely that your free time and their skiability would have matched up. FWIW, Craftsbury, which had an 18-week season, managed 9 weeks of ‘Good skiing’ conditions.

Prospect Mountain was right behind Lapland Lake in Qi, but had fewer Good skiing days: 7-8 weeks out of their 14-week season, and about 5 weeks’ worth of ‘Skiable’ conditions.

The next four in the Qi ranking have similar scores, but the conditions vs. drive-time balances vary, so choosing would have depended on other qualitative values. Shortest drive? Notchview. A place with a nice village and accommodations that won’t break the wallet? Brattleboro. Trail system with backcountry access? Garnet Hill. Extensive trails and terrain for competition training? Mt. van Hoevenberg.

One more thing

What I’m looking to unwind is my nature as a creature of habit and highways. Like any animal, I tend to stick to familiar and well-trod paths. But there are times when I could benefit from seeking new territory. Here’s the same chart as above, but this time organized slightly differently:

Generally speaking, skiers in the NYC area this past season would have relied on the I-87 route to one of the areas in the ‘dacks, or the Taconic to Prospect Mountain. But with a sightly earlier exit off the Taconic we can see that Notchview would have been a decent bet, while those in northern NJ or Orange county might have been tempted by Osceola.

It’s part of human nature to see where we can go, and skis are an instrument we’ve inherited from the paleolithic to help us do that. I’m planning to use data to enhance anecdote and reconnaissance for new trails I can set my skis onto and explore in seasons to come.

Got an improvement to suggest? Want to know more? Leave a comment or a pingback. Thanks for reading. Stay safe and healthy.

The winter that was, part 1

The winter just past was pretty terrible, was it not? After a promising early snowfall that teased us downstaters, it seemed like every subsequent storm left the mid- and lower-Hudson valley with rain. The fact that up north, particularly the White mountains, wound up with a large snowpack was cold comfort.

And then the coronavirus hit, and the wheels just came off the bus everywhere starting in late February. The entire series of cross-country ski World Cup races in North America (first in the US in almost 20 years) were cancelled, ski centers closed in accordance with state public health directives, and locales previously welcoming to tourism rolled up the welcome mat. In some cases, locals put up barricades and downed trees across roads.

If that weren’t enough, the budgets for sports teams are being cut and it looks like we’re due for a global recession at least as bad as the one in 2008. Many of us have big matters on our minds. All the more reason we need…

a little distraction

Since a lot of us are stuck inside, we’ve probably gotten busy cleaning the house. While you’re at it, take some time to clean the skis and prep them for storage. Scrape them down, brush down the p-tex, and swipe on a nice coat of base wax. Then join me in the nerdopolis for assessment of the ski conditions for this season. With two years of data, I’ve revised calculations again to fit the observer’s perspective.

Here’s a preview: the five ski areas we should have been going to this season for the most reliable and convenient skiing:

  1. Lapland Lake
  2. Prospect Mountain
  3. Brattleboro Outing Club
  4. Garnet Hill
  5. Notchview Reservation

Why those? To find out, hang in there for part 2.