:date: 2023-10-12 13:33 :tags:
A long time ago, I wrote about why I like Nordic skiing. Something I mentioned was that, unlike its Alpine counterpart, Nordic skiing does not completely die when the snow does. This is a basic introduction to the sport of rollerskiing.
In April of 2022 I finally got a set of rollerskis and it has pretty much taken over as my main sport. Before easily shareable internet content the chance that anyone would ever have even heard of this very weird sport was probably exactly the chance that those people lived in a Scandinavian town with an Olympic training center. This sport started out as a way to help elite Nordic skiers continue training when the snow was absent. Today it is becoming a standalone sport, sort of like in-line skating is not only considered an impoverished form of ice skating.
I've done a lot of in-line speedskating (and on ice) and one of the most useful ways to explain rollerskiing is to compare it to in-line skating. Both put weird awkward wheeled shoes on your feet. Both benefit from a clean smooth paved surface (though there are more adventurous forms of rollerskiing). Both can involve skating. Both can be quite dangerous. Those are the similarities.
Let's look at the differences. In-line skates have three to five wheels mostly right under each foot, while rollerskis have two wheels per foot, one ~25cm in front of the toe and one behind the heel. This arrangement makes in-line skates (and ice skates) slightly easier to fall backwards on your butt but it also allows them to turn easier. Rollerskis on the other hand, with their long wheelbase, track pretty straight but can not turn so easily, emulating skis; Nordic skiers on snow and rollerskis often make tight turns by taking little steps.
Rollerskis are separate from the boot. There are summer specific boots for rollerskiing designed to not keep your feet warm like normal Nordic snow skiing boots, but they're all interchangeable. The important thing is that the boots separate from the rollerskis easily. In quality in-line skates you can remove the wheel track with tools, but not just to cross a road or walk through an unpaved section, etc. Also important is that the boots in Nordic skiing are only attached at the toe and the heel is free to separate from the ski; this is a defining hallmark of Nordic skiing generally and rollerskis are the same. Skates called "clap skates" are used by Olympic level long track speed skaters on ice and they have a hinged toe too like Nordic skiing but I've never seen them off ice where in-line skating wheels are fixed with respect to your foot.
That's an overview of the weird wheeled footwear. What is most obvious about rollerskiing that distinguishes it from in-line skating, even from a distance, is that Nordic cross-country skiing involves poles. I love cycling and in-line skating but I never had the burning ambition to have the feeblest upper body I could possibly have. Nordic skiing is a lot better about avoiding that outcome. This brings us to a critical question that can reveal a lot about the true nature of rollerskiing: why don't you just buy some in-line skates and some poles and use them together? Before I had rollerskis I was doing as much skiing on snow as possible and I actually own very nice in-line speedskates. I was in a good position to just try that out. What I learned is that inline skates are too fast for any kind of sensible pole use. To understand this imagine holding a walking stick out a car window and using it to help the car move forward. In theory this might be possible, but clearly there is a speed where this makes no sense.
This introduces a subtle but critically important difference between rollerskiing and in-line skating: rollerskiing is deliberately made slow. This is done with the wheel's polyurethane compound. There are plenty of rollerski brands but they mostly focus on preserving an authentic and reliable simulation of skiing on snow. They do not try to be "the fastest" because the moment you achieve that you're no longer really "skiing". Good wheels on smooth pavement beat anything sliding on any snow; it's closer with ice. Rollerski wheels are not chosen for maximal speed but rather to match the feel of skis on snow as closely as possible. It's quite interesting that elite rollerskiing competitions — where money is at stake — will issue all of the competitors the same model of rollerskis to eliminate any kind of equipment advantage. And it's not like these guys don't spend millions waxing their highly technical skis in winter. But rollerskiing is like a truce in the equipment rat race for the greater goal of higher performance when the snow finally comes.
This makes it an ideal sport for people who are not into posturing with expensive equipment. You can buy fancy rollerskiing equipment if you like, but if you think it's going to make your rollerskiing "faster", you're doing it wrong. What rollerskiing will make faster is your skiing on snow in the winter.
When I got my rollerskis I thought I was pretty decent at skate skiing on snow. I was embarrassingly wrong about that. Although I could "do it" — which is certainly better than a lot of people who try it — rollerskiing taught me that my form was quite terrible. Rollerskiing is much harder than skiing on snow. There is much less room for errors and their consequences are usually much more severe. Rollerskiing requires greater balance than skiing on snow, but once mastered your balance on snow will be on a totally different level.
One thing I recommend to people interested in the sport is to not be shy about padding. I tend to rollerski mostly naked but I do always wear a helmet and gloves. I started with hip pads, knee pads, and arm pads. Thirty seconds into my first rollerski outing I was thinking "Ok, this is fine, I can do this, no problem"; sixty seconds into it, I was on the ground. There seems to be a half-life to stumbles and mishaps. Nordic skiing is a devious sport in that you will get clumsier the more exhausted you are, and this sport can exhaust you. So be conservative about your safety. The time to stop wearing some of the protective gear is when you're sure you love the sport enough to know you'll return to it even with sweat stinging your road rash. And I do love it that much.
For me rollerskiing provides a workout that is very similar in effort to running the same distance at my fastest race pace. The difference is that even as an old man I can do a lot more rollerskiing than running without damaging my body. I have some good excuses why I don't rollerski a marathon every day, but one of them isn't that my bones would be in splinters after day two which would be the problem with running. It is unremarkable for me to rollerski several half marathons a week.
I was going to write about rollerskiing a long time ago, but I was hoping to get some video of me doing it to show you what it it's like for me specifically. It turns out that it's been ridiculously hard to get that video but yesterday I finally was able to get some rough clips. In this video I am on the Little Miami Scenic Bike Trail. This is a nature preserve so go ahead and pause it at 2:43 if you want to see the deer! This section is the original paved section that I used to train on (for bike TT) in the late 1980s. The pavement is old and not in great shape so this isn't an especially fast section. Nonetheless with some slight help drafting the camera bike, I can demonstrate what my top 5km pace looks like. This is pretty much one km isolated and should give you a sense of what the sport is like for me, and a look at a very nice venue for it.
Try to imagine the place covered with snow and real skis on my feet moving that fast through the forest. Here's the video I posted last winter showing exactly that — that is the bonus reward of rollerskiing.