Bend's Dan Simoneau competed in three Olympic Winter Games — in 1980, 1984 and 1988 — as a cross-country skier for the U.S. Team.
Skate skiing was not added as an Olympic cross-country ski discipline until 1988. Today, while still a relatively new style, skate skiing seems to have become just as popular as classic skiing, at least here in Central Oregon.
Simoneau, now the nordic director for the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation, has witnessed the progression of the different nordic styles. He says his junior racers with MBSEF are split 50-50 between classic and skate skiing.
According to Simoneau, for those merely seeking recreation, classic is the way to go. But for those wanting a solid, full-body workout a few days per week, skate skiing is more appealing.
For anyone considering taking up the sport of cross-country skiing, it is important to understand the differences between the two styles and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
“With skate skiing you need a pair of skis, and you don't need anything to propel you,” Simoneau said. “Classic skiing, you either need a no-wax ski that grips the snow, or you need to wax them to grip the snow. With skate skiing, you kind of have a pair of skis and you go. Yeah, you need to wax them periodically, but it's a much simpler process.”
Skate skiing is typically performed on wide-open groomed trails and involves a V-step and glide motion. Classic skiing is usually done with the skis in set tracks and the skier employing a kick-and-glide motion.
Both types of cross-country skiers can regularly be found at the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center or Virginia Meissner Sno-park west of Bend, among other places in Central Oregon during the winter. On a weekend morning, the trails can be filled with classic skiers, Simoneau notes. On a midweek morning, more skate skiers are likely to be getting in their workout.
Simoneau says classic skiers are still in the majority, but many of them ski just a few times per year. Skate skiers tend to ski more frequently because they are doing it more for fitness than for recreation.
“They're skiing three or four days a week, 20 times a year or something,” Simoneau said of skate skiers.
Skate skiing can also be more inviting for those who do not wish to deal with wax. According to Simoneau, classic no-wax skis are generally slower and heavier, but waxing can be a difficult process.
“Learning to make a well-waxed classic ski takes time,” Simoneau said. “You can go up and have a miserable time if you don't get the wax right.”
In skate skiing, while its technique is perhaps more challenging to learn, it is more convenient for folks who want to jump on their skis and get in a workout.
While some consider skate skiing more of a workout than classic skiing, Simoneau says it all depends on the effort. He considers a half hour of either skate skiing or classic skiing the same as a half hour of running.
The difference in technique between the two nordic disciplines is vast. In skate skiing, skiers shift their body weight back and forth, as if ice skating or rollerblading. Classic skiing does not involve that side-to-side movement.
One significant advantage of classic skiing is that it does not require a groomed trail, though groomed tracks (into which the skis fit) are helpful, especially for beginners. That means classic skiers can venture through deep snow and “tour” through the mountains. Skate skiing does require a groomed trail and can be more difficult to perfect, though Simoneau says he can get beginning skiers up and skating in a couple of hours.
“You've got to be a little athletic,” Simoneau said. “You've got to be a little adventurous and willing to take some risks. You do fall down a few times. But we can get people skating pretty well in a hurry.
“Classic skiing, for your first couple days, it will be easier to get going. It sort of has the appeal that you don't need a groomed trail.”
Simoneau says that his MBSEF skiers actually train a little more in the classic style than the skate style. He considers classic a bit more of an aerobic workout than skating.
But for slower recreational skiers, classic skiing allows them to walk up a hill if they are tired or do not want to put forth a big effort. Skating, by contrast, requires at least a minimum amount of effort to crest a hill.
“In skating, if you stop in the middle of the hill, you're stuck,” Simoneau explained. “In classic, if you're gliding along and you get to that point, you can just walk up the hill (on skis). That's kind of one of the appeals to classic skiing from the recreational perspective.”
Differences in gear between classic and skating might seem minimal at first glance, but a closer look reveals stark contrasts.
Skate skis are designed to glide well and have a supportive edge against which to push. Classic skis are designed to glide, but they also feature a center to the ski with some sort of gripping system, wax or no wax.
Skiers' heels rise up from the ski more in classic skiing because the classic boots flex more than the skating boots. Boots for skate skiing are more stiff and supportive to aid in skiers' lateral motions. Also, the poles are longer in skating to allow for faster strides. Skate skiing is as much as 15 percent faster than classic skiing, according to Simoneau.
Some cross-country skiers choose one style and stick with it. But others like both disciplines.
“For those who commit to learning both,” Simoneau said, “I'd say it really is truly split.”