The nordic skiers stood at the starting line, gripping their poles and shuffling the skis beneath their boots.

“Racers to the line!

“Racers ready?

“Go!”

The 10 coed skiers, all members of the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation’s nordic program, heeded coach Dan Simoneau’s command with furious double poling, which entails launching their weight onto their poles to propel themselves forward. The rumble of urethane wheels and the metallic tack-tack-tack of their pole tips striking the blacktop made clear that these nordic skiers were not on snow. Nevertheless, the bicycle helmet-­wearing teens’ motions on roller skis — ski-like platforms with single wheels on each end — were fluid as they rounded a short, curvy course in an empty church parking lot. The finish line was marked by a row of cones the size of ice cream dishes. Each racer leapt over them, finalizing the drill.

“Let’s do it again!” someone yelled.

The teenage athletes roller ski two to five times a week, practicing agility drills and sweating through endurance workouts.

In Central Oregon, where summer activities include cycling, running, hiking and swimming, roller skiing occupies a tiny niche among an already small group of nordic skiers. For some in this tight-knit community, the ski season doesn’t end when the snow melts. Die-hard nordic skiers latch roller skis to their ski boots and “ski” through summer. Roller skiing is technically a cross-training activity and not a stand-alone sport. It’s meant for nordic skiers to maintain and improve strength and agility during off-season so they can hit the snow at full speed.

“In the younger skiers and the part-time skiers, it may have no role (in their cross-training),” said Simoneau, the foundation’s nordic director. “I like to introduce middle schoolers to it because they can learn to roll in a proficient and safe manner during a single session. By the end, the students are doing mass-start racing. The traditional person would think that was a recipe for death. But with proper teaching techniques, equipment — and the fact they’re 13-year-olds — we can do it.”

Putting the nordic in ‘blading’

Roller skis date at least to 1930s Europe. Early models were heavy and featured three wheels — two in the back, one in the front of each ski. The roller skis simulated nordic skiing’s classic technique with a ratchet system in the wheels that mimicked the sticky kick wax used for propulsion on actual nordic skis. Modern roller skis feature 2- to 2 1⁄2-feet-long ski-like platforms that attach to regular ski boots. The ratchet system simulates the classic ski discipline, yet free-­spinning wheels mimic the skate-skiing motion that pro skiers like Simoneau helped develop in the 1980s. Regular nordic ski poles are capped with a protective metal casing, making poling the pavement a less jarring experience.

Simoneau, a three-time U.S. Olympian in cross-­country skiing, began training with roller skis in 1974. While they remained a staple of his cross-training during his racing career, he now roller skis during foundation practices or as something fun to do with his wife, Kelly Simoneau.

While Dan thinks highly of roller skis, they’re not appropriate for every nordic skier — it depends on the skier’s age and goals, he said.

Hunter Greene, 16 and a Bend High junior, has shown himself to be a high-achieving nordic skier — and roller skier. For Greene, who joined the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation’s nordic program during summer 2016, roller skiing actually came first. With a distance-running background, Greene was accustomed to the cardiovascular demands of roller skiing, but not to the speed (roller skis don’t have conventional brakes, by the way). Greene gushed as he told the story of his first roller ski practice.

“I was not really good at skiing. I was (trailing) off the back (of the group),” Greene said. Simoneau, leading the group in a van, led them up a road off Century Drive. The hill gives way to a descent steeper than Greene could handle. He rolled safely to a stop, took off his roller skis and began walking down the hill. Simoneau, driving the van, pulled alongside Greene and looked him in the eyes.

“You wimp,” Greene recalled his coach saying. “I took that as a challenge.”

Greene has since become one of the top 30 nordic skiers in the country under the age of 18.

“And he brings it up all the time,” said Ben Lange, 14 and a freshman at Summit High School, grinning where he stood in the group. “So it must have meant something.”

“Ooh!” the other roller skiers said.

“Yeah,” Greene said. “It just inspired me to work harder.”

Forever niche

Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation and Bend Endurance Academy offer youth roller-ski instruction for hardcore cross-trainers. WebCyclery & WebSkis in Bend stocks roller skis, which cost anywhere from $200 to $400, not including bindings, which run an additional $70 to $120. Winter nordic skiers can use their ski boots and poles, although metal caps, which cost about $20, are necessary for protecting pole tips.

Kevin Gorman, the owner of WebCyclery & WebSkis, has sold roller skis since he opened his nordic ski wing in 2008.

“Roller skis are definitely a small niche,” said Gorman, who sells “a couple or several dozen,” mostly to intermediate or advanced skiers each off-season. Many are Bend Endurance Academy and Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation athletes. Sometimes their parents get into roller skiing, too.

“We sell roller skis, but we don’t actively push them on people,” said Gorman, an active nordic skier who said he’s never roller skied, not even once. “A lot of people who aren’t nordic skiers come to us and say, ‘Oh, that looks like a fun sport!’ But roller skis don’t have brakes.”

For the record, while roller skis don’t have conventional brakes, stopping — or at least, slowing down — is possible.

At the Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation’s practice, Simoneau showed a newcomer to check speed by spreading ones legs as if straddling a horse and putting pressure on the roller skis’ inner edges. The appropriate use of poles takes some getting used to. Blacktop, which is softer than concrete, provides a stickier surface for the poles’ metal tips. Applying too much pressure while poling on concrete makes a nails-on-­chalkboard screech and sends the poles flying. While these Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation athletes have mastered roller skiing, the scrapes and scars on their shins and elbows show that their mastery was hard-won.

Sarah Kilroy, 16 and a junior at Redmond Proficiency Academy, once avoided errant golf-cart drivers on Skyline Ranch Road by diving into a bush.

“It didn’t hurt, actually,” Kilroy said with a laugh. “It was a manzanita bush, so it didn’t have anything poky. I was just scared.”

Collisions with teammates and native flora are rare, Simoneau said, adding that the most severe injury — a slight head injury — prevented an athlete from practicing for a few days.

Greg Rhodes, who became the new nordic director at Bend Endurance Academy in early June, said when he graduated from his collegiate nordic ski career, he was happy to hang up his roller skis.

“Man,” Rhodes thought at the time. “I’ll never have to roller ski again.”

Now, Rhodes finds roller skiing to be one of the more enjoyable things to do throughout the year. The Academy’s nordic program directs 15 athletes who are high school-age and younger and 20 to 30 college athletes. For the hardcore, non-ski-based exercise cannot take the place of the roller skis — not even inline skating.

“There’s nothing that simulates moving on a very small (ski) base during the summer months,” he said. “Roller skiing is fun after you get the hang of it.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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