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Archive for July, 2011

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Environmental activism, or at the least, awareness, is inextricably linked with the sport of cross-country skiing. The obvious and simple connection is that of snow. To ski, we need it, and the issue of global climate change is obviously relevant.

But the ties of environmentalism and skiing extend beyond snow and climate change. The value of open space, appreciation for the natural world, and related issues involving habitat, lifestyle, water quality, and much more can factor into the discussion.

On Monday, FasterSkier published an article by Audrey Mangan on the proposed snowmaking system at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in northern Vermont. The snowmaking plans aided Craftsbury in earning the right to host the 2012 SuperTour Finals, and in its attempt to position itself as a potential Thanksgiving on-snow destination.

Snowmaking is inherently not green. Significant electric power is needed to run snow guns, diesel fuel is burned moving artificial snow around, and water is usually drawn from a pond or lake.

But we live in a world of trade-offs, and we face choices of varying degrees of “evils.”

Kermit knows all about the challenges of being green.

If snowmaking does allow Craftsbury to host November skiing, New Englanders would no longer have to fly to points west for early-season snow, to potential significant environmental benefit. When you combine plane travel and car hours to reach the various snow meccas in the western portion of North America, there’s no denying the impact.

As is often the case, however, the picture quickly gets muddy. My own personal November travel plans have little immediate impact–my absence is not going to reduce the number of 737’s taking off on any given day. If enough people cut back on plane travel, there will eventually be change. But the impact of snowmaking is immediate–fuel is burned and power consumed.

My point here is that when it comes to being green, the issues are rarely as black and white as many would make it seem. But in some sense that is irrelevant. When it comes to being green and skiing, the challenge faced by all who participate in the sport is that these two things are inherently antithetical.

It is common for cross-country skiers to assume the high ground, often with a passionate arrogance, in relation to our alpine brethren. It is easy to look at diesel-guzzling generators powering high speed chairlifts, the constant snowmaking, the infrastructure required at a resort village, and conclude the cross-country skiing can glide away free of any responsibility.

But environmental issues aren’t purely relative. Just because cross-country skiing is better than alpine skiing in some respects doesn’t mean that we, as practitioners, absolved of responsibility. And the reality is that cross-country ski racing is decidedly not green–anyone who pretends it is so is fooling themselves.

Snow cats and snowmobiles burn diesel and gas respectively, and many of the older machines are far from efficient–both in terms of their emissions, and their fuel economy.

Travel, even in parts of the world with a high density of venues and races, is frequent and lengthy.

High end equipment is manufactured out of highly processed materials, and wax is very much a non-renewable resource.

Even recreational skiers can’t escape these issues–there will always be traveling to skiing, trail grooming, etc. The only truly green form of skiing would be to construct a pair of wooden skis without power tools and use them out your backdoor.

Some of us are lucky enough to actually be able to ski from our homes, and can self-groom a trail, but in general, being a cross-country skier, especially a racer, is to make the decision to participate in an un-environmental activity.

While there are some who are so committed to the cause of environmentalism that they are willing to structure their entire lives around principles of sustainability and conservation, most who take up the green mantle will go to a point, but not the extreme. Some recognize the inherent hypocrisy; others exist in a state of denial.

Would the state of the environment be better if no ski trails were groomed, no snowmaking installed, no long trips undertaken? Certainly. Obviously, the impact of such a change would be minimal compared to deforestation and the like, but the point is that skiing is not green. You may be hurting the environment less by cross-country skiing as opposed to racing motorcycles, but you are still part of the problem, not the solution.

At the end of the day, one of the most important things is to recognize the choices we make and the impact that they have. The Craftsbury Green Racing Project, a relatively new elite racing team based at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, took the bold step of making the environment part of its mission., and in doing so have come under some criticism–mainly because, as I said above, skiing is not green.

Naming the team as such may have been a mistake, in my opinion. It sets up an unwinnable battle: no matter how much they try, the team will be participating in all sorts of un-green activities as they pursue high-level ski racing.

Their mission is clear on this front, reading in part:

-       use sustainable systems in our own lives and in our communities

-       influence others in our communities to make environmentally conscious decisions

Both of these goals are attainable within the constructs of elite ski racing. Nowhere does it say the GRP strives to be 100% green. Instead, the message is simply to reduce impact without compromising the goals of the athletes–unquestionably a positive concept.

Other clubs and programs make similar efforts at various levels, though without the glitz of the name. This is a good thing, and something that should be continued.

Is there any point here? Basically that it is important to be realistic about what it means to be a ski racer – especially in regards to the environment. Do what you can, and make your choices with intention and recognize the hypocrisy.

And be careful about riding the high horse when it comes to criticizing other sports.

A Spade a Spade

Friday, July 8th, 2011

Last week a short post on the FIS website announced a relatively inconsequential format name change – we didn’t even deem it news-worthy as the impact on the actual competitions is non-existent.

But upon reflection, doing away with the title of “pursuit” for the 15/30km mixed technique event is actually somewhat important.

For any ski fan who was around when the pursuit format actually existed as a medal event, the use of the title “pursuit” for the current version made absolutely no sense.

The traditional pursuit involved a 5/10km classic individual start on day one, followed by a 10/15km skate on day two. The second race was a true pursuit – the winner of the classic event started first, with everyone else “pursuing” him or her from a deficit equal to the results on day one.

Simple enough and very exciting. The two day format left time for speculation and predictions after the first race, building drama, and the skate often provided commensurate excitement – who can forget Stefania Belmondo charging back from some obscene deficit to take a stunning victory on numerous occasions?

She would not stand waiting in the starting gate, instead she would lean into the start official straining against the arm on her shoulder like a caged animal, finally breaking free and charging down the trail – this was indeed a true pursuit with inferior skaters the prey strung out down the trail.

Of course there were plenty of races when someone – often Bjorn Daehlie – would hold such a large lead after the classic, that there would be little to thrill at the front. But such is the nature of racing – not every event is going to provide the sprint finish, and that should be just fine. It can be just as pleasurable to watch a feat of pure domination.

What I have just described is now considered a “handicap start,” and is making a comeback exclusively in the Tour de Ski and mini-tour events. The last event of a Tour is always a handicap event, with the start list based on the overall rankings. The Tour de Ski also includes several handicap races earlier in the event as well.

It has been great to see the return of the true pursuit, and it is shocking it has taken FIS so long to call a spade a spade in regards to the medal race.

The last ten years has been a time of experimentation for FIS – new formats, notably the sprint – have been added, and a push to make races more spectator-friendly have resulted in numerous tweaks.

The pursuit fell victim to the push to please the fans, and it evolved to its current format  – that which is now appropriately called a skiathlon, a mass start race involving two techniques.

The traditional pursuit made its debut in 1988 and was abandoned after the 1998 Olympics and replaced by a brutal one day affair. Athletes and support staff were not pleased – it made for a long and exhausting day – two races several hours apart in two different techniques. It was quickly replaced by the “continuous pursuit,” which as I have now pointed out on numerous occasions, involves no pursuing whatsoever.

The event as we know it now debuted in 2003 after several years of distance changes and format shifts.

Why does this matter? If you want people to watch skiing, support the sport, and be excited by the races, the formats need to be understandable and make sense. Calling the skiathlon a pursuit was confusing, and honestly pretty stupid.

From the journalists’ perspective it has been difficult to write about the format – if FIS calls it a pursuit, so must we, but it is challenging to explain the format in any way that makes sense in relation to the name.

Is this earth shattering? Will it suddenly catapult cross-country skiing to the forefront of the North American sports world? No. It won’t really make much of a difference, but it is nice to see things done right and for FIS to at least marginally simplify the sometimes daunting array of race formats by using appropriate descriptors.