The Future of XC Skiing? (La Sgambeda race report)

One of the more interesting developments in XC skiing in the past years has been the emergence of the Ski Classics series, a group of ski marathons, using classic technique, which feature professional teams, sprint points in the middle of races, group tactics, and a helicopter as part of the TV coverage. If it sounds a little bit like cycling, it’s because it’s supposed to be a bit like that. The organisers of two major marathons in Scandinavia decided to market the broadcast of their races overseas and in doing so incorporated a number of existing and new races into a series. It features pay-per-view streaming and even betting, which I’m not entirely happy about, but then I guess they need to make money somehow.

The Visma (formerly Swix) Ski Classics is in its sixth year now, and the opening race was held last weekend in the duty-free town of Livigno, northern Italy. La Sgambeda is supposed to be a 35km race, but due to the exceptionally dry and warm conditions in that part of the Alps the race was held on a 6km loop of 100% man-made snow; and we did four laps. The loop is 90% flat, with only a 2:30-3:00 minute section on each lap with a serious hill. This leads me to the next big development in skiing:

The Double Pole Revolution

Basically, classic races were traditionally done on skis with a grippy bit in the middle, allowing for people to get kick off their skis. In such races one would do a mix of techniques, from striding, to kick double pole, to double pole (upper body only). Eventually more and more athletes started sprinting on non-grippy skis and using only their upper body, then 15km races, and now even 90km marathons are done exclusively with the double pole technique. The advantage of this is that provided you have the strength to get up the hills, your skis will be faster on the downhill, and the top athletes are so strong now that they can double pole almost as fast as they can stride uphill. Here is an example of Dario Cologna almost winning a World Cup race last year in Davos (click link or skip to 1:03:00:

The Actual Race Report

My preparation for this race was actually extremely pleasant, as I was able to do some easy skis, drink Italian coffee, and eat Italian pizza, with Australian biathlete Alex Gibson, who is doing the season here with the local ski club. It was clear to me that I would also be double-poling this race, although I was pretty nervous about the hill on the course. I’d tried it a couple of times in training, but I wasn’t sure whether I’d manage with 20km under my belt and my upper body screaming at me to stop.

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I lined up along with around 130 men (I think I saw 142 registered but not all started), most of them at least 5 years older than me and with much more experience in this kind of race. I noticed that while we almost all had skating boots on, for greater stability, many skiers had classic skis, which are never grip waxed and used exclusively for double poling, since classic skis are slightly faster but less stable and manoeuvrable than skates. I had skates, which I had waxed myself, and was hoping that they would be fast enough.

The gun went, we all took off, and of course I ended up stuck behind someone slow, unable to change lanes because of all the people next to me. The first downhill was positive: my skis were faster than those of the people around me, but I was unfortunately close to the back by this stage. The big hill for the first time was OK to get up but crowded, many deciding to herringbone up instead of double pole, which caused me to lose more time relative to the people I wanted to be skiing with. Eventually things settled down and I got down to the business of repeating the same motion approximately 7500 times. It may be good for TV and faster, but double poling is kind of boring and lacks the finesse of traditional classic technique, where depending on your wax, the way you ski a particular bit of the course changes. Traditional classic is more like an art whereas double pole is brute strength plus a few group tactics.

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My skis unfortunately didn’t stay fast, perhaps because of the abrasive man-made snow which caused the fluoro powder/block to wear off. It was just a matter of counting down the laps and keeping enough strength in reserve to get up the big hill on the last lap. I managed to do this and catch up to a few people, but I was unable to out-sprint the two guys I was with at the end, and finished 101st out of 120 finishers in the ‘elite’ category, in a time of 1:02:53. Some members of the public were mixed in the elite results but were skiing a slightly shorter lap and starting about 1 hour 15 minutes later, so I’m not sure they should be counted together! It was a strange feeling finishing: normally I just want to lie on the ground at the end of a race, but with double poling on the flat you don’t quite get the same intensity and thus the same need to act as if you’ve just been shot at the end of the race by collapsing.

Still managed a pain face. And no, I'm not skating, rather turning a corner...
Still managed a pain face. And no, I’m not skating, rather turning a corner…

 

Also, my Strava file for the race

I was 50% happy with this result: on the one hand I managed to double pole 2.4 times as long as I have every double poled in a race before, I got slower each lap but not by a huge amount, and I was able to be within the field, if towards the back, of a brand new type of racing for me. On the other hand my skis weren’t fantastic and I didn’t feel quite right physically: my technique was a little off on the day. I still have a lot of work to do on my double pole, but I feel I have made a lot of progress this year.

Other Observations

  • Because there are no consumption taxes, petrol in Livigno is €0.916, compared to €1.15 in Austria and €1.30 in Germany. The Livigno price still works out at A$1.39, which is more than the current Melbourne price of A$1.20. Don’t ever let people complain about petrol prices in Australia…
  • The valley was dry, seriously dry. So dry that most of the grass was a dark brown and extremely short, while the lake was extremely low.
The lake 'shore'
The lake ‘shore’

 

There may not have been snow, but I guess at least there was ice?
There may not have been snow, but I guess at least there was ice?

 

  • The valley is also kind of dusty and smelly, probably because of temperature inversions, the relatively large number of cars there at the time, and the fact it hasn’t rained.
Beautiful view; note layer of something in the air down below
Beautiful view; note layer of something in the air down below

 

  • The energy and water cost for snowmaking must be enormous: not only had 6km of XC loops been created, but several long alpine runs had been snowmade.
  • The Livigno Brewery, apparently the highest in the world, is highly recommended for dinner.
  • To get to and from the valley from Switzerland, you have to go through the Munt La Schera tunnel, a single lane, 3.4km tunnel with a traffic light at each end to control the direction of traffic. It now costs either CHF38 or €35; I paid in francs with my German bank card, thinking I could be clever and safe money… it converted to €34.92, a saving of 8 cents. Every little bit counts?

My next race is in two weeks’ time, and I will try to give a little training update as well then.

Arrivederci!

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