The Story

In August 2013 the biggest mountain bike race in the world, The Birken, drew two Englishmen to Norway. The race was completed and they both were left in awe of the organisation and scale of the Birken event.

The Birken bike race is the summer cousin to the original winter ski event. Not long after returning to the UK a plan to return was hatched but this time not on 2 wheels but on skis. Apart from the obvious challenge of the 54km of cut cross country ski tracks which make up the Birken race there was another more pressing issue... neither of the mountain bikers had ever cross country skied.

Can two absolute novice skiers learn to master the technique of cross country skiing in time to complete the Birken Ski Marathon by March 2014 ? well there is only one way to find out ... the Zero to Hero challenge was born.

Monday, 2 December 2013

The Reality

Every idea is great at the point of conception.

The age we live in allows us to plan in intricate detail all manner of crazy of adventure from the comfort of our sofas.  With a reliable internet connection and a good supply of freshly brewed coffee the world can be conquered virtually.

Up until we arrived back in Norway in late November the 'Zero to Hero' challenge had only existed within a long email chain which had outlined from day one how it was all going to work, those involved and a rough timeline of our adventure.  Stepping off the plane in Oslo and feeling the fresh nip of winter air the realisation dawned of the challenge we had set ourselves set in.

Our visit was set to be a busy one with not only as much time on skis as possible, but also the factory visits of Swix and Madshus (two Norwegian cross country ski industries suppliers) to check out the equipment we would be using, oh and someone had mentioned something about Norwegian television.

As in August when we came to ride the Birken bike event we were looked after by the Birken Marketing man, Jean-Francois Gehin.  Luckily for us and unfortunately for Jean-Francois he is an excellent ski instructor so had been tasked with the hopefully surmountable task of training us to cross country ski.

Thursday, a day of travel from the UK to Norway.

Any thoughts we might ease in to our first training trip were misplaced, as all time available to be on the skis had to be taken. So after dropping our bags at the hotel Lillehammer, where we would stay our first night, we traveled up into the hills behind the town that hosted the 1994 Winter Olympics to the cut tracks of Sjusjøen.  Sjusjøen has a flood lit park of cut cross country ski tracks perfect for the novice to cram in as much practice as possible day or night.
The temperatures that night were a bone chilling -13 degrees celcius and the fingers were numbed as we pressed down and clipped in to our ski bindings for the first time ... everything was suddenly very real ... in 4 months we would have to have the fitness and skills to cover 54km.
The first 45 minutes on the skis that evening were just a taster as we scooted up and wobbled / slid back down a sedate section of track.

Friday, so what equipment do we need ?

First things first. Although we both had houses full of cycling equipment we had nothing that would help us with this cross country ski caper, so it seemed only fitting to visit two companies highly regarded by Norwegian cross country skiers.

First up was Madshus who have been making cross country skis since 1906 and we were treated to the full tour of their factory .

Personally as an engineer, though not in this sense, it was very exciting to walk the lifecycle of a ski from raw materials right through to final finishing and ready to see active service on snow.

We were guided through the factory by Per Wiik,  the man tasked with marketing Madshus with Per giving us as much information as we could absorb.  Before the visit I personally knew very little about skis. I  had an idea they varied in length dependant on your height but our visit indicated there were so many little elements considered to make sure every individual buying a pair gets the best performance they can. One of the key elements of XC skiing is how your weight is distributed along the ski as that effects your kick and glide, so knowing the stiffness and various flex characteristics of individual skis is vital.

When the tour was over we were left a better informed pair of wannabe cross country skiers ... with strong desire to own Madshus skis of our own.

Next port of call was Swix, now the only other small piece of info I know about skiing in any format is it requires wax.  Swix are THE wax people so we couldn't have asked for better advice.

Elvind Opsahl greeted us at the companies head office based in Lillehammer to help us understand the importance of wax.

Wax is applied in alpine skiing to speed progress downhill but Elvind was to help us understand the importance of wax in cross country skiing and affording the ability to go uphill.

Wax doesn't just come in one do it all formula either,  there are many variants developed for use in not only varying temperatures but also wetness, age and type of snow.  Each wax variant contains between 9 and 15 ingredients !!!  This is a highly specialised product and we had a lot to learn.

Elvind not only gave us a great insight in to the wax production process but also supplied us with some clothing to train in and ski poles.  We were as well equipped as we could be now to tackle the training Jean Francois had planned.

While at Swix we met with a TV reporter from Norwegian National TV broadcaster NRK who will be documenting the whole project, to broadcast in March during it's coverage of the big event.  After some intro shots for the camera it was time to get back on skis.

In the afternoon we moved our base of operations to Sjusjøen and the Rustad hotel.  This place was perfectly placed for our training as a short trail from led from the hotel to the flood lit tracks we had visited the previous day.

After another 2 hours of introductions to the varying techniques involved in cross country skiing, while NRK filmed our exploits, we called it a day to head to NRK's local radio station for a last minute radio interview ... the job of an international adventure idiot never ends :)

Saturday, practice, practice practice !

Armed with equipment and some basic skills we had two days left of this first trip to practice what Jean Francois had taught us.

Unlike the previous two trips to these tracks the weekend had drawn in skiers from further afield as conditions here were good .. it was busy!!  Luckily Norwegians are not only blessed with the ability to XC ski from birth but a great tolerance for floundering foreigners on the trails.

We practiced in the cut tracks our diagonal strides and double poling but the real challenge was when the tracks weren't present and we had to herringbone uphill or worse still snow plough downhill. Luckily Henry has a lot of alpine ski experience so the concept of snow ploughing was not foreign to him even if the execution on the much narrower edgeless skis proved challenging. Cross country skis are far narrower than alpine skis, and the boots offer virtually no support, and far less control than a modern plastic alpine downhill or touring boot.

We practiced techniques with two skis .. one ski .. poles and no poles .. Jean Francois was a patient man and always could indicate the flaws in our technique and offer up helpful advice.

We split our day in to two halves with a break for lunch then the evening brought a much welcome beer and sauna ... we were definitely discovering some non cycling used muscles. XC skiing is a full body workout requiring good core stability, co-ordination and balance. It's not all grunt.

Sunday, lets do some distance.

Sundays session was an attempt at stringing everything we had learned so far together and venturing further along the tracks we had used for training.  Unlike the previous days the wind was blowing strongly ... when we skied in to the wind the progress was slow, on our backs was a boost and cross winds was just .. well ... a test of balance on narrow skis.

After some refreshers on what we had learned the previous day we set off on what would be our first real taste of covering some ground.  Anybody can strap on some skis and shuffle along approximating cross country skiing the real talent comes in developing an efficient technique, kicking and gliding with the least amount of energy expended. Kick'n glide, kick'n glide.

After 12km the morning session was done and we had skied approximately a fifth of what we would have to achieve at the Birken ... after a few days of tuition what had seemed a daunting task was now still daunting though with a little more optimism.

Our final session on snow gave the last opportunity we might see to train on snow for a couple of months so we made use of every moment to practise more and more.  Just as we skied our last little section of trail before turning back to the hotel we were suddenly swallowed by a pack of fast moving serious skiers.  Before we knew it we were amidst a full on training session involving members of a Czech National Team and got a real taste of what a real trained athletes looks like ... fast and efficient !!!

Back home in the UK plans are now in the making to start the roller ski training ... equipment has been sourced and we await Jean Francois to come to UK soil to show us how to train with no snow .. expect to see men in the shadow on Blackpool Tower roller skiing the promenade :)

Paul Errington.

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