How Liz learned to safely slalom hills without a heelbrake and translate what she learned into magical mogul skiing
center of gravity: Centered along an imaginary line from the belly button to the pubic bone. Muscular contractions and weight shifts originating in this area affect balance and the base of support for all skating moves.
A couple of days after Christmas, I found myself slipping deftly down an off-piste field of moguls at my favorite ski area, thinking, "This is so easy! All you have to do is pick up your knees!"
With the hours I spend carving turns on skates, it shouldn't surprise me that I feel like a ski goddess every December. Nevertheless, I'm always amazed at how much skating applies to what I can do on the slopes. My first year on inlines didn't seem to improve my skiing, probably because I hadn't learned how to carve parallel turns on skates, although I'd been doing it for years on skis. However, the second year--after regular slalom practice on a very short, slightly tilted parking lot near my fitness center--I found it easier to keep my skates close together and heels under hips instead of shoving them down the hill at each turn. That was the breakthrough that resulted in a more upright stance and the centered balance that has made it so easy to manipulate the boards.
The first several days of skiing over the following years have been glorious, too. Each year I am amazed at how easy it feels to ski well in even the most demanding situations. After the first month, the ski goddess feeling does taper off to a tolerable (for my friends) level and I go back to my irrepressible hobby of analyzing the kinetics behind carving up the snow.
The first goddess year's revelation was that controlling my center of gravity (COG) makes a major difference in how nimbly I can ski steeps, moguls and off-piste chunky snow. Before I realized that my previous mogul-oriented goal of "hovering over the sweet spot" was actually related to COG, I came up with a pretty good metaphor to describe it better to my ski buddies. Most people know what it feels like to run swiftly down a full flight of stairs. In order to move your feet quickly, you can't plant your full body weight on each step. Rather, the bulk of your weight is carried higher, in your COG. Your weighted hips flow straight down the stairwell (fall line) as your feet tap lightly down the steps.
Feeling this way while skiing a bump run is pure magic! Lighter feet are much easier to move--all you have to do is "pick up your knees" to ride over each mogul! With a heightened awareness of my COG, I can now feel that magic almost whenever I want with a simple mid-run correction in my ski posture: hips and hands down the hill while skiing in the familiar skater's ready position.
So what caused my millennium COG breakthrough? The prior summer's fear of professional humiliation on a pair of speed skates without a heel brake! For 1999, Salomon outfitted all Zephyr Adventures guides with a pair of brakeless TR Racers. I've long practiced alternative stopping methods, but skating brakeless presented a major psychological hurdle for me. After years of fast and confident downhill runs, I found myself panicking as I approached "terminal velocity" (the point at which you decide you've gotta bail!) much sooner than when wearing a brake. I really wanted to perform well during a Zephyr Customer Reunion weekend in Minnesota where Duluth's annual Northshore Marathon was the main event. I was not about to embarrass myself in front of my fellow guides, Zephyr customers and who knows how many elite racers!
Ah, ego--it can be a good thing. In addition to perfecting my T-stops with either skate, I learned two new skills that improved my confidence and speed control without a brake, and gave me a whole new perspective on COG. Better yet, the muscle memory applies directly to effortless skiing on almost any condition, not to mention better confidence and technique on asphalt slopes.
On skates, especially those with long frames and 90mm plus wheels, it's actually possible to decrease speed and eventually stop by utilizing the skier's snowplow. To do this, swizzle both skates out to the sides with equal pressure. The wider you can get them to start with and the stronger your outer hip muscles, the better they work to slow you down. Keep your torso upright and hips low as you push against your edges so that your COG stays behind both skates to compound the pressure. It's easier to stay low and wide if you concentrate on keeping the skates upright and off the inside wheel edges. I try to tilt onto the outside edges for good measure.
After several weeks of downhill slalom drilling in my brakeless wonders, I learned how to get my center of gravity uphill from my edges and to slice both skates across the fall line rather than down it, where speed picks up fast. Here are the basic concepts to apply to your basic slalom practice:
- Weight is distributed evenly over the staggered skates for better stability.
- A narrow stance, where the rear, downhill skate nearly traces the same path as the lead skate, makes it easier to steer them across and if necessary, up the hill to cut short your run.
- Make fast-tempo turns to keep your edges across--rather than down--the fall line, connected by the fast, scissoring swap from one set of uphill edges to the other.
- Practice keeping the lower body well flexed (hips close to the pavement) so you can take advantage of the increased angulation potential to tip the skates on edge easier and sooner.
- Keep both ankles loose and relaxed inside your boots so you can easily roll them to the sides and increase the depth of your edge set.
- Don't lean forward. Keep your torso uphill from your tilted edges when they're slicing across the fall line. Keeping the COG behind your edges allows you to use your body weight to compound the pressure and friction.
I was gratified at the respectable showing I made at the Northshore Marathon, documented in the closing paragraphs of another Orbit story, My Summer as a Skate Pro. I eventually installed a brake on those Salomon 5-wheelers, but the skills I learned without it have turned out to be priceless assets to me and my skating students!