Ski de Fond: Back to Basics!

21 Mar

A glossary of French English terms would have come in handy prior to our cross country skiing lesson this morning. Our slim, polite, young Ecole de Ski Francais instructor, Aurelien, arrived on the dot of 9:15am and whilst he spoke fair English he uses idiosyncratic pronounciations we had to guess at. Herewith some examples of Aurelien speak to give you an idea:

Hankles = Ankles
Hump = Hill
Rizim = Rhythm

If you’ve never seen ski de fond gear these are the skis and poles.


The skis are narrower than the boots which resemble ten pin bowling shoes. There’s not much margin for error. The waterproof lace up boots clip in at the toes in the centre of skis which have no edges and are longer than downhill skis. The heel is free so you can lift it. The underneath of the skis has several vertical grooves and also some crossways ridges to help give traction when skiing or walking uphill. The poles need to reach to the armpit and the little duck feet at the base must face backwards

As it was our first ski de fond outing Aurelien spent the two and a half hour lesson working through all the different techniques a beginner needs. First with poles and then without. Some manouvres used the well grooved tracks of other skiers and sometimes we used the centre of the piste. Each technique was carefully demonstrated then we had to repeat it until Aurelien was satisfied we had half a chance of doing it successfully.

Here’s my idiot’s guide to ski de fond a la Aurelien.

Flat terrain: Use long steps with a glide transferring weight completely with each stride. Ankles and knees are flexed and the upper body has a straight back with a slight forward incline and open shoulders. Push off with the ball of the foot, almost like sprinting. Keep the momentum moving foreward. Arms swing freely reaching for the points of the skis and swinging back behind you almost touching the thighs as they swing through. Poles are held with the tips angling backwards. Plant the poles halfway between the tip of the boot and the tips of the skis.

Uphill: If you have the fitness then the technique is similar to that used on the flat but the steps are shorter and the arm swing and pole plant is restricted so that the backswing stops at thigh level. The chest is lifted and by gazing up at the tree tops the momentum is carried forward.

When you tire step off the track and use scissor steps, i.e. the tips of the skis are wide apart and the backs close together as you step forward planting the poles beside you to push forward, stepping up the slope.

Downhill: To travel straight down a hill the hands are held well forward with the poles just hanging and the weight is kept on the balls of the feet.

The snow plough is used in its standard form when you need to slow or stop on a straight downhill incline. Since there are no edges you really have to open the back V of the plough, bend the knees and angle the feet in while keeping the weight forward.

The half snow plough is used if you’re in the tracks. If it is a left hand turn downhill you have to step the right ski out of the track and angle it into a half V while trying to edge with the inside edge of the ski. Opposite works for the right hand turns.

The other downhill turn technique is the stepping turn which resembles the small steps a race skater makes to turn corners without the crossing of skates you see them do.

One of the tricky techniques is to step out of the tracks when going downhill which requires you lifting one ski out of its track, totally transferring weight to that ski then quickly stepping the other ski out to put it parallel to the other. The weight is further forward, over the knee of the lead ski during the manouvre.

Getting up after you fall over: No kidding, there is a right way to do it! Make sure the skis are parallell and across the gradient so you won’t take off at speed backwards or forwards. With knees and hips well flexed, lift your heels off the skis and using your hands on the snow move the weight onto the balls of the feet then use the strength of your thighs to stand up and steady yourself with the poles.

So how did we do? Both Stuart and I did quite well but were shattered when we finished. My balance is fine but my weakness is my upper body stamina for poling. Stu has an obvious difference between his right and left sides for some of the techniques which is hardly surprising since part of his brain had to rewire post stroke.

After being released by Aurelien we fell into the nearest restaurant and fortified ourselves with lashings of food and drink at a table near the fireplace. Restaurant Blanchot is a bit posher than our usual lunch stop but we were just so happy to stop moving for a while.

Once our house guest, friend and fellow downhill skier Michael heads home next week we will pick a fine day with good snow cover and try to emulate Aurelien on our own, with the appropriately bent knees and hankles.

Who needs poles?


Restaurant Blanchot



We earned this!

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