Kristina Strandberg (left) and Evelyn Dong of Bend roller ski on Century Drive, just east of Mount Bachelor. - Photo by Mike Stahlberg

Rolling & Poling

In summer, cross-country skiers are as rare as Christmas ornaments.

Unless they're on roller skis like Lars Flora and his friends. No snow is no problem for these elite cross-country skiers.

They just pull into a snow park, snap their boots into the bindings on a pair of roller skis and head off toward Mount Bachelor — on the paved shoulders of Century Drive or the freshly repaved Sunriver cutoff road.

"This is the most specific training we can get for cross-country skiing without being on snow," says Flora, 31, a Portland native who represented the United States in the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics.

But you don't have to be a world-class athlete to enjoy roller skiing or reap its conditioning benefits.

"If you can cross-country ski, you can do this," says Torin Koos, one of Flora's training partners. Koos, 29, was named to the U.S. National Team in May and is preparing for his third Olympics in Vancouver next year.

Koos and Flora are frequently joined on the summer ski "trails" by two top female Nordic skiers, Kristina Strandberg and Evelyn Dong. Strandberg, 34, is the 2009 U.S. five-kilometer classic champion and silver medalist in the 15-kilometer pursuit. Dong won the 2008 American Birkebeiner race and finished fourth in the world's largest ski marathon, the Swiss Engadine.

All are enthusiastic about roller skiing, going out for two-hour rolls several times a week.

"This is one of the more challenging roller skis around," Flora says of the hilly countryside near Mount Bachelor.

Roller skiing uphill is not as slippery as one might imagine.

"When you do classic (diagonal stride) skiing, you have a skate that doesn't roll backwards," Strandberg says, demonstrating how the wheel on one of her skis turns in only one direction. "That allows you to kick going up the hills."

Going downhill, stopping is a bit more challenging on roller skis.

"We can't throw in a hockey stop on the pavement," says Koos.

Some high-end roller skis come with "speed reducers" and even brakes, but most skiers rely on a modified snow-plow technique to stop.

"You actually can snow plow; you just don't skid the way you do with a ski, but by creating friction in the rubber tires," says Terry Smith of Eugene, who's been a roller skier for about 30 years. "It takes some practice to figure all that out."

Smith says roller skiing "is the most ski-specific dry-land training that you can do" for Nordic skiing.

"I find the sensation of skiing to be a really enjoyable motion," says Smith, an analyst in the Eugene city manager's office. "I tell people it's about as close to ballet as old men will ever get."

Roller skis "have many of the advantages of bikes in terms of being able to see scenery, and you cruise at 6 to 7 miles per hour pretty easily," Smith says.

"In the classic X-C ski-striding technique, something between 30 and 60 percent of the propulsion comes from the upper body," Smith says. "In ski-skating, it's 50 to 80 percent, so it's a very specific kind of motion that the arms and core and shoulder are all doing together. Of course, it's an endurance sport, and it (roller skiing) is the only way to simulate those motions and develop real endurance on dry land.

"That's why everybody who's serious about the sport as a competitor has to roller ski."

While accomplished cross-country skiers generally have no trouble taking up the wheeled version of the sport, Smith says, true novices need to exercise caution.

"The penalty for falling is a great deal higher on pavement than on snow," he says. "You should not try to learn to ski this way, because part of learning to ski is falling down a lot."

Ski-team members "stay off the streets, and we always wear protective gear," such as helmets, gloves and knee pads, he says.

Improved technology has made roller skis better and safer over the years, Smith says. In addition to braking devices, larger tires on today's models make the skis less prone to slippage on small pieces of gravel or other impediments.

Prices also have come down as more companies have entered the market. "A pair of skis now starts at about $170, and you can spend more than $450 for one with all the bells and whistles," Smith says. "Add a pair of bindings, maybe 75 bucks, and you need poles with special carbide tips so they will hold in pavement," and you, too, will hold the keys to an endless winter.

Mike Stahlberg is an outdoors writer for The (Eugene) Register-Guard.

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