Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Andy Newell, Chris Grover, Ivan Babikov, Alex Harvey, and Devon Kershaw, and additional comments from Kikkan Randall and Erik Bjornsen.
Eighty-three percent. That was the magic figure swirling about the internet on Friday, as news broke on the International Ski Federation’s (FIS) decision to limit classic pole lengths to 83 percent of one’s body length. That means some of the World Cup field will have to shorten their classic poles as FIS tries to discourage double poling from start to finish in races.
“Cross-Country community determined to defend classic technique,” FIS Cross Country tweeted on Friday. “Maximum classic pole length 83% of body length approved.”
The purpose of this new rule, apparently effective for the fast-approaching 2016/2017 World Cup season, is to preserve classic skiing. Åge Skinstad, Norway’s national-team director and FIS World Cup Committee representative, told NTB, according to a translation, that “there were discussions about percentages, but everyone agreed there must be a rule.”
Chris Grover, head coach of the U.S. Ski Team and chairman of FIS’s Subcommittee for World & Continental Cups, explained that the German Ski Association originally proposed a maximum classic-pole length of 85 percent of one’s height, “but that was without shoes and measured to the top of the classic poles,” he wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “They revised their proposal to 83% to reflect the fact that any athletes that are measured would be wearing ski boots since the measurement would take place at the race start/finish, and to reflect that different brands of poles have differing distances between the top of the pole handle and the point on the handle where the strap is attached. I asked that the Cross Country Committee consider 84% of skier height due to how close we are to the season, but the other nations wanted to see 83%.”
Based on the Cross Country Committee’s decision on Friday, athletes will be measured while wearing their ski boots, and the length of their poles measured from the tip to where the strap comes out of the handle.
“Any time we create a rule we take away some freedom from the athlete,” Grover wrote. “The USA went into these meetings prepared to argue against the proposal. However, in Zurich I learned more about some double-pole trends they are seeing in Scandinavia that involve athletes using skate-length (or longer) poles and became more sympathetic to the idea, especially as it pertains to keeping the playing field level for all athletes, including USA athletes.”
While Grover stated that the U.S. supports the idea of preserving “many of the elements of traditional classic skiing, classic ski racing, and classic waxing … These include the classic striding technique and the classic double-pole technique in a form where we would recognize it today,” it is also “not afraid of innovation and change…
“The risk at this point is that double-poling becomes a third type of racing in Cross Country Skiing, with a third set of equipment needed for each developing and elite athlete, and that it may eventually spell the demise of the classic technique as we know it,” he continued. “Vegard Ulvang and the Cross Country Committee [CCC] wanted to make a statement that we are willing to fight for the preservation of the classic technique, and we are willing to try multiple strategies to preserve that technique. Along with this classic pole height restriction, the CCC has also passed a rule earlier this summer that allows the Technical Delegate to implement special technique zones on a classic course if they so choose.”
At its biennial Congress this spring, FIS addressed the issue of double poling on skate skis in classic races and how to prevent this method from dominating future classic races. Two World Cup classic races were won on skate skis last year, according to Adressa.no.
One new rule that came out of those June meetings was no-double-pole zones. This coming season at all levels outside the World Cup, World Championships and Junior World Championships, race juries may designate and mark zones where no double poling is allowed.
Additionally, juries can disqualify racers for taking skate strides in classic races without video evidence.
At the Cross Country Committee’s most recent meeting in Zurich, Switzerland, Grover explained they opened with the World Cup Subcommittee and CCC discussing the future of classic skiing.
“All nations agreed that we need to find a way to preserve the classic striding technique within classic skiing,” he wrote. “All agreed that it is part of our identity as a sport and part of what differentiates Cross Country from Biathlon, Nordic Combined, etc. In some places (esp. Scandinavia) they see traditional classic skiing and waxing as disappearing quickly, and they are also worried that double-poling in the future might be unrecognizable. As leaders in the sport, the Scandinavians are seeing these rapid technique evolutions generally before we are seeing them in the USA. Importantly, all are concerned with micro-skating (the many small skating steps taken by those athletes double-poling a classic race) as a form of cheating and it appears to be happening more frequently at every level (WC, COC, Junior races, popular races especially marathons, etc). I can think of several examples in recent years of USA men being very negatively impacted by competitors getting away with micro-skating when racing classic races on skate gear.”
Asked whether this could lead to injury, Grover didn’t think so.
“All members of the CCC also felt that implementing a change so late in the preparation season and so close to the competition season was far from ideal. However, the changes in the sport are coming so fast (including some pole length testing and training over the summer) that the CCC felt it had to act now,” he wrote. “We also felt that by waiting until next spring, after pole heights had continued to increase over the competition season, that a pole-height restriction would make it even harder for the athletes to adapt to a rule change.”
One of Grover’s athletes, U.S. Ski Team sprinter Andy Newell noted that World Cup skiers have developed a double-pole technique using their core, shoulders and chest muscles to help save their lower back.
“Longer poles are [definitely] better for this,” Newell wrote in an email. “There is a reason why skiers from the 80’s and 90’s were more likely to develop lower spine problems. I would worry that regulating pole lengths too much could set us back.”
Ivan Babikov, a Canadian World Cup racer as recent as last season and now one of Canada’s World Cup coaches, said in an interview that longer classic poles had not made much of an impact at the World Cup level. But men were using them in long-distance races, like the Ski Classics series.
He reasoned that perhaps FIS was trying to nix the longer poles before they reached the World Cup.
“Personally, I think FIS is in kind of a tough situation here,” Babikov said. “I don’t know if they could do anything about it, just to approve more harder courses where people won’t be able to double pole.”
Asked how his athletes feel about the measure, he said nobody was “freaking out or concerned about it, because when you think about it, 83% with the boots on from the tip to the strap, where the strap comes out of the handle, I mean it’s not really such a big difference. It’s like the same normal length of what the guys use now. It doesn’t really affect me or anybody I know.”
“My initial reaction was just a laugh,” Canadian World Cup skier Alex Harvey wrote in an email. “Then I worried a bit, thinking maybe I would have to shorten my pole length and maybe have to adjust my technique/tempo. So I went and did a check of my height in my classic ski boots today, and did the whole calculation, then measured my poles from the tip to where the strap goes into the handle and I still have 4 cm to play with (my cl poles are 155cm long but the way FIS wrote the rule, you mesure to the strap and it’s actually 151cm.)…so not gonna be an issue for me…I usually go 3cm longer for DP races, I guess I will still be allowed to do this according to the new rule.”
His teammate Devon Kershaw reacted similarly.
“My thoughts when I read this was that obviously I found it a bit comical,” Kershaw wrote. “There’s a really easy way to ‘defend’ classical skiing. Put classic races on hard courses. Courses like Sochi, Canmore, Lillehammer, Holmenkollen, etc… You will not have people double poling – if that’s what you are trying to stop. It’s so easy. When FIS puts classic races in Toblach or Davos – both super old school/flat courses – I never understand how they can really be surprised when people do well by using just the double pole technique. Same goes for sprints. Want to stop double poling there too? Easy. Drammen, Stockholm and in the past Asiago cannot have classic sprints on their current courses. Think of kuusamo: ever see people double pole that beast? And win? No, of course not. The easy solution is for FIS to do their job properly when they are out reviewing the race courses (homologating them) – instead of putting a “percentage” rule for pole length. It’s hilarious.”
Harvey pointed out that the Norwegians use some of the shortest classic poles (relative to their height) in the World Cup field, “and it’s not stopping them from being the best in the World at double poling. … I agree with FIS when they say they need to keep striding and protect this beautiful technique, but to me, it’s easy. Pick the right courses!”
Harvey recalled getting disqualified in a classic sprint in Asiago, Italy, in December 2013.
“There was so many people getting infractions that they could’t actually hold the meeting in a proper room, it had to be outside, right next to the stadium because we were so many skiers getting a speech from the TD,” he explained. “I kinda lost it in the middle of the meeting and asked what the heck was he [and] the other FIS TD’s doing when they came in the Summer to check out the race site? Did they expect ANY men to choose striding over double poling on that course that was in a flat field? My final quote before I left the meeting was this: ‘Did you just come to Asiago, eat some cheese and drank some wine, then decided it was gonna be a good place for a classic sprint and a classic team-sprint?!!’. I got in trouble but I was just too pissed. It’s easy for FIS, just choose a location with good hills. DONE!”
On the double-pole note, Harvey added his opinion on sprinting. “I actually think that double poling makes it more exciting. In a place like Drammen, in the final you always have guys double poling and guys striding. Will the DP’ers be too tired from the quali, 1/4 and semi by the time the final comes? Will the conditions change? How is the tactic going to be? To me it makes it more exciting if your’e watching on TV, and isn’t it what FIS should be focusing on?”
Kershaw noted that this rule will have a bigger impact on the distance skiers who “pioneered the long-pole/double pole revolution. On the World Cup it’ll affect those that are using long poles for their height. Northug for example comes to mind or Noah (Hoffman). I doubt it will drastically affect most World Cup skiers. If they end up having to cut their poles, it will be by a few cms MAX which won’t take long to adjust to. For me for example I can actually go up in length by roughly 2-3cm from what I’m using.”
Grover explained that some of his athletes will have to use slightly shorter classic poles, while others will be unaffected.
Kikkan Randall, a longtime U.S. Ski Team member and FIS athlete representative, joked in an email that she needed to break out the measuring tape. What she found was her classic pole length appeared to be legal, with about 1.5 cm to play with.
“I’ve been in touch with Pierre Mignery, the FIS CC Race Director and Chris Grover, the WC Committee Chairman,” Randall explained in an email on Saturday. “Both explained that this rule comes from a strong common feeling from the whole committee to try to preserve classic skiing. It’s a rule that will be tested for sure this season and then reviewed next spring. I also learned the pole testing will not necessarily be carried out for every racer every time. In the case of mass start, they may only pull random skiers or check at the finish, similar to the random selection used for drug testing. So that is nice to hear.
“I’m sure there will be healthy discussion next spring about whether or not this rule helps the double pole problems and then it will either stay or go,” she added. “I will look forward to collecting athlete feedback on the topic through the season.”
In a previous email, Randall explained she thought 83 percent was too conservative.
“Skiers have different body types and styles and this new standard seems too close to the minimum height,” she wrote. “I experimented with different pole heights in the past and gradually worked my way down from 145cm to 140cm. For me longer poles did not feel like an advantage. I think this rule could have been used to prevent the use of ‘much longer’ poles. But within a couple centimeters of the average seems overly cautious.”
But changes are always hard, she added on Saturday.
“When they first proposed the sprint heat selection procedure, most athletes were against it,” Randall wrote. “It took a little getting used to but now I would say all the athletes positively support the heat selection. So perhaps this will happen with this rule too.”
Her teammate Newell called the rule “a little hasty and unnecessary. I tend to be someone who believes that less rules are better especially when it comes to equipment and technique regulations, just because it kind of has the potential to stunt the evolution of sport,” he wrote.
“It’s crazy, and even a little bit funny how FIS is approaching the double pole problem exactly the same way they embraced the skating revolution when it was in its early days,” Newell added. “I think most World Cup skiers fall into the same category as me which is someone who really loves classic skiing and using kick wax and striding and gliding, but also appreciates the feeling of a good double pole.”
At the same time, he doesn’t have a big problem with the new rule because 1.) strong double polers are always going to be strong double polers, and 2.) measuring athletes in their ski boots and their poles from tip to strap isn’t going to be a drastic adjustment, he wrote. Newell anticipated he wouldn’t need to cut down his poles.
“Last month we double poled a classic sprint race in New Zealand, and under the current rules I still would have been able to use the same length poles that I did in that race,” he wrote.
His teammate Erik Bjornsen explained he was surprised to hear about the new rule.
“Earlier this summer I decided to shorten my poles by 2.5 cm because I thought it was an advantage to use a little shorter pole, maybe I’m wrong,” he wrote in an email. “I thought shorter poles aloud me to bring my weight up more before dropping it into the poles.”
Bjornsen uses 157.5 cm classic poles and is 6-foot-2 (roughly 188 cm) without ski boots. He measured himself with boots on and his poles as described and found his height to be 189 cm and and poles 155 cm, which brings him to 82 percent.
“I believe I wont have an issue with my current pole length,” he wrote. “Either way it should be fun watching the FIS try to enforce this new rule.”
“If anything I see it mostly as an added stress and headache for FIS to try to regulate this on race day, and also regulate in a fair way, because you know skiers are going to try to push the rules,” Newell wrote. “I was told today that an average person’s height can very 1-3 centimeters between morning and night haha. Who knows maybe T grips will come back into style:)”
“The new limit won’t prevent people from double-poling a race if they want to,” Grover acknowledged. “However, the rule is intended to keep future athletes from double poling races (and micro-skating) with poles that are close to the head-height limit (i.e. skate length or taller). This new rule is intended to be used as one tool, alongside the new technique zone rule, and possible future rules in the struggle to retain something that looks like classic skiing in the future. Will it work? I don’t think anyone is convinced that this is a guaranteed solution. But the message coming out of the CCC is that we want to try to preserve the elements of classic skiing, and the hope is that it helps to halt the one-way trajectory of double-poling that we see at the moment.”
— Gavin Kentch, Jason Albert and Gabby Naranja contributed reporting