“Your sticks are too long.”
As introductions go, this was a fairly unusual one.
The excellence of this winter’s weather has had some notable side-effects. Outweighing the minor irritations of having no running water every time the temperature drops past -10C and the rate at which the off-cuts of the Latvian furniture industry – delivered in bags by the ubiquitous man-in-van-with-bossy-wife – disappear up the chimney have been a series of circumstances reminding us of what winter is supposed to be all about.
As well as the freezing of the River Daugava we’ve been treated to a succession of spectacular mornings with the rising sun gathering up the freezing fog of the night like a housewife changing the bedsheets, hoar-frosted trees in the parks bringing out photographers in their dozens and ideal conditions for cross-country skiing in Uzvaras park.
That’s where I was, looping the tracks in an ongoing triumph of willpower over technique when I got told my sticks were too long.
Actually I already knew my sticks were too long, so there was no surprise in having this information confirmed. What surprised me was that a total stranger, and a reticent Latvian at that, would pull up next to me and tell me so.
“For cross country skis like yours, you need sticks up to here,” the messenger of the skiing gods continued, indicating a level on his stomach before I had a chance to respond. “Those sticks are too long.”
He was moustachioed, probably about 50 years old and I’d seen him haring around the track with impressive speed and agility, but using the classical rather than skating style favoured by most of the more talented skiiers.
He clearly relished the fact that thanks to the plentiful supply of ice, the Uzvaras track finally had some decent grooves for practitioners of the classical style whereas for the last couple of years the skaters are the only ones who have really enjoyed decent conditions.
The narrow classical track by the side of their broad expanse of V-scarred ice would veer off into the grass as it melted and collapsed, risking sending the classical skier careening into the knot of driving instructors who ply their trade along one edge of the park.
This actually explains why my sticks were too long. Frustrated by the lack of a classical track but unwilling to pay winter prices for skating skis, I’d developed a bizarre hybrid style of my own using classical skis but long skating sticks. That way I could use the classical grooves (sounds like one of those albums of the early eighties adding a disco beat to Ludwig van) where they existed but swerve onto the skating piste where the did not using the extra leverage of the long sticks to maintain just about enough momentum for progress.
It’s not particularly elegant but it is effective and has given me many hours of pleasure even when the ice has been poor.
I also liked to think some of the other skaters took note of my unusual combination of equipment and clothing (usualy involving a sheepskin hat and motheaten jumper) as they whistled past me in their streamlined lycra leotards and Fischer goggles. “Hmm, that chap’s skating but with classical skis! That’s really difficult to do. And he’s doing it without wearing any specialist gear. I wonder who this mysterious and talented skiier is,” they must surely have thought.
Well, they clearly noticed me alright but not in the way my fantasy preferred. They noticed that my sticks were too long but I didn’t seem aware of the fact and looked ridiculous wobbling from one part of the track to another, getting in everyone’s way. They thought “Someone needs to tell that guy his sticks are too long.”
Should I try to explain all of this to the man who decided to do something about it?
Of course not.
“Er… we must use what we have,” I blurted out, hoping that this might sounds vaguely like a Latvian proverb.
“Hmmm,” he grunted and dashed off around the track.