In the past six weeks we have become cross-country ski obsessives. The obsessive part of it is no surprise as we tend towards the addictive, but the fact that skiing has become our target is both a shock, given the horror of previous attempts at it, and also fortuitous as we find ourselves based in a winter wonderland that is as flat as a witch's tit. If it wasn't skiing I might have to have another crack at skating, and that is an experience that should never be repeated in public.
To start with we had a lesson. If everyone who took up MTBing did the same we would be millionaires. And then we bought the shonkiest sets of prehistoric kit from Canada's most boring woman, who talked so much about herself when we met she gave herself a migraine, presumably through oxygen deficiency. We paid £75 each for skis, boots and poles that were left behind when Captain Scott left the Pole, having applied our principle that you can achieve more through practicing good technique and physical capabilities than you can by just buying Gucci kit. And we are notoriously tightwad bastards.
Then, like anything, it's just a matter of putting in the hours. Initially, it was a combination of my two greatest talents - falling over and swearing, and gave me pains in the most surprising places. But as we know, practice makes perfect, or in our case practice makes us as technically inept as ever but much, much faster. Now, when we crash, it's a flailing, windmilling, scrotum-splitting cluster fuck rather than a slow speed, giggle inducing stumble with resulting snow angel.
The xc ski version of the eternally tedious "what tyres...?" question is the "which wax...?" question. But in skiing's case it is really, really, game changingly important, rather than just being anally retentive. On each ski, under your foot, you apply a layer of kick wax. Without kick wax, when you drive one leg forward, the other one, which is on the ground, shoots out behind you, you go nowhere fast, apart from the hospital to have your groin muscles reattached. offensive Anglo Saxon then fills the air and kills all the delicate Canadians. Think an 18 certificate bambi on ice. So the leg that is on the snow has to grip the snow in some way, and this is the job of the kick wax. There is a bewildering array of wax available, they are graded by temperature in five degree increments and also for new or old snow. Now, I am a card carrying cynic, crafted by years of being ripped off by the cycling industry, and I am pretty damn sure that half the waxes are identical, but I am also aware of the times I have got it wrong and ended up,skiing on the spot while the Talking Head's 'Road to Nowhere' played in my head. The other joy of kick wax is that it will also stick like shit to a blanket on any trail debris - leaves and twigs stuck in the wax have the drag factor of a bent disc rotor and if you are in majestic full glide and hit a big enough bit of trail smeg it is like getting a stick in your spokes; stops your skis stone dead and sends you straight out the front door. Always fun.
When you get the wax right, your technique half decent, and you nail the clothing combo, cross country skiing allows you to fly along in some stunning places. Normally with an icicle of snot (snotcicle) hanging from your nose. Its reputation as a kick ass tough workout is well deserved and at no point is there any requirement to do anything gnarly. Even when you are just noodling along on your MTB, there is this niggling thought that you should really go and do something a bit 'Red Bull Rampage' even though you really want to stick to 'Cycling Miss Daisy'. The sun is reflected back off the snow, you can rock sunnies in February and the likelihood of getting hit by a icy monsoon is slim to none. Unlike running, our other true love, there is no pressure to ever do anything competitive. If you take up running, and build up to the point where you can run 10 km in training, the inner Seb Coe in all of us starts whispering "So how FAST can you run 10km?" and before you can say "seven minute miling" you are pinning on a number and queuing at a portaloo.
Times they are a-changing in the Horton house.
In our chequered history of competing in crazy races, running five miles on a frozen river in Canada is right up there with racing horses, trains and the ill-fated egg and spoon incident of '77. We were confidently assured by the race organiser that the ice was 18 inches thick, and easily strong enough to support our combined weight, but having previously confidently assured riders that our MTB races were flat, dry and not very technical; I know that organisers are habitual liars. But I've seen ice road truckers, had spent hours researching the sound of cracking ice and was fully primed to adopt the 'sliding starfish' position at any given second.
Considering Winnipeg is a damn big city, and there are precious few sports event in the Canadian winter, having 100 runners pitch up for a pretty unique race is a piss poor turn out. For all their roughty-toughty image (big cars, big beards, big burgers) Canadian runners and cyclists suffer the same affliction as their UK counterparts - they disappear indoors faster than a vampire at dawn as soon as the winter arrives. They use these amazing filters that help them only notice evidence supporting the value of wrapping your tits in and sitting on the turbo trainer, and ignore all the fantastically functional kit that you can wrap yourself up in to battle the elements, Bear Grylls-style. The weak scuttle into their Ivan Drago laboratories - air conditioned, bacteria free, wi-Fi enabled torture chambers that make you fit while removing your soul, while the enlightened get all Balboa on yo ass. We accept the clothing challenge, howl into the teeth of the gale and can spend the rest of the day extracting our testicles with a warm spoon.
The Canadian winter, I am first to admit, can be a nostril-hair freezingly harsh environment. There are times when I am scared for my life while de-icing the car, driving on ice and snow encrusted roads is a sphincter clenching thrill ride and frozen eyelashes are a daily occurrence. But as my dear departed Granny too frequently said, "there's no such thing as cold weather, just cold clothes." Dressing for a Canadian winter is a piece of cake because IT'S NOT RAINING ALL THE BLOODY TIME! Avoid exposed skin, wear the biggest parka you can find, hat, gloves, boots and away you go. No Gore-Tex, no wellies, no steaming when you're in the pub, no constant pile of muddy laundry and no moss growing behind your ears.
Dressing for sport is equally easy. You just go for full body cover, fire up the amazing furnace that is the human body and as long as you keep it stoking at 80 per cent, you'll be right as rain. Admittedly you'll have to get past the initial ten minutes of "oh shit, I'm going to die" but you'll mostly survive. Be bold, start cold and all that.
A woeful example of the Canadian lack of backbone was our visit to a running club's weekday session. Meeting place was at a leisure centre where there was an indoor running track. All well and good so far, seen such things on the telly, let's go! But this track was basically made of a rectangular corridor that ran round the top of the swimming pool. It was about 3 metres wide, was 250 metres long and had hundreds of people going round, and round, and round it. The 90 degree bend at each corner didn't help your running fluency, the humidity from the swimming pool made for a pretty sweaty atmosphere, and the occasional roof-supporting pillar made it a full dodgeball run. The sane runners bashed out a swift interval session, as best they could, while the mentally unstable just shuffled round the track for an hour, round and round, slowly unscrewing their hips. BUT THE WORST BIT! The worst bit of all was the presence of a walking track on the inside! People pay to walk round a 250 metre indoor corridor! Are you out of your tiny minds? Roughty toughty my arse!
There is a worrying trend towards thinking about winter as dangerous, evil and best avoided. But we know better, don't we? Enduring winter is how we earn the summer.
Winter - it's a state of mind.