Ski what you ride: a new kind of singletrack fever

Words by Jeff Potter

Photos by Tim Potter

Cross-country skiing is a great way to stay in shape in the off-season. Groomed ski courses let you flow the terrain like a magic carpet of corduroy and grooves. But, as an added inticement, with today’s new equipment you can also ski the very same trails you love to ride. And after you get the hang of it you’ll even find that the ski rhythm is similar to biking. Then no more will you whine when deep snow flies!

Many bikers know the XC ski secret to winter joy, but just as many seem out of the loop. It’s time to fill them in on it if they ride in snow country.

Picture you and your pals cruising your favorite trail — on skis, not bikes this time. Heads rise and fall as you whoosh over the undulating terrain. On downhills you drop into a tuck — those behind stay standing, to not run up on you. You skate through a twisty section. On an uphill you’re shedding steam off your backs as you kick – with tasty glide – up the grade. You’re relaxed, but you’re jamming as if you were riding – only with your upper body thrown into the mix. The range of motion is similar, too, only wider and going in more directions: a nice change. And there’s nothing under you but gliding feet: a winter miracle.

An hour later you stop at a bridge over a creek and pull out a little picnic. Apple juice never looks so good as when it’s sunny and snowy. And snacks never taste so good as when you’ve been jamming in the cold.

That’s the winter scene for our local riding group.

Sure, when snowy trails are boilerplate a few of us will ride them on studs. And a few sometimes gladiator-up and endure the salty pavement. But that leaves most winter days where the best answer still is: skis.

Everything Old is New

In winter your same old trails are transformed: leaves are down, forests open up, and the air is clean. You can even ditch the trails and ski the fields, waterways, and golf courses. Can’t ride on water, can ya? Getting to include all that frozen water, and its associated big sky country, in with the woodsy trail life is a blast!

This really isn’t a pitch for a new sport. Skiing and riding are part of the All-One Trail Love Life. It’s the same trails, just different times of year and different gear. Skiing is “dancier,” is the main difference, encouraging nimble hands and feet. You can throw linked-turns into the action, too. You still get to follow the line through curves.

Change in the Air

Our group of mountain bikers in Potawatomi Trail country in mid-Michigan is enjoying a mini-boom-time for skiing. We’ve long hosted bike events in the summer. In the past few winters we’ve been creating ski events and ever-more riders are showing up, ready to keep the party going. You need to know that food and drink après in the parking lot, or around a bonfire, go down really good, sometimes taking as much time as the event itself.

Our no-fee, no-rule, non-events include:

  • A “raid” ski race on the beloved 17-mile “Poto” trail – 23 showed up for our 6th running — moderately technical on a bike, on skis there will be blood.
  • A tour at a heavenly local trail-system off-limits to bikers is our chance to eat it up — 30 riders skied.
  • The Jordan River Jam is our annual last-hurrah: 19 miles over the ridges of an up-north watershed — the guidebook says this wild’n’scenic pathway is “not suitable for skiing” — 9 of us showed ’em what skills are for.
  • A “big day” dark-to-dark ski of the Waterloo-Pinckney trail, a gorgeously challenging 36-miler finished only by four, ever, pizza-fueled and self-supported.

Free-Heel Burn

If you want “the burn,” you can push your VO2 to the max. Come spring, your legs will be readier than ever for early season gravel-grinders. And your core will be monstrous.

Last March I did the season-opener 35-mile Barry Roubaix “Killer Dirt Road Race” after not riding all winter – and did mid-pack fine (out of 1,000!), thanks to skiing.

First, you have your pure aerobics; second, you’re busting your legs and glutes; third, your core is being nuked; fourth, your upper body is on overdrive. And it’s low-impact.

Windtrainers and weights are fine, but they’re not the cure for winter. Fresh air, all the sun you can get, and trail fun are what you need when days are short.

Skiing ups the simplicity of the bike with only four moving parts. A skier is a mammal leaping. Poles are levers extending claws to the ground. Skis are like paws but faster. It’s full-body dyno-glide expressed with abandon.

All you need is a free heel. As long as the ski fits the trail, what kind it is doesn’t matter.


Skiing is One. Skating isn’t better or worse than classic for cyclists or anyone else. Both styles use the same dynamic forward posture and give equal pay-off. The biggest difference is the kind of trail required: skating needs six feet of groomed width, classic can go anywhere. Let your trails be your guide.

Skiing can be counterintuitive, so take a lesson. One session will initiate you in the basics. Lessons will fix the common ways we waste energy and have you smiling up the hills. If there’s no class, find someone who’s been taught. Ski behind good skiers and copy them. YouTubes, books and DVDs all reinforce each other. (I have sweet ski YouTubes.)


You’ll love the recent advances in ski equipment. New mid-length skis are stable yet easy to handle — the mountain bike of skis.

So get a mid-width, all-rounder, mid-length ski. It’s a great starter (and finisher) ski unless you’ll mostly be on groomed trails, in which case narrower skis are in order, or unless you know that off-piste is your thing, in which case the lighter end of telemark skis gives control but still lets you stride.

Today’s ski rig is integrated, light, comfy and no adjustment is needed. Each item combines for “think it, do it.” Boots are bombproof for ankles, with pivoting, support cuffs. Connecting boot to ski, bindings offer sweet control and easy on/off. Poles are mostly aluminum, but entry-level carbon doesn’t cost much more and is a huge step up (arms use all the help they get).

Thanks to these technical advances, the learning curve is way shorter and delivers more of what a mountain biker appreciates: handling joy.

You have to match your gear to you and your trails, though. So get set up at a pro shop.

Ski packages cost about like a set of wheels and last as long — and don’t need upgrades. You don’t need top-shelf gear or fancy wax. Mid-range gear is robust, fast and efficient. You can even do tricks and tele-turns with it.

KISS and use the same clothes you’d use for winter riding.


Ski culture is booming as waves of “go local” and “small footprint” fun get more people outside.

We don’t have groomed areas where we live, but we do have a dozen sweet places to ski. If there’s a little snow at least one trail is good. I’ve learned that it’s the smartest to go for the bestest that’s the closest. In the middle of exurbia, thanks to XC skiing, I live it up like I’m slopeside in Aspen.

It’s easy to reduce your ski carbon footprint just by going ungroomed. You can also reduce your drivetime, sometimes to nil, via your yard, a field, a golf course — it all works and can often be connected-up and stretched-out into as much fun as you can handle.

If you are inclined to race, speedy people are always near and easy to find for weekend events and help.

So slap on the boards and enjoy the glide. Sense the hang-time and the float. Pop your effort into as crisp a moment as fits the conditions, then fly. It’s a winter waltz. You’ve never used all your body like that before. …Especially when you add the curves, bumps and twisties. Feel it giving more than it takes: the gift of the year-round trail life.




Like what you see? Please support independent publishing by Subscribing To Dirt Rag Magazine today.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.