Skiing like a champ
An encounter with the Nordic Combined Skier Bernhard Gruber in Sportgastein
Author: Martin Betz
We’re gradually finding our rhythm. Our diagonal strides are becoming more elastic, the snow is flying away from our poles at ever shorter intervals. We take a deep breath of clear, fresh mountain air. Slowly an incomparable sense of well-being flows from the tips of our toes to our finger tips.
Cross-country skiing is a sport that not only offers a full-body workout, it’s also a perfect way to forget your troubles. With the all-purpose skis we’ve borrowed from the ski-rental shop, we’re able to move fairly confidently even on inclinations, the “fish-scales” on the bottom of the skis keeping us from slipping.
An arena of impressive peaks
Our eyes are still glued to the tips of the narrow skis as they glide along the tracks. But the more fluid our movements become, the more we begin to take in the imposing scenery that surrounds us. Step by step, we’re coming closer to a complete arena of three-thousanders. Here in Sportgastein, or Nassefeld to natives of the Gasteinertal Valley, we’re spending the day on what is probably one of the most beautiful cross-country trails in Austria. The head of the valley, which belongs to the Hohe Tauern National Park, is covered by a thick blanket of white snow. And at 1,600m above sea level, it will stay that way until well into spring.
Trailing across the region
- Cross-country skiing tips from experts © Österreich Werbung / Eva Mayrhuber
Sharing a bench with a world champion
It’s then that we meet Bernhard Gruber who’s out on the skating trail that runs alongside the classic trail. But what was that about meeting? He skates towards us at high speed and it’s obvious he could do three rounds in the time it would take us to do just about one. So it’s better that we take a seat on a bench on the Nassfeld Alm to talk about cross-country skiing, top-level sport and the region.
Berni is a native of the Gastein Valley and has held the title of World Champion in the individual Nordic Combined discipline since 2015. He is the first Austrian to hold the title - and the entire Gastein Valley is incredibly proud.
For Berni on the other hand, the region in which he trained even as a child is simply unbeatable. The trails here are “practically carved into the mountain scenery,” he says. Even outside the competition season he comes here to train every day. The high altitude improves his fitness levels and furthermore exercise at more than 1,000m above sea level is a genuine fountain of youth, he says.
There’s something very special about getting cross-country skiing tips from a Nordic World Champion, so we start practising straight away.
We should stand well balanced over the centre of the skis, leaning not too far forward and not too far back, he told us. We should also remember to keep our arms and hands as close to the torso as possible, as this stabilises the body’s centre of gravity, which is especially important on downhill runs. Another suggestion for getting a better sense of balance while skiing is to make a small jump and then try to cushion the landing with your legs or lean forward and then backwards again, once with bent knees and then with straight legs.
Berni watches us for a while, before he skates off and soon he’s nothing more than a small dot in the landscape.
We meet him again at the beginning of the trail, where he’s chatting to a couple of Scandinavian fans. They are very well aware of who they’re talking to. After all, Nordic skiing is no longer just the preserve of the Nordic countries. The success the Austrians are now achieving is perhaps also down to the beauty of the country’s cross-country trails.
In icy conditions:
Stand well balanced over the middle of the ski. If your centre of gravity is too far forward, your ski will slide and there is a risk of falling forwards. Keep your hands and arms close to your torso.
It is essential that your boot provides plenty of support. Adopt a crouching position, stretch your poles out behind you, stand straight on the skis, do not use the edges of the skis.
Use the herringbone technique. Tips of skis out to the side, kick off with left foot and push your right arm. Keep your hands and arms as close to your body as possible to stabilise your centre of gravity.
Targeted exercises activate the necessary muscles. Stretch your legs, swing your arms, rotate your hips.
Recreational skiers should use a wider ski with fish-scales to prevent sliding, and ambitious skiers a skating ski with a glide zone that runs the entire length of the ski.