Cross-Country Skiing: The Ultimate Cycling Winter Training
Author's Note: My name is Joseph Bonacci and I have been an avid Nordic Skier all my life. I've been fortunate enough to have been able to compete throughout the United States at national level ski competitions and was picked for exclusive teams to represent the Intermountain Region. I have worked with the Utah based TUNA program as a coach as well. This article is based off my personal experience, as well as important fundamentals I've learned over the years from coaches, Olympians and sports medicine experts in the field. Skiing is what got me into mountain biking, and I'd like to share some helpful tips and advice on how to use Nordic skiing to become a better cyclist.
As the storm clouds move in and indicate the beginning of winter, a lot of us tend to grumble as it's time to put our bikes on the trainer, get ready for the long months of staring at a screen, and dream about riding outside again in the spring. Many factors make winter riding less accessible: the added grime and grit from the road, cold temperatures, variable conditions, and especially daylight running out early. For these and other reasons, many riders turn toward cross-country skiing as a way to stay in shape and stay outside during the offseason.
Here in Utah, there are many great places to go cross-country skiing, and there are many resources available for people who have not yet tried out the sport.
Taking the dive into Nordic skiing can be a bit equipment intensive, and the thought of buying a whole slew of equipment just to try it out for a season can be a little intimidating. Luckily though, cross-country skiing and cycling share the same ethos of tighter, performance fitting and aerodynamic clothing. This means you can use a lot of your same winter cycling clothes, and if you have cycling tights without a chamois you may not need any extra clothing at all!
Before we get into the nitty gritty of where to ski and how exactly it will benefit your cycling, it's worth mentioning some notable bike racers that use Nordic skiing as cross training. I grew up ski racing with Specialized Factory Team racer Haley Batten who still utilizes the skinny skis for training, and she's just as quick on the skis as she is on a mountain bike. Ten-time XC mountain bike World Champion Nino Schurter never shies away from cross-country skiing, training throughout the winter in his Swiss home. Sepp Kuss, winner of the 2023 Vuelta a España, grew up Nordic skiing in the Durango, Colorado area and now frequently hits the Nordic track in his adopted Andorran home. The off season conditioning helps make sure he'll be able to help his Jumbo Visma teammate Jonas Vingegaard go for another Tour De France win.
How it works
When it comes down to it, there are two disciplines of cross-country skiing. The "skate" technique, as the name suggests is extremely similar to the motion employed in ice skating. The "classic" technique, sometimes called "diagonal stride" keeps the skis parallel and is what most folks think of when it comes to cross-country skiing.
For off-season cycling training specifically, skate skiing is what I recommend. There are many reasons why, but the most important is hip position. In mountain bike racing and cycling in general, your hips always face the direction where you want to go. If you were to draw an imaginary box with your shoulders and hips as the corners, throughout a bike race that box would stay relatively static compared to the rest of your body. If your shoulders are twisting, or your core isn’t supporting you, that's when you lose stability and speed on the bike. The same is true for skate skiing. If you were to look down at a skier coming uphill towards you, their hips and shoulders wouldn’t move and they would be pointed at you the entire time. Keeping a strong core and back position is paramount to having this proper form in skate skiing, and it’ll massively improve your speed and endurance.
Classic technique is different than skate, so the static, square hip and shoulder position changes. When you stride on the skis (as opposed to when you skate), your kick leg opens and rotates your hips up to get momentum. This is effectively the opposite motion as what you would employ on a bike. So, while classic skiing is a great way to get out and stay fit, if you're looking for something to help make you the fastest bike racer you can be, stick to skate skiing.
The main benefit of skate skiing is the vast array of muscle groups it works. You will workout every part of your body imaginable during a day skating on the skinnys. The pulling motion will strengthen your arms and shoulders, including both triceps and biceps, as well as help developing grip strength. These are all muscle groups you use as you descend and really have to throw your bike around. Your core and back muscles will strengthen, which will help keep control and decrease fatigue on the bike. Last but not least, your legs will benefit from end to end. Even the best riders I know will still feel utterly beat after only an hour on skate skis because of the unrelenting effort involved.
Skating is a great way to stay in shape without much weight gain. Due to the long sustained efforts, it works as a way to drive blood deep into your muscles to bolster your strength, without building a lot of mass. Nordic skiers, like bike racers, are usually the skinniest people in the room, as it is a sport where the power to weight ratio is important. Nordic skiing also provides you with another way to get outside for a workout during the coldest months, which can break up the monotony of winter bike training.
Where to go
Here in Utah, there are many places to try out Nordic skiing. For those who want to get some lessons before they jump in, The Utah Nordic Alliance (TUNA), Park City Ski and Snowboard (PCSS), White Pine Touring, and Soldier Hollow all offer programs for all ages for getting into Nordic skiing. TUNA even offers a specialized high school program called the X Team, which is designed around the idea of cross training for other sports, with biking as the main focus. Even just one or two sessions with an instructor or experienced skier will help you get positioning and technique dialed so you are able to ski and train with confidence.
Here in the Salt Lake City area there are many different places to check out. TUNA grooms the Mountain Dell Golf Course and SR65 at the mouth of East Canyon. Millcreek Canyon will be consistently groomed above the winter gate throughout the winter.
Park City offers many different Nordic ski areas to check out. The Utah Olympic Park next to Kimball Junction offers a good variety of terrain, and Round Valley grooms and maintains all of their double track trails for Nordic skiing. Just like for biking, Round Valley is a great place for a beginner to get comfortable, and it's also a great place for a diehard to spend all day skiing.
White Pine Touring in Park City grooms from their golf course location near Main Street, all the way to the Contender Park City Red Barn shop (woohoo!). Soldier Hollow offers a lot of high-quality skiing, but since it was originally designed primarily for Olympic events, it can be a bit intimidating for beginners.
What you need
The most intimidating part of starting any new sport is often the equipment you need to do it. For Nordic skiing, like bike racing, you will likely have way too many people telling you exactly what they use, and why. My recommendation to those new to the sport is to start by rounding up the clothes. Find some warm clothes that are form fitting and comfortable that provide the best range of motion possible.
If you don't have skis, boots, or poles, I would recommend renting equipment to start out. Trying before buying is a great way to figure out sizing, as this will be key to a good experience. Check out local Nordic ski shops for rental setups and recommendations for equipment. Just like when you consult your bike shop, the ski shop will be able to properly dial you in for where you'll be skiing, your ability level and how often you're planning on going.
Cross-country skiing is an ideal way to stay strong during the cycling offseason. Use it to raise your VO2 max, develop your aerobic capacity, or even just a way to stay entertained during the grey months. If you aren't new to the sport, or if you've already gotten yourself some skis, you can drop your skis off here at the Salt Lake City Contender shop for a tune! Tim Metos of Wild Rose Sports provides an amazing base grind that will revamp your skis into like-new condition.