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The Synthetic Season

Fall Line
posted: 03/17/2005

Ryan Locher carved through the giant slalom course in Presolana, Italy, during last summer's Grass Skiing World Championships, driving his edges into the turf and catapulting out of his turns. Suddenly, the rotating belt on one of his grass skis, which resemble tank tracks, jammed. Locher, traveling 40 miles per hour, became a human missile, slamming into the ground headfirst.

Face-first wipeouts on dry ground aren't part of the typical winter experience, but they're standard fare for competitive grass skiers. Locher, 25, is among the few Americans to compete in the fringe summertime sport popular among European skiers. "It's pure carving," he says. While snow kis slide out when cornering, the rotating tracks on grass skis bite the ground, so wipeouts are common. Racers often break collarbones, motivating the wise to wear motocross padding. Locher, who works at Virginia's Bryce Resort, one of the few U.S. areas to offer grass skiing, broke his arm in 1995 when he skied into a ditch. Grass skiing, he concedes, "is not for your average skier."

No kidding. For most skiers, summer is the time to hike, bike or golf. Some passionate - and wealthy - skiers escape to the Southern Hemisphere. Others hike to snow patches in the Rockies and assorted high-alpine peaks. For everybody else, there are other ways closer to home to get in a few turns. Just remember to wear your body armor.

Street skiing, for instance, allows confident souls to schuss asphalt. "You can do zero to 50 in six seconds," enthuses Douglas Lucht, who invented StreetSkis and holds the speed record for the sport (63 mph). StreetSkis resemble long inline skates, but are more flexible. They have two wheels directly underfoot, and one wheel at the tip and tail of the ski. The design, Lucht claims, ensures precise turns and stability.

Risk-averse types might want to consider a softer surface: water. Waterskiing is, in fact, one of the best summer cross-training exercises for alpine skiers, says Jim Grew, chairman of USA Water Ski. Grew, 65, a lifelong snow skier and Steamboat, Colo., powder devotee, keeps fit by waterskiing five days a week near his Florida home. He and a buddy swap turns driving the boat while the other takes six back-to-back runs through a slalom course. Along with the fitness benefits, Grew says, the physics of snow skiing and water skiing are similar because you must "stay centered over your skis" and "push off your edges." Champion waterskier Jamie Beauchesne cites 100 days of skiing every winter as key to his success. Both sports use centrifugal force and edging to generate speed out of a turn, says Beauchesne, who's ranked No. 1 in the world by the International Water Ski Federation. "The sports are far more alike than people think."

When it comes to summer skiing alternatives, the United States has a lot of catching up to do. On the other side of the Atlantic, skiers looking for summer turns can head to a "snowdome," an indoor hill covered in manmade snow. About 50 snowdomes operate around the world, such as the 820-foot-long slope in Madrid's Xanadu shopping mall. Now that some kinks have been worked out - long lines for 30-second runs, diesel fumes from grooming machines - American skiers can expect snowdomes stateside in "the next few years," predicts ski industry analyst Patrick Thorne.

One reason for Europe's preeminence is that Europeans are more accepting of artificial snow. England, for instance, is home to a handful of "dry skiing" parks, which feature outdoor artificial turf. The newest slopes are made from a plastic monofilament called Snowflex, which is spritzed with water for lubrication. To prevent injuries, several inches of foam padding are layered beneath the turf. Developers are considering several American locations, including the Denver area, for a Snowflex facility geared to park-and-pipe riders, says the company's U.S. sales rep.

What does it feel like? American snowboarder Greg Stem, who tested Snowflex during a visit to England, says the surface is great for freestyle riders but will disappoint skiers who enjoy carving. "You slide through your turns," says Stem, who also warned of turf burns. British skier Ryan Wilgoss is more blunt: "The friction on the skin is reminiscent of a bad carpet-sex session," he says.

The key to any of these alternative sports is to avoid injuries while staying in shape for winter. "Grass skiing is a great way to spend the summer. And it's a great workout," Locher says. "Of course, I like snow skiing better."

But there may come a day when skiing will be available all summer long-on outdoor manmade snow. Tenney Mountain, N.H., plans to open in October for the second straight winter, thanks to its new 50-ton-per-day snowmaker. Tenney hopes to use a 150-ton-per-day snowmaker around the clock by 2005. That would cover a 500-yard-long, 50-foot-wide slope, says spokesman Charlie Richey, "even in 90-degree heat."

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