Cross-country skiing has long suffered from an image problem, one might say. It has never really been considered as hip as other alpine winter sports, but was rather seen as a boring alternative for ageing winter sport lovers who didn’t dare to go down those steep slopes anymore. The other thing we knew about cross-country skiing were those pictures of professional athletes collapsing in the finish line after a long race. Both of these associations were not really ideal to attract young recreational athletes, to say the least. Yet the image of cross-country skiing has changed over the last decades and more and more young people have been drawn to the tracks. Former cross-country pro Martin Tauber runs the Cross Country Academy in Seefeld and knows exactly why this sport is now attracting a broad audience.
You started cross-country skiing at the age of eight. What was your impression of the sport back then?
My parents’ house in Seefeld was located right next to a cross-skiing track. When we were little, we used to throw snowballs at the cross-country skiers, who were usually older people. In 1985, when I was eight years old, the Nordic Ski World Championships took place in Seefeld, so I could witness the media presence of this huge sports event first-hand. I became interested in cross-country skiing, even though it was not a popular sport at the time. I would even say it was considered boring.
That didn’t seem to scare you off. You kept going and became a professional skier.
Even as a child I liked to swim against the tide. From age eight all I wanted to do was cross-country skiing. And basically, that’s all I did until the end of my professional career in 2007. During those years I was lucky enough to take part in two world championships and the Olympic Games. Those were outstanding experiences.
Have the sport and its image changed since the 1980s?
Of course, they have changed completely. The crucial turning point was probably also in 1985, when skate-skiing was invented in addition to the classic cross-country skiing style. You can compare it to the development that took place in alpine skiing when carving came up and replaced the parallel turn. Skate skiing is a younger and more dynamic style and increasingly popular among skiers. A trend that can also be observed in our Cross Country Academy.
A new style is one thing. But it’s probably not the only reason why cross-country skiing is becoming more popular these days, is it?
The equipment has also changed a lot and has made it easier to learn cross-country skiing. With skate skiing, it takes us about three days to teach beginners all the skills they need to explore the tracks around here on their own. If they go for the classic style, it only takes an hour or two. And that should actually be our goal. We don’t want our guests to depend on us for seven days, even though that would be the more profitable approach for our Academy.
Also the image of cross-country skiers seems to have changed. One might even say they look kind of cool these days.
People used to wear all kinds of clothes on the tracks, from Knickerbocker trousers to cheap sweat suits. But those days are over. Nowadays you have stylish cross-country skiwear, which is also a reason why the sport has become younger and trendier. When we first opened our Cross Country Academy, we put great emphasis on a sporty appearance, so I wore my racing suit on all of the images we used on our website and in our folders. That didn’t only mean I was freezing throughout our shoot, but it also stirred a lot of criticism. People told me: “You won’t reach our crowd with that, that’s not our target group.” I told them I was fine with that, as long as I would target the people I really wanted to have as customers.
The trend of getting fit and healthy is not new, but do you think it has also helped cross-country skiing? Maybe because people also want to stay fit during winter, beyond their usual studio routine?
Everybody wants to be fit and healthy, either to keep up with growing challenges in their professional lives or simply because they want to feel good. The running and cycling scenes are still growing and people want to stay fit also during winter. So they can either go to the gym and train each muscle individually, or they can do one or two hours of cross-country skiing and use about 95% of their muscles at once. That might be exhausting, but it also makes you feel great. And that’s how I have been feeling every day since I was eight years old. Every day that I could work out was a great day. The only times I felt bad was when I was not able to ski for two days in a row.
Another great thing about cross-country skiing might be the fact that you don’t need anything but your own body and strength – there is no need for a lot of technology.
Absolutely. You can enjoy nature, its peace and quiet, you can go up every hill on your own and then enjoy the faster pace going back down. This experience is definitely a crucial factor. When I look at my GPS watch after my tour it tells me that I managed to complete 18 kilometres and about 450 metres in altitude, which took me two hours and 15 minutes. That makes me proud and feels really great.
You just mentioned GPS watches and performance tracking. In running it has become normal to share and compare your results with friends via an app. Has that also been the case in cross-country skiing?
Competing and comparing yourself with others is always an important part of sports, even if there isn’t a real competition. In cross-country skiing it hasn’t been as extreme, because the target group is so much smaller. When I go for a run in Seefeld, I can compare my performance with my friends’ results in Vienna. You can’t do this for cross-country skiing, because you cannot perform this sport everywhere. But I am sure some smart brain will soon come up with a new app or something similar to cater to the cross-country community. There is definitely a lot of potential.