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LEN JOHNSON ROLLER SKI MAN - Bill McKibben

LEN JOHNSON ROLLER SKI MAN
By Bill McKibben

One day in 1973, Len Johnson, newly arrived in southern New Hampshire, went out for a roller ski to explore his neighborhood. "The roller skis I had were made in Finland—I don’t even remember the name of them, but they were very fast." He started off down what appeared to be a gradual hill, with his dog, a German shorthaired pointer, loping alongside. "Then I came around a corner, and the road got terribly steep. I tried to ride it out as long as I could, but when my dog could no longer keep up with me I knew I must be going about 30 miles an hour. I decided to bail out, so I reached out to grab the two rear wheels and try to slow them down—but they burned through the leather of my gloves in milliseconds. And then the wheels caught my shorts and ripped them right off—I was hurtling down the hill nude. When I crashed my shirt was torn to hell, but I took what was left of it and wrapped it around my midriff and limped home." The experience convinced Johnson of a couple of things. One, don’t roller ski down a hill you haven’t scouted first. And two, maybe there might be a market for a safer roller ski; a ski that would allow those of us to keep warm-weather training even after we’d reached the age where the prospect of leaving skin scraped across the blacktop was somewhat daunting; a roller ski for those of us haunted by the memory of Bjorn Daehlie ending the greatest ski career of all time flat on his back on Scandinavian asphalt.

In the years since, Johnson’s Jenex V-2 company has become America’s leading manufacturer of roller skis, and a pioneer of technological innovation. His Aero skis, with big pneumatic tires, eliminated one of the great sources of danger for roller skiers: they rolled over the pebbles and pinecones that once brought roller skis to a lurching halt. And the speed reducers on the skis worked better than earlier models, allowing one to glide down a hill as long as you remembered to ratchet them down before it got too steep.

Still, roller skis were not precisely safe—whipping along the road, you couldn’t suddenly stop if something (a dog, say) happened. It wasn’t like riding a bike. And the authorities began to notice. The state police kicked roller skiers off the roads in Fairbanks, Alaska for instance, saying they need an "easy to activate" brake just like any other vehicle. Kids at one of the northern New England ski academies had to leave the city limits in order to train—the local cops considered their roller skis unsafe.

"I was getting all kinds of pressure from people to build a real brake," said Johnson. And so he did. Not a Rube Goldberg brake like he and others had sold for a few different roller skis models over the years, contraptions that required you to tug on loops of wire by your knee. No, a real, intuitive brake, that you could feather going down hills, that would slow you down fast when a car started pulling out of a driveway up ahead. It wasn’t easy—Johnson figured it had to be four ounces or less in weight, that it had to adjust to any binding size, that it had to be able to fold down for storage. He went through plenty of prototypes, but he knew he had it about right when he went out for a test run at Franconia State Park in New Hampshire. "The trooper stopped me and told me no roller skis were allowed. They’d had too many accidents with inline skates, with skateboards. Too many pedestrians had been forced to dive off the path by people who were out of control. So I said to him, "well, what if I prove to you I can stop?’ And I went up to the top of a steep hill and then I came right towards him and glided to a stop. He couldn’t even figure out how I’d done, it’s such a subtle motion, but he said "go right ahead."

The subtle motion looks a lot like a telemark stance—you slide the brake foot up ahead about 18 inches, and the pressure from the back of your calf against a pad activates the brake pad against the tire. "They’re completely effective as long as it’s dry,’ says Johnson. "If you’re picking up a lot of water, that acts like a lubricant. They’ll still stop you, but it takes three to five times further."

But don’t take Johnson’s word for it. Marty Hall, the longtime skiing guru, has made them mandatory for every member of his Bowdoin College team. James Mannion, a Midwest skier who trains before sunrise most mornings with a like-minded group of devotees, wrote a review for a Michigan ski racing website insisting, "I can readily climb hills my partners avoid because of the scary descents." And the orders are pouring in so fast that the week before Christmas Johnson was facing a month of backlog.

Still, roller skis were not precisely safe—whipping along the road, you couldn’t suddenly stop if something (a dog, say) happened. It wasn’t like riding a bike. And the authorities began to notice. The state police kicked roller skiers off the roads in Fairbanks, Alaska for instance, saying they need an “easy to activate“ brake just like any other vehicle. Kids at one of the northern New England ski academies had to leave the city limits in order to train—the local cops considered their

Not all the purchasers are ski racers, either. Some go to people for whom roller skiing is the sport, not the training. "We just sold one to an FBI agent in Georgia. There’s another guy who lives in Florida but skis the Birke every year. Except for that race, all his skiing is pavement skiing."

Johnson supplied Phil Shaw, a Canadian skier who decided to roller ski across Canada a couple of years back with an anti-smoking campaign with a pair of skis. "He skied all the way to Vancouver and he never had a flat," says Johnson. "He was getting 1,500 kilometers a tire—and this guy weights 190 pounds. Last year he skied Scotland, England and Ireland counterclockwise. Again he used the same skis. This year he skied New Zealand, then Tasmania, then Australia—we figure he has 12,000 kilometers on those skis."

Johnson says the brakes should not replace speed reducers entirely—most skiers are better off with both. "I’m a little worried that, say, someone out west with a really long descent down some pass will eventually overheat the tires if they’re braking all the way. If you click down the speed reducer, then you’d just have to brake intermittently." Mostly, though, he hears nothing but raves. "Kristina Smigun, she’s second on the World Cup right now, she just called to say her classic skiing has improved a hundred percent and she credits it to her roller skiing on our skis." Which is nice. But even nicer that roller skiers can get back on the roads in Alaska. And even nicer that the sport Bill Koch once described as "the safest to do but the most dangerous to train for" no longer needs to bear that stigma. In fact, the next time you’re speeding toward some tree on your snow skis you may find yourself instinctively—reaching for the brake.



© Cross Country Skier: February 2005, Vol. 24 Issue 4


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