Roughing it on ice
Jerry Zgoda
Minneapolis Star Tribune
January 24, 2003
The Minnesotan, accustomed to the pristine conditions at the John Rose Oval in Roseville, surveyed the cracked, uneven ice on Lake of the Isles and deemed it vastly inferior to its distant machine-groomed relations.
The European standing nearby disagreed.
"It's perfect," said Hugo Bruggeman, a University of Minnesota graduate student who grew up skating Holland's frozen rivers and canals.
Call it a clash of cultures. In North America, speedskating is a niche sport -- and a tiny niche at that -- performed mostly on climate-controlled, man-made indoor surfaces from Calgary to Salt Lake City to Milwaukee. In Holland, where Bruggeman comes from, it's a winter sport of the people, brought to life every weekend by the masses on rivers, lakes and canals when the weather is cold enough.
That might change some if a small group of visionaries gets its way. Those visionaries call their sport Nordic skating, a pumped-up variation of the Olympic sport, in which participants glide 15 to 30 miles or more outdoors on natural ice.
First organized in such places as Vermont, Quebec and Alberta, Nordic-skating promoters brought a national-championship race to Lake of the Isles last weekend to introduce Minnesotans to a sport that attracts speedskaters as well as cyclists, inline skaters and cross-country skiers.
"People who enjoy the outdoors and cross-country skiing never know if they're going to have a good snow winter or a bad one," said Jamie Hess, a Vermonter who discovered marathon skating in Sweden and helped bring it to New England. "So they're diversifying and adding a new sport. People who enjoy speed quickly discover that Nordic skating is twice as fast as cross-country skiing for the same amount of effort."
The winner in last weekend's 50-kilometer race finished in just more than 90 minutes. At its highest levels, competitors wear traditional speedskates. Recreational skaters can buy blade attachments to clip to their cross-country ski boots or inline skates; the attachments are an inch or two longer than speedskate blades and are curved at the front to help smooth the ride over rough ice.
At the Lake of the Isles races, competitors -- serious racers from across the country, cross-training recreational skaters from the Midwest -- could be found wearing both types of skates on a one-kilometer track that circled the lake's public-skating areas.
"That's what makes it such a fun form of racing," said Andy Dahlstrom, a Seattle high-school teacher who discovered the sport while living in Vermont four years ago. "You get teenagers and people in their 60s and it comes down to an all-age sprint at the end."
Dahlstrom came to Nordic skating from a cycling and cross-country skiing background. Rob Kramer, winner of the Lake of the Isles 50K race, is an inline skater and former hockey player from Boston who discovered it was a "natural progression" from blacktop to ice. And then there's Jason Hedstrand, a 2002 Olympic speedskater from Shoreview who skates 10,000 meters on a long track and went five times that far on last weekend's comparatively choppy ice.
"I don't think we lost anyone in the cracks," Hedstrand said. "There's obviously no comparison between the ice, but you don't get to enjoy the sun in Salt Lake City. I've got great memories of skating on moonlight nights. The snow, the wind, the elements, they keep you fresh. You can't have those great memories if you only skate on indoor rinks."

-- Jerry Zgoda is at

© Copyright 2003 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.