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Season off to early start; good crop of new ski books this year

What an auspicious opening of a ski season! The Western US buried in midwinter depths of snow; ski areas scrambling just to open early; never mind cranking up the snowmaking -- who needs it? Here in my corner of New England I hadn't even got the leaves raked up, and Thanksgiving was whiter than most Christmases in memory. Now, instead of looking for a new rake, I'm looking for new cross-country skis.

I've also been looking at this year's crop of new ski books. A new ski book can sometimes make a sensible holiday gift for a skiing aficionado. But some are just limp rewrites of all the how-to and where-to-turn-'em ski books that have gone before.

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Judging from what I've read so far, 1985 is a good year for ski books.

No Hill Too Fast, by Phil and Steve Mahre with John Fry (New York: Simon & Schuster. 382 pp. $17.95), is an informative commentary on the world of skiing through the eyes of America's greatest ski champions yet. If you expect to see the twins revealed as something different than their public image -- speed-loving, fearless, inseparable brothers -- you'll be disappointed. But their insights on such varied topics as the turning points in their careers, how to compete and win, coping with the b ureaucracy of ski teams, winning the World Cup and Olympic medals, and cashing in on success as a ski racer make this an important and unique book.

It also contains, with time-sequence photos, some of the clearest prose yet written on how to turn a ski, on racing tactics and techniques, and on tuning skis. In an interesting format that works, autobiographical chapters alternate with instructional ones. Readers soon learn the importance of skiing on one ski at a time -- ``independent leg action'' -- in skiing ``the Mahre way.''

The brothers also make some interesting observations about noted racers and coaches. Phil says Cindy Nelson hardly spoke to him for five years after he indulged in some late-night rowdiness that awoke the ski team at the 1975 summer training camp in Portillo, Chile. Without really concluding why, the Mahres also note that great ski champions often turn out to be shy, introverted, and not able to express themselves easily off the slopes. Their examples include Ingemar Stenmark (``He seems comfortable onl y when he's on the ski hill''), Jean Claude Killy, Italy's Gustavo Thoeni, and 1984 World Cup champion Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland.

As for their remarkable ability to compete fiercely yet unfailingly support each other, the twins note the difference between competing against somebody (``I'm going to beat him . . .'') and competing with one another (``If he can do it, I can do it'').

Every budding ski racer should read this one. And even half-serious recreational skiers will find it entertainingly worthwhile.

The Cross-Country Skier's Handbook, by Samuel P. Osborne in cooperation with the US Ski Association (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 211 pp. indexed. $17.95), covers it all -- history, equipment, technique, training, racing, cross-country ski clubs, and a nationwide directory on where to ski.

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This book is primarily for those people who want to know as much as possible about a new pastime. The more serious you are, the better; and it helps if you don't mind a slight ski industry orientation to the book.

Frommer's Dollarwise Guide to Skiing USA East, by I. William Berry ($10.95), and Guide to Cross-Country Skiing in New England, by Lyn and Tony Chamberlain (Chester Conn.: Globe Pequot Press. $8.95), are both just what they claim to be: fine guidebooks with insider tips as to where the skiing is best. Berry does the same for a lot of ski-resort lodging and also rates Eastern ski resorts for both skiing and lodging. Chamberlain's essay on deciding between waxable and wa xless cross-country skis is the best I've read.

Shape-up tip: From Catamount ski area in Hillsdale, N.Y.: Straighten knee 10 times while sitting (and watching TV?) and hold for six seconds. Do the same thing crossing one leg over the other, applying and resisting the pressure of one leg against the other. You see? You can exercise sitting down.

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