Yves Bilodeau is one of the faces on the Canadian World Cup Team that’s seldom seen. Like his crew of wax technicians, he’s a behind-the-scenes guy, one of several responsible for the successes and sometimes lack thereof at international competitions.
Born in Quebec City and currently living in France, the 52-year-old made himself known as a Canadian cross-country skier, competing at five World Championships and three Olympics (the last of which came in 1998, three years after he retired. A wax tech at the time, he competed in the 10 k in Nagano, Japan).
After that, he retired for good — at least from international nordic racing. He’s still known in international adventure-racing circles after winning 2005 World Championships with Team Raid Quechua.
Known by his close friends and relatives as Bilose, Bilodeau is embarking on his 20th season working with the Canadian squad, and he’s witnessed a lot of change within the team since his racing days. At the ’92 Olympics in Albertville, France, Canada had one wax tech. Twenty-two years later, the team had a record nine at the Sochi Olympics.
In a phone interview with FasterSkier, Bilodeau spoke in his native tongue, humbly with a hint of humor. Seemingly attached to the past, he revealed he’s somewhat skeptical of ever-growing progress and new technology.
From his home in Ruffieux in south-eastern France, he talked about his waxing debut in 1995, reflected on what he called the “Sochi drama,” and explained who he’ll be working with this upcoming World Cup season.
(Note: the following interview has been translated from French to English.)
FasterSkier: Starting as an athlete, what made you join the Canadian technical ski team 20 years ago?
Yves Bilodeau: Back in 1995, when I stopped competing after the Nordic World Ski Championships in Thunder Bay, I moved to France with my first wife, who at the time was finishing an international law degree and working at the International Labour Office located in Geneva. I was looking for a job and actually thinking about joining a European ski team for long-distance races. In the end, my luck turned suddenly when my old friend Alain Masson gave up his spot on the Canadian technical team to fill a coach position for the Yukon ski team. It was a great opportunity and I accepted it with no hesitation.
FS: How has your previous racing experience helped shape your interest in ski preparation and waxing?
YB: Times have changed dramatically over the course of two decades. Back in 1992, racers had to put the shoulder to the wheel in terms of ski preparation, since Canada had hired only one technician — who moreover undertook other tasks aside from waxing — for the Olympic Games in Albertville. We were already at the back of the peloton compared to most of the European technical teams. Things then started changing gradually, thanks to the arrival of Dave Wood [head technician in 1992 and head coach in ’02], as more technicians got hired. I think we improved a ton since then, although we sometimes struggle making ends meet with what limited budgets we have.
FS: Who will you be working with on Canada’s World Cup technical team this season?
YB: Micke Book, a great Swede who couldn’t get along with his fellow countrymen, joined the Canadian team in 2006 after the Olympic Games in Turin. Joel Jacques is based in Canmore and works year-round with us. Alain Masson also gives us a hand during the more important events, when his schedule in Yukon allows for it.
Although he will spend less time with us this years, having recently become a father, we can still count on Sacha Bergeron. We also hired Fabio [Ghasifi], an Italian who previously worked magic for the Japanese team [for the last decade] in difficult snow conditions. Graham MacLean will also help us this year.
For my part, I always join the team full-time from September to April. We usually form a group of six during World Cups, and go up to nine technicians for Olympic Games and World Championships. When few Canadians take part in a World Cup freestyle event, we make ends meet with only four waxers. Micke and Joel are the grip specialists, while Fabio and I work primarily on gliding.
FS: Looking back on the last Olympics in Sochi, what went wrong exactly from a technical standpoint for some of your athletes?
YB: We failed in Sochi due in large part to the abrupt change in snow conditions, which always seemed to occur exactly at the time when most races started, around 2 p.m. At that precise time, one side of the mountain remained cold, while the other was totally exposed to the sun. With only 15 minutes before the start, we were confident with the skis and our racers would tell us just how satisfied they were with them. Then, as the races unfolded, skis became really sluggish. Looking back, we should’ve been able to capitalize on these difficult conditions and set ourselves apart from the rest, as other teams experienced similar technical setbacks.
It was Daria [Gaiazova] who involuntarily provided us with the key to our waxing issues. On race day, after testing her first pair of skis, she asked Sacha to rewax them. Sacha took his spatula and scraped off a thick layer of wax. Before he knew it, Daria took those skis and retested them. She told him they were perfect and needed no additional adjustment! We finally realized that the trick was to apply a very thin layer of red klister on soft skis, which was contrary to our common practices. Unfortunately, this discovery was made too late and they [our athletes] paid the price.
FS: Were these simply the worst snow conditions you’ve experienced in a race?
YB: I had rarely witnessed such bad conditions, that’s for sure. Even with air temperatures approaching -3 degrees [Celsius], accumulated snow in the trees would melt and water dropped constantly on the course, then refroze, then melted again. It was crazy. Nevertheless, we weren’t totally surprised, having skied previously many times on the Olympic course before the Sochi Games. Our greatest oversight was having done no ski testing at 2 p.m. precisely. We underwent various tests from 11 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. and everything worked great. At 2 p.m., we were in serious trouble.
“Looking back, we should’ve been able to capitalize on these difficult conditions and set ourselves apart from the rest. … Our greatest oversight was having done no ski testing at 2 p.m. precisely.” –– Bilodeau on what went wrong in Sochi
FS: In hindsight, what lessons have you drawn from the last Olympics?
YB: Life is made of ups and downs. Yes, we failed in Sochi, but we weren’t the only ones getting rocked. Take Norway for example. Their technical team did much more testing before the Games, in addition to collaborating closely with Swix and having their technicians undergo several separate tests. In the end, they failed just as bad as we did. After Sochi, we quickly came to the conclusion that we needed to work closer with athletes throughout the last minutes leading up to the race start. Next year, Graham and another technician, who weighs the same as Alex Harvey, will accompany and assist Alex for testing and any last-minute wax adjustment.
FS: Were Harvey’s impressive results at World Cup Finals (in Falun, Sweden) a form of redemption after Sochi?
YB: We’re constantly put under the pressure to deliver the best skis possible. We can’t have too many bad days, as our main objective is to always move up in the World Cup standings. But sometimes things go unplanned. Harvey, just like Norwegian Martin Sundby, stood several times on the podium before and after the Sochi Games, but both were out of luck when it counted most. That was the Sochi drama: performing poorly while the expectations we so high in Canada. As Quebecers say, the puck wasn’t going our way. [Laughs]
FS: How has cross-country ski racing changed since you first joined the Canadian technical team in 1995? What major technical shifts have you noticed?
YB: Major changes are fewer than most people think. When it comes to gliding, what I call “accelerators” — fluor liquids applied at the very end of the ski preparation — make the biggest difference. On the grip side, there are a few new interesting products, but twenty- to thirty-year-old waxes, like Rode Red, still work great. Every piece of equipment is lighter with each year. Ski manufacturers also work hard on bettering the uniformity of their productions, to deliver equal skis as much as possible. It may sound simple, but ski making is no exact science yet.
FS: What makes a ski go fast? What unique features distinguish a great pair from a standard one?
YB: It’s fairly easy to eliminate the pairs we don’t like, but trying to handpick the best ones directly from the manufacturer remains a dubious task. The only way to tell which pairs stand out is to install bindings and try out the skis on snow. In the summer, Micke will do various tests in the Torsby ski tunnel in Sweden and rate each pair. There is no other way to go about it.
FS: How does Canada manage to stay competitive against other larger and wealthier European teams?
YB: Last season, Haywood and AltaGas, two of our long-time sponsors, helped us in acquiring a brand-new wax truck. Only a handful of teams enjoy such luxury, as other nations like France and the U.S. are presently working on purchasing their own truck. Since I first started this job, it’s probably the best technical improvement I’ve seen yet. We’re now completely self reliant, as we can park the truck right at the foot of the ski slopes for quick testing and avoid unvented and crowded waxing rooms. This vehicle can hold easily our 350 pairs of skis and six workstations are available. The ventilation system filters the air every two seconds and my back doesn’t hurt like it normally used to. It makes our job so much easier and more enjoyable.
“… The Sochi drama: performing poorly while the expectations we so high in Canada. As Quebecers say, the puck wasn’t going our way.”
FS: How are you approaching the upcoming World Cup season? Are the World Championships in Falun the team’s main objective?
YB: Definitely. We’re aiming for medals in Falun, that’s for sure. We want to get closure on everything that went wrong in Sochi, move forward and focus all our efforts on the World Championships and the Tour de Ski.
FS: Does living in France gives you and the Canadian team a strategic advantage on European soil?
YB: It works out great for everyone. Joel stays in Canmore year-round and works with the team in the summer, while I stay here in France and rejoin him and Micke later in September. I can test skis in Val d’Isère and in various areas in France. I keep a lot of the team’s equipment to avoid carrying everything by plane from Canada when the World Cup season kicks off. One of the team’s buses we use during competitions also stays at my home in the offseason.
FS: Finally, are you working on any projects for the summer? Are you still competing in expedition races, do you plan to fish a lot in Savoie?
YB: My career in expedition races slowed down quite a bit, but I always stay active, competing locally in trail running mainly. With the frequent showers beating down recently in the region, there’s less fishing in the Rhône valley’s rivers, but perch, trout and other types of fish can be found in lakes nearby.
About the author: FasterSkier contributor François Léger Dionne raced for 15 years at provincial and national competitions in Quebec. After obtaining a Bachelor of Law at the University of Montreal, he’s currently enrolled in a full-time program at the Montreal College of Osteotheraphy. French is his first language, but he speaks and writes fluently in English. His claim to fame? Racing and beating a younger Alex Harvey!