Man vs. Wild: Zach Caldwell Takes On the 2010 Olympic Venue

FasterSkierFebruary 14, 2010

Zach Caldwell examining a ski this fall. Photo courtesy of Zach Caldwell and Erik Nilsson
Zach Caldwell examining a ski this fall. Photo courtesy of Zach Caldwell and Erik Nilsson

Editor’s Note: Portions of this article were removed at the request of the US Ski Team, which believed that sensitive information included in the piece could impact its medal chances.  FasterSkier does not generally grant such requests and will not do so in the future, and we would not have done so if we believed the material in the article to be of critical import to the skiing community.  While we did not agree that the information was cause for concern, given the stakes and the potential to compromise access for the Olympic Games, we decided to err on the side of caution and grant the request.

The U.S. Ski Team has a secret weapon that could help it win a medal at the 2010 Olympics.

Drugs? Hormones? Nope. It’s Zach Caldwell’s Tazzari stonegrinding machine.

Caldwell, a Boulder-based ski technician, has been working quietly for the last three winters on a project under the auspices of U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Pete Vordenberg. Caldwell’s job: to develop a set of stonegrinds that will give the eleven Americans in Whistler an edge on their competition.

Stonegrinding is an esoteric art, practiced at a high level by only a few people in the U.S. The process involves applying different patterns, called structures, to the base of athletes’ skis by passing them over a rotating circular stone. Different structures are designed to interface with specific snow conditions to help the skis move faster.

The cross country ski venue for the Games, in the Callaghan Valley, is known for its erratic weather conditions,  which means that good grinds could make a big difference. There’s a chance that Caldwell’s work–focused specifically on developing grinds for the Olympics—could turn out to be the difference between an average day and the podium for one of the Americans.

We caught up with Caldwell during his son’s karate class in mid-January, as he prepared to travel to Whistler for some final preparation and testing.

FasterSkier: How did you end up with this contract working on grinds?

Zach Caldwell: My wife got a job coaching a development program up [in the Callaghan Valley], and to make a long story short, Pete [Vordenberg] learned that I was going to be there and called me up and proposed that we put something together. He scared up some funding with the help of the U.S.O.C., and we basically put together a three-year contract.

I started on it when the snow flew in 2007. I started just trying to work with some really basic stuff, like testing brands against linear grind

Nilsson (l) and Caldwell (r) grinding skis, fall 2009. Photo courtesy of Zach Caldwell and Erik Nilsson
Erik Nilsson (l) and Caldwell (r) grinding skis, fall 2009. Photo courtesy of Zach Caldwell and Erik Nilsson

frequencies—how many lines per centimeter do we want on the snow? Is it 18, 20, 22? And some really basic textural things, trying to find ingredients rather than recipes—does this snow like eggs or milk?—so that I knew what I had to work with, and what kinds of parameters we could build into the grinds.

Year two, we started to work on some recipes. We’ve had a lot of time, and not even close to enough.

FS: Is it unprecedented for a team to be testing grinds for a big event this far in advance? Or does this kind of happen all the time? Are there other teams that have been out there testing?

ZC: I wish I could answer that. What I can tell you is that the Norwegians have had some people over testing. This is like the Norwegian Olympic Committee, not the Norwegian National Team, that had people testing. They were there for quite a while last year, four to six weeks or something like that. I would say the Norwegians probably have the second most time testing on snow, behind us. I can’t really comment on what other people have done. Lillehammer was a pretty long time ago—grinding was relatively young, so I don’t know if [the Norwegians] were that involved with it then. At Torino I would assume the Italians would be working intensively there because they’ve always been at the front edge of that type of thing.

It’s not a common thing [to develop grinds for a specific location], because at most World Cup venues you don’t have time to respond. What are you testing for if you don’t have time on site? Most teams aren’t hauling grinders around with them. The World Cup, in terms of service, is not terribly much different than the college circuit, where you go to a venue and you do what you can with the tools you have. They have more expertise and  more tools for sure, but at no point on the World Cup is anyone trying to control all the variables and bringing them to bear on one event. It’s generally trying to hit a pretty big target with each solution…by getting in the ballpark in a bunch of different areas. It would be nice if all this was applicable to something beyond the 2010 Olympics, but it’s not, and it probably won’t ever be. It’s a good learning experience, but if you want to talk about an exercise in belly button examination [this project] is focused on one small thing as you can possibly get. It makes me better at what I do, but it’s not like I can take the specific lessons learned at the Callaghan Valley anywhere else in the world.

Erik Nilsson (who assists Caldwell with testing) grinding a pair of hole skis. Photo courtesy of Zach Caldwell and Erik Nilsson
Nilsson (who assists Caldwell with testing) grinding a pair of hole skis. Photo courtesy of Zach Caldwell and Erik Nilsson

FS: How do you go about creating a grind? I’m guessing that it’s more complicated than just sitting around drawing patterns on a sheet of paper. Are you using a computer program, mostly?

ZC: I wish I could give you something that was scientifically verifiable—a method that was foolproof logic. In the end, it’s really not that way. An alarming amount of it is sitting around with a piece of paper. A lot of times I’ll wake up in the morning and say ‘Hey, I got something. I should try this.’ Most of the best creative work happens away from the snow and away from the grinder. I’m a little too embarrassed to admit how much of my time is occupied by thinking about skis. It’s not that cool a thing to be thinking about all the time. When I started grinding skis in 2002, I figured it would take me four years to reach saturation. And here it is eight years later, and I’m way more involved than I anticipated being, and the whole sport has completely consumed me.

I spend a lot of time just thinking about it. It is more creative than it is scientific. Let’s not confuse what I’m doing with science. When you rigorously test it is, but it’s not a controlled set of circumstances. The most important lessons are lessons of adaptability and limiting liability, and being able to change quickly and anticipate things. And so the most valuable part is me being there, and just knowing the venue and how volatile it can be. I don’t have a knockout punch right now—it’s not like in my back pocket we have a grind that’s going to win a gold medal. In some ways, the testing this year has been a little bit discouraging—a lot of stuff that we relied on last year isn’t winning the tests.

Two years ago I spent the first few months there making skis slow, because it’s so counter to expectations. Even last year I could see something new, and it would take me a week and half to react to it. When we’ve been up there, we see a change in weather, and we get confused in one way and we react the next day, so that’s what the testing has brought us.

FS: So, you have an assistant, Erik Nilsson, doing a lot of the testing for you this year, since you’re in Boulder now?

ZC: For this season, because I’m so divided in my time, I’m mostly in Boulder here. We spent the week up [in Whistler] in early December and then I was up there again over New Year’s and early January.

[Erik and I] have done a lot of work together, and he’s the guy who’s been putting a lot of hours in the snow.

We’re running speed traps. The challenge this year is that the competition venue is closed, so we can’t even get on the race trails. We decided early on this year—[John] Farra and Pete [Vordenberg]—those guys said, ‘well, can we learn enough to make it worth it?’ And the answer was definitely yes, and in hindsight, it remains definitely yes.

The place we’re running the speed trap is definitely suspect a little bit. You ski it, and you come over the crest of the final hill and you feel the air moisten. It’s colder and higher moisture. Things are running funny in the speed trap, so we’re counting more on feeling than we have in the past couple of years, particularly for testing skating solutions. Because we need grinds that will produce speed on a whole race course, it doesn’t matter how fast they are on a glazed track, for example—it’s how fast they go around in a  loop.

FS: You must have a whole lot of skis that you use for testing.

ZC: We’re actively running two well-managed fleets—one that’s eight and one that’s nine pairs. In order to get good data, 20 pairs is too much, but we’ve done it—I’ve had Erik out there testing 20 pairs of skis.

We’ve done some cooperative testing [with Fischer in Austria]. A typical speed trap test we’re running close to 20 pairs, but in groups. We’re really focused inside one group at a time. I met with those Fischer guys last June, and they built me test skis last year based on specifications I requested.

FS: Is there anyone out there that you’re able to get guidance from on this stuff? Is there even anyone else in the country that has enough expertise to be able to help you?

ZC: There are a large handful, anyway, of people in the world who are more experienced than me, and who have more high-level, practical-level race experience. If you ever get the chance to go to a ski factory and speak with the engineers that work with the materials and design and build the products, it’s pretty humbling. You realize that we take what they give us and play like kids in a sandbox—it’s amazing what they’re able to do.

When you look at the Finnish waxing team and the consistency of the astonishingly good classic skis they put out there in different conditions, there’s no question that there are people who are way ahead of me. If there’s any advantage we have here, it’s some sense of the chaos coming at us.

I haven’t met most of the people in the world that are doing this at a super-high level. I’m pleased and proud that I’ve got grinds that are doing well on the World Cup, that are competitive. It’s been really rewarding working with the Fischer guys and the U.S. Ski Team, and I’ve learned a huge amount. I have learned more in the past two and a half years as part of this project than I had since I started grinding. It has put me in contact  with people that have completely changed my work, and the way I work and the way I look at things.

FS: So, at the Olympics, how is the grinding going to work? Are you going to take the team’s skis and grind all of them in the next few weeks?

ZC: The focus is going to be on continuity. We have a really good World Cup service team. Cast your mind back and ask yourself when the last time the Americans had bad skis on the World Cup. We have the luxury of having a relatively small team of athletes—I would not want to be in charge of the Norwegian service program. We have a lot more flexibility, and we can afford to be a lot more nimble and personalized than those guys. We’re not going to try to reinvent that at all. My job up there is to try to provide perspective, experience, and added value to what those guys start with.

Nilsson testing skis at the Olympic biathlon venue. Check out those flakes! Photo courtesy of Zach Caldwell and Erik Nilsson
Nilsson testing skis at the Olympic biathlon venue. Check out those flakes! Photo courtesy of Zach Caldwell and Erik Nilsson

I haven’t even started testing wax at the Callaghan Valley. We have a good wax testing team—you don’t want to be throwing a whole bunch of wild cards in at the Olympics. It’s like cooking: you need to know your ingredients and your materials. Part of it has to do with access to skis and brands. Kris and Kikkan and Andy are all on Fischer, and we’ve worked really closely with Fischer so we’re in a really good position to support those guys. I know really clearly what we’re looking for from Fischer for those conditions. We have to the ability to put grinds on the night before the race; we don’t have the ability to do it right at the venue. We’ll be doing a lot of re-grinding.

The really cool thing about our service team is that we’ve got two Swedes, Peter Johansson and Jokke Augustsson. These are two guys with the most professional attitude and the least ego tied up in it that I have ever seen, and I think the success of the last couple seasons has had come down to their willingness to work inside the system and with the athletes and the materials we bring to it. The head coach is there cleaning klister and sweeping the floor at the end of the day—it’s that kind of team.

The difference at the Olympics is going to be made very much in the way that it was made at World Championships last year. It’s going to be made in the working procedures and the attitude of the team just willing to provide service. Everyone has to be willing to carry bags and shovel snow, and there’s nobody on the U.S. team that thinks they’re above that. It’s just a really hard working group, with very few egos standing in the way.

FS: Tough question, but is there any way you can quantify the advantage that you’ve given the U.S. Ski Team? Have you given them a definite advantage?

ZC: There are one or two things that we’re doing…that I don’t think anyone else is doing.  And they work. It’s not that they’re like a knockout punch every day up there.

I believe in our athletes, and as much as I would love to come out looking like a hero—and I would love the service team to as well—I would prefer that we have a level playing field, and to give them the opportunity to go out there and win a medal by virtue of what they put in.

So, the advantage is that hopefully we are better prepared than most teams to deal with unpredictable and really difficult conditions, but as I say, there’s no guarantee of that. It’s like having a malaria shot—that’s our advantage. We go into the jungle and we’ve got our shot—maybe we’re not going to die, maybe we are. It’s really easy to be overconfident in that place.

Classic skis lined up for a test in December. Photo courtesy of Zach Caldwell and Erik Nilsson
Classic skis lined up for a test in December. Photo courtesy of Zach Caldwell and Erik Nilsson


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