The Norwegian wax truck is anything but subtle. A jet black tractor trailer with the visages of Petter Northug, Marit Bjoergen, and Therese Johaug painted with the Norwegian tri-colors and twisted into various expressions of comical aggression, the vehicle travels the World Cup circuit, the workplace of 10 to 12 committed technicians.
Arch-rivals Sweden and Norway are the only two nations to possess such a convenience, the product of a passionate national following (and the associated monetary support), as well as the needs of massive teams. The Norwegian national squad numbers a full 25, and over the course of a season, some 50 different athletes will start World Cup races.
Knut Nystad, who directs the service team, sees the addition of a wax truck as a function of the challenges associated with providing world class waxing for so many athletes. It provides a level of efficiency that most teams are left to envy, he said.
Instead of packing and unpacking cargo vans full of waxing equipment and skis, and setting up in yet another new wax room, each Norwegian technician can focus on his work in a space that is consistent – whether the next day’s event is in Estonia or Switzerland.
One side of the truck extends out, providing plenty of space for a series of work stations. Skis line both walls, and can travel in that position. Like a slow-motion version of a Transformer – a sci-fi machine that can morph from a standard vehicle to an advanced robotic creation – the truck goes from simple transport to a world class waxing facility in just 40 minutes.
Power is accepted in three different forms, and in a pinch, an on-board generator will provide 13 kilowatt to keep things running. The Norwegians contract with professional drivers to move the vehicle. One of the techs can drive the truck, but Nystad said that it’s better to have all the servicemen well-rested and ready to go. Driving a semi on narrow, icy, European roads, in the middle of the night, is not a good way to get his men to go the extra mile.
Consistency of space, and extra elbow-room is nice, but the benefits extend further. A full ventilation system that works to capture potentially harmful wax fumes at the source creates a safer work environment. Hot irons are stored in special boxes that draw smoke away immediately, and the air can be completely turned over in five minutes, Nystad said.
Every service squad has a system, and Nystad describes the Norwegian version as “different, not necessarily better.” He stresses that while that his crew is striving to push the limits within the ski-service world, their way is not the only option.
Specialty is the name of the game for the Norwegians. There are three main stations within the truck – glide, kick, and athlete specific.
The glide station is manned by a pair of waxers, including Kristoffer Moan, who described his standard race day. Responsible solely for glide wax, Moan and his partner, the “glide-boss,” have a fleet of 90 specially selected test skis. Their job is to choose a single wax combination, optimal hand structure, and stone-grind choices. Gliders and powders are applied and tested through a variety of means: speed trap; glide tests in a track; pairing off and doing a runout with another tester; and simply by feel.
Their choices are passed along to the team in the middle of the truck – the group that works with the individual athletes. A pair of bald, affable Swedish brothers – the Olssons – occupy the first set of benches. Perry waxes for Bjoergen, Northug and Celine Brun-Lie, while Ulf handles Oystein Pettersen, Therese Johaug and Marthe Kristoffersen.
For any one set of conditions, each athlete may have 6 to 8 pairs of race-worthy skis. Ulf and Perry work to narrow the choices down before collaborating with their skiers to pick the best possible pair on race morning, and on a skate day, they receive the final glide call just 45 minutes before the start.
It gets so busy leading up to the start that Perry says there is no time to feel pressure, even if to an outsider, it looks like chaos. And once the race starts, they can merely watch and see if they were on the mark.
At the far end, just behind the cab, in front of a flat screen television and coffee maker nestled into a nook on the wall, is the third and final set of waxers – the kick team. Like the gliders 10 meters to the back, they have a single focus – to provide the best possible grip wax. Again, this information goes to the athletes’ waxers in the middle of the truck, and they make adjustments based on each individual’s needs – Johaug, for example, always prefers more kick, due to her predilection for climbing.
The 2011 World Championships gets underway on Thursday with the freestyle sprint. Nystad’s team was hard at work on Tuesday, and Ulf, with just Pettersen contesting that event, was already making preparations for the women’s pursuit on Saturday. The waxers will arrive by 7:00 for a 12:30 start time for the first event, and typically work 14- to 16-hour days.
If things don’t go well – and sometimes they don’t, notably during the men’s 15 k freestyle at 2010 Olympics, and for at least one race during the 2006 Games – the Norwegians will attempt to replicate the testing process, and identify where they erred.
“The only way to learn,” says Nystad, “is to go back and figure out what went wrong.”
According to Nystad, the job of serviceman does not pay well, which can create issues with continuity. And while the travel opportunities are good, there is rarely time to see much beyond the inside of the truck and the test track.
The athletes don’t spend much time in the truck, but Ulf says it is important to get feedback following a race and “hopefully a high-five.”
–Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.