Former USST coach Rob Kiesel died in Joseph, Ore., on October 24th. While the nordic community across the globe mourns his loss, Kiesel was also remembered for his innovative work during the glide-wax revolution. Marty Hall, a former US Ski Team coach in his own right remembers Rob in this piece. You can read the FasterSkier article on Rob here.
I feel a responsibility to relate a piece of history that Rob was very involved with that is still impacting every classical skier whether they are on no-wax or waxed skis. But, just in case you are seeing this for the first time and don’t even know who Rob Kiesel is, please read this earlier article from October on Rob’s passing away.
Rob had just become my Assistant Coach in the Spring of 1975 and that fall in the very first days of November we started our on-snow efforts on really good snow in Cooke City, MT., which is reached by coming out of Yellowstone Park’s northeast exit. It is sort of the unknown exit or entrance and in the winter the plowing stops here in Cooke City—like it is the last outpost to no where.
Here we were, at least 30-40 strong with both the XC and Nordic Combined National Teams in full preparation for the ’76 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria just a few months away. We were here until just a couple days before Thanksgiving when everyone would go home for a 5 day break and then onto Quebec City for more training and racing.
The weather changed on us and soon we were skiing on a double tracked loop that was circular and maybe 800-900 meters long and existed only because it was in the shadow of a mountain. Even though the days were cold the snow was evaporating. The USST was in its first year of a contract with Subaru—we had about a dozen of their little station wagons that became our snow haulers, so we could keep the track replenished and eventually build a small hill into the loop. We were skiing weeks before we normally would , so the kids had no problem staying in the harness(tracks)–it amazed me.
Some time in the early days of the camp, Don Johnson, Product Manager, for Trak Ski company showed up at the camp much to our surprise. I think there had been some discussions about no-wax skis for racing in the future as they had just started using the fish scale(FS) base on their skis. He now had a dilemma, as they had applied the FS base on their skis the previous year, covering the whole base with this pattern. Needless to say they had enough kick on these skis to climb a wall and hardly any glide to come back down, so he was here to work with us to come up with the ideal wax pocket-giving their touring skis the best kick and glide dynamics. Little did we realize where this was going to lead us!
Of course we were now beginning our 2nd year on the new synthetic skis that had been introduced by Fischer and Kniessl at the ’74 World Championships in Falun, Sweden that had started the equipment revolution. The ski companies were advocating a wax pocket that was equal in length starting at the balance point(BP) and going 12-15 inches forward and backwards from this point. Also, the SOP for glide waxing was to use a Universal wax that Toko put out and would come under our scrutiny before we left Cooke City.
Well, we had a starting point and the heavy thinking and discussions began for a number of evenings over a few beers. Discussion points were the forward body position, how fast the ski left the snow after the legs together position when kicking. Two things stood out real quick the forward body position applied pressure to the front part of the kick zone and the ski leaving the snow in the back started us on the path of doing away with the kick behind the heal of the ski. All of this would have been a lot easier if we had any form of video or Polarvision, but we didn’t. Observation in the tracks was the best we could do.
So, to the tracks we went. Because of the short loop we could adjust the wax pocket on the skis and give them to the skiers in a blind test and get immediate feed back on how they liked one ski versus the other as the pockets had been adjusted differently in length. The new concept was in play. It wasn’t many days before we, the coaches and Don realized that we were on to a revolution of our own. The wax pocket as we knew it was going to be different and we had a “secret”. Our testing now took on a different focus. Rather then just a few loops on our short track now we were doing whole workouts and we were learning about the fact every ski had its own wax pocket, not some pre-determined number of inches in front of the BP and behind the DP. We lost no performance when it came to shortening all kickers to the heel of the boot and sometimes into the arch, but we had also soon discovered that because of the shortening, that our skis were faster—WOW—we did have a real secret! The modern wax pocket was conceived!
When we went to Europe we kept this under our hats and it wasn’t long before Gerhard Thaller, the Fischer racer chaser boss, was on to us—he knew we were doing something different , but not what we were doing. We cleaned our wax cabin every night, took all the garbage with us and really had the kids tuned into not giving our secrets away. We made it through races in Reit-im-Winkl and Ramsau and almost all the way through the Olympics before the cat got out of the bag.
Gerhard had given Kochie a pair of skis with mohair strips relieved into the ski base and Kochie was giving them a try and kind of liked them. Only the strips were too long and he went to Gerhard and had him adjust them to our parameters for a kick pocket. Gerhard now knew that secret. Gerhard, still did not know about us using alpine wax for glide and what our testing process was for finding the right glide wax for the day. Yes, Kochie ended up using this pair of skis in the relay and as he said after the race—he had the fastest skis on his leg and wasn’t man enough to use all the kick they gave him. He ran the 3rd leg on the team and left us in 3rd place when he tagged off to our 4th leg skier, Ron Yeager. We ended up in 6th place, a best ever for this team in US history.
Rob, was a huge part of all this and his mark is still on every pair of classic skis be it recreational, no-wax or racing when you go classic skiing—this all took place 36 years ago—-and that is the history of it.
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November 18, 2011 at 10:33 pm
Great article, Marty. I am sitting in a house on the Knoll at Silver Star Mountain and just read this great bit of history about Rob and the growth of North American XC skiing. While kicking and gliding today, I could not help but think about the innovation you, your coaches, and your skiers brought to the sport. Also, I remembered the first really good book on cross country skiing, One Stride Ahead, and how it grew the sport in ways most young skiers will never realize. For US XC skiing to go where it wants to go, it is good to know where we have been. Much appreciated.