When Mother Nature fails to deliver bountiful snow, races are often held on a surface that resembles a dirty ice rink. Artificial snow, old snow, dirt, ice and moisture stick together in a weird conglomerate that can be very challenging for wax technicians. Athletes are forced to train in less than optimal conditions, stressing them physically and mentally.
Given the dearth of snow in North America this season and the very likely chance that the U.S. Nationals will be run on mostly man-made snow, we thought it would be good to put together a skier’s and service tech’s guide to dealing with low-snow conditions. We’ve put together a guide to ski selection, structure and waxing as well as suggestions on how to train through and mentally survive bad snow situations.
About “Snow” in Low-Snow Conditions
There are a couple of useful things to know about the track that you’re skiing on when conditions are less than optimal. When the snow is thin mid-season, it is usually a mixture of old, greasy, fine-grained snow, man-made snow and ice with significant dirt thrown in for good measure. All of these require special considerations in order to produce fast skis.
As snow ages, the sharp crystals that define fresh snow tend to soften with freeze/thaw cycles as well as the mechanical fracturing caused by grooming and skiing. In other words, skiing over and grooming snow breaks it up into smaller pieces and breaks off the delicate features of the the iconic snowflake. Fine-grained snow tends to get greasy and glaze easily because the snow crystals lose their ability to soak up moisture and hold it in the snowpack. It also requires different wax, ski and structure choices.
Man-made snow varies wildly based on the conditions when it was made, the equipment and chemicals used, as well as its age and application method. Generally, though, artificial snow is very aggressive and looks more like large ice crystals stuck together than snowflakes. Because of the high ice content, man-made snow requires special considerations for durability of kick and glide waxes, as well as structure.
Dirt is a very important consideration when dealing with these conditions. As snow melts, all of the dirt and dust that have collected in the snowpack are deposited right on the surface. Grooming and moving snow around, especially when there is not a lot of snow available, also introduces huge amounts of dirt. Dirt particles stick to wax and structure on the ski base and then drag through the snow as you ski. The more dirt on the ski base, the more drag slows you down. Keeping skis clean will have a very large effect on ski speed, especially toward the end of a race. These snow conditions generally require aggressive structures, but choosing the best structure will require finding something that is fast, but also minimizes dirt accumulation. Softer waxes may be faster initially, but they tend to attract dirt faster than harder waxes, so dirt affects how you should choose your glide and kick waxes.
Generally, the snowpack in low-snow conditions is hard, icy and dirty. For skate skis, a stiffer, more stable ski is generally going to be the better choice. In many conditions, stability can reduce speed and for top-level racers, the trade-off is not worth it. When conditions get hard and icy, though, even elite skiers will be better off sacrificing a little speed for stability and edge bite. You can generally choose a ski that is stiffer and higher camber with a “tight” tip that will help steer the ski and provide extra edge bite.
For classic skis, having a stiffer, higher camber ski is the ticket. You will need to protect the kick wax from the abrasive snow for durability and keep sticky grip waxes off the snow to keep the ski gliding fast. Whether you are running hard wax or klister, make sure that you have a fairly high camber, punchy ski. A klister ski will need to have a higher camber and be stiffer than a hard wax/binder ski, but either way, make sure that you have plenty of clearance in the kick zone.
In general, treat old snow as if it was a grade warmer than the temperature suggests. Because the old/manmade snow crystals can’t absorb much moisture, the snow will act “greasy” and be quick to glaze. This extra free moisture needs to be handled by the structure, so old-snow structures are typically more aggressive than the equivalent new-snow structure for the same temperature. Cross structures tend to work well on hard-pack, icy, old snow.
At the same time, we need to balance moisture handling with dirt accumulation issues. Sharp, deep and busy structures are more likely to collect dirt than duller, shallower and simpler structures. Dirt accumulation can dramatically reduce ski speed over the course of 10 k +. When possible, test out structures when clean (freshly cleaned and waxed skis) and then test them again after 5km or so of skiing. It is often tricky to figure out what the best balance between speed and dirt repellency is, but you have to make a judgment and try to keep additional hand structures clean, simple and light. Be sure to brush skis very well with a microfinish steel brush to completely clean out all wax residue from the structure before racing.
Glide wax for man-made and old snow needs to provide extra durability, dirt resistance and sometimes electrical conductivity when compared to waxing for regular natural snow. Much of this is accomplished by using a hard base layer and then choosing race paraffins and fluoro powders that excel in old and/or manmade snow. We have been using SkiGo LF Graphite as our preferred base layer for years as it almost always makes the top layer faster and adds extra durability. The graphite also provides dry lubrication and helps to dissipate static that tends to build up in aggressive snow conditions. Other great hard base layer options would be Start Graphite and Rex RCF Pink.
Once the base has been hardened appropriately, choose a race paraffin that performs well in old snow and is the hardest available. As a general rule in manmade conditions it is best to go one wax colder or harder than you normally would. We like to run a test of 6-8 race paraffins and then ski the top 2 or 3 waxes for 5km and then re-test. This provides information on durability and dirt resistance that might factor into our final wax choice. If one wax is slightly faster at first, but then slows dramatically after 5km, we’ll usually choose the second or third option if it is more durable and picks up less dirt.
At the world championships in Liberec, Czech in 2009, the snow was so dirty that the skis were slowing down by 2% or more after skiing them for 2km. This is a very dramatic example of how important dirt resistance can be.
It is almost a certainty that fluoro powders and fluoro liquids will be fast when dealing with old and manmade snow. Fluoro powders not only add speed, they provide the huge bonus of dirt resistance and durability, both vital to having fast skis all the way through a race in aggressive snow. Invest your time and wax resources into testing fluoro powders that excel in old snow. Most brands now highlight the type of snow each wax handles best in addition to a temperature range.
Liquid Fluoro waxes tend to work very well in old, fine, manmade and aggressive snow. While they tend to be not so great with new and average snow, it is always worth testing one or two when the snow is older. We usually apply these over an ironed-in application of fluoro powder and finish by hand-corking with a natural cork. The liquid topcoats can speed up the ski so dramatically that the results are sometimes startling. The SkiGo liquids are our number one choice as they seem to run more often than other brands and when they run, they produce fantastic results. SkiGo liquids were on the winning skis at US Nationals in 2011 at Rumford four times, in exactly the same type of snow as we expect to see this year.
From our experience as wax techs and at Rumford specifically, here are some waxes we expect to be running fast in Rumford for US Nationals. We’ll have test results on-site and on bouldernordic.com during Nationals week, so feel free to drop by and talk to us about what we’re testing and our recommendations.
In general, klister will be used in some form or another in aggressive and man-made snow. Any kick wax application needs to be durable. Ski selection is vital here so that the ski has high enough camber to keep the kick wax from being peeled off the ski by the abrasive snow. But if you have the right ski, you will almost always start with a hardwax or klister binder. Old snow and man-made snow crystals don’t have a lot of sharp edges for the kick wax to grab onto, so it often works to put a soft layer of klister or kick wax over the binder and then cover it with a harder shell of klister or hard wax. The sticky wax is needed to provide grip and the shell, or cover layer, releases the snow crystals from the wax, preventing icing and adding glide speed. It is very important to test the kick job over the length of the race to make sure that the wax will wear correctly while performing at optimum over the entire distance.
Winter Training Tips When Snow Is Lacking
By David Chamberlain
One December while preparing for an upcoming US Nationals in Rumford I did running intervals up a local ski mountain in the pouring rain. After skiing in the sun and snow of the Western US for the first two weeks of the month, I arrived home to find cold, rain and no snow within driving distance. Luckily it was not my first taste of less than ideal training conditions while training for a major competition. The lessons that I have learned from these situations is to stay on the winning side of motivation. The following are a few tips to help do this when the conditions are bad:
1. Don’t underestimate the value of dryland training.
The first thing to do is to stay positive. Keep it in your thoughts that dryland training is a fine way to prepare for ski races. There are many high level NCAA college programs in the West that will not see snow during the week as they study and dryland train before traveling to major races on the weekend. More than a few racers in these programs have told me that they think the extra dryland training keeps them sharper during the winter. To effectively dryland train before on-snow ski races the workouts should be kept as specific as possible. Rollerskiing, running with poles, hill bounding and hill walking are all great ways to keep the skiing muscles tuned. Time off of snow can even be a motivation boost with proper planning.
2. Be vigilant about the details.
This is especially important when the conditions are bad. Good nutrition will give you the energy you need. Keeping your clothes dry and clean will help you stay healthy. Packing your bag the night before workouts will help you get out the door on 15 degree mornings when you would rather not rollerski. Plan your workouts carefully so you will not have to make stressful, hasty decisions mid training session.
3. Use visualization to your advantage.
Justin Wadsworth once told me when he could not train because of injury he would spend his allotted training time visualizing a workout. This is a good tool to have when the conditions are bad. While visualization is not a perfect substitute for a training session, it can be used to help keep in touch with the feelings of on-snow skiing when you are forced to rollerski in December. Find a quiet place and visualize yourself skiing on a favorite race course or better yet, the venue of your upcoming races. Visualization exercises are also a great way to relax when you become proficient at it. Pick up any mental toughness book and you will find a section on visualization. It is a skill that all high level athletes have in their tool bag.
4. Keep your training reasonable.
When conditions are ideal, blue skies and extra blue skiing, it is very easy to put in hours of training. But when it is cold and raining, the same amount of training is more of an effort. Keep in mind that a plan is just a plan, staying flexible is the key to getting through a snowless week of training in the winter. If you spend a morning doing intervals in the rain, find a dry garage with a spin bike to do your recovery workout. If your plan for the week states 14 hours, think about cutting your hours back to 12 when it is cold, dark and drizzling for days on end. This will allow you to keep a solid focus on your workouts and give you the best chance to arrive at your next race ready to go. Also keep a sharp focus on the signals your body is sending you. Stress and cold can be a combination that will lead to illness, but is does not have to if you catch the signs of fatigue early.
One last basic tip:
5. Keep your rollerski pole tips sharp!
Nothing is worse than dull rollerski tips on pavement in 15 degree weather, not to mention inefficient. Keep a small diamond stone handy for touch ups before workouts.
One of the goals behind any sporting endeavor should be having fun. When was the last time a good result wasn’t a fun experience? When the conditions are tough the most important advice I can give is to cultivate your own fun. If you do this, even in the face of a major race, you will ski your best no matter what the conditions.
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Boulder Nordic Sport is the leading cross-country ski racing source in the United States. With stores in Boulder, Colorado and Portland, Maine; BNS also operates a mobile race service trailer that travels to events around the US as well as an e-commerce web site at www.bouldernordic.com/shop. BNS imports and distributes the SkiGo, Holmenkol, Guru, Innovax, Gallium and Magnar brands in the US.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.