This article is a paid advertisement by Caldwell Sport, a ski-grinding service and new-ski retail shop operated by Amy and Zach Caldwell in Putney, Vt. We ride the coattails of any successes that we can claim an association with. This week we’re taking credit for the astonishing successes enjoyed by the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) in recent years.
Last spring, USSA named Rob Bradlee domestic coach of the year, recognizing the rapid ascent of the Cambridge Sports Union to the upper ranks of U.S. Junior clubs. Rob is quick to point out that the award may be in his name, but it recognizes the contributions of many coaches, volunteers and athletes. CSU has about 55 kids involved in the program, and 20 to 25 of them regularly attend Eastern Cup (Junior Olympic Qualifier) events. Six years ago they placed no skiers on the New England JO Team. Then, for a couple of years they got two kids onto the team. Then seven, and nine, until last year they claimed 12 spots on the perennially strong NE team. At JOs last year they had the top girls club, and second overall club score. They had three individual JO champions, and five all-americans.
CSU is the only major club in the greater Boston area. The skiers are the normal brand of bright stars that we see involved in Cross Country everywhere, multiplied by the intensity of a major urban environment. Skiing competes for attention with a huge number of scholastic sports and extra-curricular activities. They ski primarily on short loops of manmade snow at the Weston Ski Track. In a time when standard complaints and excuses from clubs all over the country are focused on bad snow and too many other commitments, CSU makes you wonder what most other clubs in the country are waiting for. How do they do it?
It’s the skis.
No, it’s not actually the skis. But the CSU approach to skis gives some insight into the way the club is organized and how they have formulated their recipe for success. And while skis may not be the key to success, CSU does a great job, week after week, of competing with various ski academies and eastern colleges. It’s notable these days when they don’t have among the best skis in the race. And they do it with a big team, using an army of volunteer parent-waxers. There is no top secret wax-guru mixing up fancy solutions in the background. There is, instead, a system.
This might be a good time to introduce Jim Stock. Jim is a quiet and intense guy with a brain that is wired to create order out of chaos. He is a Harvard professor of economics, and in his spare time he quietly shapes global macro-economic policy. No, really, he does. In his other spare time he coaches the Eastern Mass BKL group, otherwise known as the CSU farm-team. In the ski world he’s better known as Chris and Corey Stock’s dad.
I don’t actually know how the system was developed, but I’ve been involved picking and grinding skis for the club for the past four or five years. I imagine that Rob and Jim sat down and made a list of variables, assets and liabilities. The liabilities are what most clubs offer as excuses; we don’t have any waxing gurus, we don’t have great opportunities to test, we’ve got a ton of kids with a limited number of skis, we’ve got to get wax on all these skis really quickly. These liabilities got recast as limitations – the framework within which the club had to operate to produce good skis. And the most important thing they did was make a creative assessment of their assets. What do they have a lot of? Parents.
Normally, in junior ski racing, parents find themselves in the role of helpless bystander, and potential liability. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen one or two coaches scramble to get kick wax on skis for a dozen kids while a dozen parents hover nearby hoping that everything works out. CSU parents are involved with their kids, and concerned for their success. In different circumstances we’d be talking about an epidemic of helicopter parents. But at CSU the parents find themselves in the “assets” column, and they have klister on their hands. How do you get 25 kids waxed for an Eastern Cup race? You deputize parents as waxers! The CSU waxing juggernaut can race-wax 25 pairs of skis in 40 minutes. And they’re loud and boisterous – quite obviously having a great time. In the noise contest it’s a toss-up between the Dartmouth girls and the CSU waxers.
In order for relatively inexpert (at least at first) parents to do good work waxing skis, there have to be clear instructions. And this is where the CSU system really shines. Starting four or five years ago, Jim and Rob have clearly defined what they’re looking for in skis. When we started working together they were quick to point out that they often need to deal with klister, and that really soft classic skis were hard to work with. The majority of the CSU kids have one pair each, skate and classic, and so we worked together to define, specifically, what a single-pair CSU classic ski needed to be.
And then, with help from Chris Li at Bikeway Source in Bedford, Mass., we developed a way to quantify and mark the pockets. CSU was among the first clubs to identify, appreciate, and utilize residual camber as a characteristic in their classic ski. They developed a standardized system of marking skis so that they could give specific instructions to parents for precisely how to wax whichever pair of skis was on the bench in front of them. And it worked! The skis come from one source, they are selected to fit one system, they are measured and marked using one system, and chaos has been given a time-out.
It’s not just classic skis and kick waxing either. Rob has been a Toko guy for years, and had no desire to change to a completely different system. But he asked for suggestions on specific products that could broaden the range of wax possibilities for glide, and he introduced them, a couple at a time, to a contained testing process. He bought test skis, and a Finite Finish structure tool, and we discussed basic standard structure modifications. And then we standardized grinds for the whole club. As I type this we are processing final structure on some of the 154 pairs (including some for Masters) of CSU skis that we’re grinding this Fall. On any given race day the CSU waxers should be working with only one or two different structures, so testing hand structure and modifying skis is a controlled and sensible process.
In part, the CSU approach to skis and ski service is representative of a willingness to invest. As a rule, the kids going to Eastern Cup races all have top-of-the-line hand-picked skis that are up to date. This costs money, and parents are expected to support the system. But because there is a system, the investment in equipment isn’t a leap of faith – it’s an integrated part of the program. We do a huge amount of work with teams from all over the country, and often we’re grinding a mish-mash of skis that have been assembled from various brands and various sources over the past decade. When we work on these skis it’s no mystery to us why CSU might have more success than some of these clubs. CSU is one of our most satisfying partnerships because their systematic approach and willingness to invest makes our work look good.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.