For most racers, the night before a race is synonymous with ironing in and scraping off base layers of wax for the next day’s competition. Race morning means testing skis and wax, trying different structure, and then watching puffs of fluorocarbon-laden steam roll off their skis as coaches apply expensive powders in the last few minutes before race start.
Some North American nordic associations, though, have decided that it’s better if this whole process is simplified some of the time. Nobody’s going into a championship event on CH10, but clubs are increasingly agreeing to leave powders out of the equation for regular-season racing – or even to have every skier on the very same wax.
Their reasons vary widely. For the U.S. Biathlon Association, a “same-wax” protocol is in place at trials so that coaches can accurately compare skiing speed. Biathlon Canada has the same protocol, but besides the benefit of giving a level playing field a big factor is to reduce stress on athletes and coaches.
The Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association agreed to stop using powders in regular-season classic races, and they are moving towards implementing the policy in skate races as well. For the EISA, it’s mostly about health: college venues rarely have wax cabins, so there’s not a ventilation system – or if so, it’s the natural variety provided by a cold wind coming off the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
The three organizations have something else in common in terms of how they implement their wax protocols: once championship events roll around, it’s gloves off and clubs can, and should, do whatever ski preparation they can in order to win. The role of ski preparation in success as a nordic athlete is not eliminated entirely. It’s simply minimized at the times of year that the organizations feel best aid in athlete selection and development.
All three organizations said that they have had almost entirely positive reviews of their policies, and in two cases are looking to go further. Here’s why.
The EISA agreed in April of 2012 to ban fluoro powders in regular-season classic races. From their 2013 Policies and Procedures Manual:
“For Nordic classic races, relays and sprints the use of pure flouro powder, liquid or block is prohibited. Maximum HF waxes only. LF cold powders are acceptable.”
University of Vermont head coach Patrick Weaver, a two-time Olympian, told FasterSkier that he had brought the proposal to the EISA coaches.
“At the time we decided classic only,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This year we voted to include some skate races as well… I have to say though, the monetary part of it is probably at the bottom of the list. Health is at the top with a bunch of other reason in-between.”
He also clarified that not only are powders off the table, but high-fluoro liquids and blocks are also not to be used.
Weaver was particularly interested to know if other groups around the country are making a similar decision. Interestingly, however, the two other major North American groups with policies explicitly say that health is nowhere near the top of their own list of concerns.
USBA has two different wax protocols, both of which apply only to trials racing – which happens several times a year for World Cup, IBU Cup, World Youth and Junior Championships, and every four years for Olympic teams. One protocol is for domestic trials and the other is for trials which happen during other races, for instance IBU Cup races used to select World Cup or Olympic teams. But both require that all the competitors have exactly the same wax on their skis.
“The main reasons are to be as fair as possible competition between all athletes and for us to see the best pure performances,” USBA Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler wrote in an e-mail. “Still ski brand, flex and grind can make big difference, but like this, you can get it at least as close as possible. It’s also to save money for the regions and clubs, and so athletes learn to understand their skis and learn how to test skis and make decisions on their own. Health is an added benefit.”
At domestic trials, athletes are allowed to select two pairs of skis for race waxing. The coaches from the various clubs competing are told by a USBA representative what the wax choice will be, and then all the staff work together to prepare all the skis in one large batch.
At an IBU Cup race, athletes are allowed 45 minutes to test up to four pairs of skis, and then have to pick their one race pair and hand them over to the wax techs an hour before race start. Rather than an easy-to-use wax like might be selected at a domestic trials event, at an international competition the techs are going all out – it’s not just a trial, but also a chance to represent the U.S., and for the team to collect Nations Cup points.
Eisenbichler emphasized that ski testing is up to the athletes.
“What I found beneficial is there, that athletes have to really get familiar with their skis and test them alone and get experienced with that, before they enter the WC and everything is taken care for them,” he explained. “The athletes input in the ski selection before grinding in summer or at a race day is crucial, and the athlete has to understand her/his skis for that.”
Biathlon Canada uses an identical system for its World Youth and Junior Championships trials races.
“We think it’s a key part of the selection process, to have everyone on same wax],” Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay explained in a phone interview. “The main reason for that is that we’re trying to take away not really one of the variables that can affect individualized performance, but we’re actually trying to take away one of the stressors on athletes and coaches during selection processes. Because when we’ve got them racing internationally, they don’t have to deal with that.”
No matter how good a skier’s support team is at home – or conversely, if they’re more or less on their own and don’t have anyone to help test skis or apply powders – they will all be in the same boat once they get to Europe. For Lindsay, it’s important to remove wax-related stress from the trials process and start moving young athletes towards the working environment they will find once they reach a higher level of competition.
“The comments that we get back on our yearly surveys tend to be extremely positive about this,” he said. |It is most positive from athletes from lesser programs or who typically don’t have robust support available to them, which is not surprising. The most critical feedback that we get is from programs and coaches who feel that they could provide some sort of advantage to their athletes [through superior waxing].”
Lindsay said that his organization is looking into next steps towards an extended waxing protocol. But what would a next step actually look like?
“We haven’t come up with what the next level is, because of the complication of ski structure and ski compatibility with athletes is a much more significant problem,” Lindsay said.
One possible direction is something that is already in place in Sweden, according to Kevin Cutts, a former top U.S. junior skier who now coaches a ski gymnasium in Sundsvall.
“Every kid up to a certain age here – maybe 15 or 16 – is only allowed to have one pair of skate skis and one pair of classic skis that are their race skis,” he told FasterSkier this summer. “They get a sticker that goes on their skis to identify which ones are their race skis, and they can’t have more than that. It’s a good thing, I think, because then it doesn’t come down to, well, John has Fischer Carbonlites, but I don’t. Yeah, you’re going to have kids who have better equipment than others, but you’re not going to have 12-year-olds showing up to a race with 30 pairs of test skis and a full wax team.”
Do you know of other North American ski associations with interesting wax policies? Let us know in the comments.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.