What: Fluoros, aka perfluorinated waxes, aka ski waxes containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), aka the really expensive waxes that you put on for big races, in some or all of block, liquid, or powder form.
What they do: Make your skis go really, really fast, particularly in the wet or dirty snow conditions that sadly characterize more and more high-end races in an era of artificial snow and climate change.
What else they do: Exposure to certain perfluoros is associated with thyroid disorders, hypertension and preeclampsia during pregnancy, and testicular and kidney cancer, as well as statistically improbable rates of illness and death for people exposed to it in high quantities. PFAS chemicals have been found in the drinking water in multiple states. Lawsuits have been filed; over a billion dollars in settlements have been paid.
What’s their status for ski racing: It’s complicated. For the past few decades, fluoros were ubiquitous in high-level ski racing. Then, in November 2019, the International Ski Federation announced that fluorinated waxes would be banned in all FIS races, including the World Cup, effective this race season. Nations began testing fluoro-free alternatives from major wax manufacturers. FIS began working on a workable and efficient fluoro-detection machine. Much upheaval ensued.
Work on the fluoro-detection device did not go as efficiently as planned. At the eleventh hour, in mid-October of this year, slightly more than a month before the first World Cup race of this season, FIS announced that the fluoro ban would be postponed by a year, and would not go into effect on the World Cup (or at, say, the 2022 Winter Olympics) until July 1, 2021. “Stay tuned,” FasterSkier wrote last month.
What did Devon Kershaw think about this: He was not a fan of FIS’s lack of competence or professionalism.
No, really, what’s their status for ski racing: Simply put, fluoros are allowed in FIS races in this country this season, as in any FIS race in any country this season. They are not allowed in races sanctioned by U.S. Ski & Snowboard. (These were formerly known as USSA races. They are also known as NRL races, or National Ranking List races, that is, a points system used to rank domestic athletes.)
That’s nice, but I’m your average master skier in this country. I’m not a USSS member, and I’m not racing any high-level races. Other than the general health and safety considerations, why do I care about this? Ever hear of a little thing called the American Birkebeiner?
Yes, the one true ski race for Master Blasters everywhere. But what does that have to do with fluoros? They’re banned at the Birkie, starting this year.
Really? Really. Here’s American Birkebeiner Event Director Kristy Maki, in an email to FasterSkier this November:
“The 2021 Birkie Events will be fluoro-free. We are working on determining how testing will be implemented and right now, our goal is to do testing on a limited number of skiers. We have been working on the basic planning of Birkie Events, but I will be updating the Participant Rules soon.
We have announced previously that we would be fluoro-free in 2021, but it has not gotten a lot of attention lately.”
Okay, I’m listening now. How do I get the fluoros off my skis so I can race the Birkie without breaking the rules? The short version is that you need to clean your skis; de-fluoro your skis; and then wax your skis anew with fluoro-free wax. Here is an excerpt from a longer document prepared by FIS:
If hot waxing more than 10 times does not seem like enough work, the full document also explains how to clean/purify your iron, scrapers, brushes (but you should really just buy new brushes), roto fleece, wax apron (wash on high “several times”), files and file guides, ski bags, and wax room.
Wow, that sounds really involved. Do you have a shorter version of what I can do and still achieve some sort of good-faith compliance with these new rules? Thankfully, yes. Here’s what USSS sent out in an email to all members in mid-November:
The main difference is that it involves far fewer repetitions of the cleaning step, specifically “two times” rather than “more than 10.” (Granted, that’s twice through a normal wax application in which the wax cools each time, rather than 10 times hot scraping, so that’s a little apples to oranges.) But this was sent out by Adam St. Pierre on behalf of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, so this would seem to have USSS’s imprimatur behind it. Also, this accords with the “two layers of NF” protocol used by EISA teams over the past few seasons.
Bigger picture, USSS seems to envision this as something you could do if if you’re transitioning between, say, USSS and FIS races multiple times this season (or USSS and no-holds-barred citizens races), while the FIS protocol is probably more applicable to making a permanent transition from a fluoros to a no-fluoros world. Which is clearly coming soon, but, depending on where you live and the viewpoints of your local ski club, may not be here yet – citizen races in southcentral Alaska, for example, remain very much fluoro-friendly this season.
Okay, I did all this, but I don’t trust my competitors to do this at all. What type of oversight is there going to be at races this season? Probably some but not much. As Maki with the Birkie said, they will be targeting “a limited number” of entrants. Or here’s St. Pierre, in the same mid-November email quoted from above, describing random testing at “select” USSS races this season:
Full details on the testing protocol (brief version: the ski is swabbed in two places on the glide zone; sample is sent in for analysis; results come back in 10-14 days) may be found here. St. Pierre also explains the possible sanctions for evidence of fluoro use, up to and including disqualification. He adds, “Remember: Testing can indicate the degree of fluoro contamination. Our intention is to catch intentional and unethical fluorocarbon use; the goal is not to sanction individuals for traces of fluorocarbons from prior waxing, those present in the ski base, or the environment.”
What do you have to say about all this, USSS official site? Here you go: “In order to provide U.S. Ski & Snowboard members, coaches and officials guidance with the [no fluoros] policy, we are providing the following information: …
Fluorinated Wax Testing: Testing procedures and protocols will be forthcoming.”
What do you have to say about all this, American ski community? Here’s CXC, writing about its new wax policy for this year’s events (emphasis in original): “Our CXC Cup Wax Policy is first and foremost an honor system, but athletes at Salomon CXC Cup NRL Events are subject to random ski testing for illegal wax by representatives of U.S. Ski and Snowboard. It should also be recognized that ski waxing, especially with non fluoro waxes, is quite variable and often two similarly waxed pairs of skis can have large differences in glide based upon non wax factors such as flex and structure/grind. All competitors and coaches should adopt a culture of compliance, and all our membership should presume their fellow competitors are acting ethically and legally, rather than pointing fingers based upon a subjective idea that someone has fast skis from illegal waxing.”
Or here’s Boulder Nordic Sport’s Roger Knight, writing in this winter’s version of the BNS catalog, which was prepared at a time when fluoros were going to be completely barred this season, and so was partially obsolete by the time it was printed: “Where does [the absence of widespread fluoro testing] leave us? With an honor system. Will some people cheat? Undoubtedly. Do you want to be one of those people? Only you can answer that question. One thing that we essentially have never had here in the US is a stain of cheating on our cross-country skiing culture. We hope that this continues at all levels of the sport.”
Finally, here’s FasterSkier writing last month about Craftsbury nordic race director Ollie Burruss: “In Burruss’ estimation, racing at the Outdoor Center is de facto fluoro free. … The Outdoor Center asks you not to use fluoros. That decision, according to Burruss, will be based on trust and a hardened value system relying on people doing the right thing, not necessarily the fastest thing.”
Burruss added, “We don’t have a community in New England where it’s fraught with suspicion, backstabbing, and people trying to one up each other. We really have, I think, a really tight-knit supportive ski community. And so when we planned on having FIS racing, we weren’t going to test.”
I’m sorry, but I’m still skeptical that some of my competitors are going to comply with a largely honor system-based protocol, when the advantages of fluoro use in some conditions are so great, and widespread testing or enforcement is not really an option yet. Am I alone in this concern? You are not. Although it was admittedly unscientific, an informal poll conducted on FasterSkier last fall suggested that large portions of the 160 respondents were less sanguine than Burruss or CXC leaders about the ethics of their competitors. (N.b., there was likely no practicable, quick-turnaround, fluoro-detection device on the market at that time. To be fair, there still isn’t.)
One of the questions in the 2019 survey was, “If a fluoro ban was put in place, would you trust that the field was ‘clean’ with regards to fluorinated ski bases?” Only 25% of respondents answered “yes.”
Narrative comments made in response to this question included, “A 20%+ advantage in some snow conditions? Yeah, that’s a big incentive. I can’t imagine [a ban] working.” (For perspective, and back to the Birkie for a second, a 20-plus-percent improvement is the difference between qualifying at the back end of the Birkie Elite Wave and making the podium at SuperTours or U.S. Nationals. That’s a pretty big difference.)
Also, “If there isn’t a simple compliance test, no doubt some people will cheat to win.” Also, “I would like to trust that the field was ‘clean’, but I think I would struggle to do so if it were to actually happen. Furthermore, I think that any stellar performance by an athlete would be subject to suspicion, regardless of whether or not they were ‘clean’, and that this would be unfortunate.” Also, “I am sure several masters racers with large wax stores would still use them until they were depleted; I would expect races to be clean in several years and primarily clean in the interim.”
Also, and more optimistically: “At the World Cup level, I probably wouldn’t trust the field to be clean, because there is a lot at stake, and some people already dope, so I’m sure they’d have no qualms about fluoro doping. However, at the US level, I have a lot more faith in the nordic ski community and I honestly believe that anybody that is seriously competing to win super tours and represent the US at world championships would do so honestly.”
In response to other questions, 64% of respondents stated that they would continue to use their existent stock of fluorinated waxes. 56% of respondents stated that they foresaw some sort of black market developing for banned wax products. Again, you can find the full poll results here if you are curious. You may also note this narrative comment, which speaks volumes: “I hate the poison but feel non-competitive without it.”
So after I clean off my skis, what do I buy to wax with instead? Most wax manufacturers have developed fluoro-free analogues of most of their fluorinated products. Your local ski shop will be well-versed in your new options.
What else should I buy? Maybe some new skis, or at least some new structure tools. As USST wax tech Chris Hecker wrote, summarizing his testing of World Cup-level non-fluoro waxes during the 2019/2020 season, “I am very impressed with how good some of the non-fluoro alternatives have been. In colder, dry conditions I find a number of brands have found competitive alternatives to fluoro top coats, but when it comes to warm, wet snow days the gap is still fairly large. On warmer days with non-fluoros being present, skis, hand structure and ski grinds will become ever more important.”
This article has been edited to remove a link to a table of waxes approved for CXC races, because it represented only a portion of fluoro-free waxes currently available.
Gavin Kentch is a lifelong Alaskan. He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team in Anchorage, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney. He has a cat named Marit. He was probably on snow this year before you were.