CommunityFeatureResourcesWaxingWhat makes a fast ski? A discussion on league-wide wax protocols and ski performance theory with Andy Gerlach, Zach Caldwell, and Knut Nystad (Part 1)

Rachel PerkinsMay 22, 2022
FasterSkier shares insights into ski performance theory from Any Gerlach, Zach Caldwell, and Knut Nystad. (Photo: NordicFocus)

In November 2021, the Wisconsin Nordic Ski League (WNSL), which oversees both high school and club level youth programming state-wide, accepted a sponsorship proposal from Swix and Salomon, which would provide the league with $10,000 in funding per year for three years. The proposal also included stipulation that a standardized wax protocol using Swix waxes would be adopted by the league at all affiliated races, including the state championship. 

In practice, this would look like an email going out to all coaches a day or two prior to the event indicating which of a subset of Swix glide waxing products should be used by athletes that weekend. Equivalent temperature range and performance level waxes from other companies would be disallowed. In the sponsorship presentation given to the league by Swix, the proposal promoted the simplicity and affordability of a unified wax call, and a shift in focus for coaches away from time-consuming wax testing to race day support of their athletes. 

The concept is not new, and WNSL is not the first league to adopt such a protocol. An equivalent protocol has been used by the high school, club, and collegiate level ski programs in the Rocky Mountain region (RMN and RMISA) for the last six years, and has more recently been adopted by the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain Division junior club programs. On the whole, these policies have been seen as beneficial by these regions. 

While an additional $30,000 of funding has the potential to profoundly impact the reach of the WNSL, which will be discussed in a subsequent story, the adoption of the corresponding wax protocol also raised red flags, particularly among members of the Independent Nordic Distributors of America (INDA). The INDA includes distributors of wax products from other smaller companies like Start, Vauhti, Star, and more, and are primarily based in the Midwest. 

The two primary issues that were flagged were the restriction of trade should Swix monopolize the buyer market encompassed by the WNSL, and also whether limiting the available choices to a single option actually creates the equity and uniformity that one might anticipate from putting all skiers on the same wax. Instead, could it widen the opportunity gap between those who could afford high-end skis with condition specific grinds and those who could not?

Enjoy Winter’s Andy Gerlach snaps a picture with 2020 Birkie Champion Ian Torchia (SMS T2). (Photo: EnjoyWinter.com)

In the fall, these issues were brought to FasterSkier by Andy Gerlach, director of Madison, WI based EnjoyWinter, which distributes Start, among other cross country related brands like Blitz Eyewear and Swenor rollerskis. With vested interests in the implications to his own business, but also as someone who offers brand-neutral education on wax theory for coaches, Gerlach actively opposed the decision by WNSL to accept the offer from Swix. 

“The biggest argument against these exclusive sales agreements and proof that they are bad for the sport, and in fact illegal, is that they decrease the incentive for any other brand to fight for any part of a team’s or consumer’s business,” Gerlach said in the fall. “Why should my business continue to do wax clinics for Madnorski (Madison Nordic Ski Club) members if we know we are no longer getting a large chunk of their business. Why should any brand even visit Colorado clubs if we know we do not have a chance at a large chunk of the business there? Legal marketing arrangements should increase competition in the market, not decrease it. Change the agreements to marketing rights and not sales rights and every other brand would increase their efforts to reach the individual teams.”

After discussions among the cross-country sport committee during the recent U.S. Ski & Snowboard annual spring congress meetings, Gerlach summarized his objections to wax protocols to the following four points.

  1. “They perpetuate a misconception that waxing is so difficult and mysterious. Our clinics state just the opposite.
  2. “They perpetuate a misconception that extensive testing is effective and needed to select a glide wax that an athlete can race up to their abilities with. Our clinics state just the opposite.
  3. “They increase the likely hood that those skiers with a quiver of skis will have the fastest skis. Multivariable mathematical analysis, as well as ski industry testing and ski sales figures shows this.
  4. “They endorse one brand ‘because it is the most available’ and in so doing extends this advantage.”

 

There is plenty more involved in the debate on the legality and consequences on the business end of the decision whether to accept the sponsorship offer from Swix, which will be revisited in subsequent parts of this story. This installment, however, will focus on the underlying principles of ski performance theory, with input from experts, like Gerlach, on what factors ultimately determine ski speed, and whether restricting the waxes available for a given race would level the playing field by reducing variables, or adversely affect the pre-existing disparity between ski performance, thus limiting the potential of the skier clipped into the binding.

Brimming with insights into ski performance, this thought-provoking conversation should provide fodder for discussion within race-leagues at all levels as they consider waxing protocols and avenues to improve equity within the sport. 

***

We’ll start with what Gerlach identified as the factors that affect the performance of a ski from most to least significant, and where in this process limiting a coach/athlete to a single wax from a single brand becomes significant. 

“In my hierarchy of ski speed deciding factors, it’s a flexible ski, the freshness of the base is the next important, the structure, then the hardness of the wax, and then the brand,” Gerlach explained in a call. “Now we’re going to take away the hardness of the wax as a differentiator between them. And now, all we have as the only differentiator is the ski model, the freshness of the base, and the structure.” 

The understanding of this theoretical model underscores the remainder of the question. When we hear “wax tech”, the name seems to imply the key player being adjusted and assessed is the wax. Gerlach explained that this reasoning is misguided.

“I, and scientific studies, will show you that 95% of this theoretical wax testing is not determining the fastest wax to apply that day. If it was, at US Nationals, or at any of these races, the line Saturday morning two hours before the race start would all be at one wax trailer. But you know, every coach comes up with their own thing… There is a different theoretical ideal wax for a Rossignol with an aggressive grind to the same Rossignol with a fine grind, and you would theoretically wax it differently. If you are testing on your Madshus cold skis and all your kids are on dried burnt out skis, or are on Fisher or on Salmon, theoretically, there’s a different wax [for each ski].”

It’s a counterintuitive concept to those, like myself, who prefer to focus on the technique and training aspects of the sport, versus the technical side. Why doesn’t putting everyone on Swix PS8 on a day forecasted to be in the right temperature range remove a factor that might create disparity between ski performance, thereby improving equity? Particularly in a larger state, like Colorado, where teams are driving long distances (through vastly different elevation zones) to race without knowing exactly what conditions will be like until arrival, I could see the appeal for coaches of removing a step in the planning process. 

Swedish Technicians at work at a March, 2022 biathlon World Cup event in Oslo, NOR. (Photo: NordicFocus)

To simplify the answer on why equity may not be achievable with wax, Gerlach offered an analogy most skiers can relate to, regardless of their background knowledge in waxing theory.

“If you’ve ever shaved your legs or your face with a razor,” he began. “A sharp, brand-new razor is like a fresh ski with a fresh base. You don’t need shaving cream and that razor works great. But a dull razor – a dried, crappy base – you need that shaving cream. And you need the best shaving cream you can get, and it’s going to help that razor and that shave a whole lot more.”

How does this affect youth level programming? Ultimately, it accentuates the ever-growing “pay to play” problem of competitive sports. A newer, higher-end ski with a fresh base, or perhaps a quiver of skis that are ideal for different conditions, becomes much more important without the ability of a skier or coach to add versatility and improve the performance of a single pair of skis ski by utilizing a range of products to optimize the wax job. 

“We have one ski with a great freshness of the base and a great structure, and one ski with a really dried up base. Had I applied wax to [the dry base], it does more to increase the ski speed than applying wax to a great ski… The more skis you can add to that quiver, all waxed the same, one of those is going to highly outperform the others. Versus when you had the ability to not only figure out which ski to go with, but which wax to go with. So by taking away variables that are easy to change, you make it more important to have a very good ski.”

To include additional knowledgeable voices in the discussion, FasterSkier also spoke with Zach Caldwell and Knut Nystad, two savants in the complex and nuanced world of wax and skis. Caldwell is a leading expert in ski selection, wax, and grinds in the US, and the co-owner of Caldwell Sport. As a distributor of Vauhti, Rode, Star, and other waxes, Caldwell is also a member of the INDA. 

Nystad is the former head of the Norwegian Wax Team, who still works as a ski serviceman for the Norwegian program at the World Cup, World Championship, and Olympic level. Prior to this work in his home country, Nystad spent twelve years as the head coach at the University of Denver. 

“The idea of having a fair competition and limiting variables in order to generate more fairness and equity in the racing and create equal opportunity and a lower barrier to entry is a really laudable goal, but it misses the point,” Caldwell said simply in a call. 

“The fact is that it’s a pretty complex system that we’re working with, with a lot of additive contributing variables that contribute to a whole solution, including ski flex, base material, base preparations, waxing, hand structure, all of it. When you have a lot of variables available to you, you have a lot of different pathways to success. The peak performance that might be available [on a particular ski] can be considered something along the lines of terminal velocity; you’re just not really going to go past a certain level of performance [on a day], the performance that the snow is going to yield. But there are a lot of ways to get there.” 

Inside the wax at a February SuperTour race weekend in Craftsbury, VT, where Zach Caldwell (left) supported SMS T2 athletes. (Photo: Facebook Caldwell Sport)

“As you begin to limit variables,” Caldwell explained, “you begin to place much more emphasis on other variables. They become proportionally much more important in determining how to get to the best performance possible [on the day]. And as you remove wax, which is a really inexpensive variable per application that can be put on specific to a day, you skew the emphasis toward skis base materials, grinds and hand structures.”

Individual variation among the skis and in the technique and strengths of the skier on those skis adds additional complexity to the scenario.

“Think about classic skis; this is a better way to imagine this,” Caldwell pitched. “Some athletes or some skis require different layering and build up of classic wax on a day. But if you’re saying, ‘Oh, you get two layers of extra blue. That’s it.’ That’s asinine. It means some people get to race and others basically have to herringbone.”

Nystad also questioned the premise of leveling the playing field by creating uniformity in the wax selection.

“Let’s start with the beginning,” Nystad said. “All of us that have done this for a long time, the only thing we know is that we don’t know. The only thing we know is that we need to test in order to get the answers. But what I can tell you from my experiences is that if you limit one factor, sometimes it just opens up another can of worms…

“There’s definitely good arguments for trying to make the sport as simple as possible. But I think that for the people that think that just by waxing with blue, that that’s going to make it more equitable. It is a sign to me that they don’t have that much in-depth knowledge.”

Knut Nystad provides insight into ski performance theory and why a one-wax call may widen the gap in cross country skiing. (Photo: knutnystad.com)

Without giving hierarchical ranking, Nystad also discussed the myriad of factors that contribute to the performance of a ski on a given day: the properties of the ski, including flex and splay, the quality of the base and its structure, the manual tools used, and the wax. “And then to top it all off, you have the method methodology that you use to apply the wax.”

He walked through various ways a particular wax could be applied to yield different results, before echoing Caldwell’s sentiments that equity and uniformity cannot be achieved by restricting the options for wax that can be applied to a ski. 

“When people say, ‘Well, can’t we just all wax with the same thing? It will make it easier.’ Clearly it will make it easier; you have one less factor to think about. But if the intention was to make it more of an even playing field, it’s not necessarily the truth. Because when you go to a race,  you’re only limited to try to test what you can afford from money, resources, and of course, time being one of those resources. So if you don’t have the test wax, what else can you test? Well, you can test many more skis, with many more properties with many more different bases, with many more structures, with many more manual tools. 

“So it just opens up other things that you can test to get an advantage. And everything that you’re going to test if you’re going to have more skis, of course, that’s going to cost more. If you’re going to have more structures, different kinds of structures, that will also cost more. If you’re going to add manual tools, that will also cost more.”

Stay tuned for more insights from Gerlach, Caldwell, and Nystad in Part 2 of this story.

 

Rachel Perkins

Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646

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