What makes a fast ski? A discussion on league-wide wax protocols and ski performance theory with Andy Gerlach, Zach Caldwell, and Knut Nystad (Part 2)

Rachel PerkinsMay 24, 2022
Cold, firm tracks and perfect corduroy: the stuff of cross country skiers’ dreams. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Click here to read part 1 of this story.

In most states, youth skiing is divided between club and high school programming, where club programs support skiers looking to race competitively on a regional, national, or international level, perhaps with goals of NCAA skiing and beyond. High school ski programming is typically more participation focused, and comes with a much lower price tag for families, consequently with a much smaller program budget. It’s less about year-round training, and more about learning to ski, enjoying a low-cost introduction to the sport, and providing a healthy activity to get kids outside in the winter. In some places, athletes may fall into an overlapping Venn diagram of  categories, while in others, it may be a choice of club versus high school racing.

Within high school programs, it is much less common to have multiple pairs of skis, and conversations on grinds and structures are less likely to be overheard between coaches. Here in Colorado, it’s one of the only (maybe the only?) high school sport that does not have a uniform rule – kids can essentially race in whatever they want; no lycra required.

In this setting, a universal wax call might be a more reasonable proposition, according to Nystad. 

“Arguments can be made on both sides. If everyone just agrees: ‘We have one pair of skis and we wax with blue.’ Okay, it probably will be as fair as you can probably make it, but just be aware that still there will be huge individual differences on the quality of the skis and how they differ from different conditions… there will still be variations, it’s not like everyone will start on the starting line having identical skis. That’s not realistic.”  

Slovenian sprinter Eva Urevc tests skis with her wax technician at the 2022 Olympics in Zhangjiakou, CHN. (Photo: NordicFocus)

With all of this in mind, is there a way to create equity via equipment or waxing at any level of the sport? 

“No,” said Caldwell frankly. “No, there isn’t.” Adding perspective from his business, Caldwell explained that the cost of equipment has been steady over time with respect to inflation. That said, among competitive programs, the demand for skis has increased with time, in particular, following the removal of a now-banned leveler that we haven’t yet mentioned: fluorocarbons.

“It’s a technical sport,” Caldwell said. “And the fact is that people have become more aware of the opportunity to get ahead with material. And I think what we’re seeing is a reaction to the reality of what the sport is. It’s not running. It’s just not. And yet people are doing the same thing in running with these carbon-plated shoes. Now you can only win if you have a high-tech shoe that goes 4% faster. Does that mean that those shoes shouldn’t have been invented? Or should they be banned? Possibly. I mean, whatever, we have to talk about this. 

“They banned fluorocarbons for a lot of very good reasons, or they’re in the process of it. When it’s health and safety that is the problem, then you have to take the necessary steps. And yet, we also have to acknowledge that removing fluorocarbons really takes a big, big leveling factor out of the equation. There’s no opportunity to take a universal cold grind ski and put it in a wet race. That kid’s screwed. Every single time we remove the opportunity to optimize the solution that’s at hand, you’re penalizing the kids who don’t have the perfect setup.”

Zach Caldwell (left) out for a ski with his wife and business partner Amy and Craftsbury Green Racing Project wax tech Nick Brown. (Photo: Facebook Caldwell Sport)

Making it clear that his opinion is not clouded by the inability of a Colorado, Wisconsin, or Washington-based club skier to use a non-Swix wax purchased through Caldwell Sport, he added, “From a business perspective, with regard to my overall outlook, I probably should be applauding this model because it creates a massive incentive for kids to carry a lot more skis. And we’ve already seen this with the removal of fluoros from competition – you wouldn’t believe the uptick that we’ve seen in demand for warm weather skis, and grinds, and bases.”

In Caldwell’s opinion, the opportunity for athletes and coaches to optimize a ski through testing and the use of a product line they know well, regardless of brand, is a more viable option for “leveling the playing field” as it could bring any ski closer to what he called it’s “terminal velocity.” A wax protocol that puts every athlete on the same brand and hardness of wax, creates “a situation where that opportunity doesn’t exist and the only way to gain competition advantage is to buy another pair of $800 skis. So it very quickly becomes a sport that, really, is hard to succeed at without a lot of personal resources.” 

While the focus of these points might suggest that competitive youth skiing will trend toward an arms race, Nystad’s points included a reminder that a skier with limited access to equipment and race-day wax expertise may not be doomed. Other aspects of athlete development remain as important as ever in a skier’s trajectory and long term prospects. 

“Quite honestly, I don’t want kids to have ten pairs of skis,” Nystad said. “I have kids that ski, but I try to limit the amount of skis and I try to buy used skis and rather look at what properties do the skis have, so that they have okay skis for for each condition. And then we focus on other things that are far, far more important. And that is the mentality to learn to train, to have fun while you’re training, and then to work on technique and tactics. So it’s also a cultural thing.

“If you only focus on buying yourself time by buying equipment and buying wax and tweaking things and using resources — yes, you are probably going to gain some time, but you have to also say, ‘Are you investing as much time training and enhancing your technique and your tactic as the others are?’ So it’s definitely possible, even if you come from less resources, you can beat the guys with the most resources if you just train well and smart and develop good technique and good tactics.”

The German biathlon team tests skis during the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Zhangjiakou, CHN. (Photo: NordicFocus)

As a serviceman working at the highest level of sport, Nystad also offered a thought-prompt on the impact to athlete knowledge and the ability to develop a new generation of wax technicians under a protocol, regardless of brand. 

“If you want to educate athletes to also be able to become great service people at World Cup level races – if you take away that experience in club skiing or in high school skiing or in collegiate skiing, you will have no resources that are going to be able to serve your American athletes going to World Cups or World Championships or Olympics. Where are they going to get the knowledge? Because it’s like anything else, if you want to become good at something, you have to work at it.”

According to Caldwell, incorporating a wax protocol is “reductionist attempt to level the playing field” that creates more disparity than equity. And so, the goal of leveling the playing field in cross country skiing remains “laudable”, but out of reach, and perhaps unattainable. 

“I understand the discussion, but I think you have to cater to common sense,” Nystad concluded. “You can always tell people that we decide to [have] one pair skate, one pair classical. I think you can also try to have the waxes [matched]. But still be aware, it’s never going to be fair.” 

Stay tuned next week for follow-up series which highlights some of the leagues who have enacted a waxing protocol, namely, the Wisconsin Nordic Ski League (high school & club), and coaches from Rocky Mountain, Intermountain, and the Pacific Northwest. This discussion includes the evolution and reasoning behind the protocols, and what advantages/disadvantages have been identified by each league.

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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