We spoke with Chris Grover of the U.S. Ski Team on October 29, to get his thoughts on the new season. With a packed World Cup schedule and an off-year for major championship events, Grover and his team have myriad moving parts to make gel. He comes with a new title, that of Cross Country Program Director. Besides the title change, he remains the leader for the cross-country staff and athletes. Grover was at his home in Hailey, Idaho when we spoke.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
FasterSkier: The season kicks off in a few weeks in Beitostølen, Norway with a major FIS race, the pre-World Cup warm-up for Norway. That three-race series features a classic sprint and distance events in both classic and skate.
Chirs Grover: We are going to be in Beitostølen with a complete team. And all 14 athletes that are starting in Ruka will be there.
In Beitostolen, people will be picking and choosing which races they start. So, some athletes will race twice out of three times, some will probably race just once. It will be the athletes’ discretion because the next weekend in Ruka is a mini-tour. Everyone is trying to measure their energy output at that point and not sign off for too many races and really looking at it like it is a tune-up for Ruka.
FS: Can you speak about helping manage each athletes’ energy and keeping folks fresh over the course of an extensive World Cup season with forty races scheduled?
CG: What we have found out over the past few years is that if you are a younger athlete and just entering the World Cup or in your first or second year on the World Cup, then keeping the freshness is usually not a challenge simply because those athletes are excited to be there. Every venue they may be traveling too, it may be for the first time.
But with our veteran athletes, and we certainly have some very accomplished veteran athletes at the moment, it is a real challenge to keep them fresh. This might be the seventh or eighth time an athlete has competed in Ruka for example. Or it might be the tenth time they have been to Davos.
That becomes a real challenge for us through the season. I think each athlete has had to and we have encouraged them to do so over the last couple of years is that each athlete has had to figure out specifically how they are going to get a break during the season. Does that mean they go back to North America? Does that mean their family or husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend or loved one comes over and meets them at a venue that is outside of the World Cup? `
We have athletes in the middle of the season that might visit friends or family in Norway or in France or generally just getting away from the team. I think that is really important because those athletes will get a break and come back fresh and charged up.
But it is a real challenge and frankly, it is one of the places where I think we got hurt at the Nordic World Championships in Seefeld last year. Those Championships started late in February, and even though we had strategies for everybody about how to keep it fresh, it was so late in the season that athletes and staff were having a hard time keeping it fresh at that point in the season. I think it impacted our results slightly in a negative way.
You juxtapose that with all the European nations, for example, who have just gone home for three or four days between World Cups and taking blocks of training at home, and getting to connect with friends and family and their communities. It is so much easier for them to keep it fresh whereas those of us that are non-Europeans who don’t have the luxury, necessarily, for a quick trip home, really struggle with finding the right solution.
FS: Does the team employ specific strategies to prevent athletes from becoming physically and emotionally drained?
CG: I think it really needs to be somewhat individual because each athlete has different needs and they are constructed in different ways. We have encouraged all athletes to take a break from the team at least once during the season — we are more than willing to facilitate that. So for a funded athlete, if they need a ticket to go home, we are going to fund that ticket to go home for a couple of weeks in order for them to reconnect.
Often, when they come back from that situation they really are re-energized mentally. That is a critical piece of it. But also to try to find mini-breaks and for them to strategically not chase every race on the World Cup. Typically, athletes, if you look at the calendar coming up for the 19-20 season, athletes that are completing the competing in the full Tour de Ski will not race in Planica the weekend prior to Christmas and they will not race in Dresden the weekend after the Tour de Ski.
At that point, the athlete can get a bigger break both physically and mentally from the race season and also potentially get away from the team. During that extended break before the Tour de Ski, we have athletes going all over the place: Sadie [Bjornsen] will be in France with her husband, the Pattersons are likely to be in Livigno, Jessie [Diggins] will be with family in Davos, Rosie [Brennan] will be with family in Davos. Kevin [Bolger] is going to be visiting his brother in Norway. People will be all over the place and taking breaks as necessary.
That is a really important part of it: to recognize, based on experience, know what their limitations are and not make the same mistakes that they potentially made in the past.
FS: Let’s talk about learning from mistakes in the past. I must have time on my hands because I dove into the minutes from last spring’s U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress. One item mentioned is that the team examined and learned from some of the waxing mistakes at the 2019 World Championships in Seefeld, Austria. What is it that you learned?
CG: In Seefeld, we had really variable conditions where you had one side of the valley that was getting full sun most days and of course and we had high temperatures well above freezing. And we had one half of the valley that stayed in the shade throughout the day.
It was not unusual on a classic race day, for example, to have klister conditions on one side of the course and hard wax conditions on the other side of the course. For some of the races, I want to say the men’s 15 k, but that may not be right, it was two 7.5 k laps that spent 3.75 k on both sides of the course. That really heterogeneous scenario where there is such a wide variance in waxing conditions really favored the big teams that put a lot of manpower on snow. The FIS right now, or the FIS cross-country committee, has been enacting a number of rule changes that are intended to combat the way that some teams are putting so many people on-snow — they are trying to even the playing field a bit. By that I mean the bigger nations were doing a couple of things in order to get so many staff on snow. One is the cooperation with smaller nations — and multiple smaller nations. There were some nations that had a cooperation agreement not only with one smaller nation but with at least two. So they were getting the bibs from those smaller nations and then able to basically put their countrymen in those bibs.
There were also cooperation agreements that were happening between some of the SRS or service industry reps and those bibs. So a big country might be out there with like 20 people on snow basically on a race day whereas the USA, which is kind of a medium size service program might have been able to get up to 10 people on snow that day which is big for us. That is a bigger service group than we run on the World Cup because. We brought in three extra people to help us at the World Champs.
The biggest nations were basically doubling what we could do on those days. And of those really variable days, where it was extremely hard to figure out what is the best compromise solution to these two different conditions on two different parts of the course, having double the manpower was a serious competitive advantage and it showed. We had quite good skis in some races but we struggled with skis in Seefeld in other key races, which was extremely disappointing for us. Many of our internal strategies at US Ski & Snowboard are really focused on how to correct some of the mistakes that we thought we made last year,
On the FIS cross-country committee side, there are new restrictions on how many nations you can cooperate with. Now, one nation is allowed to create a cooperative agreement with one other nation — and it has to be registered with the FIS staff prior to the season. So Norway can only cooperate with one nation. And Sweden can only cooperate with one nation.
The USA is actually going to cooperate with Australia this year which is new for us. The other thing that is happening, there will be a tightening of bibs that are actually allowed on course during race day and it is a significant drop. Basically, it’s reduced to about four main bibs, a couple course 1 and a couple of course 2 bibs on competition days. There can still be some testing outside the course, but this new rule that we are going to try out is basically an attempt to allow a smaller ski nation that may have only four technicians to really compete against a bigger ski nation that might otherwise be putting 12 people out on the course for example.
FS: Is there a financial incentive to enter into an agreement with a smaller nation?
CG: I cannot speak to agreements between nations. For our agreement, there is no money exchanged. This is basically just a bib sharing agreement and it is only effective in places where the smaller nations is actually competing, Australia doesn’t start that many World Cups over the course of the year. So we can only share bibs with Australia when they physically have an athlete present and on the start list.
FS: It also states in the minutes that the World Cup team wants to create a culture of testing and curiosity, and a new scheduling and testing program for classic days. How might that look on the ground?
CG: We are definitely redesigning our classic wax testing protocols. And I should say they have been redesigned, we are just waiting to start implementing them and experimenting with them on a daily basis. Once we go to Beitostølen and start those first couple of classic races then we will have a chance to implement new strategies. I think the one thing that we realized as a service program, that we were potentially approaching incorrectly, was that we were doing the same thing every race day. We were going out there and testing all the glide products. But on a classic day, we were throwing in the classic waxing as one of the things that we had to do.
So, we were testing the paraffin, testing the powder, testing the structures, the grinds, testing the different applications — and on classic waxing days, we are testing the binder and testing the different hard wax or klisters. Our redesign is really focused around switching up that paradigm so that on a classic day we start with classic wax testing and the glide work is a little bit secondary to the classic waxing. Obviously, you can be a little bit off on some aspect of the glide, and still have great skis. But if you are a little bit off on the kick, your day might be over.
It can have a much bigger impact and I think our service team has established over the years that we can make incredible glide skis, but we know we have some work to do sometimes on the classic side. So we are really flipping our model a bit on classic wax days and starting with kick waxing, devoting more manpower to kick waxing, putting more bibs on course longer throughout the testing day on the kick side. And we have gone out and done a couple of other things.
One is we have solicited advice from some of our colleagues around the world about how they approach kick days. We’ve taken any nuggets that we can from that advice. The second thing is that we have added another member to our service team. We actually have two new members to our service team, Andrew Morehouse stepped down to become the BSF nordic director, so we have hired someone to replace him and we have also hired a new technician. Our two new guys are Karlel Kruuser from Estonian who is somebody we worked with last year and came in to help Rosie Brennan. The other is Per-Erik Bjørnstad who is Norwegian and is a person that actually worked for us during the 2006-2007 season. He is now back with us and has been working for Norway off and on throughout the years. We are very excited to have both of these guys and we think they are going to help us advance our kick program as well.
FS: Any real ah-hah moments for you when soliciting advice?
CG: There are a few things. One thing that for me was an ah-hah, and I cannot speak for the techs, they know so much more than I do, you know none of these things might have been an ah-hah moment for them — but for me, they definitely were.
The first was realizing we have come to rely on our wax truck, in particular, and realizing that what happens in a given day is that everybody rushes out on a classic day, for example, with their respective athletes and they test skis and they test waxes, they test the skis, they test the application, they adjust the application. But then they all run those skis back into the truck in order to adjust the application of the kick, apply the powder, apply the topping, apply the final hand structure, and any other overlayers that are going on the skis all before that ski goes to the start.
One of the challenges during that time, while they are back in the truck, is that conditions out on the course might be changing.
So you have a Seefeld situation where the temperatures are rising very quickly, you are getting into spring skiing conditions and the wax that was really working and the ski that was really working half an hour ago is no longer optimal at the time an athlete is starting the race — let alone when they are 20 minutes into the race.
I think a lot of nations have begun, including us, to rely on the wax truck to finalize skis.
One thing you are going to see a lot more now going forward is actually staying outside and doing all adjusting and top coating outside and trackside.
In some of these venues and especially World Championship venues, it can take some time to get from a testing area and back to the truck and then some time to get from the truck to the start with the skis,
So we might need to spend less time running around between the truck and being in a warm environment where you are removed from what is happening outside more time adjusting the skis as conditions are changing.
That has been a take away for me.
One thing that I thought was really poignant was something Knut Nystad mentioned when we were talking about ski service. His philosophy in terms of when he goes out and looks for people to hire was that he doesn’t necessarily always go after people that perhaps have the most perceived knowledge about waxing. Instead, he looks for people that love to cross-country ski, like really loves to ski, and also are very curious and inquisitive by nature.
He said having those attributes — loving to be outside in the environment skiing and being curious and inquisitive, wanting to play around with different solutions, those people will become great technicians.
That was, to answer your question, that was another ah-ha moment for me where I realized we can develop some great people just by going after those folks with those attributes…
FS: I know it can be difficult to collect and record data when it comes to ski service. What type of protocol will you have in the works for this season?
CG: We have had something in place for quite some time in terms of a ski and wax log where we can keep track of all that information. And keep track of all that current inventory of skis which can be quite considerable, and also the results of their tests. You can go in there and see how a given ski has performed in a given test and if it was ever raced on.
We also keep track of waxes that way as well. I would say we have struggled with having the time and potentially the compliance for the techs to actually enter all of our daily testing wax data into an online format or a digital format. One of the struggles has frankly been lack of WiFi out at these venues. When all the energy is there and freshness is there and the data is there — being able to actually enter that information can be an issue. But we are moving more and more in that direction. We have a new recording process and a brand new app for everybody’s phones where both the athletes and the techs can enter data on testing.
Gus Kaeding from our sport science department has been the one that has been spearheading this effort. He is actually traveling with us to Beitostølento to start off the season to finalize this app and get it off the ground and rolling.
I’d say we are probably a long way behind a country like Norway which I think has pretty extensive historical records of all their testing.
FS: I know you are aware of the shakeup in the wax industry when it comes to product availability and new regulations. Generally, what are your thoughts on this?
CG: Some of these products are not good for the environment and they are not good for people. Whether that is the eight-chain PFASs, I think we as a community have to figure out how to move forward with this.
We already have a ban on some products in the U.S. and the EU is going to implement a ban in June or July. The wax companies have known this and they have seen it coming. And yet we have a lot of places around the world where the products are still legal to be produced and distributed. That presents a real challenge — there are some places where the product can be made legally and other places where they cannot be made legally. Then we get into the question of the use of these products or whether they are legal or illegal to use in countries that have a ban on the production of them.
It is a new territory we are trying to figure it out. We are not alone in this. It affects every other ski and snowboard discipline. Biathlon is trying to figure, adaptive is trying to figure it out, alpine, snowboard, and freestyle — and everybody else because they are using the same products.
One thing I think we are all in agreement with is that we need to protect our environment and we need to protect people. Whatever the answer is to this quandary, we are going to be part of that solution. I know from the USA side we are going to support whatever decisions get made. What we will try to figure out, and I know what will be discussed at in the next couple of years, is are we going to have to implement some sort of testing program for these products, to make sure that banned products are not on people’s skis when they head to the start of a race at any level including World Cup, the Olympics, or World Championships or what have you.
There are several people that have come up with tests and testing mechanisms and right now I am not sure of their accuracy or that the cost is something that we can manage or that just the test protocol can be implemented.
I would imagine that there will be new technology that is developed pretty quickly to fill those gaps.
I can see a time when we may be testing people’s skis randomly just the same way that anti-doping is testing people for banned substances — randomly submitting results to a lab and getting results a day or two later.
I can see something like that potentially coming as well. It is a really challenging landscape with some nations being able to produce the products and others not being able to produce them.