Birkie-bound, and Birkie Redux

Tad Elliott at US Nationals in Rumford

Tad Elliott at US Nationals in Rumford
Tad at the 2011 US Nationals in Rumford, courtesy of Flying Point Road

I have booked a ticket to fly out to the Midwest for the Birkie. I’ll be leaving Wednesday, and my primary purpose in making this trip is to support Tad Elliott. Tad is known to most folks in the ski world. He’s a USST B-team member and he scored his first World Cup points this year in a 30K skate in Davos. He’s also a Salomon athlete, and in large part the reason that we are now a Salomon dealer. We manage Tad’s fleet (with plenty of help from USST staff and the Salomon World Cup service techs). Salomon sprang for the ticket to bring Tad back for the Birkie this year, and it has worked out well because there are no more stand-alone skate races on the World Cup calendar (and Tad is a much stronger skater).

Any opportunity to do service for Tad is a pleasure, because Tad is what is known to the young folks these days as a ‘rad dude”. Or maybe that was the young folks back when I was young(er). Anyway, I haven’t worked with him on race support since World Championships in Oslo, nearly a year ago. I’ll also be working for a handful of other Salomon athletes, including Holly Brooks who I got to know recently doing ski service for her at the Tour de Ski. All things told, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

I went back into the archives to dig up some pictures of my first Birkie trip, back in 2004. This is back when I was running my first Tazzari machine in a box truck. Nick Brown, Mike Wynn and I had the adventure of a lifetime, driving the truck out to Wisconsin, and preparing skis for the Birkie. I couldn’t find any pictures. Almost certainly because there was no time to take any pictures. But I found the write-up that I published after the trip, and thought that it would be worth sharing.

Note: Like pretty much any look back 8 years into the past, this account leaves me quite self-conscious, and is embarrassing in ways. What was true then is still true now – I always work conscientiously. And so I can accept the inevitable feeling of how naive I was about so many things back then. I’ve gotten better at what I do. I hope I feel the same way in another 8 years about the work I’m doing now. Keep moving forward! So, here it is – straight from February 2004.


Birkie Race Report

The details of this report will take some space, so I’m providing a quick summary to start out. Those of you with nothing better to do can read on!

The Birkie was a wild experience – unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In the final analysis we made all the right decisions based on a whole lot of testing. But our results were not totally satisfactory. There is really nothing to apologize for – there’s not a decision I would have made differently given another chance working with the same information I had. But conditions Saturday were different from anything we saw all week long. The primary difference was in the quality of the snowpack and the way it worked with the specific pressure distribution pattern and structure of a given ski. The temperature and humidity variable was well covered and tested.

In the end we had great skis for some, good skis for others, and average skis for still others. It’s impossible to parse the variables to determine exactly what determined who was happy and who wasn’t, but I’ll take a good stab at it below.

Summary of Testing

We tested structures and wax throughout the week at the coldest and warmest extremes we could find. Some days we tested three times in order to see different track conditions. In the end we chose the following treatment:

Structure: Z40XL (same final crossing structure as Z40 with deeper and wider channels).

Initial Heatbox Saturation: Star Uniblock Yellow – excellent fluidity and very low melt point.

Heatbox Conditioning: Star LA6 – very good test results in our underlayer testing all week long – appropriate hardness for a conditioning wax, and enough fluorocarbon content to ensure good bonding between layers.

Race Layer 1: Star Map Black – proven durability and good underlayer test results. Every time we tested an underlayer over Map Black its performance was improved.

Race Layer 2: Star HA2 – The softest star high fluoro paraffin won our underlayer tests all week at all temperatures – even significantly below its range. In many cases it was faster than pure fluorocarbon top coats. This wax is not a magic bullet in all conditions, but it performed extremely well all week

Top-coat: Star F1 – typically the best Star fluoro in glazy new snow, this tested extremely well all week and was a winner in the Women’s Elite Sprints. Our Elite wave skiers got Ski-Go C-44 which tested marginally better in the more freshly tilled conditions.

Other Test Results: Swix HFBD7 tested well all week, throughout the range of temperatures, as did Swix FC7. The FC7 won a couple of tests and in the end we chose the Star based on the consistency of its test results, not based on any guarantee that it would be the fastest. On race morning I felt that the F1 was a little bit better than the FC1. The Swix HF8 and FC8 were not impressive. No products from other companies were competitive in our tests- with the exception of one HWK topcoat that we didn’t have enough of to use, and wouldn’t have chosen over our final pick in any event.

The whole (long) story:

Nick was supposed to be in school. I started telling other people that he was coming to the Birkie before he even agreed. I think he may have read it on the website before he made up his mind. I couldn’t see doing the trip without him so I’m really happy that he came along. However, the two of use weren’t enough to do all the work we had lined up in addition to the testing that would be necessary to support the work.

It’s really hard to pull somebody in from the outside to work as part of a small crew. Efficiency is very important and the wrong person will hurt far more than help. For this reason I was really unwilling to take anybody that I didn’t know. A week before departure I didn’t have anybody lined up. Then Mike Wynn made the mistake of offering to help me if I came to the Lake Placid Loppet next year and I fired back an e-mail suggesting that he drop everything and come out to the Birkie.

There’s some history here. Right after US Nationals a year ago Mike drove over to Putney from Glens Falls NY to check out the operation and have me grind his skis. I had just started making the Z40 during Nationals. In fact, it still may have had a working name other than Z40. in any case, I showed it to him and then refused to put it on his skis because I didn’t know it well enough. instead he got an XC02. When his skis were done and in the heatbox we went out for a ski on test skis. We each took one Z40 and one XC02. Mike made the call within three strides and he spent the rest of the ski (and most of the past year) pissed off at me for not giving him a Z40. So, when I asked him to come along it was kind of a joke. I didn’t think he’d have the time, inclination or family support to leave home for a week of thankless work. But I also knew he’d be valuable if he could come.

I won’t write a whole lot about the drive out. It felt like hell at the time. But that was before the drive back home. We didn’t know what hell was. Yet.

We pulled into Seeley late afternoon on Monday. After a quick dinner at the Sawmill we headed out to get on snow under the lights. Mostly just to shake our legs out, but I had another agenda. For my own peace of mind it was important to test our test procedure. We took out six pairs of test skis with different grinds.

It’s probably a good time for a note on our test procedures. The more I test the less I use a speed trap. It’s really hard to get statistically significant test results from a speed trap. But more importantly a half-weight test just doesn’t tell you much about the way a ski will climb, or even descend in competition. I generally favor testing by feel, but I always uses some basic rules. The first rule is to test blind. I can’t know what’s on the test skis because my own prejudice will color the results. We spent the whole week testing blind – mostly by putting tape of the numbers on the test skis and changing all the designations. The second rule is to let each test pilot make up his own mind. We’ll compare notes along the way, but in the end everybody has to make an independent choice.

So, that first night we tested by feel and we tested blind. We compared notes along the lines of :”here, try number 2 against number 6 and see what you think”. And in the end we all made our own calls. I had worked with Nick enough to know that his results are trustworthy. And I had a great deal of faith in Mike’s sense of feel. But Mike didn’t necessarily share that faith. So when it came time to make our picks he felt a little pressure to “get it right”. Well, we all made exactly the same picks, as we did all week, over and over. I can’t produce better proof than that of the effectiveness of testing by feel.

On Tuesday and Wednesday we focused on testing structures throughout a range of temperatures and snow conditions. We wanted to try to nail down the temperature profile and the extent of the transformation throughout the day. We ran a test fleet of 10 pairs of skis, and reground three of the original six pairs to try to narrow the range of structures that we were testing once we got an initial look at the conditions. In all we tested 13 structures throughout the week. Most of these were modifications and variations of the Z40 that has done so well in such a wide range of conditions all year long. There may be a few people out there who understand the naming system well enough to be able to understand what is meant by the following list: Z40, Z40XL, Z35, Z35.85, Z30, Z30.8, Z28(compound with theZ40 cross), Z40S(sharp), Z40XLS. We also ran an SLC02 to nail down the wet end (out of range) and some of the more conventional linear structures. Z40 and Z40XL never finished out of the top three picks in testing. Z30.8 won one test in the wettest glaziest conditions we found, but was not as good in the drier stuff. Z35.85 is a grind that we made for the first time at the Birkie and ran the closest to the leaders of any of the new ones. This will bear some watching and further testing for the possibility of a permanent position on the grind menu. The sharp versions of the versions of the Z40 grinds were an attempt to create a more aggressive top surface with a proven cross pattern. They were unimpressive in testing with one or two exceptions. But when they were bad they were so bad that we really never considered them. In the end, I think they may have been a better choise for Saturday than anything else, but that’s because Saturday’s snow was unlike anything we saw in testing.

On Thursday operations heated up as customers started arriving in larger numbers and we started testing wax underlayers pretty aggressively. A note on wax testing. We use a separate fleet of matched test skis for wax testing, and we reground them all with Z40 at the beginning of the week in order to have them “in range” for the conditions. When I have time I like to start by testing underlayers to try to build a model of the conditions and what variable are doing what. Wax does two things – it modifies the hardness of the base and it modifies the chemical composition of the base with additives (like fluorocarbons or shear lubricants). My goal in testing base layers is to gain an understanding of the roll that the variables play. Is hardness more important than additive content or vice versa? Often there is an inherent trade-off and we’ll have a harder low-additive wax competing well against softer high-additive waxes, and sometimes beating them. That’s when it’s time to bring top-coats into the mix to see how they run against the best underlayers, and how they modify the underlayers. Often a hard, low-additive wax will win the underlayer test, but will not perform as well under a pure fluorocarbon topcoat.

Oh, yeah, we also test base layers for our final underlayers. This time around Map Black modified all our final underlayers very successfully and was a natural choice for the race work-up by virtue of its ability to broaden the range of a warm wax on the cold end and its proven durability.

We started testing topcoats after our initial underlayer tests on Thursday, and continued testing until 9:00PM on Friday night. Topcoats are an interesting variable in and of themselves. There seems to be a broadly accepted consensus among much of the race community that one pure fluorocarbon is as good as the next. In fact, they’re all quite different and their performance can vary dramatically. In our initial topcoat testing we found that several of the topcoats actually slowed down the underlayers. We also found some that were great in some conditions but much worse in others. For a race like the Birkie we’ve got a couple of considerations. The length of the race indicates an pure fluoro topcoat if only for durability. A lot of times you can beat a pure fluoro finish for a few K, but the Birkie goes a lot longer than that! We also wanted to pick top-coats that were competitve throughout the range of potential conditions.

Our wax call was built from the results of at least five separate tests over two days. In the end we could have had good success with a number of different combinations but I was extremely happy with the wax call.

Back to structures. Through Thursday we’d seen quite a range of conditions in our structure testing and Z40XL was emerging as the most consistent performer. Everything that we had running in addition to the straight Z40 was an attempt to nail down a warmer range without comprimising the cold-end performance too badly. The forecast was still calling for Friday night temps in the low teens and the snow was definitely drying out overnight and with new grooming.

We had a batch of about 25 pairs of skis to be delivered Friday morning to customers who would do the final layers on their own. The majority of these were sponsored athletes from the Factory Team, Alpina and Atomic. Because of the customer traffic all day Thursday and the need to have both Nick and Mike running tests for most of the day we got a very late start on our Thursday night batch. We had made the Z40XL call and went to work on it. Eventually we convinced Mike to go to bed because he was entered for the race. Nick and I kept working and listening to the radio without really keeping track of time. Until Morning Edition came one. When Bob Edwards introduced the show Nick and I looked at each other and said “oh shit”. We were just wrapping up and it was important to finish and get skis into the heatbox for saturation so that people could pick them up on Friday. We went to bed after 4:00AM and were back in the truck before 8:00 to keep pushing skis through the heatbox. As it was, we had to have some people come back later because we were behind schedule with the heatbox and we ended up comping some people full service waxing in order to hang on to the skis for a little longer.

Customer traffic stayed high on Friday, even though we weren’t taking in many new skis. Part of the business model is to be accessible to anybody who is curious about the process. During the Birkie that turns out to be several thousand people. Mike and Nick hit the snow fairly early on Friday for testing, but there was no real urgency because conditions were still overcast and the new snow ensured that the transformation during race day would be different than Friday. Those guys were out there testing with the Italians Friday morning and Nick got some useful information from them. They said they were only testing Swix stuff because that is what they had. They were intrigued by the grinds we were testing and had never seen the true linear channels of a Z-series grind. Actually, they had a hard time believing that it was not done with hand tools. It took Nick a while to convince them to try some of the test skis but they were quite impressed when they did, and Nick thought they might come by to have some work done. But we never saw them.

Things cleared out a bit Friday late afternoon and we started cranking on skis. We had about 40 pairs still to grind and a good handful in need of various stages of waxing and heatboxing from the previous day’s batch. We were doing well with out work and had made the call to use a colder HA4 underlayer based on the forecast and the equal performance of the HA4 with the warmer HA2 during Fridays testing. But sometime after midnight I went out to take a pee and noticed that it sure didn’t feel like the temp was going down. We put the thermohygrometer out and found that the temperature was still 29 degrees. We watched it for a little while and it was surely not dropping.

At this point we had some decisions to make. We had tested through a broad range of temperatures and had good success with our chosen waxes throughout the range. Our topcoats were already determined for their consistency throughout the range and we wouldn’t make any adjustments there. But we’d already adjusted our underlayer to the colder end and we made the call to readjust for the warmer temps at about 3:00AM. Actually, we were pretty happy with the circumstances at the time because we’d made the appropriate adjustment and were very confident in our work. However, there was a new layer of time-pressure addded to the equation as we realized that we had less than three hours on our schedule to do our final underlayers and fluoro topcoats on over 40 pairs of skis.

We flew. Pure adrenaline. We knew it would be tight and that we would be late and that there would be anxious customers waiting for us, but we also knew that we had it right. So we kept cranking. I can confidently say that, in spite of how fast we were working, we did step professionally and well.

At 7:00 AM we finished applying fluoros – an hour and a half after we’d planned to leave for the start. We loaded the van in record time and hit the road at ten past seven, leaving the truck in a state of total mayhem. As we left we realized that we didn’t have our start access permit and that it was too late to do anything about it. I drove up to Cable with a huge pit of doubt in my stomach. Only Peter Hale was confident that he’d be able to talk our way through because he’d done it so often in the past. Well, we made it, thanks to Peter’s strong persuasion and my rally-driving one of the walking paths to the start with Security yelling after us. I truly apologize for our unprofessional arrival and for keeping so many customers waiting. I hope everybody realizes that we were trying to be as conscientious as possible and to take no shortcuts with anybody’s skis, regardless of where they started.

In the end we did OK. As I said, we did really well with some people and with others we were just middle of the pack. Mike raced on a pair of my skis that were OK, but not better than average. He was running in the top hundred through 40K before the long week of hard work caught up with him and he exploded spectacularly. As he put it – we should have been able to see the mushroom-cloud from the finish. My wife Amy skied steady for 51 K, with a quick stop to say hi to Gunnar and me at OO. I’m pretty sure she cleaned-up in the 5-weeks-post-partum division.

I spent a good hour at the finish talking to customers and top level racers and both. It was clear that some people had better luck than others on our structure/wax combo. It is worth noting that conditions appeared to be wet but mealy, not glazy. Anybody with less than stellar skis from us had the right wax ut the wrong structure. A ski with a long, even pressure distribution worked very well. These included a lot of Madshus and some Atomics along with assorted others. Chris Cook was extremely pleased with his Z40XL, and Dan Campbell had really great skis – maybe among the best I saw in the race. But people with shorter, hotter pressure distribution generally had less satisfactory skis. These included both Mike and Amy, and most other people on Fischers and assorted others. The conditions were such that ski flex made a big difference, and it was critical that ski flex be matched well with structure. It was the first time all week that we saw these two factors as codependent variables to quite such a degree. In fact, it was the most extreme example of this that I’ve ever seen.

There were structures out there that did not act this way, which is the biggest disappointment to me. Again, these were relatively fine structures, but characterized by a sharper finish. A good example would have been a Finn Sisu uni grind. In general these structures do not have the range of the Z40 and I spend a lot of time trying to find structures that do not “talk” to the snow the way these sharper ones do. But there are days when they are indicated. We event tested two “sharp” versions of the Z40 during the week and found that, when they were bad they were too bad to risk. I didn’t run any structure skis on race day, but I’m confident that the Z40XLS would have been our best ski for the second half of the race. I also know that I need to develop a sharper structure than the Z40 to handle conditions such as these, without going to the extreme represented by the Z40XLS. An overspecialized structure will not be useful to anybody with less then 15 pairs of skis.

After several days of reflection and a lot of e-mails from customers I’m quite satisfied that we did the right thing every step of the way, but I’m no less disappointed that our service didn’t dominate the race for each and every customer. In any case, it’s been really reassuring to hear nothing but interest and appreciation, even from customers who saw faster skis on the course. As I’ve said, I don’t feel that we’ve got anything to apologize for in our testing and decision making process. But I am sorry that we got burned a little bit in the end. In general I’m not satisfied with “acceptable” skis. I’m always working for “outstanding”.

All in all the whole experience was plenty encouraging enough to bring me back for another shot. This year was extremely exploratory in nature and we were (obviously) at capacity. Next year I’ll make some significant adjustments in order to be able to provide the same level of service to a greater number of customers. We turned a few people away this year and even with a larger staff, more work space, and earlier drop-off times I think we’ll have to turn away more people next year. But the bottom-line is that growth will be necessary to facilitate a return. We made money this year, but after the expenses are tallied up we didn’t get much of an hourly wage. I could certainly have ended up with more in the bank and many fewer hours spent by staying at home and doing my standard gig.

However, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. It was great to meet so many people, and especially great to establish Mike as an auxiliary member of our operation. I’ll use him again any chance I get. The contacts we made in Seeley with the whole crew at the Sawmill and with Tim and Cindy at Riverbrook will be valuable for years to come.

Once again, thanks to everybody for all the support. And if you haven’t been in touch to let me know how things went, please drop a line!