On the day after Christmas I flew to Europe to join the US Ski Team for the Tour de Ski. This was the second year I attended the Tour, and it provided another truly unique experience. What follows is a disorganized collection of impressions and notes.
Most of my work at the Tour was ski service – waxing testing, cleaning, and working with companies to select and exchange skis. The tour is nine races in eleven days in four different venues. Most of the races start in the afternoon – as late as 3:45. So by the time everything is wrapped up it’s a scramble to clean up, prepare for the next day, and get some dinner. The toughest days are the transitions. The first transition came after a mass start classic day (with a 3:45 start for the last race) in Oberhof, which was followed by a noon start the next day for a classic sprint four hours away in Oberstdorf. That was a tough turn-around!
The Tour has a very different feeling to it than a normal World Cup, and certainly a different feeling than World Championships or Olympics. Because of the importance of the overall, most days don’t have the sort of do-or-die feeling of a one-day event. From the service perspective the whole event is an exercise in acknowledging limitations. With race skis to pick for athletes every day, and the possibility of testing paraffins, powders, top coats, hand structure and kick wax… well you can do the math. The number of staff required to do EVERYTHING is huge, and even the big teams have to pick their battles. The whole atmosphere is therefore somewhat more relaxed than normal for World Cup level competition.
At the start of the Tour we had four waxers and six athletes. We had Pete Vordenberg doing skis for Simi and Liz, Peter Johansson doing skis for Kikkan and Newell, and myself doing skis for Kris and Holly. Patrick Moore was the fourth waxer, and he was our test pilot for glide testing (paraffin, powder, top coats, hand structure) with help from Chris Grover, whenever Grover wasn’t chauffeuring athletes around, going to coaches meetings, or taking care of the rest of the endless list of logistics involved with such a travelling circus. About half way through the tour we added Oleg Ragilo to the service staff – he’s Kris’s regular World Cup service guy – and both Simi and Andy had stopped the tour with illness. That meant that we had five service guys, with four each responsible for one athlete. Much more sane!
Working with Kris is a familiar thing for me, and I’ve known Oleg for a while as well. So that transition was easy, and the three of us worked together well. Kris has a well-established fleet of skis, and Oleg has worked a lot already this year to refine and develop it further. During the tour I picked up some additional new skis from the Fischer guys, including a couple of pairs of classic skis that were quite good right off the bat. But all of that is familiar territory. Working with Holly was something new in more ways than one.
First, I really didn’t know Holly at all going into the Tour. She was on the Olympic team, and I knew her somewhat from that experience, but not well at all. So it was good to get to know her a little bit. Holly had a great period 1 and really earned her way onto the tour with some spectacular races. But over Christmas she fell on some ice during a training run and broke her wrist. Of course, we didn’t know that it was broken at the start of the tour – it was an evolving situation, involving help from Norwegian team docs, and a visit to a clinic in Oberstdorf. Holly has told the story well enough – what I can contribute is a testament to her toughness and professionalism. She was clearly in a lot of pain, and it was clearly costing her a lot of energy. It was a tough set of circumstances for her, and I’m impressed that she maintained a great attitude throughout, and was always easy and rewarding to work with.
The other part of working with Holly that was pretty new for me is that she’s on Salomon. Our relationship with Salomon started last year, working with Tad, and developed further as we picked up the brand for the shop this year. So I welcomed the chance to work with Bertrand and Patrice – the World Cup service guys for Salomon – on behalf of another athlete. Holly’s usual wax tech is her APU service guy – Casey Fagerquist. Casey had made really good notes on her skis, which was critical. I made the best of the opportunity to look through additional skis from the Salomon guys, and over the course of the Tour I think we added something like six or seven pairs to Holly’s fleet.
The most dramatic service event of the tour was the short classic race in Dobiacco where we ended up on zeros. With 40 minutes to go before the start Holly and I were out testing her best zero skis and a pair of waxed skis on one of the big climbs on the course. The wax skis were icing pretty badly, but I couldn’t kick the zeros well enough to be comfortable with them. Not a satisfactory situation! So with half an hour to go before the start Rob Whitney (Holly’s husband, who was there testing with Salomon) and I ran and found Bertrand, and picked a new pair. I found a pair with a low resting camber and a flat finish that felt like it would be easier to kick than her other skis, but strong and elastic enough to run fast. Bertrand put bindings on them, and I tested them for about three strides to confirm that I could kick them, and that the speed was OK. Then it was a race to put on paraffin, powder, top coat, make the zero zone the way I wanted it, and get them to the start. Holly was on-board with the whole nervy situation, and never once panicked. She later explained that she had been well conditioned by Casey and Erik’s “just in time” service with the APU crew.
On the whole, the Tour de Ski is an amazing experience, and maybe the best deal out there for the density of experience over a short period of time. At World Championships we had 9 race days in a row, but it was all at the same venue. Moving to new venues and getting the whole picture together from scratch introduces a much different challenge. It’s a lot like what most domestic junior teams experience, showing up at a race venue maybe the day before the first event, but maybe even the same morning! The big difference is that we were only working for a handful of athletes. As Patrick Moore pointed out, it was pretty relaxed compared to taking a huge team to a Nor Am weekend. It’s more like taking a very small team to four Nor Am weekends in a row. Or, maybe it’s even more like taking a small team to four World Cup weekends in a row. Yeah, that’s exactly what it’s like!