New Best Birkie Story

Thanks to Alex Matthews from Fasterskier for the photo!

OK – I told you about the time I went and ground skis all night for two days before the Birkie. Did I ever tell you about the one where I got to wax two winners? Wow – that was fun!

I’ve just returned from waxing skis for a handful of Salomon-supported athletes, including Tad Elliott, Holly Brooks, Laura McCabe, Rebecca Dussault, Martin Banerud, and Rob Whitney. The group produced some outstanding results, including two overall winners in Holly and Tad, a fourth by Laura, and a sixth by Rebecca. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: success in ski service comes when you pick the right athletes to work with.

What Made a Difference?
Everybody knows the conventional wisdom – Ski “flex” is most important, followed by grind, followed by wax. Sophisticated people understand that these factors are additive – good flex plus good grind plus good wax makes great race skis. Even with the additive nature of the factors, often enough one will trump the others. In the case of this year’s Birkie my strong feeling is that the skis made the biggest difference, and to a degree, the ski/grind combination. In one case, skiers from the same team, with the same wax (incidentally, the same wax I was using), had very different experiences. One guy had great skis until OO when they got pretty bad, and another had bad skis until OO when they got really good. In the end I feel that a lot of wax combinations were very competitive, but it needed to be on the right pair of skis.

I’m always looking for an opportunity to make a big difference doing something unique and crazy. No such opportunity presented itself this time around. We tested paraffins, we tested powders, we tested fluoroblocks, liquids, and voodoo. In the end it turned out that everything was more or less by the book – nothing too fancy. Somebody asked me on Saturday night at the Sawmill whether there had been some secret, unavailable something that we used. Nope – it was all off-the-shelf product that is readily available. And in the end I think we did good work, but nothing race-deciding. We tested a whole bunch of different brands, and used the stuff that tested best for us, just like always.

Thursday’s testing was focused on building an understanding of the way the snow was behaving, using different hardnesses and additives from the same brand to gain good footing on the basics. Friday we broadened our stance quite a bit in terms of the range of products (and brands) that we were testing. We also saw an interesting shift in the fluoro powder testing from mid-range products winning Thursday to colder products winning Friday. My guess is that waxes picked on Thursday might have been pretty good for later waves, and maybe in the latter part of the race, but that the Friday testing was more applicable for the early starters. Interestingly, we saw good consistency Thursday and Friday in paraffin testing.

Both days we tested it seemed that Graphite and Moly underlayers were a liability. While we didn’t do exhaustive testing of every “black” underlayer out there, everything we did try made the skis feel quite awful. As for race paraffin, we had four different waxes in the HF “blue” range running well on Friday. I would have been quite content with any one of them as race wax.

For the race we ended up using a very cold LF underlayer in lieu of any sort of graphite or moly base wax. I wanted the durability of a hard base, and felt that the early morning cold would appreciate the effort (you always want to try to make the weather happy). Then we used an HF blue, and a cold fluoro powder (ironed). Saturday morning we started testing top coats and hand structures at 6 AM at OO. For the most part it was difficult to improve on our race powder application. Out of seven different blocks and liquids we found only one treatment that improved the powder. We also found one rolled-on hand structure that was not a liability, and so we used that with an eye on the second half of the race.

I didn’t bring a grind-test fleet out with me to test because there was no point – all the race skis are already ground. Testing just south of the OO road crossing (a popular spot) meant that I saw plenty of athletes that I know testing skis in the two days prior to the race. A LOT of different stuff was running. In the end Tad won on an S1-0X, and Holly won on a linear grind that Oleg Ragilo got done in Estonia earlier this winter. I also waxed skis with grinds from Finn Sisu, and from Nordic Ultratune, and those skiers said they had great skis. I know of at least five different Caldwell Sport structures that produced good results – from LS00 to 3/3(!). So, I really don’t think it was all about the grind on this day, though the combination of ski and grind did appear to be important. Which brings us to:

Testing race skis on Friday

This is where we saw the real action and variability in performance. I tested Tad’s skis alone on Thursday, with Tad on Friday, and again in the dark on Saturday morning. Holly arrived on Thursday evening, and we got her skis on the snow together on Friday, with another retest on Saturday morning. Some of the athletes had their choices narrowed down to one pair for race waxing, but others had multiple pairs, and because the testing opportunity at the start area isn’t great, I skied all the potential race skis early in the morning at OO. Holly’s race options were all waxed the same, while Tad’s were all waxed differently. It depended on how we felt about the comparative ranges of the skis, and what conditions we wanted to target.

I brought four pairs of skis out from my own inventory for Tad and Holly to test. I was pretty pleased that both of those guys had one of my skis in the running on Saturday morning. Tad ended up racing on a pair of Soft Ground skis that I brought out.

This would be a good time to pause and go over the Soft Ground ski just a little bit. It’s a new product from Salomon this year, and it’s been really good for quite a few Salomon racers. Jessie Diggins has used it a lot, and Caitlin Gregg says it’s her best cold ski. The Soft Ground is a completely different ski from the normal Salomon skis – different thickness profile, different combination of materials – basically a different design philosophy. The ski was developed by a guy who spent years working for Rossignol, who is now in charge of production for Salomon at the Amer factory in Altenmarkt, Austria. The other Salomon skis are designed by the Salomon research and design team in Annecy, France. The difference is best summarized by saying that the Soft Ground skis have thinner and more compliant materials at the tip and tail, they have a longer pressure distribution, and a more even distribution of load between front and rear (more load on the front end than the normal Salomon skis).

In the testing on Thursday I really liked a very strong ski with an S1-0X that Tad has used to good effect this year (he scored World Cup points on it in Davos, and I think this is the one he used to win the National Championship 15K). My second pick was the Soft Ground ski that I had brought out. That Soft Ground ski was one that I picked for Tad in the summer, and sent with him for Period 1. He never raced on it in Europe, and when he was back for Nationals I changed it out of my inventory with him for another cold ski. Since then I had played with the Soft Ground skis some more, and in particular I had played with binding position. My original set-up was to mount those skis pretty close to the balance point because I felt that the front end wanted some load to fully express the running surface. However, I have since felt that combing back about 8-10mm was yielding slightly higher speed. So, after testing on Thursday I pulled off the bindings, eyeballed things a bit, and remounted the skis 8mm back from where they had been. On Friday, they were the fastest thing we had on the snow. But we both felt that they were a little funky feeling – maybe not squirrely, but not as easy to stand on as the regular skis. What is clear is that they released really easily, and while the regular skis felt better (as fast and more stable) when they were flat, the Soft Ground skis felt silky and really fast on edge. Still, based on familiarity and very competitive speed we were favoring a pair of older skis that Joakim Augustsson had put a J1 onto in Sweden (it started the year with an S2-1X, but Tad and the service guys wanted it set-up colder over in Europe).

But Saturday morning, the Soft Ground skis were yet another notch faster than anything else. I took them to the start and Tad and I talked it over. Given the speed, and the easy release, Tad felt that he would be able to ski the first 30K with very low power and energy cost because the Soft Ground skis take so little input to release. I assured him that the speed would hold-up when he put the hammer down, and so he took those skis.

What is interesting, is that the situation was almost the opposite with Holly. In testing on Friday we had things narrowed down to two pairs – a hard snow ski that she got in Europe that had really phenomenal speed at the high end, and a pretty active normal ski from my inventory with an S1-0X. I think I would have picked the normal ski on Friday, and Holly’s husband Rob also liked that one (all 200 lbs of him). But Holly really liked the feeling of the hard snow ski. And when I tested in the morning on Saturday I also would have given the edge to the hard snow ski. So, I fought the temptation to suggest that she use “my” pair, and just handed her that hard snow ski. I was a bit nervous at the start with snow falling hard enough to slow down the track (it started after our early morning testing was finished). But half an hour before the start is not a good time to be second-guessing all of your testing work.

A few hours after the race Holly wondered out-loud why she didn’t have any Soft Ground skis, since almost everybody who had them was using them. The answer is that she was getting her skis direct from the racing guys in Europe. Since the Soft Ground model was developed in Altenmarkt, and is a recent addition to the line, it’s not high on the list of priorities for the World Cup racing guys, who have to focus on using what they know best. They’re working with and testing the new skis just like we are, but the US market is a bit ahead of the world in adopting this new model. So, we’ll be working on getting some Soft Ground skis into Holly’s hands, at least by Super Tour finals!

In the end, waxing for winners is a huge boost to the ego. I’ve never been the biggest Birkie booster out there, but it’s hard not to get captivated by the energy of the event, and the double-victory is something that will take a World Cup or major championship podium to beat (to be fair I was pretty fired up when I woke up to Noah’s silver medal performance at U23 World Champs on Thursday morning). But there are so many rewards in this game. Does a double victory trump a text message like this one from Ross Dreger?

My S1-0X skis were very good for a second year in a row. For a citizen racer with a family and a career, 39th is about as good as it gets at 45 y.o. Many thanks to you. My skis have rejuvinated me. Lots of beers were downed yesterday.

Many thanks to you Ross. I have an awesome job.

A Note on Ski Industry Politics
The Birkie is one of the most important marketing opportunities of the year for ski and wax companies – exposure at the Birkie penetrates the customer base like almost nothing else. So it’s understandable when companies want to protect their investments in the athletes they sponsor. So imagine the set-up; Andy Gerlach, the North American brand manager for Start, and an international marketing muckity-muck for Salomon, contacts me to see about coming out to provide ski service for Tad, Holly and some other Salomon athletes. These athletes have existing sponsorship agreements with a variety of wax and pole companies, either individually or through their clubs. So, before anybody even got on an airplane to head to Birkie-land, the potential existed for ruffled feathers. What’s cool about the ski industry is that everybody involved agreed that what we all wanted was to see the athletes succeed. In the end, we’re not going to talk at all about what wax was on who’s skis, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we got a huge amount of support in this enterprise from Andy, from Ian Harvey with Toko, from Chris Hall with Swix, and from some other wax companies as well. I compared testing notes with all these guys, got wax when it was needed, and ran the operation like any high-level ski-service operation – with the goal being good skis and successful athletes. The successes of the athletes that I worked with reflects well on all of these companies and their representatives, because those people are there to support success.