Fluoro Free Future

89016AEA-9264-4425-9BCC-1102BCD382FC_1_201_aThe ski racing world is facing big changes with the inevitability of fluoro-free racing for most skiers in the very near future. The removal of fluoro products from the race preparation catalog represents a considerably bigger change than the introduction of fluorinated products back in the late ‘80s – mostly because the introduction was gradual, and the development of fluoro products has been continual since their introduction. When “Cera F” was first introduced, it was recognized as a dominant advantage in wet conditions, but it took years for fluorinated paraffin products to become the norm in racing, and for fluoros to permeate every level of ski preparation. Now we’re looking at the possibility of eliminating these ingredients altogether, and very abruptly.

All of this has emerged very rapidly because of the growing awareness of the health and environmental dangers of fluoro materials. Part of this process has been the introduction of government regulations governing the manufacture and distribution of fluoro materials, and an uptick in the enforcement of existing regulations. These regulations and enforcements have made it more difficult for the industry to get fluorinated products to end-users and generated a lot of speculation about the future of the industry.

There is also an increasing prevalence of fluoro regulations in racing at the grass roots level. Many races and series have made the decision to ban or limit the use of fluoros. While people cite many reasons for favoring a fluoro ban, including expense and fairness, the universal theme is that health and environmental concern are sufficient reason to phase-out fluoro products ahead of the timeline that has been established by the regulatory process.

These grass-roots efforts toward fluoro-free racing haven’t always been pointed in a logical or consistent direction, and therefor haven’t had a large impact on the market or the industry. But the proposed top-down ban of all fluoro products by FIS has put the matter of competition regulations into very sharp focus. This ban was announced by the FIS Council on November 27th, effective for the 2020/21 season. The FIS cites the same health and environmental concerns that many others have expressed. But one additional concern for the FIS has is that teams traveling across international borders with trucks full of fluoro materials are likely to be breaking laws, once the REACH 2020 regulations come into effect. The importation of fluoro materials is legally equivalent to the manufacture of fluoro materials, and the FIS is understandably concerned that their regulations (or lack of regulations) might result in wax trucks getting detained at borders. Vegard Ulvang commented on this at some length in a Nov 1 Nordic Nation podcast interview with Jason Albert from Fasterskier, summarizing the situation with the statement, “having a system where we are breaking national laws isn’t good”. Vegard has a good point.

While most grass-roots efforts to limit fluoro use have set arbitrary limits the proposed FIS ban is absolute. There are huge issues with testing and enforcement, and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario that doesn’t result in accusations of cheating, legal challenges, and all sorts of other predictable issues. Nevertheless, a top-down FIS ban would remove any ambiguity for racers who race under the FIS umbrella, which includes any USSA competition. Leaving aside difficulties with testing and enforcement, let’s assume that starting next year, using fluoros of any kind in racing means that you’re cheating. You can do that if you want, but you’ll have to live with it. And our job, in the industry, is to do our best to provide you with alternatives.

Overall, it’s clear to us that the writing is on the wall. There may be delays in bringing the FIS ban into effect, and there are likely to be plenty of complications and arguments along the way. But it’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen soon. It may surprise some people to learn that we don’t see this as a bad thing for our business. While fluoro waxes are expensive, and therefor generate a fairly high amount of revenue, there are a number of reasons that eliminating fluoro waxes from ski racing actually helps our business. Here’s the way we see it:

  • People will still test waxes and look for the fastest solution. The difference between the top performing fluoro free waxes is roughly equivalent to the difference between the top fluorinated waxes.
  • Fluoro Free race products are not going to be as cheap as people might assume. We’re not exactly going back to 1986 here. Wax companies are working hard to come up with new solutions, and the prices we see as those solutions come to market will look pretty familiar to people who have been buying fluorinated waxes.
  • These modern fluoro free race waxes will not be as fast as fluoros. I’ve heard people say “it’s just a matter of time – they’ll come up with some replacement.” Forget about it. It won’t happen. Fluoro free ski wax will not boost the performance of your skis the way the fluoros do. So even though the incentive to chase the best solutions is the same, and the cost is similar, the wax solutions do not provide the same level of performance enhancement.
  • And that last point means that ski selection, stonegrinding, and hand structure tools will become bigger pieces of the pie. You know where we make most of our income? Selecting and selling skis, and providing stonegrinding services. So… you see how it’s lining up for us?

In my September seasonal report email to customers I boldly predicted that the FIS would never institute a fluoro ban because they simply wouldn’t have the appetite for enforcement, and in spite of that I announced that we would dedicate new resources to testing fluoro free race solutions. Well, I sure misread that situation. But I got one thing right – we have dedicated way more resources to fluoro free testing; since snow has fallen, that’s pretty much all we’ve been doing. Noah Payne, our slave intern lead test coordinator has put in a lot of testing time already, and we’re learning things quickly. Some of what we’re learning is simply how much we have to learn about making fast race solutions in a fluoro free race environment. We don’t have a lot of answers so far, but we can outline the issues as we see them, and discuss the materials we’ve been working with. And that’s what we’ll do next.