Fluoro Free Testing

LRG_DSC03689When we first planned to dedicated resources to fluoro free testing, we figured we would be working with existing “Non-Fluor” products – waxes characterized chiefly by what they aren’t, and presented as a cheap solution to glide. But the wax industry has responded quickly to circumstances and has already started to offer waxes with various additives and enhancements to boost the performance beyond the level of basic paraffin. There have been no shortage of interesting products to test, including quite a few prototype waxes, and the dozen-or-so test sessions that we’ve run in the past five or six weeks have given us some good information and direction. But our testing hasn’t provided any sure-bet solutions, and it has raised as many questions as it’s answered. So, if you’re looking for a rock-solid recommendation on what fluoro free race waxes you need to buy… we’re probably going to disappoint you. You might also be disappointed to learn that the photo to the right is just a “stock photo” from our May visit to Sognefjell – it’s not a photo from fluoro free testing.

We will get into a brand by brand discussion of what is on offer, and in some cases, what is under development. That will follow in a series of more specific article discussing products. But first, we need to address some of the questions and complications that have come up in our testing and planning.

Is there a “replacement” for fluoro material?

One of the issues that we’ll all need to face is how to evaluate these fluoro free products in the context of the fluorinated race waxes that we’re familiar with. While some of the marketing and hype around fluoro-free race products offers these new waxes as “replacements”, or somehow equivalents to fluoro products, that’s an inappropriate expectation. There is no replacement for fluoro material. Fluorocarbons have incredible properties and have revolutionized modern life in all kinds of ways. The health and environmental concerns about the use of these products, and the resulting regulatory actions, are putting stresses on industry that absolutely dwarf our concern with ski wax. If a fluoro-replacement comes, it’s not going to come from the ski industry, because there are massive economic incentives for big companies with lots of money to solve this problem. Ski wax companies are not big, and they don’t have a lot of money. I haven’t spoken with any chemist who has any optimism that there is something undiscovered out there with the potential to replicate or improve on the physical and chemical properties of fluoro materials.

To be clear, the opportunity is there for fluoro-free ski wax products to out-perform the fluorinated products that we’ve been using. But these new waxes won’t do that by finding some secret fluoro-replacement. They’ll produce their own performance enhancements, and the most successful waxers in a fluoro free environment will learn to capitalize on the best qualities of the waxes that are available.

For that reason, we have not been comparing these fluoro free products to fluorinated waxes. In fact, we tested fluoro waxes at the opening Eastern Cup weekend, and that’s it – we haven’t even put fluoros on skis aside from those races. Our objective isn’t to beat fluoros; our objective is to find the best fluoro-free solutions we can find. Focusing on that has raised some interesting points about the way we test, and how we identify advantages.

What kind of speed can we make?

Fluoro waxes have remarkable properties at mid to high speeds. It’s generally pretty easy to start to differentiate fluoro waxes if you can do a high-speed glide-out. This is really almost a standard testing protocol for teams at this point – two testers will go out and glide their test skis down a hill side by side, picking a winner and a loser. The fluoro materials tend to really come into their own at higher speeds, and we know from experience that these high speed differences are meaningful on race skis.

With fluoro-free waxes we have a different feeling. While the fluoro products tend to show their differences at high speeds, fluoro free products tend to have a feeling of “terminal velocity”, where the performance clusters closer together as the speed comes up. On the other hand, there are really distinct differences between fluoro free products under load and pressure. We might call it “climbing speed”, but in fact it can be active skiing speed on all sorts of terrain. Some products seem to “jump” when you push on them, while others drag. This has always been something to keep an eye on – we’ve always avoided fluoro options that have poor climbing or active skiing feel. But in the absence of really big differences in passive high speed performance (tucking), the active skiing performance of the waxes becomes incredibly important. Clearly this is more of an issue, and also more of an opportunity, in skate racing than in classic racing, because in skating the ski is accelerated under pressure, and in motion.

While this active skiing component of speed is easy to understand, it’s not easy to test in a controlled way. If paired glide-outs or speed traps aren’t giving us the clarity and differentiation that we need, then we rely a lot more on feeling. Many teams are accustomed to working this way already, and in some ways it’s simpler; for one, you can wax single skis instead of pairs, and move through more products more quickly. On the other hand, we’ve often seen issues with “feel testing” because there is a tendency to focus on very low speed and low pressure performance – those initial sensations of static friction or free glide that you feel when you first start moving. We’ve found it necessary to bring the skis up to near race-level outputs to identify race-level performances. This is a hard (physically taxing) way to test skis, but it’s necessary for identifying the best race properties.

In short, I believe that successful waxers and teams are likely to need to evolve their testing protocols in order to identify some of the best available advantages in a fluoro-free race environment.

Finding advantages on race day

The US race community has evolved a long way since we were first involved. The amount of time testing and applying race wax on race day has gone way, way up. And the results have supported the time investment. However, the race culture and concerns around health and exposure with the race day use of fluoro materials have also generated lots of concerns. Athletes need to stay out of wax rooms, coaches need to wear protective gear, coaches don’t have the time or ability to easily interact with athletes, and many coaches have wondered if this is really the direction we all want for the sport.

As we look to the future, we want to see many of these issues resolved. We want coaches to be able to interact with athletes, and we want self-supported racers to be able to provide their own service without bringing along protective gear. There are really meaningful performance gains available if we can all focus more attention on skiing, and less on waxing. But we also want to see the ability to test solutions and find advantages on race day. Or, more to the point, we recognize that products that provide the ability to test and find advantages on race day will be adopted and used, because the waxers who have found advantages by testing on race day will continue to look for those advantages.

So, one of the factors that concern us as we work with these new race products is the timeline involved with application and finishing. Solutions that offer quick and easy work at the race venue provide opportunities on race day. Many of the most conventional (and most reliable) solutions for fluoro free glide are exactly what you would expect – paraffin waxes that you iron onto the ski. For the most part, teams have moved away from ironing paraffin on-site for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that ironed paraffin often requires quite a lot of time to stabilize and provide the highest level of performance. While ironed fluoro powders crystallize on the base and cool rapidly, forming a fast and high performing surface layer in very little time, ironed paraffin goes into solution in the base, and the base and paraffin together need time to cool and stabilize. Most teams have taken to applying paraffin in advance, away from the venue. But this doesn’t provide opportunity for race-day testing to find the best possible advantage. So, a bunch of our testing focus has been on application methods that allow us to quickly provide a tested advantage on-site.

What about durability?

One of the largest advantages to fluoro materials is the durability they provide. The use of cold application methods (liquid, and rub-on application) has really proliferated in recent years, in spite of long-standing concern that these solutions would provide poor durability. In most cases the durability of cold rub-on and liquid applications has surpassed our expectations, but there is good reason to assume that much of the surprising durability of these application methods comes from the fluoro content. So, while we’re concerned with identifying fast solutions, we’re also concerned with identifying solutions that stay fast throughout a race.

So far, our durability testing has been mostly anecdotal. Noah runs a test, with or without help, and then he continues to ski on the most interesting solutions, looking for relative changes in their performance. There are very good ways to run much more rigorous durability testing, but these require more organization and manpower. We will pursue that testing when we’ve got some more clarity in our early impressions and ideas on what might be viable. So far, we’ve been surprised by the apparent durability of some products and application methods that we haven’t expected to be very durable.

What about ski selection and grinding?

Finally, we have to be aware that many of the ski camber and grind selection decisions and recommendations that we’ve made for years have been focused on performance complementary to fluoro waxes. We don’t know exactly how a fluoro-free race environment will affect our work in these areas, but there is plenty of evidence that some solutions work perfectly with fluoros, and not so well without. The obvious example would be moderate cambers and grinds working well in wet snow with a highly fluorinated wax job, thanks to the hydrophobic qualities of the wax. This is a critical concern when it comes to racers with one-pair ski fleets trying to compete in all conditions.

But it’s also considerably more subtle than that. Will we need finer cold grinds, since the lack of fluoro is bound to make the base more interactive with the snow? Will the same wet grinds operate as efficiently absent the hydrophobic influence of fluoro coatings? Can we sacrifice some low speed performance in grinds to find more efficiency in the range of speeds and loads where we’re building speed in active skiing? Will the various highly successful clear base solutions work as well without support from fluoro coatings, or will the softer and more rubbery material interface make them feel too sticky?

All of these questions may sound peripheral to the simpler question of “which wax is fastest?”, but the testing and selections that we’ve all been making have always carried certain assumptions with them. As we work toward new solutions, the winning answers will be holistic. We can approach those answers in an evolutionary manner, allowing everything to drift into place naturally. Or else we can accelerate our understanding of the whole system by working to identify which kinds of speed should be targeted for the best start to finish results.

While we don’t have all of the answers about cambers, flex profiles, grinds, and base material, we’re pretty sure that additional ski options will become a bigger part of the game. In truth, we have divided feelings on this matter. It’s clearly not good for the sport that more skis and grinds will be required to be competitive. But it’s quite good for our business. One way to really exacerbate this issue would be to fully standardize waxing around a fluoro-free solution. In other words, mandate that everybody use the same fluoro free solution. This would place 100% of the emphasis on skis and grinds, and while that sounds like a goldmine, we fundamentally disagree that this would promote a higher level of fairness in the sport. An open opportunity to pursue wax solutions, and match solutions to the available skis and grinds, is the best way for a competitive field to find their own path to optimal performance. There will always be more than one method to make fast skis. The more pathways get shut-off, the more other pathways dominate the field. And when skis and grinds dominate the field completely, this gets to be a very expensive sport.

So, what wax should you buy?

I mean, isn’t that the point of all this – to sell you guys some awesome new fluoro free race products? Here’s the thing: We’ve made a lot of wax recommendations over the years, and the majority of them have been based on a lot of testing and race experience. We have generally stayed well clear of making recommendations on stuff that we don’t know pretty well. Because we have a well-established testing protocol, and some known standards that we really trust, a new product can work its way into the system quickly by beating known and proven products in a couple of tests. But right now, we’re starting from scratch, and we don’t have our long-standing test history to provide context. We’re basically reliant on our favorite Star NF line as a standard that we’re trying to beat.

So we’re not prepared to make strong recommendations – particularly with regard to one brand versus another brand. But in the coming days we will start to present our findings on a brand by brand basis, and discuss what’s available, what’s not yet available but coming soon, and what we know about it. The bottom line is, we’ve got a lot to learn. We’re eager to share what we know. But the best we’ll be able to do this year, is to invite you to join us in the process of testing and learning many of these new products.