Are We Shooting Ourselves in the Foot?
There's a not-so-secret reality in the cross-country-ski racing world that most seasoned Masters know all too well. Put simply, having good skis makes a huge difference in cross-country-ski races.
You can have the best fitness and technique in your age category on a given day, but if you have significantly slower skis than your competition, all those other advantages may not matter. Conversely, a skier with clearly the best skis in a given competition field can find themselves sticking with or beating skiers who are otherwise stronger or technically more sound.
Although I'd say the vast majority of Master racers fully understand this basic concept, and that, for certain, professionals throughout the ski industry know just how important fast skis can be, I rarely hear anyone speak of the scope of direct and indirect implications arising from our perpetual chase for fast cross-country skis.
For starters, the search for fast skis has directly fed the proliferation of increasingly expensive and environmentally toxic glide waxes over the past 30 years. Until the mid- to late-1980's when “fast skis” started becoming a sport-wide obsession, skiers even at exceptionally high levels of the sport typically glide-waxed with just three to five colours of paraffins blocks. I'm not talking about one underlayer or waxing for training. I'm talking about an entire season's race-wax kit that you could fit in the palm of a hand.
In addition to their simplicity, the glide waxes of yesteryear were also very affordable and presented a fraction of the dangers to both skiers and the general environment that we see in today's wax boxes.
It is no coincidence that the widespread evolution of skating in the 1980's (along with sport-wide improvements in grooming) also marked the first appearance of fluorocarbon waxes in the consumer world. One of the big attractions of skating was the speed that could be generated, as compared to Classic skiing, particularly on flat and downhill terrain. Thus, it was natural that once the sport was hooked on speed, we'd all want as much speed as we could get.
But the non-stop parade of new waxing products with escalating price points is only part of the fast-skis equation. The industry has also been feeding our obsession with all manner of new shop toys that you pretty much never saw prior to the advent of skating. From roller corks and brushes, to specialty irons, to high-tech structure tools, to hot boxes — a gold-standard ski-service kit can now include many thousands of dollars worth of equipment.
Then there's the growth of professional services directly linked to fast skis. Once upon a time, grinding of performance cross-country skis was limited to a few alpine shops with modest outcome objectives. Nowadays, there are multiple businesses entirely devoted to cross-country-ski grinding.
The selection of skis direct from the factory is probably the ultimate step in the fast-ski evolution to date. Short of ski companies actually making skis to order, having a pro rummage through hundreds of skis on a ski factory floor in an effort to find a near-perfect fit for your body is pretty high-zoot stuff.
Finally, the elaborate process of ski-, grind-, structure- and wax-testing has most certainly trickled down in various ways from the World Cup to real-world skiing. Although very few Masters actually go through extensive testing for most events, we are certainly willing to depend on industry information based on extensive testing.
This is one area where the search for fast skis has actually been pretty efficient – at least for Masters. A handful of industry pros coming up with the best combination for their brands for many major marathons actually takes up less resources (test wax, time, effort, etc.) than hundreds of skiers doing their own mini-tests.
The bottom line in all these sport-wide evolutionary developments is a decidedly mixed bag.
Those of us who employ the full arsenal of services and stuff dedicated to fast skis unquestionably are able to enjoy better skis than in past decades. There's also something to be said for providing the ski industry with new sources of revenue and providing jobs to professionals dedicated to helping us have fast skis.
On the other hand, our obsession with fast skis clearly makes glide waxing very intimidating to newer skiers, and is also undoubtedly playing a role in the decline of the motivated Master of the past 10 to 15 years.
Telling a new skier that glide-waxing doesn't have to be super-complex doesn't hold water when they open an industry catalogue or look at a glide-wax display in a retail shop and their eyes swim at the range of choices, prices, add-on tools, and so on. We don't have a viable way to measure it, but I have a strong suspicion that we lose many potential new adult racers simply because people just don't want to deal with all that it can take to have fast skis.
The fast-skis obsession has also undeniably been sapping some of the interest and excitement within our already established base of Master skiers. Over time, knowing that it's going to take a significant investment to have fast skis starts to wear on many people.
I'm convinced that one reason the average Master is racing less and being more picky about which events to participate in is due in part to the fact that most folks just don't want to make the effort or spend the money necessary to guarantee they'll have competitive skis.
Unlike many other challenges facing cross-country skiing in coming decades, the downsides our sport has created for itself in the search for fast skis are entirely self-made problems. I believe that all of us in the sport – skiers and industry alike – should begin getting really serious about finding more ways to simplify what we are doing, to lower costs and to return the focus to skiing rather on who can win a wax-room arm's race.
The elaborate process of ski-, grind-, structureand wax-testing has most certainly trickled down from the World Cup to real-world skiing.