Are We Shoot­ing Our­selves in the Foot?

SkiTrax - - Contents - by J.D. Down­ing

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.

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