Fall Line

Prep­ping the skis of a World Cup ath­lete is both art and sci­ence

Powder - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Julie Brown

For the world’s most elite ski rac­ers, when a win on the World Cup is a mat­ter of hun­dredths of sec­onds, the right tune can make or break a com­pe­ti­tion.

Which is why ev­ery ski racer has a per­son whose job it is to make sure the skis are tuned to be as fast as pos­si­ble. Lindsey Vonn’s ski tech­ni­cian is World Cup wax room vet­eran Heinz Haem­merle. Ted Ligety works with Aus­trian Alex Martin. Last win­ter, Travis Ganong brought rookie Lukas Rot­tinger on­board.

The tune is in the de­tails. It is as much about match­ing notes on time to tem­per­a­tures and mea­sure­ments as it is a feel­ing of what works, what does not, and most im­por­tantly, what the racer wants.

“The goal is to, af­ter the last train­ing run, have 100 per­cent con­fi­dence with the setup you use for the race, so you have no doubts in your mind,” says Ganong, a U.S. ski teamer who has his eyes on the Olympic down­hill at Pyeongchang this year. “You want to sim­plify ev­ery­thing so that all you’re think­ing about is go­ing fast. If there is any­thing else go­ing on in your mind, it af­fects your re­ac­tions.”

At the 2017 World Cup Fi­nals last March, Aspen was warm. Ganong pushed out of the start gate for the down­hill with a fu­ri­ous skate be­fore he set­tled into a poised tuck. Rot­tinger had an­tic­i­pated the grippy con­di­tions and ap­plied a fi­nal layer of wax for the mois­ture-heavy snow. The an­nounc­ers ap­plauded Ganong for be­ing a “great tac­ti­cian” with smooth, deft speed. Still, de­spite Rot­tinger’s best ef­forts to de­fend speed against a melt­ing course, the an­nounc­ers noted that con­di­tions were not in Ganong’s fa­vor like they were on the frigid, firm course in Garmisch, Ger­many, where he had won the down­hill just a few weeks ear­lier. In Aspen, he placed 17th, a dis­ap­point­ing fin­ish but none­the­less a cap on a big race sea­son for the 29-year-old Amer­i­can and his 30-year-old fresh­man World Cup ski tech­ni­cian.

Later that evening, I found Rot­tinger in the lobby of a posh ho­tel wear­ing a yel­low base­ball hat with the words “Team Ganong” in black block let­ter­ing on the bill. Ganong had just given him the hat, as well as an orange flag from the Garmisch down­hill, a me­mento of their win and a gift of thanks at the end of a long win­ter.

“The small things just make me so proud to be a ski tech­ni­cian,” says Rot­tinger, who is from Sch­lad­ming, in Aus­tria, a coun­try known for pro­duc­ing great skis, great ski rac­ers, and, nat­u­rally, great ski tech­ni­cians. He spoke qui­etly with a heavy ac­cent and held the orange flag in his hand. “The most im­por­tant thing is to work as hard as pos­si­ble as a team, with the coaches and ev­ery­one. It’s also great to just, in the morn­ing, be on the snow and on the hill. I work with the skis. I can do some­thing with my hands.”

Rot­tinger had al­ready prepped Ganong’s skis for the su­per G race the next morn­ing, and he was packed to go home af­ter a five-week leg of global travel. When­ever Ganong is on the snow, Rot­tinger is with him and brings the skis. For Aspen, Rot­tinger packed seven pairs of down­hill skis, a small sam­pling com­pared to the 30 pairs of skis and 20 ki­los of wax he brought to train­ing in Chile the sum­mer prior.

“The skis, they all look the same, but the in­sides of the ski, they are all dif­fer­ent,” says Rot­tinger. Af­ter he re­turned home to Aus­tria, Rot­tinger would get a fresh crop of race skis from the fac­tory and start the process of sort­ing, nar­row­ing, and tun­ing next year’s ver­sions. “That’s the most dif­fi­cult thing in our job—to find the right ski for the right race and the right racer.”

Alex Martin, a World Cup ski tech­ni­cian since 1996 (also from Aus­tria) who started work­ing with Ted Ligety seven years ago, sorted through 40 pairs of GS skis last sum­mer at race train­ing in New Zealand to find a hand­ful that he would take with him to the races this win­ter. The skis were com­bi­na­tions of four core con­struc­tions, four side­cuts, plus mount­ing po­si­tions and ramp an­gles. “It’s al­ways a process count­ing down,” says Martin. “The first of it is [Ligety’s] feel­ing. He can ex­actly tell what’s dif­fer­ent. He feels it more or less right away,” he says.

Race day is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent process. Lead­ing up to the Birds of Prey races at Beaver Creek, Colorado, in De­cem­ber 2017, Martin picked out the best ski for the gi­ant slalom course and the con­di­tions and started with a base wax, then ran it through a cou­ple of lay­ers of high flu­oro wax, ap­ply­ing how­ever many lay­ers he felt he needed based on ex­pe­ri­ence and in­tu­ition. The edges were set sharp enough to be ag­gres­sive, but at Beaver Creek, not quite as sharp as a race in Europe.

“It’s a lit­tle bit of touch from this and a lit­tle bit of touch from this,” says Martin. “It is an ex­pe­ri­ence thing. You have to trust your­self.”

Fi­nally, Martin ap­plied the over­lay, the last touch that comes in the form of pow­ders or liq­uids or sprays or a com­bi­na­tion of sorts. It’s not quite se­cret, but it cer­tainly de­pends on per­sonal pref­er­ence and knowl­edge.

“You are do­ing it out of your stom­ach,” he says. “I have my feel­ing. I had suc­cess with this pow­der, and OK, the wax is the wax, the grind is the grind, but the over­lay is al­ways a lit­tle bit of an ex­pe­ri­ence.”

As Martin says, a good ski tech can­not win a World Cup with­out a ski racer to bring the skis across the fin­ish line with a podium-wor­thy time. His first World Cup win came at Beaver Creek in 2010 when Ligety beat Nor­way’s Kjetil Jan­srud by .82 sec­onds in the gi­ant slalom.

“That was a cool feel­ing,” says Martin. “It’s a win for me as well.”

Photo: Erik Seo

Pho­tos: Cody Dow­nard

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