Friday, December 14, 2001 - Perspective
NSDT Update: The Elusive Grip

- By: Erik Carleton

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Waxing kick wax for cross country ski racing can be quite a challenge. With conditions ranging from dry to wet, new to transformed, proper waxing is an intricate skill. It is safe to say that the right wax choice can decide the race, especially in more difficult waxing conditions. At the1998 Nagano Olympics men's 30km, the snow was dumping out of the sky, the mercury hovered around the freezing mark, and the humidity was high. Sources say the three Norwegians, Jevne, Daehlie and Alsgaard each used a different approach. One used hairies, the other used hard wax and the third used klister, with mixed results: a silver medal, 20th place, and a DNF. It is these days when you rely on all your knowledge and experience, and a little luck never hurts either.

Consider the Subaru Continental Cup race in Silver Star on November 22. The temperature was hovering around zero degrees centigrade, with new falling snow and high humidity. This deadly combination can prove to be quite a waxing challenge. I was but a spectator on this day, but the tension was evident. The racers were rushing to find the right combination, that would allow them to kick in the first 2km of the course, which were for the most part climbing, but also have enough glide to descend to the low point, and complete the last 2km of flatter terrain. For any classic race, skiers struggle to find a balance between grip and glide.

There are a few things you can do on a difficult waxing day. It is important to make sure you have enough time to prepare and test your skis. Individual needs vary, but remember to allocate time for you warmup, as well as for testing out your race skis well in advance of your start, in case you need to adjust your wax. Of course some days you may need to spend more time trying every single wax in your bag, so just start a bit slower to avoid the dreaded "blow up".

Ski selection is very important; the right wax is only as good as your skis. It is not usual for two racers to have diversified opinions of the same grip wax, based on difference in skis. Most of the elite racers I know prefer softer skis for nearly all conditions. A ski that you can kick fairly easily, even when your grip is worn and you are tired is indispensable. One common misconception is that stiffer skis are faster. While this is often true in a glide competition, you must consider that the majority of time spent in a race is on the uphill sections, where kick is required. Remember too that if your skis are a bit stiff on any given day, you can add more layers. Know your skis and choose well.

Once you know which wax you are going to use, apply thin, even layers. An uneven application of wax is more prone to icing. If you need a bit more grip, but don't want to apply a softer wax at the expense of glide, consider extending your wax pocket forward slightly. Other things to try are: covering a softer (warmer) wax with a harder (colder) wax, or alternating layers between two different waxes. Experimenting with different wax methods will give you valuable experience for the next tough day.

There is the also the temptation to forego the waxing process, and use what are commonly referred to as hairies. Hairies are a roughing up of the kick zone, using sandpaper. You will definitely need a soft pair of skis, and the right kind of track which has a soft top, such as a track with some fresh snow in it. There are many different techniques for sanding the kick zone, ranging from sanding along the skis, to sanding on a diagonal or perpendicular to the direction the ski travels. It depends on the conditions, but a common combination is 80-grit sandpaper along the ski. A larger grit paper or sanding perpendicular to the ski will provide more grip. Keep in mind the coarse surface is subject to icing, just like any hardwax. Hairies are sometimes great, other times they are bad, and they do wear off, so they are not appropriate for longer distances like 50km. Their ease of preparation and heroic nature make hairies an attractive alternative on a difficult waxing day.

Practice is important, so as to avoid trial by fire on race day. Even the world's best skiers make mistakes, perhaps going with a wax that is right on the edge, to try to gain an advantage. With knowledge of your skis, the right wax applied just right, and a little luck, you may take advantage of the next complex grip conditions.

Erik Carleton has been a member of the Canmore National Development Team for 5 years. He has represented Alberta at 8 national championships where he has won numerous medals

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