The difference between victory and defeat at the upcoming 2008 Masters World Cup in McCall may depend on the wax.
The winning margins at the Masters World Cup's 30 kilometer events can be as little as a tenth of a second, and a well-waxed ski can make a huge difference to a racer's success.
Ski wax has always been an important part of successful cross-country skiing, but today skiers will pay more than $100 for a small cake of wax about the size of the face of a watch in order to gain an advantage.
"The uninitiated would say I would never pay that much for a wax," Chief of Competition Gregg Lawley said.
Steve Rudzinski, 22, of Boise buffs the ski wax on a pair of Nordic skis at the Intermountain Junior National Qualifier event held over the weekend at Bear Basin. Waxing is considered the key to a competitive edge for racers at next week's Masters World Cup races.
Star-News Photo by Michael Wells
"But after you train and train and get into a race where somebody beats you and you know you are a better skier than they are but they beat you because they got the expensive wax on their skis ...the next thing you know you are plotting and scheming to get your hands, on that more expensive wax," Lawley said.
Ski wax comes in glide waxes and grip waxes. Glide waxes allow the skier to skate across the snow with less friction, while grip waxes used by classic skiers are applied below the foot on the ski base to give traction.
"It's an art, a science and both types of wax can get ridiculously complex," Lawley said. "It takes a lot of years of experience to get all the little nuances to deal with the stuff. It can get ridiculous with the time and energy you put into the stuff."
The 1,222 racers at the upcoming races will apply their own knowledge for the conditions, but will also have experts from ski wax manufacturers on hand to give daily recommendations as to what types of wax will work best under the conditions, he said.
"It's a really valuable service," Lawley said. "Those guys are pros and they can figure out stuff in a matter of hours that the average person might take years to figure out."
The skiers will bring their own waxes to the event, and each skier has his or her own winning combination. Ski wax manufacturers will also work with local merchants to ensure that waxes are available for purchase, he said.
Different snow, different waxes
There are different waxes for different snow conditions.
In cold, dry snow, the abrasive snow crystals penetrate into the plastic of the ski base and create drag. A wax with plastic can harden the base and keep the snow out.
In wet, sticky snow, the problem for the skier is suction between the base of the ski and the water on the snow.
"It can be devastating. Your ski won't move, or you get some snow sticking to the ski," Lawley said.
In wet conditions, a hydrophobic wax that repels water is used to eliminate suction that can add time to a skier's run.
"That's the real expensive stuff," he said.
The water-repelling wax has a special chemical compound in it, but just applying the wax does not solve the problem.
The structure of the base of the ski also needs to have varying degrees of striations in it to break up the suction. A combination of the water-repelling wax and the structure of the ski base will make the difference in wet snow conditions, Lawley said.
The plastic base of the skis is heated so that molecules begin to bond; this creates pores in the plastic which the wax fills.
Mack Miller, who was an Olympic cross-country skier in 1956 and 1960, remembers when the skis were wooden and the wax cost 25 cents. Miller also remembers buying the best cross-country skis at the time for $25. Today new skis go for $500.
In those days, the skiers applied pine tar to the bottom of their skis. They heated the pine tar and wiped the skis dry and then applied wax, Miller said.
"It was the same basic stuff as they have now," Miller said. "It just wasn't as expensive."
"When you smell pine tar, you say those were the good of days," four-time Olympian Lyle Nelson said.
"It's an art," Miller said. "Actually, it's easier now than it was in the old days."
"It's so much fun to be racing and having really good skis," Lawley said. "Everybody has a day when they didn't get the wax, though."