Monday, March 1, 2010

A Hairy Situation: Waxless skis make an Olympic showing

Posted By on Mon, Mar 1, 2010 at 3:05 AM

During the first week of the Vancouver Olympic Games, daily e-mail wax updates from the Swiss ski wax maker Toko noted that the waxing for the cross-country races was relatively easy. Competitors were using a mix of klisters. Klister is loosely translated as "glue" and klister waxes are best suited for grip on ice, crust and slush.

As week two started and the bright sunny conditions gave way to funky conditions, Toko's first daily e-mail message of that week noted that the waxing was getting more challenging and that, "some skiers are using waxless skis."

Whoa, is that waxless skis as in what 90 percent of American recreational skiers use? Is that skis with patterns cut into their bases underfoot?

No, waxless in this case means hairies, skis that have been roughed up under foot in their grip zone. The roughing up with an abrader produces small hairs of polyethylene base material that stick up off the base. They grip the snow surface when the ski is kicked downward but stay off the snow (because of the ski's camber) when the ski is in glide mode.

Hairies date back to 1983 and were made famous in international ski racing by two American skiers-Bill Koch and current MBSEF head cross-country coach, Dan Simoneau.

At the 1983 Swedish Ski Championships another U.S. Ski Team member, Jim Galanes, heard that the Swedish team had been experimenting with abrading their skis underfoot to see if they could get grip in classic (0 degrees C/ 32 degrees F) waxless conditions.

The Swedes gave up on the idea but offered one of their Sandvik abraders to Galanes. The U.S. Team prepares some hairies for the thirty-kilometer event.

Former U.S. Ski Team coach Marty Hall picks up the story. "Who was going to be the guinea pig? Dan Simoneau who was the number two starter for the day would come into the stadium after one kilometer into the race and would let us know how they were working."

Simoneau skied through and his response as to how the skis were working, according to Hall was, "yahoo."

The rest is history. Koch opted for the hairies based on Simoneau's enthusiastic reaction to them and he and Simoneau placed one-two in the race, the best U.S. performance ever in an international event.

There's a famous picture of Norwegian coach Magne Myrmo bending over trying to look up onto Koch's ski bases as he passes by trying to figure out what his secret wax is.

A couple of months later at the annual John Craig Memorial Ski Race up to the top of the old McKenzie Pass from the snow gate on the Sisters side and back down, Simoneau was on hand.

The waxing conditions were impossible. But just before the race, Simoneau motioned to U.S. Ski team member Leslie Bancroft and me to grab our yet-to-be-waxed skis and follow him to a place well away from the crowd.

There he pulled out a Sandvik abrader and started roughing up our ski's grip zones underfoot.

Both Bancroft and myself were going on blind faith and trust. And that seemed misplaced as we slipped badly the first mile of the race. Then the snow conditions changed and the next thing you know we were passing just about everyone.

Simoneau won the race handily with Bancroft and myself in the top five. Her placing was on shear talent and great skis. Mine was on getting lucky to have Simoneau fix my skis.

Now 27 years later, it's nice to see that the hairies still retain their place as go-to skis in hard to wax for conditions, especially in the Olympics.

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