That truism about cross-country skiing – apocryphal or not – is generally credited to long-ago Western State College coach Sven Wiik. It’s a brilliantly dichotomous statement: both true and false, wise and purposely naïve. It applied in Wiik’s time, in the 1950s and 60s, when he sent a dozen skiers from Gunnison to the U.S. Olympic Team – back when there was no skate skiing. And it applies now, for skating, of course, and as kick-and-glide, “classic” technique makes a popular comeback.
Wax is utterly central to classic cross-country “running,” as the athletes call it. You need your skis to do two apparently contradictory things: stick to the snow as you stride forward (the “foot strike” in running), and glide friction-free (as friction-free as possible) between kicks. You want to wax the tips and tails of your skis with a slick glide wax, matching the temperature and texture of the snow that day. And then you wax the pocket, the stiff part of the ski, right underfoot, with grippy kick wax. In theory, the wax pocket acts like a springy arch. It holds the tackier grip wax up off the snow during the glide phase. Grip, glide, repeat.
But, of course, it doesn’t always work like this. Every cross-country skier has experienced the frustration of slipping backward on the uphill when his kick wax is wrong: should have used purple instead of blue, red instead of purple. Sven Wiik would just holler out that you needed to adjust your technique and soldier on. He was right, in a sadist-coach-teacher kind of way. But there is only so much adjusting a body can do. All track skiers have stopped, mid-lap or mid-race, to apply a hasty change of kick wax, or, more rarely, to rub in, with a cork or the palm of the hand, a new glide wax, because the old layer – too glassy hard, or too grainy soft for the conditions – was dragging you down like a brake.
I remember mornings in the wax room at the barn on the old Adams Ranch place, in the early days of Telluride track skiing. This was up where the Mountain Village golf course is now. The much narrower tracks of those days were set by snowmobiles rather than snowcats. (Vermonter Bill Koch had not yet revolutionized World Cup racing with his adoption of the marathon skate. And Nordic centers had not yet begun setting the 12-foot-wide lanes needed for side-to-side skating.) Inside the barn, it was like a Finnish sauna. A woodstove chugged along, while waxers at the wooden benches, with hot irons in hand, studied the thermometer and puzzled over the rainbow possibilities: yellow klister from Toko, Rode’s hard Arctic green, Swix red or extra blue. I preferred, when I could get away with it, the simple, two-wax system marketed by 101-year-old Jackrabbit Johanssen, one for dry snow, one for wet. We were alchemists – all pungent smoke and plastic scrapers – having a blast, hoping for the magic fast formula of the day.
As such, we were descendants of the Sierra Nevada dopemen. The dopemen reigned in the mining camps of the 1860s when, work halted by copious Pacific snows, they staged straight-ahead downhill races on 12-foot-long wooden planks. Purses were huge: $600 to the winners. Courses were lined with hundreds of hard betting, hard drinking spectators. Speeds were calculated over a measured quarter- or half-mile. One racer, Tommy Todd, clocked an astonishing 88 mph in 1874. There was usually a grand ball in town to finish off the weekend.
The dopemen were as revered, more revered, than the racers themselves. Their formulas were closely guarded secrets, with names like “Skedaddle,” “Greased Lightning,” “Breakneck,” and “Slip Up.” One of the most famous, Bill Clinch, of Sawpit (Calif.), brewed his dope from sperm whale oil, pine pitch, tallow, camphor, castor oil, and other ingredients. From the beginning, it was as much art as science.
Waxes in Sven Wiik’s time were made mostly in Scandinavia, from paraffin and various hardeners. But the formulas were just as fiercely guarded as before, and, arguably, just as tricky for us dopemen to get right.
Then came skating. I will never forget the vision I had in Telluride Town Park one December in the mid-1980s, after the track had been set and smoothed like a wide, white boulevard. A woman in her thirties, I’ll guess, came sailing along the flat track out of the woods onto the ball field, back straight and head up, skate skiing, effortlessly it seemed, from one side to the other, poles swinging up and back together in unison with the feet, her shoulder-length brown hair flying out behind. She was so smooth and fast, it looked as if she were being towed by an invisible towrope.
This was pure glide – no kick wax needed. Bill Koch, the taciturn Vermonter mentioned earlier, stunned the ski-running world by taking the overall World Cup title in 1982. (He was, and is, the only American ever to do so.) More stunning than his nationality was the way he did it, by waxing his skis strictly for speed – no kick wax – and stepping outside the traditional grooves. With no grip wax, he got propulsion from his edges, angled out like an ice skater.
Skating was fast – considerably faster than the old in-line technique. The Fédération Internationale de Ski didn’t know how to react. Traditionalist Finns and Swedes tried to stop the racers from skating by building little berms along the narrow tracks, or placing net fencing alongside, to catch skaters’ ski tips as they pushed off. One Finnish coach went so far as to run out and tackle an offending skater, mid-race.
Eventually, they solved the conflict by doing what the sport of swimming had done when inventive breaststrokers figured out that the butterfly was faster: they created separate disciplines, classic and freestyle (skating). That’s the way it still is today.
Skate skis are theoretically easier to wax; you only have the glide to worry about. But that hasn’t stopped the wax trolls from coming out with a bewildering array of new products to make your feet slippery. In 1986 Swix (Norway) and Hertel (a California company) both introduced fluorocarbon waxes that were certifiably swifter than anything that came before. But they were ridiculously expensive ($130 bucks for a tiny cube that came in a jeweler’s case), and they were nasty to breathe. World Cup technicians and back-shop boys alike had to guard against carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting fumes. Lately, wax start-ups like Purl in Boulder have developed mixes that are pretty darn slick without the health hazards.
Whatever the ingredients, the challenge is still the same: reduce friction. Build a wax hard enough to resist the sharp points of newly fallen, and very cold, ice crystals. And, at the warm end, build a wax soft enough to let the water in spring snow channel away from the base of your skis.
The hardest conditions to wax for are the very warm, the very cold, and the area right around freezing, when the snow doesn’t know whether it wants to be wet or dry.
One of my most vivid memories of a cold wax failure was on a tour from Eldora to Winter Park over the Continental Divide across Colorado’s Front Range. The temperature that day started at -40˚ Fahrenheit, and moved no higher than -30˚ F. We had ironed on, and buffed to a mirror sheen, our hardest green waxes. And still we had to walk downhill all the way to Winter Park, arriving by moonlight.
When it’s really warm out, say, 55˚ F on a brilliant April day on the Valley Floor (or Ridgway’s Top of the Pines track), I carry a plug of soft silver wax in my pocket. Once the sun’s on it, the water in spring snow sucks at your skis’ plastic bases. I rub on the silver – as rough as possible, like crayoning by a 2-year-old – to break the suction, and fly by skiers who haven’t waxed. The silver is so soft, it lasts only a few kilometers, less than a single loop to Society Turn and back. But I can always stop and crayon some more.
Nowadays, kick-and-glide skiers have the option of buying “waxless” skis. They still need to be waxed for speed, tip and tail, but they come with “fish scales” or other shapes machined in to the wax pocket; mechanical patterns that take the place, crudely, of a good wax job. The man who runs the extensive (100-kilometer) free track system in Aspen told me last spring that he has gotten back into classic, in-the-grooves skiing, thanks to radical new waxless materials that are far superior to fish scales.
The reason for all the machinations over wax is wonderfully simple: you want to slide across the snow – uphill and down – in a state of glissé, as the French would say. That is, using the least amount of muscle and the greatest amount of glide. Get the wax right, and you’re weightless, a low-flying bird.
When he was coach of the U.S. Olympic Team in 1960, Wiik tried to describe this feeling to a reporter from Sports Illustrated. You’re out alone on the track, he said, coasting under your own power through a frozen wonderland, nearly frictionless, zipping through time. “A good skier has to be happy,” he said. “He doesn’t think about sad things.”