There are few things worse than a classic race with the wrong kick wax on your skis—and few areas where so much voodoo and panic replace reason—often with disastrous results—than kick wax selection.
Admittedly, right around 0°C/32°F, things can get scary—but no-wax skis are now coming onto the market in better and better racing models. So we’ll dodge the "Thirty-two Degree Question," and focus on a simple, logical approach to nailing the kick wax in virtually all other conditions.
One assumption: you are starting your wax testing well ahead of start time, so you have adequate, well-planned time to test and warm up. Or if you are a coach, plenty of time to test and then report back to the athletes in time for their warm-up and final waxing.
Two Rules, or Preliminary Steps:
- Read the thermometer—a snow thermometer, that is; we’re waxing for the snow, not the air—although the air temperature can give some indication of where the snow temp may be going.
- Read the instructions on the wax can or klister tube. The wax companies want you to do well, and they know their products.
>Step One: Having done these things (and with one eye on the temperature and snow conditions at other parts of the course, where things may be different), select what we’ll call the Base Wax. This is the starting point, the ballpark wax, the one that seems most closely to match the temperature and snow conditions. For the sake of the discussion, we’ll say this is a simple blue hard wax.
Step Two: Apply the Base Wax to one ski. Mark the ski in some way, so that you will remember which ski has what wax on it. This can be done directly on the ski, with a marker pen, or as some prefer, on a piece tape, or by marking your skis "A" and "B" and jotting the wax down in a notebook. If you mark the ski, do it behind the heel, so you can’t see the marker—this will help eliminate "wax favoritism"—we all want our favorite wax to be "The One"—but that’s bad methodology.
Step Three: Apply the next-best guess to the other ski, and record the wax or mark the ski. This may be a softer wax for more grip, or perhaps a harder one for better glide—or it may even be a guess about what the tracks will do as they are skied in or as things warm up.
Step Four: Go ski. Ski out of the start area and out onto the course, so you can get a feel for the real conditions out on the course. Ski long enough for the wax to work in—some waxes simply don’t work well until skied in. And ski long enough to get warmed into your skiing: no wax feels the same when you’re stiff and cold as it does when you’re warmed up and "on" your skis.
Once you and the wax are skied in, try skiing hard; try the wax on a good hill; see what it feels like when you’re going at a fast, relaxed pace, and now take note of two things:
- How does the wax kick? How good is the grip?
- How well does it glide? Is it free, or does it drag?
At this point you might switch skis, left to right and right to left: most of us have what Mike Gallagher calls a "lying leg". Rate each wax, on both kick and glide—a simple system of 5 for excellent and 1 for poor works very well, and helps focus attention and feel. Write these ratings down—your notebook might look like this:
Ski A—Blue: kick 3, Glide 4
Ski B—Extra Blue: kick 4, Glide 3
Some really organized coaches even develop a special testing form, which might look like this:
Now make an evaluation: which wax would you prefer to race on? My inclination at this point would be to go for Ski B, because I prefer more kick to better glide. But I am sure we can improve on a 4/3 rating, so let’s try to find a combination that will kick as well (or better) and glide well. Here’s where it gets interesting, and where sticking to the protocol will pay big dividends.
Step Five: Retain the wax on Ski B. It’s the one that’s working best at this point, and we need to keep it for comparison. Now, strip Ski A—a putty knife will do the job, no need for wax removers or heat guns—and apply a new alternative, perhaps a thinner coat of Extra Blue (for better glide), perhaps a wax from a different maker (caution here: wax companies are highly competitive, and you are often best served by sticking with one brand and getting to know how to use it), perhaps a fluorinated wax, or perhaps an overlay of something that will glide better. There are even more possibilities—but the point is to try another wax, and to retain the best wax so far, in order to have a base of comparison.
If the wax you are using needs fine-tuning for better kick, remember "TLS"—Thicker, Longer, Softer: first add a layer and thicken the wax, then extend it forward, and only if that does not work, go for a softer wax.
Now go test, as above. Be sure to mark the ski or record which wax is on which ski—and be sure to record results after you have given the wax a fair try.
Follow the same protocol for fine-tuning. If you are happy with the wax selection, you can usually still get just a bit more out of it by playing with another layer or two for better kick, or perhaps shortening the waxed area by peeling a little wax off with a putty knife. But retain your base reference: never change the wax on both skis at once.
This system, because it is rational and follows a reliable, logical pattern, will almost always arrive at a good, solid kick wax selection after two or three trials.
If you are working with a team, or with other coaches, the possibilities expand, and even more testing can be done. It works this way:
Step One: Apply the same Base Wax to one of everyone’s skis. In other words, if Blue is your starting point, everyone will have one ski with blue on it, in the same number of layers. This test might look like this:
And so on. The principle here is that everyone will have the same reference point. Everyone can compare their "other" wax to the same central wax, and you will avoid the sort of conversation that is all too common: "Well, Extra Blue was better than Blue." "But my Extra Green was better than my Brand X." "I thought that the fluoro violet was okay but that old Blue Tar we used to use was great!" No one in this situation has learned a thing, while the Rational Testers all know that their second wax was better, or worse, than the same, common Blue.
They are learning.
Note: if you are testing as a group, it’s good to be sure that everyone has decent skis: a ski that is too stiff or too soft will not give good test results. Similarly, it’s a good thing to know each other’s skiing well: if Joe always complains about slippery skis, bear this in mind when you evaluate his wax test results.
This method is a great way to get kids involved in serious testing, rather than a passive acceptance of what someone tells them, and as such is a superb teaching device (we have to remember that as coaches, our role is to produce skiers who eventually won’t need coaches—it’s a poor teacher whose students can’t do the math unless the teacher is there to guide them!).
It’s also a way to build confidence—and confidence is a huge part of the battle. Years ago at Thunder Bay, we had gone through the whole protocol and had the wax nailed: roller ski kick and skate ski glide. The first athletes went out for a brief tryout, and came back a minute or two later saying their skis were slipping. We had such confidence in the system, and the athletes had such confidence it the system and us, that we were able to say, "It works. Go back out and ski it in." They did, and 15 minutes later, when they were warmed up and the wax was skied in, they came back and reported dynamite skis. We never touched a thing, and after the race there was nothing but praise for the skis. It takes time and requires organization and discipline to build that kind of trust—but the rewards are confidence and great skis.
A few final things:
If you’re on your own, be sure to plan your testing schedule so you have time for a good final warm-up, time to get out of your warm-ups, etc. It’s a good idea to collect your bib before you begin testing—or make sure someone does it for you.
If you’re coaching, be sure of two things:
- That you have a solid ball park wax ready for your athletes in time for them to do a good warm-up on good skis. A clearly understood schedule will help a great deal with this, as will a set of warm-up skis in addition to the actual race skis.
- That you have time before the start for last-minute adjustments. Sometimes just a wisp or more wax will bolster confidence in insecure athletes.
Allow time, have a plan, be methodical. Let the other guy, or the other team, go out and wildly test every new (and expensive) wax under the sun. By start time, the Wild Bunch will still be worrying whether they should have used three layers of Ostby Red with a whiff of fluorinated Bratlie orange over the top, or a base of A&T Speed-o-Graph with some Ex-Elite red mixed in—while you’ll be well warmed up, have bomber skis, and be ready to go out and take some names.
Nat Brown is a three-time Olympic waxer, and has coached at seven World Championships and seven Junior World Championships. He was the first American to take over ski service for a foreign country (Slovenia). He is the author of The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (The Mountaineers Book - now in a Russian edition). His "other" loves are classical music, good books and his ranch in British Columbia.