At the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the four x 10 kilometer relay was purported to be a battle of cross-country ski titans Norway and Sweden. Felix Breitschädel watched from the sidelines because the race unfolded beneath a heat Russian solar. But when the primary skiers emerged from the woods onto the world filled with spectators, Norway’s first skier was nowhere to be seen. He dropped to ninth place, whereas the remainder of the crew rallied to complete fourth. For medal-hungry Norwegian ski racing followers again house, “it was a disaster,” remembers Breitschädel, tools and technical director for the Norwegian Olympic Committee. “We were called traitors in the Norwegian media.”
The wrongdoer? Hydrocarbons gone amok.
Technicians like Brietschädel had utilized the mistaken mixture of chemical waxes to the bottom of the athlete’s ski. These hydrocarbon and fluorocarbon compounds—which take the shape of waxes, fluids, and powders—should accomplish two contradictory duties for skiers to win gold: grip the snow on the uphill whereas additionally gliding on the downhill.
The compounds adhere to the bottom of the ski, which is made of extremely excessive density polyurethane, however dissipate over time. For a two-minute downhill ski race, rivals need the slipperiest floor doable. For two hour-long cross-country marathon, it takes six or extra layers of wax to maintain the racer shifting up and down over the course.
At Sochi, Brietschädel and different Norweigan ski technicians examined dozens of mixtures of skis and waxes alongside the athletes within the hours main as much as the race. But simply earlier than the occasion started, race organizers determined to unfold a layer of salt on the course. Salting a course is a typical solution to protect a course by lowering the snow’s floor temperature by as much as four levels Celsius (7 levels Fahrenheit). That occurs as a result of of an endothermic response that pulls warmth from the snow to the salt. Nitrogen-based fertilizers like ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate are additionally used to harden snow on race programs.
“We tested in one condition and the organizers decided to put out salt on the ski track,” Brietschädel mentioned. “The whole package didn’t work as well as we hoped for.”
An excellent wax job gained’t win an Olympic race, however it’ll maintain issues shut, in line with specialists.
Similar waxing issues additionally plagued Kikkan Randall, a US cross-country skier who competed at Sochi and will probably be attending her fifth Olympics at Pyeongchang, South Korea.
In Sochi, Randall did not qualify for the ladies’s dash occasion by 5 one-hundredths of a second. She believes her skis didn’t glide sufficient to flee the opposite racers on the ultimate descent to the end line. “I made a break and they all came back on a downhill,” Randall says about her qualifying warmth in Sochi. “Even one of my teammates came sailing by.” Maybe she additionally lacked a remaining dash, Randall admits. But good wax would have given her an edge within the two and a half-minute race.
In South Korea, it is going to be Andrew Morehouse’s job to ensure Randall and the opposite Americans don’t have a repeat of the problematic wax circumstances in Sochi. “We don’t want a fit athlete that can’t compete because the skis are bad,” Morehouse mentioned from a pre-Olympic coaching camp in Austria. “We have won some races when our wax is better.”
Ski waxing is a mix of artwork and science. Morehouse will probably be lugging not solely his laptop computer and a number of other suitcases of wax to South Korea’s Olympic snowboarding venue, but additionally gadgets to measure the moisture content material and temperature of the snow and air, in addition to local weather circumstances and windspeed. The technicians additionally have to know the place of the solar on every part of the race course, which regularly runs by shady forests and sunny open areas.
For longer races, Morehouse begins with a typical paraffin base wax that’s melted after which brushed into the pores of the ski base. Then comes layers of fluorocarbon powder and liquid waxes that always comprise nasty solvent-based components akin to benzene, toluene, and xylene. To shield himself, Morehouse wears a respirator, and the US Ski Team lately bought semi-truck with air flow hoods to create a safer work space. This transfer got here after scientists in Sweden and Norway discovered wax technicians who put together a whole bunch of skis at championship occasions had been examined with excessive ranges of dangerous fluorinated compounds of their blood. (The European Union additionally thought-about banning sure varieties of ski waxes as a result of of the fluorine compounds produce a climate-warming greenhouse gasoline, although that transfer has been postponed for now.)
The composition of these mixes are rigorously guarded secrets and techniques; massive European ski groups rigorously guard their wax choice and use code names on two-way race radios. The varied chemical substances within the wax mix to carry out at totally different temperatures, Morehouse explains:
“In cold conditions, you want waxes that are hard and durable so the snow crystals can’t dig into the ski base as much,” he says. “As you get warmer, you want waxes that repel water and shed dirt. The more fluorocarbons, the more hydrophobic they are. In wet conditions, you want waxes that have a lot of fluorocarbons in them.” Longer races are tougher as a result of the wax has to final, and since climate circumstances can change through the occasion.
During classical type cross-country ski races, a sticky layer of kick wax is utilized beneath the mid-section in order that the skier can grip the snow when climbing hills. Smoother glide wax goes on the information and tails. The stiffness and camber of every particular person ski additionally determines how they may seize and glide on the snow floor.
On race day, Morehouse melts, scrapes, and polishes a layer of wax earlier than making use of the subsequent layer. Then he’ll be a part of the coach and skier on the racetrack and see which of them work finest. The wax layers kind a protecting coating, whereas channeling water down and away from the ski in tiny grooves alongside the construction of the ski base. “Our job is all about reducing friction,” Morehouse says.
At the Pyeongchang Olympics, Morehouse will maintain monitor of all this information in his pocket book (the Norwegians use a mobile-based wax app) in order that he can get a tough concept of the place to begin—after which, it will be as much as the racers.