The Road to Klosters – Fleet Evaluation

This is Part 6 in a series of posts about training and preparation for the World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championships in Klosters Switzerland in early March 2017. See Parts 1, 2, 3 , 4 and 5 for an overview, specific training plans, strength training, an evaluation of the required pace to podium in the M07 and F06 age classes, and a critical assessment of the efficacy of Block Periodization, respectively.

equipment matters – a lot!

Whether one accepts it or not, in cross country ski racing, equipment matters… it matters a lot! Having the right ski for the conditions on race day is critical to performance and will make all the difference in the race. Ski design and  technology has become complex and the functional gradations for conditions-specific ski performance has lead to the fact that, independent of successful training and proper peaking, one must have the right ski (and grind and wax) on race day to be competitive- there is very little margin for error. This is the sorry state that the sport is in at this juncture. By this I mean that there is a very large economic barrier to ensuring that a competitive, well-trained athlete has the right equipment on race day.

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Consider the ski fleets of elite skiers where some have over 100 pairs of skis comprised of multiple base compositions, flex, and grinds for each snow temperature,  each snow condition, and each deck condition.  In addition these athletes must keep track of all of these skis and be able to efficiently pick the right one for a given race. Hence, many elite competitors have full-time technicians that take care of the skis and help in the selection process on race day. In addition such fleets are added to and modified regularly (new ski models, new flex patterns, and new grinds) throughout the year. It is abundantly obvious that having a “complete” fleet of skis for today’s racing can cost upwards of $50,000 to $100,000 US (most elite skiers are sponsored by ski companies that provide skis so the ski cost is essentially zero for these skiers), plus the cost of a technician, plus the $5,000 – $10,000 per year for maintenance, modifications, and additions. And then there are the increasingly expensive waxes… poles…. and boots! Even some elite skiers have difficulty keeping up with these demands with National Teams and certain sponsored athletes with essentially unlimited budgets. Although needs are significantly smaller for a competitive masters skier, the cost associated with developing and maintaining a basic ski fleet for modern masters racing is substantial. We estimate that a minimum fleet would consist of three classic ski types (hard wax, klister, and zeros (or “hairies”) with perhaps some different grinds for the “wet” skis, and three skate skis (cold, wet, and softground) again with perhaps a couple of different grinds. This means a minimum of 10 pairs of skis at about $700-$800 US each (with bindings), so about $7,000-$8,000. While this price tag is about the same as current racing mountain bikes like this and this and this the referenced mountain bikes are not “minimum” models. These bikes are well suited to the most demanding cross country mountain bike race courses. Although a masters cross country MTB racer may have a second bike, one of these will certainly be a primary race bike used throughout the season.

Add to this that it is rather straightforward to double the number of fleet skis noted above for additional race conditions and this takes the cost for skis alone to well beyond anything that can even be bought in the mountain biking world. Lightweight, nimble race-level cross country mountain bikes are considered expensive (same with road bikes) but they are not as critical as skis are in cross country ski races. In ski races with optimally trained athletes, the ski can make all the difference in performance whereas in mountain biking with similarly trained athletes the bike rarely makes the difference. The same goes for many other equipment intensive sports. Cross country ski racing stands out as one of the most expensive sports to participate in at the competitive level, even for masters skiers. And this is not taking account of the $100 ski base grinds required, the $100 single race wax jobs, the $400 poles, the $500-$1200 boots, etc., etc.

Except for a very few, very wealthy individuals who compete as masters (and they do exist), a comprehensive fleet of skis and the needed assistance is non-existent in the masters ski world. But, one will need to have at least an approximately appropriate ski for the conditions on race day- which leads to the “minimum” fleet described above. So, as masters athletes, it is important to figure out how to efficiently cover all of the likely conditions one might meet on race day with a minimum of investment and this is where ski selection advice is important and, we assert, critical. You may have noticed in the Annual Training Plan (ATP) in part 2 of this series, a row for data input on “equipment preparation”. This is what that row is all about and is an essential part of your training.

Ski Experts, Ski advisers, ski Gurus, and the “Ski Whisperer”

Team Bumble Bee works with this fellow for ski advice, ski supply, fleet evaluation, ski grinding, and waxing. I cannot sufficiently stress, as a competitive ski racer, how important it is on race day to pick the right skis, the right grinds, and the right wax, in that order. For a given set of conditions, no grind or wax will make a ski with the wrong flex characteristics fast. Similarly, no wax will make a ski fast with the wrong grind for the conditions. So start with the right ski and go from there.

As it concerns skis, I have one basic rule- never ever buy a race ski from a rack in a shop. The details of your specific needs are rarely, if ever, accommodated by a ski that just happens to be on a rack in a ski shop. If you are serious about racing you need a ski with the right flex characteristics for your weight, height, and skiing style. This involves more than a “ski fit” with a thin card slid under the ski or even with the so-called “ski fit” machines that have appeared over the years. You need an experienced, highly informed, and enthusiastic ski expert to help with ski and grind selection. If properly chosen, you will be using these skis for many seasons. For the small additional fee (about $100 US) over and above the retail list for a given ski that ski gurus charge, you will get a hand picked ski from racing stock that will continue to perform.

Nordic skis are the Lambos of the ski world— precision and details 
matter— while alpine skis are a bit like your stock Mustang.
Jason Albert, Outside Magazine

What is racing stock? Well, it is the portion of so-called “race ski model” production that have uniform, smooth, and paired flex characteristics (the number of skis that meet these criteria typically make up less than 20% of all race model skis manufactured) . These critical ski characteristics are variable since the production process and materials are not sufficiently controlled to allow for high consistency. After production the race-quality skis are screened out and set aside for sponsored athletes, race teams, and “pickers” to choose from during visits to the factory. The other 80% of the manufactured race model skis go to the shops, and it is not likely that you will find a good “race-quality” ski among these skis. This is why we advise any one who asks us, that they find a ski expert that makes summer visits to select skis at the factories. The “ski whisperer” is one possibility and one that we highly recommend. Such ski advisers can not only pick the right skis for you, they can also help you build and develop a workable fleet (skis, bases, and grinds) for the racing you intend to do. Depending on your bandwidth for spending money, it may take a few years to fully populate a minimum fleet of skis, but since you are working with an expert these skis will be right for you and should perform well for years. After the initial fleet building period, modifications (e.g. grinds) and additions (e.g new technologies like the Salomon Carbon skate ski) can be made annually without significant economic impact. But you need to be methodical and efficient about the process.

annual “ski therapy” session

It is important to annually meet with your expert and conduct a fleet evaluation to ensure that you will have the correct selection of skis for the races you intend to do in the upcoming season. The “ski therapy” session will remind you, in detail, of what it is that you have, what gaps there are, which of the existing skis are working well (or not), and, likely, you will get some additional education on how when to use each ski. It is a great thing to do, especially with an expert; although you could go through the process by yourself if you are sufficiently knowledgeable and experienced enough. The point is to make sure you do this exercise- it is just as critical as the training if you want to be able to perform at your highest level.

We have recently had our annual “ski therapy” session with the “ski whisperer” and, combined  with some ski additions communicated earlier this summer prior to factory visits, we have decided to update a few grinds on existing skis. Working off a spreadsheet with all of the available flex, base, and grind data on each ski and with historic notes from racing, we discussed the entire fleet in detail, our “A” races and the likely snow conditions, and which skis are going to be “top of mind” for each race.

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We also took advantage of the extensive European racing, World Cup, and Olympics experience that the “ski whisperer” has to discuss what we will likely find for ski conditions in Klosters in March. This will help when packing since we will not be bringing our entire fleet with us and we will be in contact at that point when the conditions are more defined.

We ended our session with the feeling that we should have what we need for all but the most unique snow conditions and confident that we can concentrate on athletic preparation and not equipment acquisition going forward. It is definitely a good feeling. We highly recommend that any serious masters athlete consider developing a working relationship with someone like the “ski whisperer” or perhaps “ski whisperer” himself- he comes highly recommended.

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