Newly mandated ski specifications for World Cup competition this season put skiers on straighter and narrower skis than they’ve raced on in 20 some years.
The mandate from the International Ski Federation (FIS) led to an outcry from racers over the last year, and to a new set of rules for technicians in the wax rooms this weekend in Aspen, as women race on the new equipment for the first time this season.
“It’s been pretty controversial,” said Kristian Saile, a ski technician for the U.S. Ski Team. “It’s a big deal in our world. That’s a huge game changer.”
The changes call for narrower, straighter, longer skis, with less side-cut, curve and shape. The FIS made the changes in the name of skier safety and reducing injuries. The mandate was announced last year.
Every member of the U.S. Ski Team — men and women — objected to the changes, which most complain set back advancements in skis about 20 years before the advent of parabolic ski technology.
“The FIS basically made them narrower and straighter,” Saile explained. “We’re still figuring it out.”
Following her first-place run in the giant slalom on Saturday, Slovenian Tina Maze offered praise to her serviceman for making skis under the new rules. They were fast enough, she joked, “to go down by themselves.”
“I’m sure I have good people that make everything they can,” she said after her win. “And they [her technicians] are one of the best, so I have to just do my job [and] ski down.”
It’s still unclear how the new skis will perform long-term in competition and in different snow conditions, so Saile and the ski techs are scrutinizing this weekend’s results, collecting all the data and feedback they can on the new set-ups.
Saile takes care of skis for Americans like Julia Ford and Abby Grant. Most skiers this weekend have somewhere around 20 pairs of skis in their arsenal — different ones for slalom and giant slalom, for training, and for changing conditions on the mountain.
The course on the Lift 1A side of Aspen Mountain this weekend is particularly hard, Saile explained, because it has been groomed and watered — and because it hasn’t been dumped on by any natural snowfall in the days leading to the race.
The icy course calls for the sharpest of skis, which Saile cuts with a combination of machines and a diamond roller.
Saile is among a small group of ski techs who set up shop in the garage of the Aspen Square Condominium Hotel. Setting up there, they get a little bit more room to work, versus the main wax room at the Mountain Chalet, where the rest of the ski techs wax and work on skis every year.
He and his fellow techs are on hand during the girls’ training runs this weekend as well, making last-minute tweaks to skis.
Working in the bowels of hotel garages, beneath the idyllic scenery of the world’s finest ski resorts is an odd job, Saile noted.
“We end up in these basements and dungeons in the most beautiful places in the world,” he laughed.
Saile and the techs following athletes around the world are the best ski tuners in the industry. But most of them got their starts working on skis in modest gear shops. Saile, for example, started out tuning skis at the Sugar Loaf Mountain Resort in Michigan, eventually making his way to a shop in Crested Butte and working his way up from a ski tech and development coach for local ski clubs to the professional ranks.
While the FIS has strict rules on ski size, radius and such, it does not regulate the types of wax materials technicians use on skis. That freedom turns the techs into wax mix-masters, each with his own favored concoction of fluorocarbons and the like.
“I wouldn’t say it’s voodoo,” Saile laughed. “But a lot of servicemen have their own styles and theories on what works best.”
He keeps a log with data on each pair of skis that includes split times from the course and what he’s done to them. He numbers each pair, so as not to mix them up.
“Between three girls I may have 40 to 50 skis out there,” he said. “So it can get pretty complex pretty quickly.”