The Wax Wars

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Robi Kristan

When someone asked ski tech Robi Kristan how he was feeling moments before the start of the Beaver Creek Birds of Prey World Cup downhill last season, Kristan said quietly, "Good. Ready to roll. But he, in fact, seemed more nervous than his famous charge, Bode Miller, who was minutes away from hurling himself down an iced roller-coaster track at 80 mph. That's because, as one former World Cup ski tech puts it, "In speed events, it's all about the sticks.

While you need good skis in the "technical slalom and giant slalom events, in super G and downhill you need what World Cup techs call "smoke wagons—skis perfectly tuned to course conditions, the racer and, sometimes it seems, fate itself. When winning and losing is separated by fractions of a second, a fast glide easily can be the difference between success and failure. And the difference between a good glide and the winning glide is often the ski technician who preps the skis.

World Cup ski techs—the pinnacle of the tuning profession—are the mad scientists of the ski world, always hunched over work benches, odd instruments in their hands, applying seemingly magic potions that suspend the laws of gravity. They inhabit a secretive, postmodern realm, where corporate loyalties supersede national ties and million-dollar endorsements are earned—or lost—in the blink of an eye. It's a world of sabotage, locked "dungeon doors, mysterious codes and fluorocarbon "secret sauces that shave hundredths of seconds off finish times.

Miller, for instance, beat Hermann Maier in the super G at Lake Louise, Alb., last season by .13 seconds—less time than it takes to say the word "loser. So it's easy to understand why ski techs feverishly guard any edge they might have—real or perceived—over the competition. Miller himself has attributed much of his success last year, when he became the first American to win the overall World Cup title in 20 years, to his switch to Atomic. "On skis that were worse, he says, "I was skiing in the top 10. Now I'm winning. So the skis are what made the difference.

Since 2001, Robi Kristan has been responsible for those skis. At six-foot-four and 230 pounds, Kristan has been mistaken for Miller's bodyguard, but he's actually his personal ski technician. A former racer in Slovenia, he started out preparing his own skis, enjoyed it, tuned skis for his racing friends, worked for a while in the Elan ski factory, then for the Slovenian Ski Team. The U.S. hired him away in 2001 to tune skis for several athletes, including Miller. When Miller reached an elite level where he could demand his own technician, he requested Kristan. "I get along with him, Miller says. "He's easygoing, works hard, he's honest, he loves the sport. The unwritten rule is that a star racer's ski tech is part of the deal. When Miller switched brands and went to Atomic, the company immediately hired Kristan. [NEXT]Today is race day in Beaver Creek for what may be the most dangerous sporting event on earth. Downhill racers on seven-foot skis exceed 80 mph on a course that has been soaked with water until it's as hard and smooth as white cement. NASCAR drivers go faster, but they're harnessed into protective steel cages. Miller has nothing to protect him but a helmet—underrated for the speeds he'll achieve—and two rows of netting along the sides of the course. If he wins, he'll earn 40,000 Swiss francs (about $30,000). If he crashes, he could end up like 1984 American Olympic gold winner Bill Johnson, who suffered brain damage from a downhill spill. Or worse. Downhill racing almost guarantees skiers a career-ending injury. And every few years, someone dies.

It's quiet in the starting area. Miller and Kristan try to avoid the television cameraman hovering a few feet away. Inside the start house, the first racer launches onto the Birds of Prey course. "On course, bib No. 1, Peter Fill of Italy, says race announcer John Dakin over the loudspeaker. About a thousand people in the grandstandbelow the finish line cheer and shake bells. Miller wears bib No. 17, and Daron Rahlves, who was the U.S. team's best downhiller until Miller got hot, will race 31st.

Kristan quietly waits with Miller as the early racers push off. He spends 200 days a year traveling with Miller, wrestling 70 pairs of skis on and off of airplanes, missing his wife and toddler son, inhaling wax fumes late at night in cold, windowless basements that sometimes have ceilings so low he can't stand upright. But what burns out the world's best ski technicians is the stress. "You're standing there at the start just hoping and praying, says retired World Cup serviceman Mike DeSantis. "And once that clock is ticking your heart is racing, too. Was the ski too sharp, or not sharp enough, or did you miss the wax, did you miss the ski? You are scared that if your athlete doesn't have a good finish, it's your fault. In the speed events, it's all on you.

And it's even harder if that athlete is Bode Miller. If he doesn't go fast today, his coaches and corporate sponsors will look first at Kristan. "The coaches come into your ski room, DeSantis says, "and it's like an investigation. Even if an athlete pooches a turn and scrubs all his speed, the coaches will always start with the sticks. Kristan removes the Velcro straps from Miller's race skis and gently lays their bases in the snow. He wants them to be as cold as the course. The first racer, from the Italian team, crosses the finish line and skids to a stop in a massive cloud of snow spray, photographers along the fence following him with lenses the size of stovepipes. The racer's time flashes on a billboard-sized video screen: One minute, 41.07 seconds. The next two racers, from Germany and France, finish behind him, and the fourth racer falls. So when American Bryon Friedman slides in front of the starting wand, the Italian's time is still the one to beat.

Friedman, like Miller and Rahlves, races on skis made by the company that dominates the World Cup: Atomic. The previous season he won the U.S. Downhill Championships, but this is just his second year on the World Cup circuit. Until he earns some top-10 finishes, he won't get his own serviceman from the factory. Instead, he's being assisted in the starting tent by Brian Burnett, one of six "pool technicians on the men's side of the U.S. team. Burnett, 45, is the grizzled veteran of the wax room. For about $45,000 a year, he works 20-hour days, gets three hours of sleep, and parties so thoroughly when a race-series ends that he's more than once been carried onto an airplane. His credo: "Late nights, loud music, fast skis. His nickname: Burntsky.

You might think, since they both service U.S. racers, that Burntsky and Kristan would share information. They don't. Today Burntsky wears the logo-studded jacket of the U.S. Ski Team, and Kristan the red and tan of Atomic. Burntsky works in a separate room, about 20 feet by 60, noisy with blasting music and scattered with equipment boxes, empty soda cans, skis and nine benches. Formed by temporary plywood walls in a concrete parking garage, it smells of orangey wax solvent, sweat and car exhaust. Eric Larson, a Dominator wax rep, calls it "the dungeon. [NEXT]Across the garage is the Atomic room—neat, quiet, half the size. Orderly rows of race skis line the walls. Written on their tops sheets are little black codes that only Atomic employees understand, signifying shapes, flexes and bases. Kristan lives like an aristocrat compared to Burntsky. He only services Bode Miller. He gets to bed at a reasonable hour.



Many Austrians consider it treasonous of Atomic, which is based in Austria, to give its technology and its technicians to the U.S. But Atomic is owned by a multinational corporation headquartered in Finland. As Eduardo Guzman, race director for Atomic USA, says, "Now there's an awareness of taking care of other markets. And the U.S. market is so influential around the world. In other words, Miller is beating the Austrians at speed events this year in large part because now he has smoke wagons, too. And Atomic gave him those smoke wagons because he can help sell a lot of skis in the U.S.

In Burntsky's wax room, the door is almost always open. On race day, the Atomic room is locked. That morning, when someone knocks, Kristan is uncharacteristically angry. "No! Nobody can come in right now! Burntsky wouldn't even try.

Kristan locks the door in part to protect his techniques from other ski technicians. Ski tuners don't learn their trade from a special school or textbook. It's one part art, learned from older, wiser servicemen, and one part ever-changing technology. So Kristan isn't about to share, and Burntsky doesn't share with Kristan. "That's your job, Kristan says, somewhat indignant. "That's how you become the best! Because his paycheck comes from Atomic, he would tell his winning wax formula to the technician for Miller's rival Hermann Maier, who also skis on Atomic, long before anyone in the U.S. wax room.

The door is also locked, Kristan says, because "things happen. Once, the Italian team had all its Atomic skis stolen. Several years ago, Eric Larson says, someone stole a particularly fast pair of Miller's race skis. They were found in a dumpster, snapped in half. "Sabotage does happen, says a former World Cup ski technician.

"I was once offered money by my own company to steal a pair of skis.

When Kristan marks on masking tape the pair he has readied for race day, he never writes "Bode. That would be an invitation to thieves and competitors. Instead he has invented a symbol, something between a capital B and a Superman shield. He won't say, but he probably keeps Miller's skis in his room at night.

At the top of the course, Kristan takes Miller's race skis off the snow and holds them up. The bottoms glisten like black ceramic; the base pattern is slightly hatched. A U.S. coach with a radio strapped to his chest leans in close to Kristan and Miller, and the three of them listen to another coach at the bottom, delivering Bryon Friedman's report about the course: "At that corner by the corduroy, stay tight. Larson says Kristan serves not just as Miller's confidante and friend, but as an informal coach, too. "Robi might tell Bode, 'You opened up from your tuck too soon,' or 'Don't forget to press the bump.' If he sees something, he tells him.

Miller takes off his jacket, adjusts the buckles on his boots, and stretches. He climbs up to the starting tent, Kristan holding his skis. Inside the tent stand the starter, two racers and four coaches. Kristan, on one knee, lays the skis down. Miller leans on him and holds his boot up like a horse being shod. Kristan uses a plastic scraper to remove every bit of snow from the bottom, sides and toes of Miller's white Atomic boots. Miller steps into the bindings—Atomic as well—and Kristan tightens the adjustment screws with a long-handled screwdriver.

[NEXT]The crowd at the bottom cheers when the huge screen shows the next racer in the starting gate: Bode Miller. "Twenty-seven years old, with three consecutive wins, says the race announcer. "Fasten your seatbelts! The timer counts down—five, four, three, two, one—and as Bode lifts and launches through the wand, the coach and Kristan yell encouragement.

Kristan may be nervous, but he's also as confident as a ski technician can be. Atomic rules the World Cup in large part because it so thoroughly tests its race skis. Even the best skis, made exactly the same way using identical materials, have mysterious differences. So the previous summer, Kristan and Atomic's test team took 130 pairs of new, "green skis, all of them tuned identically, to a glacier near Soelden, Austria, called the Ice Box. Atomic hires former World Cup racers to ski every pair identically through a straight, short, timed course, again and again. That data goes into a computer, and soon a number of exceptionally fast skis emers, Miller is beating the Austrians at speed events this year in large part because now he has smoke wagons, too. And Atomic gave him those smoke wagons because he can help sell a lot of skis in the U.S.

In Burntsky's wax room, the door is almost always open. On race day, the Atomic room is locked. That morning, when someone knocks, Kristan is uncharacteristically angry. "No! Nobody can come in right now! Burntsky wouldn't even try.

Kristan locks the door in part to protect his techniques from other ski technicians. Ski tuners don't learn their trade from a special school or textbook. It's one part art, learned from older, wiser servicemen, and one part ever-changing technology. So Kristan isn't about to share, and Burntsky doesn't share with Kristan. "That's your job, Kristan says, somewhat indignant. "That's how you become the best! Because his paycheck comes from Atomic, he would tell his winning wax formula to the technician for Miller's rival Hermann Maier, who also skis on Atomic, long before anyone in the U.S. wax room.

The door is also locked, Kristan says, because "things happen. Once, the Italian team had all its Atomic skis stolen. Several years ago, Eric Larson says, someone stole a particularly fast pair of Miller's race skis. They were found in a dumpster, snapped in half. "Sabotage does happen, says a former World Cup ski technician.

"I was once offered money by my own company to steal a pair of skis.

When Kristan marks on masking tape the pair he has readied for race day, he never writes "Bode. That would be an invitation to thieves and competitors. Instead he has invented a symbol, something between a capital B and a Superman shield. He won't say, but he probably keeps Miller's skis in his room at night.

At the top of the course, Kristan takes Miller's race skis off the snow and holds them up. The bottoms glisten like black ceramic; the base pattern is slightly hatched. A U.S. coach with a radio strapped to his chest leans in close to Kristan and Miller, and the three of them listen to another coach at the bottom, delivering Bryon Friedman's report about the course: "At that corner by the corduroy, stay tight. Larson says Kristan serves not just as Miller's confidante and friend, but as an informal coach, too. "Robi might tell Bode, 'You opened up from your tuck too soon,' or 'Don't forget to press the bump.' If he sees something, he tells him.

Miller takes off his jacket, adjusts the buckles on his boots, and stretches. He climbs up to the starting tent, Kristan holding his skis. Inside the tent stand the starter, two racers and four coaches. Kristan, on one knee, lays the skis down. Miller leans on him and holds his boot up like a horse being shod. Kristan uses a plastic scraper to remove every bit of snow from the bottom, sides and toes of Miller's white Atomic boots. Miller steps into the bindings—Atomic as well—and Kristan tightens the adjustment screws with a long-handled screwdriver.

[NEXT]The crowd at the bottom cheers when the huge screen shows the next racer in the starting gate: Bode Miller. "Twenty-seven years old, with three consecutive wins, says the race announcer. "Fasten your seatbelts! The timer counts down—five, four, three, two, one—and as Bode lifts and launches through the wand, the coach and Kristan yell encouragement.

Kristan may be nervous, but he's also as confident as a ski technician can be. Atomic rules the World Cup in large part because it so thoroughly tests its race skis. Even the best skis, made exactly the same way using identical materials, have mysterious differences. So the previous summer, Kristan and Atomic's test team took 130 pairs of new, "green skis, all of them tuned identically, to a glacier near Soelden, Austria, called the Ice Box. Atomic hires former World Cup racers to ski every pair identically through a straight, short, timed course, again and again. That data goes into a computer, and soon a number of exceptionally fast skis emerge. Then Miller picks the pairs he likes, and Kristan goes to work on them. He files the edge angles to Miller's preferences. Because wax sticks better to wax than it does to the ski base, a ski tech tries to load new skis with soft wax, often by baking them in a "hot box at about 140 degrees for several days so the wax can soak in. Then he repeatedly irons in more wax and scrapes it off. Burntsky calls this "the luscious layers of love.

On race day, Kristan applies his "secret sauce of race wax behind locked doors. (When he finally emerges into the light and carries the skis up to the top of the course, he holds them as carefully as he would his own son.) Course conditions today make choosing the wax a challenge. The first section is relatively flat, and today the snow is cold, hard and grippy. Skis go fast by creating a thin layer of water, formed when the friction of the ski melts the snow. The slower the course and the colder the snow, the longer it takes to melt. As the skis speed up, too much water causes suction, which slows them down. That's why Miller's skis have an almost imperceptible texture, or "structure, ground into the bases, which breaks the suction and channels water away like tread patterns on tires.

Ski tuners use wax to reduce the friction between the ski and the snow. The first mention of wax on skis predates the Civil War, when ski-racing gold miners claimed success with Sierra Lightning and Black Dope made from camphor, pine pitch and sperm whale oil. Today's waxes contain graphite, said to reduce drag caused by static electricity, and, in some cases, fluorocarbons, which repel water. Because cold, fresh snow crystals behave like sharp, gritty grains of sand digging into the ski's base, Kristan probably used a very hard wax today. Then, to provide quick acceleration on the top section, he might have overlaid a fluorocarbon—$120 for a one-inch cube. But he's not telling.

The Birds of Prey course starts with a long, flat gliding section. At the first split, the crowd cheers. Miller is .45 seconds faster than the leader. That's good news for Kristan. Ski technicians look at the split times from the flattest parts of the course to gauge the success of their work. A good time in a slow section means the race prep is right. Thus, a tech can "win a race in which his athlete finishes 35th. A U.S. racer once asked her tech, "What did you put on these skis to make them so slow? "You, he responded.

By the second split, Miller is ahead by more than a second. Over the loudspeakers, the edges of his skis sound like coarse sandpaper. When he lands the Red Tail jump, it's like a door slamming. Miller finishes almost a full second ahead. The crowd shrieks.

Several Swiss and Austrian racers threaten to take the lead, but Miller holds on by about one third of a second. Then, into the gates steps the Herminator, wearing bib No. 30. The crowd quiets, but Maier trails Miller by increasing margins at each of the splits and finishes ninth. The American crowd cheers.[NEXT]The last of the top-tier racers with a chance of beating Miller is his teammate, Daron Rahlves. "The No. 1 downhiller in the world, he won the Hahnenkamm, the announcer says. And his skis were tuned by Kristan's work partner, Thomas Bürgler.

Rahlves is behind Miller's time by nearly a quarter-second at the first split. But he doesn't lose anything at the next split. As the announcer says, "He's in the hunt. At the third split, he's gained against Miller, and is now only .15 seconds behind. The crowd roars to urge him on.

A new split: Rahlves is .33 seconds back, which would put him behind several Austrians. But when he crosses the finish, the crowd explodes: He's closed the gap to just .16 seconds, good enough for second place. Miller runs into the finish corral while someone hands Rahlves a U.S. flag, and they exuberantly hug. "This, says race announcer John Dakin, "is a very, very historic moment!

Later, Miller and Rahlves stand ttogether on the victory podium, gold and silver medals around their necks, the first time two American men have finished 1—2 since the Mahre brothers at the 1984 Olympics in the slalom, and it's the first time ever in a speed event.

An Austrian oompah band dressed in lederhosen and dirndls plays the Star-Spangled Banner. In the athletes' fenced-off corral, meanwhile, Robi Kristan gets high fives and pats on the back. "Another medal for your resume, someone says. But he's got more work to do. Tomorrow, Miller races in the giant slalom, so Kristan heads back to the dungeon.

In the Atomic room, a U.S. Ski Team coach offers him a beer. He takes a swig, puts the bottle down and goes over and closes the dungeon door. He walks over to the ski rack, grabs a pair of boards and starts lovingly preparing them for the big race in the morning.

FEBRUARY 2006 Then Miller picks the pairs he likes, and Kristan goes to work on them. He files the edge angles to Miller's preferences. Because wax sticks better to wax than it does to the ski base, a ski tech tries to load new skis with soft wax, often by baking them in a "hot box at about 140 degrees for several days so the wax can soak in. Then he repeatedly irons in more wax and scrapes it off. Burntsky calls this "the luscious layers of love.

On race day, Kristan applies his "secret sauce of race wax behind locked doors. (When he finally emerges into the light and carries the skis up to the top of the course, he holds them as carefully as he would his own son.) Course conditions today make choosing the wax a challenge. The first section is relatively flat, and today the snow is cold, hard and grippy. Skis go fast by creating a thin layer of water, formed when the friction of the ski melts the snow. The slower the course and the colder the snow, the longer it takes to melt. As the skis speed up, too much water causes suction, which slows them down. That's why Miller's skis have an almost imperceptible texture, or "structure, ground into the bases, which breaks the suction and channels water away like tread patterns on tires.

Ski tuners use wax to reduce the friction between the ski and the snow. The first mention of wax on skis predates the Civil War, when ski-racing gold miners claimed success with Sierra Lightning and Black Dope made from camphor, pine pitch and sperm whale oil. Today's waxes contain graphite, said to reduce drag caused by static electricity, and, in some cases, fluorocarbons, which repel water. Because cold, fresh snow crystals behave like sharp, gritty grains of sand digging into the ski's base, Kristan probably used a very hard wax today. Then, to provide quick acceleration on the top section, he might have overlaid a fluorocarbon—$120 for a one-inch cube. But he's not telling.

The Birds of Prey course starts with a long, flat gliding section. At the first split, the crowd cheers. Miller is .45 seconds faster than the leader. That's good news for Kristan. Ski technicians look at the split times from the flattest parts of the course to gauge the success of their work. A good time in a slow section means the race prep is right. Thus, a tech can "win a race in which his athlete finishes 35th. A U.S. racer once asked her tech, "What did you put on these skis to make them so slow? "You, he responded.

By the second split, Miller is ahead by more than a second. Over the loudspeakers, the edges of his skis sound like coarse sandpaper. When he lands the Red Tail jump, it's like a door slamming. Miller finishes almost a full second ahead. The crowd shrieks.

Several Swiss and Austrian racers threaten to take the lead, but Miller holds on by about one third of a second. Then, into the gates steps the Herminator, wearing bib No. 30. The crowd quiets, but Maier trails Miller by increasing margins at each of the splits and finishes ninth. The American crowd cheers.[NEXT]The last of the top-tier racers with a chance of beating Miller is his teammate, Daron Rahlves. "The No. 1 downhiller in the world, he won the Hahnenkamm, the announcer says. And his skis were tuned by Kristan's work partner, Thomas Bürgler.

Rahlves is behind Miller's time by nearly a quarter-second at the first split. But he doesn't lose anything at the next split. As the announcer says, "He's in the hunt. At the third split, he's gained against Miller, and is now only .15 seconds behind. The crowd roars to urge him on.

A new split: Rahlves is .33 seconds back, which would put him behind several Austrians. But when he crosses the finish, the crowd explodes: He's closed the gap to just .16 seconds, good enough for second place. Miller runs into the finish corral while someone hands Rahlves a U.S. flag, and they exuberantly hug. "This, says race announcer John Dakin, "is a very, very historic moment!

Later, Miller and Rahlves stand together on the victory podium, gold and silver medals around their necks, the first time two American men have finished 1—2 since the Mahre brothers at the 1984 Olympics in the slalom, and it's the first time ever in a speed event.

An Austrian oompah band dressed in lederhosen and dirndls plays the Star-Spangled Banner. In the athletes' fenced-off corral, meanwhile, Robi Kristan gets high fives and pats on the back. "Another medal for your resume, someone says. But he's got more work to do. Tomorrow, Miller races in the giant slalom, so Kristan heads back to the dungeon.

In the Atomic room, a U.S. Ski Team coach offers him a beer. He takes a swig, puts the bottle down and goes over and closes the dungeon door. He walks over to the ski rack, grabs a pair of boards and starts lovingly preparing them for the big race in the morning.

FEBRUARY 2006 stand together on the victory podium, gold and silver medals around their necks, the first time two American men have finished 1—2 since the Mahre brothers at the 1984 Olympics in the slalom, and it's the first time ever in a speed event.

An Austrian oompah band dressed in lederhosen and dirndls plays the Star-Spangled Banner. In the athletes' fenced-off corral, meanwhile, Robi Kristan gets high fives and pats on the back. "Another medal for your resume, someone says. But he's got more work to do. Tomorrow, Miller races in the giant slalom, so Kristan heads back to the dungeon.

In the Atomic room, a U.S. Ski Team coach offers him a beer. He takes a swig, puts the bottle down and goes over and closes the dungeon door. He walks over to the ski rack, grabs a pair of boards and starts lovingly preparing them for the big race in the morning.

FEBRUARY 2006

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