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Perfecting the art of waxing!

Tips from the pros

Perfecting the art of waxing!

Mario Stecher explains what is important when waxing cross-country skis

Text: Julia Tapfer, Picture: Johannes Mair / Alpsolut

Ski waxing is a science in itself. Mario Stecher, former Nordic combined skier and today’s ÖSV Sports Director for the Nordic Combined and Ski Jumping demonstrates what amateurs can learn from the professionals when waxing cross-country skis.

A good or badly waxed cross-country ski decides victory or defeat in professional sport. Mario Stecher knows this only too well. Born in Austrian Styria, he was a member of the ÖSV Nordic Combined Team for 24 years, during which he won World Cup and Olympic accolades.  Nowadays, he is more relaxed about waxing. Stecher ended his professional career in 2015 and has only skied for private pleasure ever since.

“Righty ho, you need an apron,” says Mario Stecher and smiles as he ties his around him. In a ski cellar in Seefeld, right next to the cross-country ski trail, he slowly gathers everything he needs to introduce us to the art of waxing cross-country skis. He puts brushes, wax, irons and various other small tools on a work bench, then grabs his ski and makes it clear right from the beginning: “If I’m honest, most normal athletes know almost nothing about how to wax skis in the professional sector.  Ski waxing is a science of its own.” You need specialists to prepare your skis for competitions. "The Nordic Combiners currently employ seven service staff for roughly the same number of athletes," explains Stecher.  These experts work all year round on new cuts and try out different waxes to keep up with the latest developments. There are always technical innovations that may facilitate decisive seconds in a competition setting.

© GEPA / Christian Walgram

Mario Stecher

Born in Styria, he competed for the first time at a World Cup in Saalfelden on January 24th, 1993. Exactly 22 years later, he contested his last World Cup race in Sapporo. During the time in-between, he and his team won two gold and two bronze medals at the Olympic Games, he became World Champion twice and Vice World Champion three times. And as if that wasn’t enough, he also won twelve individual World Cups. Since spring 2018, he has held the position of Sports director for Ski Jumping and Nordic combined in the ÖSV. He lives with his wife Carina and their two sons in the Pitztal Valley in Tyrol.  

Why wax at all?

When the ski glides over the snow, friction generates heat, which in turn melts the snow particles on the surface into fine droplets of water. The thin water-film is a kind of lubricant and prerequisite for good gliding properties of the ski. However, if the water layer is too thick - for example, because the friction is too high and the snow melts too quickly - the opposite is the case and a braking suction effect is created.

Wax can influence the way a ski glides. Depending on the temperature, humidity or density of the snow, the service technician selects the right wax - but the decision as to which that may be, is anything but easy. It is particularly difficult to prepare skis at temperatures around freezing. "Surprises often happen then. That skis, for example, work outstandingly, even if you wouldn't have thought it possible," says Mario Stecher, explaining the complexity of the subject.

Mario Stecher has held the position of Sports director for Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined in the Austrian Ski Association since last year.
© EXPA / Dominik Angerer

Not only the wax, but also the structure of the ski surface has an influence on gliding behaviour. A coarse or fine structure is worked into the surface. A distinction is made between "cold" and "warm" skis, i.e. whether a ski shows the best gliding behaviour at cold or warm temperatures: "In cold snow, it is more likely to be a cold ski with a fine structure; in warm snow, the ski has a coarser structure," explains Stecher, while gently rubbing his finger over his ski. This distinction is not so important in the amateur sector, however, as a universal structure is simply incorporated into most skis. Professional athletes, on the other hand, would have at least ten pairs of skis suitable for different racing conditions. "If you also add the different training skis to that number, you end up with needing around 30 to 40 pairs in one season," explains the former Nordic combined skier. Anyway, he now wants to present a few tips hobby cross-country skiers can follow in order to apply an ideal base wax to his/her skis.

Cleaning

Mario Stecher clamps his ski into his so-called “wax trestle” and grabs a brush: "The first step is cleaning. Dirt and old wax are brushed out of the ski with a brass or copper brush. If the snow is already very dirty in spring, you can also use a wax remover," the sportsman explains. Normally, however, it is sufficient to brush out the surface of the skis thoroughly. Before waxing, it is important to check whether the edges of the skis are OK or damaged. In contrast to alpine skis, cross-country skis - regardless of whether they are used for classic or skating - are characterised by rounded edges.

Mario Stecher demonstrates the individual steps of ski preparation.

Waxing

When the ski is clean, the actual waxing begins. And here you are literally spoilt for choice. Wax is available in powder form, as a block or pressed into pencils. With the latter, you save the work of applying it with an iron, the wax is simply rubbed on the surface. “This works for about ten kilometres for your average cross-country skier, but sportier skiers should work with an iron," is Mario Stecher's tip. The choice of wax again depends on temperature and snow humidity. The following generally applies: the colder it is, the harder the wax. The wetter the snow, the softer the wax. In this case, we speak of a "warm wax", which often contains fluorocarbons.  This prevents the ski from sucking to the ground, because it is water-repellent.  "It's a bit like the lotus blossom effect," the athlete tries to explain. While only glide wax is needed for skating skis, climbing wax is also needed for classic skis, which provides the necessary grip in the middle section of the ski.

Ironing

The wax iron is now hot. With an expert hand, Mario Stecher slides the wax block against it so that it melts. There are different techniques for applying it to the skis. Some cross-country skiers simply rub it onto the surface, others drip it onto it. "It's up to you, whatever you prefer," says Stecher, reminding you not to forget the edges and grooves when ironing. It is also important to glide quickly over the ski. This is especially important for waxes with fluorocarbons: "If you hold the iron on a certain section for too long, you will break the coating," warns the former professional athlete. The following generally applies: cold wax needs a higher temperature to iron than a warm one. If the iron smokes, it is too hot. 

Scraping and brushing

After ironing, allow the ski to cool down before scraping and brushing. Use the "groove cleaner" to remove excess wax from the groove, then use the scraper to scrape the wax off the base. This is usually made of Plexiglas and its edge should be well sharpened. "Here you can really work with pressure", says Stecher, while he guides the blade in the running direction, i.e. from tip to tail. Finally, the ski is polished with a brush. You start with the hardest brush (a brass brush - copper brush) and gradually work your way up to the softer ones, such as plastic brushes. The ski is then polished with a horsehair brush and cleaned with a silk stocking. “When the base is shiny smooth and you can’t see any patches, you’re done.” Mario Stecher smiles as he takes the final step. Professional skiers would now apply up to three more layers to the base wax by repeating all these steps one after the other. The amateur athlete, however, would now be ready for some cross-country skiing.

As a child, Mario Stecher learned how to wax skis from his father. "Before you join a ski association at the age of 15, you never actually have a service technician in the Nordic sector. Often your parents help you, otherwise you spend rather a lot of time alone in the cellar waxing your skis,” Stecher reminisces on his own young years. Waxing has always been very important, but there have been huge technical advances in recent decades. And the responsibilities have also changed: "When I think back to 1994 and the fact I was in the ski cellar until half past two in the morning waxing my own skis for the Olympic Games the next day... A lot has changed since then,”  says the former pro.

"You win together and lose together". Mario Stecher Mario Stecher

"If the race goes well, the athlete wins. When things go bad, you criticise the wax team," writes Mario Stecher in his autobiographical guide "Ausdauernd erfolgreich - Perseveringly successful", drawing attention to the often difficult position of the service team. But you can only become one of the world’s best if the athlete and service team work well as a team.  "You win together and lose together," Mario Stecher knows from experience.

Mario Stecher has been working as a coach and speaker since ending his professional career. He misses ski jumping the most from his time as a Nordic Combined athlete. The feeling of soaring through the air is simply unique. Even though he no longer competes, sport is still an important part of his life. Whether on the cross-country ski run, the piste or the bike, or even as a supervisor in the ÖSV - life without sport would be unimaginable for Stecher, which makes him all the more motivated for the 2019 Nordic Ski World Championships in Seefeld.

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