February 13 – ZHANGJIAKOU, China – Patrick Moore is a cheerful accountant from Edmonton, Alberta. Tim Baucom spends his summers working in sales for a plank flooring company in Vermont. Oleg Ragilo runs a cosmetics store in Estonia with his wife.
Jessie Diggins, the American cross-country skiing star, could not have won her Olympic bronze medal without them.
Moore, Baucom and Ragilo all belong to the nine-member US ski service team here – a mix of mostly paid staff and a few volunteers like Moore.
“I can’t say enough good things about their work ethic – they’ve been here every day, hours and hours and hours, probably skiing around 50,000km a day,” Diggins said after finishing eighth on Thursday in of his third race of the Games. . She added, referring to her medal-winning skiing: “They delivered such a clutch performance the other night.”
The service team is responsible for the complicated and demanding job of choosing the right skis and wax for the snow conditions at Zhangjiakou, the mountain resort outside of Beijing where the Olympic cross-country skiing events are held.
The task can sometimes mean the difference between an average day and a medal.
But the work, which takes place in drab beige buildings at one corner of the stadium, is relatively anonymous – except when things go wrong.
“I think it’s sometimes difficult for people in my regular job (to understand) what I look like here,” said Moore, the accountant. “And it’s probably hard for people in that job to understand what I look like there.”
The American service team is made up of a mix of Americans and Europeans, including Ragilo, who once waxed for superstars in Estonia and is something of a legend there.
Appreciating the work of the crew requires a little lesson in skiing technique.
Cross-country ski bases — the parts that slide on snow — are usually made of a plastic called polyethylene, or p-tex. The material has tiny pores, much like a sponge, which means it absorbs wax that is ironed or rubbed by technicians; the excess can be scraped off to leave what appears to be a smooth plastic surface.
Manufacturers produce different waxes to help skis glide faster in different conditions: warmer or colder, natural or artificial snow.
Waxes are usually layered and can be applied in a variety of ways – ironed on, rubbed in with a cork, or even a spinning cylinder of wool attached to a drill, for example.
[No instant testing for toxic ski waxes at the Olympics]
Technicians can also improve the glide potential of skis with metal tools that press tiny, intricate patterns into the bases, called framework. Then there are the skis themselves, which are built stiffer or softer depending on the snow conditions. American athletes have each brought dozens of pairs to the Olympics – perhaps 300 in total.
Sorting through each of these variables and identifying the best skis, waxes and structures takes hours and hours of testing. Members of the US support team arrived in Zhangjiakou a week before the first race and got to work.
“None of us are scientists,” Baucom said. “But we’re just tinkering with it all.”
The crew spends their first day or two skiing the race courses, setting up their gear and getting a feel for the place. Then they start testing the first layers of waxes and the best methods to apply them, as well as the durability: how far can they ski before the wax starts to lose power?
Most testing is done by feel, with two technicians racing down a slope, side by side, on two pairs of skis with different waxes to see which pair is faster. American technicians can ski 30 kilometers a day or more; some of the larger Scandinavian teams have workers whose only job is to test and who can ski twice as far.
When race day rolls around, Team USA may have tested 50 or 60 types of glide waxes and a similar number of kick waxes, which skiers use to grip the snow and push themselves uphill.
They’ll whittle that down to maybe 16 waxes to test in the hours before the gun fires. The athletes, paired with the technicians, will also test a handful of pairs of skis before a race to see which are the fastest.
Americans don’t usually expect to find a magic formula that will make their skis the best in the business, said Baucom, the US team’s glide waxing manager in Zhangjiakou.
“You always want to have skis that are ridiculous and make you look good,” he said. “But really, our goal is to have skis that are competitive. And it seems like in those conditions, as far as I know, almost every team has had skis that are pretty competitive.”
Conditions in Zhangjiakou were the subject of intense speculation ahead of the Games.
The area is not far from the Gobi Desert and receives minimal rainfall, so skiers mostly run on artificial snow. Before the Games, Baucom had heard of storms depositing sand on the slopes and damaging the skis.
But so far, he says, the skiing at the Olympics has been pretty good, although the snow is a bit dirty and wears wax a little faster than usual.
“It doesn’t get us started for a loop in that it’s very different from other really cold, dry snow we’ve run on,” Baucom said. “It’s abrasive, but it’s not crazy.”
Preparing to ski at the elite level can be like an arms race: on the European World Cup circuit, bigger teams, including the United States, travel with huge trucks that have been kitted out in the halls of Traveling waxing for a cost of $500,000 or more. These trucks, however, did not make the trip to Zhangjiakou.
Scandinavian teams spend more money on ski maintenance and have larger squads, which can sometimes create unevenness. At the World Championships in Germany last year, the American technicians had a particularly difficult day in the women’s pursuit race, where the skis they gave to the athletes were too slow to be competitive. Baucom described the feeling as “heartbreaking” for staff.
When things go wrong, Team USA often collects the skis after the race and retests them to see what went wrong.
At the Olympics, however, conditions were stable and relatively straightforward for waxing, even after a flurry of fresh snow on Saturday morning. So far, American athletes have had few complaints.
“It feels good to know everyone has a good shot,” Diggins said. “I’m so grateful to our staff, because we win as a team.”
Nat Herz is an Anchorage Daily News reporter who covers the Olympics for DNA and FasterSkier.com. He also provided on-site reporting from the 2014 Games in Russia and 2010 in Vancouver. During the Olympics, he is a regular contributor to the Devon Kershaw Cross-Country Skiing Podcast. Listen now.