Waxing, grinding gives Olympic Alpine ski racers the edge
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia -- At first glance it looks like a ramshackle pile of white shipping containers stacked up in a muddy car park behind the grandstand at the bottom of the Olympic downhill ski run.
Wander across, though, and you discover it is home to the ski technicians who toil away for hours with waxing irons, files and grinders so that the world's top speed merchants can shave crucial tenths of seconds off their times.
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Come Sunday, on the more glamorous side of the grandstand, the man with the guts, athletic ability and raw strength to tame a treacherous Rosa Khutor piste in the quickest time will be crowned downhill champion and rightly take the plaudits.
Chances are he will then probably head off the Alpine skiing equivalent of a Formula One pit lane to celebrate his gold medal with the wax wizards and edge sharpeners, without whose skills his dreams might have turned to slush.
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"They are the most important guys," Norway's Kjetil Jansrud said after giving his latest set of skis the once over on the shiny ice, bumps and choppy snow found on the downhill course in Saturday's final training run.
"They take care of those skis like they are their babies and so do we. We work so closely with out service guys, it's really important. For the top guys on the World Cup it's the difference between winning races and being fifth."
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Leading racers such as Bode Miller, Aksel Lund Svindal, Maria Hoefl-Riesch and most of the Austrians, Swiss, Italians and Americans have their own personal ski technicians, sometimes two, provided by the large ski manufacturers.
Slovenian Alec "Katzo" Kalamar, who once fine-tuned American triple world champion Ted Ligety's skis, is now part of 20-strong team of technicians working at the Olympics for French firm Rossignol - a typical number for leading ski firms who have set up camp in the Caucasus Mountains.
He was busy on Friday, sweating over an iron, as he carefully melted a layer of wax to the base of a pair of skis belonging to 2011 world super-G champion Christof Innerhofer.
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Kalamar, who spends six months of the year on the road and has been at every Olympics since Lillehammer, said race day was a nervous time for technicians.
"Of course I want to make the skis run as fast as possible but then you want them to come down the hill safe, so it's an anxious time," Kalamar said, standing in front of a rack of 10 pairs of skis all set aside for Innerhofer.
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"It's tough work and the worst thing is that I'm only home maybe one or two days in the winter, but it's always interesting because every hill is different and snow conditions are never the same so every race is a new challenge."
Next door, another Slovenian, Matjaz Naglic, was busy working on the base of Olympic champion Didier Defago's skis, hoping to give the Swiss veteran the best chance of defending his title.
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Setting up skis is a science that takes years of experience to master and Sochi is providing plenty of puzzles for the army of technicians beavering away in the claustrophobic cabins.
While razor-sharp edges are required to turn on what American skier Steve Nyman described as the "vertical ice rink" on the middle of the course, too much edge can see a skier hook a ski in softer snow and lose control.
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Then there is the matter of grinding to allow more or less friction with the snow, rather like opting for slick tyres or grooved rubber in the world of motorsport.
Canada's 2011 downhill world champion Erik Guay explained the characteristics that make the Rosa Khutor course such a tricky task for the guys slaving over the work benches.
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"It's not a gliding course so it's not so important to nail the wax," he said.
"But here there are three really distinct snow types on the way down from icy to almost spring like so it's a challenge to get the right feeling in the skis.
"That's what training runs are for, you talk to your service man and try to dial it. I trust my guys."
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In charge of Rossignol's technical team for the male skiers is Jeff Jond. Surprisingly, he said racing skis still have wooden cores, although that does mean they are not high-tech.
"For one skier we'll maybe test 10 pairs of skis each day out on the hill, we'll analyze split times on time sheets, see which sections of the course they are quick or slow, then all that information will be fed to the technicians," he said.
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"There are strict rules about what you can and can't do with ski lengths and widths, but we are always pushing the limits."
But why wood? "It's a live material," he said. "I know it's 2014 but a wooden core helps racers have more feel."
Despite all the years of development and hours spent tweaking the skis before race day all the planning can be blown away if the skier makes a mistake.
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American Miller, who showed a liking for the mountain so far, said getting the balance between speed and control was key.
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"You want the skis to be as dull as possible but still allow you to make it down, sharp edges definitely cause you to dig in and decelerate, you have to balance it" he said.
"If you stay on line and make really good turns you can get away with it but as soon as something goes wrong and you have to make a dramatic recovery you've got no chance."
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