PHOTO: Erik Seo
PHOTO: Erik Seo

Prepping Skis for the Olympics Is Both Art and Science

Behind every great ski racer is a great ski technician

For the world's most elite ski racers, when a win on the World Cup is a matter of hundredths of seconds, the right tune can make or break a competition.

Which is why every ski racer has a person whose job it is to make sure the skis are tuned to be as fast as possible. Lindsey Vonn's ski technician is World Cup wax room veteran Heinz Haemmerle. Ted Ligety works with Austrian Alex Martin. Last winter, Travis Ganong brought rookie Lukas Rottinger onboard.

The tune is in the details. It is as much about matching notes on time to temperatures and measurements as it is a feeling of what works, what does not, and most importantly, what the racer wants.

"The goal is to, after the last training run, have 100 percent confidence with the setup you use for the race, so you have no doubts in your mind," says Ganong, a U.S. ski teamer who had his eyes on the Olympics, but was injured earlier this season. "You want to simplify everything so that all you're thinking about is going fast. If there is anything else going on in your mind, it affects your reactions."

"It's a little bit of touch from this and a little bit of touch from this," says Martin. "It is an experience thing. You have to trust yourself."

At the 2017 World Cup Finals last March, Aspen was warm. Ganong pushed out of the start gate for the downhill with a furious skate before he settled into a poised tuck. Rottinger had anticipated the grippy conditions and applied a final layer of wax for the moisture-heavy snow. The announcers applauded Ganong for being a "great tactician" with smooth, deft speed. Still, despite Rottinger's best efforts to defend speed against a melting course, the announcers noted that conditions were not in Ganong's favor like they were on the frigid, firm course in Garmisch, Germany, where he had won the downhill just a few weeks earlier. In Aspen, he placed 17th, a disappointing finish but nonetheless a cap on a big race season for the 29-year-old American and his 30-year-old freshman World Cup ski technician.

Later that evening, I found Rottinger in the lobby of a posh hotel wearing a yellow baseball hat with the words "Team Ganong" in black block lettering on the bill. Ganong had just given him the hat, as well as an orange flag from the Garmisch downhill, a memento of their win and a gift of thanks at the end of a long winter.

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"The small things just make me so proud to be a ski technician," says Rottinger, who is from Schladming, in Austria, a country known for producing great skis, great ski racers, and, naturally, great ski technicians. He spoke quietly with a heavy accent and held the orange flag in his hand. "The most important thing is to work as hard as possible as a team, with the coaches and everyone. It's also great to just, in the morning, be on the snow and on the hill. I work with the skis. I can do something with my hands."

Rottinger had already prepped Ganong's skis for the super G race the next morning, and he was packed to go home after a five-week leg of global travel. Whenever Ganong is on the snow, Rottinger is with him and brings the skis. For Aspen, Rottinger packed seven pairs of downhill skis, a small sampling compared to the 30 pairs of skis and 20 kilos of wax he brought to training in Chile the summer prior.

"The skis, they all look the same, but the insides of the ski, they are all different," says Rottinger. After he returned home to Austria, Rottinger would get a fresh crop of race skis from the factory and start the process of sorting, narrowing, and tuning next year's versions. "That's the most difficult thing in our job--to find the right ski for the right race and the right racer."

Alex Martin, a World Cup ski technician since 1996 (also from Austria) who started working with Ted Ligety seven years ago, sorted through 40 pairs of GS skis last summer at race training in New Zealand to find a handful that he would take with him to the races this winter. The skis were combinations of four core constructions, four sidecuts, plus mounting positions and ramp angles. "It's always a process counting down," says Martin. "The first of it is [Ligety's] feeling. He can exactly tell what's different. He feels it more or less right away," he says.

Lukas Rottinger carefully sharpens the edges of Travis Ganong’s skis before the World Cup finals last year. PHOTO: Cody Downard

PHOTO: Cody Downard

Race day is an entirely different process. Leading up to the Birds of Prey races at Beaver Creek, Colorado, in December 2017, Martin picked out the best ski for the giant slalom course and the conditions and started with a base wax, then ran it through a couple of layers of high fluoro wax, applying however many layers he felt he needed based on experience and intuition. The edges were set sharp enough to be aggressive, but at Beaver Creek, not quite as sharp as a race in Europe.

"It's a little bit of touch from this and a little bit of touch from this," says Martin. "It is an experience thing. You have to trust yourself."

Finally, Martin applied the overlay, the last touch that comes in the form of powders or liquids or sprays or a combination of sorts. It's not quite secret, but it certainly depends on personal preference and knowledge.

"You are doing it out of your stomach," he says. "I have my feeling. I had success with this powder, and OK, the wax is the wax, the grind is the grind, but the overlay is always a little bit of an experience."

As Martin says, a good ski tech cannot win a World Cup without a ski racer to bring the skis across the finish line with a podium-worthy time. His first World Cup win came at Beaver Creek in 2010 when Ligety beat Norway's Kjetil Jansrud by .82 seconds in the giant slalom.

"That was a cool feeling," says Martin. "It's a win for me as well."

This story originally published in the February 2018 issue of POWDER (46.6). Subscribe to The Skier’s Magazine.