Forty-eight hours before the first Haywood NorAm cross-country races of the season, Alain Masson, head coach of the Yukon Ski Team, was sure the event would be cancelled. Conditions in Rossland, B.C., where the qualifying races for World Juniors were scheduled to take place, showed no signs of cooperating.
“It was plus six with 60 km/h chinook winds and rain bouncing off the pavement,” Masson recounts.
The next day Masson and his assistant coach Amanda Dueling were out on the course, shovels in hand. “We went to shovel twice during the day and within half an hour were soaking wet. We didn’t think we were going to race.”
Masson was partly correct. The classic sprint race scheduled for the morning of Saturday, Dec. 13 was cancelled, but this was just one of many last-minute changes and challenges throughout the weekend.
Despite the odds, several Yukon athletes posted their highest Canadian rankings to date, and in the end the event was one of the best overall performances in Team Yukon’s already successful history.
The sport of cross-country skiing is fickle. Races are a harsh battle of physical exertion interspersed with changing variables. Wax, ski selection, and weather can all derail an athlete’s race and undermine months of training.
The role of a coach in the 48 hours leading up to a race is a critical juggling act between team manager, sports psychologist and wax technician. Luckily for Team Yukon, Alain Masson is one of the best.
Masson’s resume encompasses seven Olympics. He competed in three as an athlete and has worked on the past four Olympics as the one of Canada’s head wax technicians. His reputation within the cross-country ski world borders on hallowed. As National Training Centre coach Chris Jeffries puts it, “Alain is the gold standard.”
On Friday afternoon, after race officials had told Masson that Saturday’s event had been cancelled, the team arrived on site for a simple training ski. “We showed up, we didn’t have anything,” Masson says. “We were just there to ski, then at 1 p.m. we found out the race was on.”
But the format had changed. Masson had 34 hours to prepare his athletes and their skis for a completely different race.
That’s when Masson, with 21 years of international waxing experience, and Deuling, the highly trained assistant coach of the Yukon Ski Team, kicked into high gear.
“I told the athletes we just have to focus on getting ready and staying positive, to focus on the process not what they no control over,” Masson says. Then he and Dueling hit the wax room.
“We based our selection on what we know from previous experience with wet, transformed snow. Klisters, the usual suspects.” Masson says this in the calm, matter-of-fact way he is known for, but Masson’s success has not been earned through nonchalance.
Throughout the night he and Dueling worked on the 24 pairs of skis that comprise the Yukon Ski Team’s fleet. Before kick wax can be applied, a series of meticulous treatments go into each pair of skis.
First, a layer of base wax is ironed into each ski, then cooled and scraped. Next, a powder comprised of a high fluorinated compound is sealed into the base. From there skis are rigorously hand brushed, the kick zone is sanded, and a base binder of sticky hard wax is added to the kick zone.
The ski, now optimized for speed and durability, is then ready for the morning’s tests.
On Saturday morning in the pitch dark, Masson and Dueling arrived at the race site carrying their equipment, a waxing table, blowtorches and wax boxes. As Masson puts it, “We won the competition to the race site that morning.”
On the side of a ski trail, with the light of their headlamps twinkling with the stars, Masson and Dueling began the methodical routine of applying kick wax and skiing on the result to test its grip and durability.
“We tested probably six or seven different combinations of klister,” Masson says. Klister is a form of wax specifically for warm or icy conditions. It comes in tubes like toothpaste and has the texture of Super Glue mixed with melted Saran Wrap. “It’s sticky,” Masson concedes. “I am still sticky from using it this morning, but it’s quick and efficient because when you have the right combo it works better than anything else.”
What Masson doesn’t mention is that when it comes to klister, getting the right combination is notoriously difficult. Different klisters are for different temperatures, snow types, and humidity levels. They can be mixed, but each has a different consistency and melting point which makes application a nightmare.
Couple that with application outside in the dark with no power, and you’ll find most coaches crying and wishing they’d pursued a different occupation.
For three and a half hours Masson and Dueling applied, tested and stripped wax, weeding out combinations that were too slippery, too tacky, or just too slow. Then, as Masson describes, it was time to make the call.
“Sometimes you have to stop testing and make a decisions. The athletes arrived at 9:30 a.m. so we made sure their skis were ready. We just made adjustments from that.”
For athletes, the routine is straightforward once they arrive on site. Marcus Dueling, who was the fourth fastest junior of the day, explains, “I took my skis out and tested them. I just had one pair that Alain and Amanda had pre-selected for me. They felt good, so I skied the race course.”
By the end of Saturday’s event the Yukon Ski Team had produced some astounding results. Out of the 13 Yukon athletes at the competition, eight had finished in the top 15.
“Many of the athletes posted the best (Canadian ranking) of their lives,” Masson says calmly. “It exceeded my expectations. It was a good day.”
Pavlina Sudrich is a writer and the former Ontario Ski Team head coach. She always questions her life choices when handling klister.