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Weathering the Olympics: how science and sport meet on the bottom of a ski

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Skis with a softer flex perform better in softer snow, while springier skis are needed in harder conditions; different base structures are needed depending on the water content and temperature of the snow; and then there’s the glide wax that goes on on race day. Skiers often have a quiver of 20 pairs or more of competition skis; the German biathlon team brought 450 pairs in Whistler for their 12 athletes.

So crucial is it for technicians to accurately adapt skiers’ equipment to the conditions that Nystad’s team spent six weeks here in Whistler in 2008 and again in 2009. The US team had someone living here for the past few winters, testing different skis and waxes, for the same reason. But no one has gone as far as the Canadians, who under the $8 million Top Secret program – a subset of their ambitious Own the Podium push – have had professors and PhD students from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver working full-time on the problem for 3-1/2 years.

Just before Christmas, they unveiled their secret weapon: a new base for skis and snowboards that reduces friction by 20-25 percent – a huge margin given that races can be won by a toenail. Snowboarders have already used it on the World Cup, but no one will say much about what the secret ingredient is, which was produced by UBC and hand-carried to manufacturers in Europe, who integrated it into their design.

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