Giving Up Fluoro Ski Wax
The first time I heard of fluoro wax was at a MN high school meet circa 1997. It was my second year on the team, and I made the trip to Giants Ridge as part of a young relay squad. We were there to gain some experience and to support our older teammates competing in the individual events. The evening before the race, all the young kids from around the state were skiing around the base of the hill and talking with excitement about the next day. Amidst all the commotion, I noticed a quiet group of more serious skiers had formed a circle around a wax bench, and I wandered over to see what it was about. I quickly realized that a sacred ceremony was in progress. I watched in awe as the the guru carefully applied a precious white powder to the bottom of a ski, taking care to make sure that not a single particle was lost in the process, and explaining the finer points of the procedure using words that sounded foreign to my ears. I was still in the early stages of my personal wax development in those days. I knew that green was for cold weather and blue was for normal snow, but the higher degrees of wax application were something I didn’t even know existed. Just being allowed to watch the process felt like a right of passage.
The lesson from that first experience was simple: I learned a substance existed that made skis fast — with the unfortunate downside that it was more expensive than gold. We raced the relay the next day, and although we didn’t place, we were still excited because we didn’t come in last, and I was happy just to be part of the team. But, the thought was already germinating in the back of my mind, “How much faster could I have been if I had that stuff on my skis too?”
I didn’t actually race with fluoros until my first marathon ski race about 10 years later. I was a student at UMD, and I decided to try the Nordic Spirit ski race at Spirit Mountain in Duluth The 25km race was further than I’d ever skied before, and I was honestly worried if I’d even make it all the way to the finish. Seeking advice, I found that everyone was talking about fluoros. The message was about the same as it had been a decade earlier — fluoros make you fast and you should add as much as your budget allows. The wax companies and the ski retailers agreed, so I decided to give them a try. As a full-time college student, I certainly didn’t have a lot of extra money to spend on expensive wax, so my cousin and I decided we’d go in together on a pack of Fast Wax tan. When it arrived on my doorstep, I anxiously opened it up up to find those two golden bars sitting in the package. It was the first time I’d ever held a perfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) in my hands, and I was in awe. I got out my iron, set up my improvised waxing bench in the kitchen, and carefully dripped the wax onto my skis. In retrospect, I know my focus at that time should have been on improving my form and endurance, but in that moment, I was happy to finally be part of the “fluoro team”.
In the years since then, I amassed a small fortune in wax, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. If you walked into a ski shop, opened a ski magazine, or looked at a race wax rec, fluorinated waxes were heavily advertised. Thus, my skis had at least some form of a PFAS wax in the base layer, paraffin, or top coat in every race I skied starting in 2007. By my first Birkie in 2016, I had progressed to 100% pure powder, finally achieving that ultimate goal that had formed 20 years earlier.
The reason skiers spent so much on fluoro wax is simple - it works. Sure, there was some groupthink and plenty of fancy marketing fueling sales, but PFAS waxes really do make your skis faster, especially in wet or warm conditions. The truth is, there really isn’t anything else currently known to exist that repels water and dirt as well as a PFAS.
The problem, as we now know (and have suspected for a while), is that PFASs are very persistent in the environment and don’t break down well in the human body [https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas]. You don’t need a high-tech lab to tell you that ski wax doesn’t break down easily — if it hasn’t been replaced, I bet the linoleum kitchen floor of my old apartment in Duluth is dangerously slippery to this day from the ski wax that inevitably landed on the floor as I prepared my skis. While having super fast skis is fun, the environment is infinitely more important. I whole-heartedly support the FIS ban on fluorinated wax, and I have quit using fluoros all together. (Given the high cost of these waxes, I think the ban is also a step in the right direction for equity in skiing. Unlike sports such as running, money does equal speed in skiing equipment, and that’s something we all need to work on.)
The question now is what to do with all those leftovers? My wax library is large enough that I still have a decent amount of PFASs on hand, even though I haven’t purchased any new wax in the past year. If you think about all the skiers and teams around the world, there’s got to be a ton of it still unused in wax kits. I guess it will just sit there for now, collecting dust until some sort of PFAS disposal program is wide-spread.
I raced the Vasaloppet USA this year with two layers of Start Green and nothing else. After years of layering on the fluoros, it felt strange to forgo the Cera F powder topcoat, to skip the Holmenkol speed block, and to leave the Rex Hydrex spray on the shelf. Whether they added speed or were just a ritual talisman, they had become part of my pre-race ski waxing ritual. Despite my agreement with the ban, I still felt a little vulnerable not armoring my skis with these special waxes. Knowing the race-time snow temp was going to be below zero helped ease my anxieties, as that’s not the snow condition on which fluoros really shine. So, yesterday, I set off from Mora for 47km with just cheap wax between me and the trail….
And the results of my first race without fluoros? It turned out just fine. My skis felt good, and if I slowed down a bit at the end, I know the blame lies firmly with my less-than-peak fitness and not the wax I used.
I don’t know much about the new crop of natural/eco/pro waxes being released and I haven’t bought any yet. In this uncertain year, I simply didn’t take the time to learn about the new line of products available. With the Birkie coming up in a few days and forecasted temps in single digits to teens, I may just put on another layer of Start Green on and call it good.