On February 16, 2010, the world’s best downhill ski racers will convene on Whistler in British Columbia, Canada to represent their country in the men’s downhill skiing event at the 21st Winter Olympics. And at certain stretches of the course they will reach speeds of up to 96 mph, skiing the hell out of the mountain.
But besides the obvious need of knowing how to ski, a lot goes in to skiing that fast — it’s not as easy as just strapping a couple fiberglass sticks to your feet and pointing them down a steep hill. Wind, temperature and snow conditions are crucial. But a skier can’t change environmental factors.
What he can change, however, is the wax and coating smeared on the bottom of his skis. And in a sport where the time difference between the Olympic gold and silver medalists was .40 seconds in 1998, .22 seconds in 2002, and .72 seconds in 2006, a nation’s pride depends on the perfect combination of wax and ski coating for the given snow conditions.
Downhill skiers are keenly aware of this fact. So is Professor Matthias Scherge, director of the microtrobilogy center in Karlsruhe, Germany. Matthias and his team are studying the ability of skis to glide across snow and, well, ski like hell.
Matthias is working to find the ultimate cocktail of wax and coating that they hope will result in the optimum speed in any given conditions. To do this, the researchers use an interesting mash-up of techniques that analyze gliding and friction. First, the coefficient of friction in relation to temperature is calculated by using a test rig that simulates the contact of a single snow crystal and the ski’s coating.
Second, using a ski tribometer, part of a ski travels in a small circle over a snow-covered disk. This allows researchers to test different wax/coating combos to determine which is best for different temperatures and snow types.
Lastly, they bring out the big guns. A skier is placed in a 100-meter ski hall and skis down a defined gradient with a special timer lashed to his leg. The timer measures the skier’s time down to the millisecond. With this data, researchers can determine which combination of wax and ski coating shaves off the most time and, hopefully, brings the skier gold.
The researchers hope they will produce a ski with the perfect glide. A ski that can reach speeds above the 96 mph threshold — a speed that was more or less reached as early as the 1972 Olympics. If so, a new era in downhill skiing will be ushered in.
Just in time for the Olympics, the researchers are now working with the official wax supplier of the U.S. Ski Team to develop new waxes and coatings for the team’s skis. Now if we could only keep our golden ski boy Bode Miller off the sauce…