Friday, February 06, 2009

Waxing Analytical

One major reason cross-country skiing has been in decline since the late 1980s is that it involves five or six different forms of three different substances that do two different jobs, all called "wax."

All Nordic skis require, or at least benefit from, applications of one or more of these substances. The entire study of techniques related to selecting the right ones and applying them is referred to generically as "waxing."

Snowshoeing, anyone? All you do is strap those on and go.

Those who love Nordic skiing love it in their own way, with all the complexities, not to say flaws, their chosen form brings with it. Some people learn a little about the world of waxing. A few learn to tell them all apart and can use each one appropriately. A smaller number than that gets really deep into the tweaky aspects of it, spending up to $180 an ounce on some waxes.

Outdoor recreation industries all make the same mistake when presented with a boom. They act as if the good times will roll forever. The inevitable decline always takes them by surprise. It happened to bicycling twice, coming out of the 1970s road bike boom and again when the 1990s mountain bike boom crashed. It happened to backpacking in the 1980s, too, when all the major manufacturers of quality gear became clothing companies that had gear lines on the side.

Nordic skiing faces an additional handicap by depending on natural snow. First you have to get it. Then you have to be able to wax for it. When all skis needed grip wax, skiers learned a whole lot in a hurry about how different one batch of white stuff might be from another, and how it changed further from day to day. This led to the invention of the "fish scale" or "no-wax" ski. All well and good, but if there's no snow those skis look like a waste of money. Learning to care for them and operate them is a waste of time.

All booms end. They usually leave behind a number of new participants who become loyal and dedicated to the activity in question, but the small number of survivors going forward can never support the kind of commerce the fashionable frenzy did.

In non-boom times, activities attract a small, steady number of recruits. As numbers fluctuate from year to year, any survivors among the businesses that formed around the boom lean eagerly forward, waiting for the frenzy to begin again. To amuse the regulars and entice curious outsiders, companies fiddle with the equipment. Rather than creating silly-looking ski shapes or fragile, complicated bindings, how about coming up with catchy, distinctive, memorable and DIFFERENT names for all the things currently called WAX?

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