The Shape of Ski Gear to Come

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, November 1994

The Shape of Ski Gear to Come

High-performance skis, boots, and bindings that set a new precedent
By Seth Masia

Skiers seem to buy their gear in some sort of time warp. Consider what can happen in five years: Iron curtains come down; information superhighways get paved. But skis? A half-decade goes by and many skiers never think about starting anew. Some people even consider purchasing their boards to be a lifetime investment.

Unfortunately, skis don't wear as well as log cabins, and their designs do evolve. Over the last five years, for instance, ski makers have undertaken a massive job of overhauling their technology--converting to high-speed manufacturing of "cap" skis, which have topskin and sidewalls integrated in a seamless unit--so that not a single model built in 1990 will be in the shops this year. A cap does change a ski's appearance, but not really much else; all such skis have conventional underpinnings. The real performance-oriented change has been made in sidecut, the all-important curve that determines a ski's quickness and turning radius. Generally, sidecuts are deeper now, so that a good ski can negotiate a much shorter, nimbler turn with no sacrifice in high-speed stability. Skiers who trade in their old boards will be astonished at the new responsiveness.

Meanwhile, ski-boot design has simultaneously taken a step backward and forged ahead, in a sense picking up where it left off before rear-entry models nearly exterminated the honest overlap boot. Five years ago, the more precise-fitting overlaps came only in stiff racing models--everyone else was stuck buying more convenient but less conforming rear-entry boots. Now most manufacturers have come to favor traditional overlaps again, but they're building them in a variety of flexes for skiers of all weights and skill levels. As for bindings, most are satisfactorily workmanlike products; what's new is in the performance models, which have sprouted "platforms" that appreciably improve a ski's handling or smooth out its ride--or both.

The only bad news in all of this is that the ski manufacturers haven't found a way to markedly lower equipment prices. But there is a silver lining: With the exception of a few tony boutiques and distant outposts, ski shops will cut at least 20 percent from the manufacturer's suggested retail price. And, as I've pointed out among my picks for the season, there are some better bargains to be found.

Skis: Narrow Waists
The cap, the sleek sheet of plastic stretching over the tops of about 90 percent of all the skis on the market, looks great and saves the builder a little in labor by streamlining the production process, but judge a ski by what's under that pretty face, as well as by its figure. Nearly all skis have slimmed down at the waist; the average width has dropped from 64 millimeters to 62, a subtle difference that nonetheless creates a more definitively curved edge and helps a ski come around quicker. Case in point: The original K2 TNC, circa 1989, was wide and stable. It may have been the best ski ever made for floating over Sierra cement, but the average skier, gliding across groomed trails 95 percent of the time, thought it handled like a four-wheel-drive truck.

So it was changed. The current iteration of K2's TNC ($530) has the same lively wood core, aluminum alloy layering, and fiberglass-wrap torsion-box construction as its predecessor--and it's still a smooth-running ski. But while the new TNC, to be sure, has a cap skin, the big difference is the 62-millimeter midsection, down from 65 millimeters, in effect making the TNC into a snappy metal slalom ski. (In the process the TNC has lost some of its float, so you can no longer depend on it to make you look like a hero in bad snow.) Olin's DXT ($550), from the same mold and built by the same hands, is practically identical to the TNC, except for its ornamental raised "perimeter" rails.

If anything, the TNC has come to resemble what Salomon's 9100 EXP ($695) already was. This very popular ski also has a wood, glass, and aluminum structure and is best defined as a "slalom cruiser": It flows quickly over groomed snow while retaining the capability--thanks to its narrow waist--to be flicked from edge to edge.

Just as wide boards have been made more deft, slalom skis--the original skinny alpine skis--have become more benevolent. Five years ago, ski makers were building "rapidgate" slalom skis to accommodate racers' newfound straight-line technique. After all, who needs a ski that makes a nice turn when a straight, stiff ice skate will slice and dice its way over those collapsible slalom gates? Well, the rest of us do, that's who--and the manufacturers have responded. In fiberglass models like the Salomon 9100 2S ($660) and the Rossignol 7SK ($570) you'll get the classic slalom ski again--a quick ski, but with an even more predictable flex pattern, capable of carving round turns with alacrity. For the expert recreational skier, such a ski can navigate the bumps or the steeps.

Soften the tail a tad more, and the lighter expert or athletic intermediate will enjoy the same kind of performance. Try Salomon's 8100 Equipe 1S ($530) or the new, capped K2 TRC: They both have a consistent, relatively soft flex pattern that will please anyone who wants a true high-performance ski but can't apply Tomba-like power. And though the suggested retail for the TRC is $450, my bet is that many shops will make it available for about a third less--what they lose in profit margin, they'll recoup in volume.

Two other new slalom boards are worth considering because of their distinct personalities: Olin's DTV ($485) is one of the softest--Olin actually presents it as a women's performance ski--and Dynastar's Coupe S9 ($585) is one of the snappiest. The S9's front end is so light as to feel insubstantial, but load its tail and it accelerates brilliantly. It's an honest-to-goodness racing ski.

What makes a veritable all-mountain ski? Manufacturers seem to think that's a wide-open question, since three-quarters of this season's offerings are labeled as such. Actually, the hype isn't too misleading. All the skis I've already mentioned are suitable for most descending work, but some stand out because of their ability to smooth out rough terrain, float through all sorts of snow, handle high speeds, or all of the above. Of course, these skis still have moderately deep sidecuts. Dynastar's ID 9.1 ($575) is cut like a slalom ski, but thanks to a predictable flex and nicely damped structure it's not as skittish. For some reason it's built with a goofy asymmetrical topskin shape that does nothing for performance and makes the ski hard to tune. The Head F1 ($545) has a high-quality base, so it's ready to run right out of the box. It's a hybrid metal-and-glass ski that's soft enough to slip through junk snow with aplomb but steady enough to handle big speed. Among other things, its weighted tip and tail are responsible for a glide that's confidence-inspiring. Völkl continues to build unbelievably good square (noncapped) skis, exemplified by the Völkl VP 19 Vario ($775). The Vario justifies its price by offering an unmatched performance envelope--it handles an astounding range of snow conditions at the highest speeds. The secret seems to be in the construction, which incorporates very thin layers of aluminum alloy sandwiching even thinner layers of an elastic compound--in effect, the ski has a supple damping structure.

Bindings: Elevating the Experience
What you've been missing in high-performance bindings for the last three years are "platforms," aka "booster pads." These semielastic urethane inserts serve a dual purpose: They provide some cushioning--not unlike a running shoe's midsole--and give the skier slightly more leverage over the edges. A lot of skiers report that they can't feel a difference, which is reason enough to view the platforms with suspicion, but many instructors say their students get improved precision from platforms that raise them by at least one centimeter. I have no complaints about the 1.8-centimeter Geze Plate ($30), which works just fine with the company's PWG 9 Racing binding ($295). When skiing steep, hard snow on slim-waisted skis, the thick pad keeps the boot from interfering with your edging when you're cranking out a turn, a potential problem on the new narrow skis.

Somewhat more complex is Salomon's Suspension, which lifts the skier 1.5 centimeters and filters out longitudinal vibration in the ski, while adding about $60 to the price of a set of Salomon bindings. It's fairly technical: A fiberglass piston extends through a tunnel from the heel to the toe; when the ski contorts at speed--that's when the edges start bouncing on and off the snow--a rubber pad in the toe dampens the piston's stroke, keeping the edges better planted on the snow. Attached to Salomon's DR9 EXP binding ($345), the suspension yielded a noticeably smoother ride and improved edge-grip on the hard stuff. It turned my GS skis into ice-piercing weapons, capable of penetrating any irregularity without deflecting.

The most ambitious booster pad of all is Marker's Selective Control, which is integrated into Marker bindings such as the M51 SC Titanium ($345). The plate raises a skier 1.2 centimeters and provides for the stiffness of the ski to be adjusted via a lever on the front of the toe unit. It can greatly improve the versatility of an even-flexing ski. Mounted on Olin's DTSL ski ($485), for instance, the Marker M51 SC would give you the capabilities to ski everything from powder to bumps to a giant-slalom course at 40 miles per hour. On a true racing ski with a stiff center section, Selective Control doesn't make much difference, although you still get the elevator effect.

Boots: A Little More Give
Historically, the closest-fitting boots have been some of the stiffest boots, at the behest of slalom racers, who care a lot about control but aren't too concerned about their shins. Anyone interested in a little ankle articulation, to better absorb the terrain, had to choose from boots that didn't offer a tailor-made shape, which included the whole spectrum of rear-entry models.

That trade-off, thankfully, is behind us. Softer overlap boots are now being built in the same molds as the racing versions, giving nonracing experts, both men and women, the same kind of stance as the World Cup crowd--it's just that the cuff material is up to 20 percent softer. You get nearly as much control in any situation without feeling hobbled if you've taken a few bump runs before day's end.

For the past couple of years I've been skiing a lot in the race-ready Tecnica TNT AVS ($565) because it's very responsive and fits my relatively slim foot with no modification. So it's only logical that I would like the step-down version, Tecnica's TNS AVS ($465), which has the same four-buckle overlap shell construction as Big Brother but is 15 percent softer. What you won't miss in gate-crashing stiffness, you'll welcome in give--through the powder, over the moguls, in the crud, and even on groomed runs. Skiers with beefier pedal extremities may fit into the Tecnica boot quite happily, but there are other makes and models that ski as well and might fit better, such as the Lange XR 8.5 ($425) and Koflach RCI (a deal at $379). Italian boots generally fit the narrowest feet: My choice would be the Rossignol Course E ($489) or Nordica's GPV RC1 ($475), direct descendants of their makers' stiffest models.

If you think that's a lot of boots to wade through, you're right--but look on the bright side. Overlap models are becoming easier to get into and out of, thanks to more pliable, multipiece shells. And once you do find the right boot, it's now more than likely to offer a silicone-injection fit system. That means you'll spend even more time in the store. But it ultimately means you'll be spending less time in the lodge.

Seth Masia, a former ski instructor, is the author of five books on the sport.

See also:

Essentials: Board Care

Filed To: Snow Sports

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