Two Dominant Ski Design Families Exploit, Inspire Each Other
For most of the last century there was only one archetype of the perfect ski, namely, the Race ski. Every ski made for every level of skier sprang from the same soil.
Despite several seismic changes in how skis were built, the embodiment of the perfect ski remained the race model. Originally made entirely from wood, skis added aircraft-grade aluminum alloy, fiberglass, carbon fiber, Kevlar, Boron, torsion-box construction, monocoque design, honeycomb cores and a host of other design elements without changing either the ski’s fundamental shape or the skier type in whose service it was all deployed.
There was only one best skier on the mountain, and that person was a racer. Racing technique was more closely related to recreational skiing in the late 20th century, so much so that virtually every recreational skier of any talent used a race model – usually a GS ski, but not necessarily so – as their everyday ride. All other recreational skis were direct, linear descendants of the top slalom and GS skis in their respective model lines.
GS race ski designers began to play with slightly wider tip profiles in the early 1990s than they’d used before. We’re talking only a few millimeters wider on what began as a very skinny silhouette, but an idea was now loose in skunk-works labs.
By mid-decade, Elan was selling their sidecut experiment (hence SCX), Kneissl was promoting the Ergo, Ivan Petkov had concocted the S Ski and Atomic had several flavors of the first fat skis on the market. It wasn’t self-evident at the time, but a new archetype, one not based on racing, was about to be born from the ménage à trois composed of race ski, shaped ski and fat ski design.
Two Design Axes
Two decades down the road, the ski design world rotates around two design axes, race and freeride. The term “freeride” has come to mean many things to many different skiers, but in all its meanings and manifestations it is the opposite of racing.
The primordial distinction between the two camps lies in their preferred domains: race skis live on snow that’s brutally hard, while freeride skis are on an unquenchable quest for powder, the deeper the better. The race camp prizes precision; the freeride crowd regards such preoccupations as pedantry.
Racers crave speed; freeriders seek their elation in face shots and aerial acrobatics. The needs of the two constituencies could not be more different. Little wonder their skis evolved in nearly opposite directions.
It doesn’t require an engineering degree to see how wide is the gulf that separates the 2014 race ski and the 2014 freeride model. The former is probably no wider than 66mm underfoot, uses an integrated binding platform, has a tip that may be over 5cm wider than the waist and a camber line that allows instant connection to the edge.
The latter populate every imaginable waist width from 80mm to 130+, eschew all forms of system integration, may have modest to minimal sidecuts and a camber line that may expose as little edge as possible to the snow.
Yet the two families are, of course, the product of the same design team at every ski manufacturer. So it shouldn’t surprise that freeride skis import the occasional idea from the race room, and visa versa.
The principal export of race ski technology to their less technical siblings is better damping, or vibration control. The ski market’s global improvement in this arena is what has enabled the shortening of the ski platform for both race and recreational skis over the last 20 years.
Given that the race skis were already highly evolved products when freeride skis first made their appearance, it’s only natural that the idea import/export exchange has been largely one-sided. But while race skis won’t soon be adopting rockered baselines and turned-up tails, the dimensions of today’s race skis definitely are directly due to the influence of the more creative geometries of shaped skis and fat boys.
Looking For Edge
Despite the fact that race ski makers are always looking for an edge that will make their latest model faster, the race community as a whole is conservative. Once a given ski design proves dominant (for a given era and set of rules), a copycat mentality sets in. Rules are set that limit just how creative a manufacturer, or anyone else responsible for a racer’s equipment, can be. Innovation goes on, but it tends to be incremental rather than revolutionary.
In the freeride realm, however, all restraints are removed. The younger crowd that pushes these designs forward could care less what some commandant from the FIS thinks. They might want an edge meant to ride a steel rail, or long for a fat sled so rockered it can pivot inside a phone booth or surf on top of bottomless powder.
Now that racing is no longer driving the recreational ski bus, ski designers are free to optimize access to untamed terrain without demanding the participant be particularly proficient.
While the driving spirit behind freeride skis was to make off-piste terrain easier for the uninitiated to experience, remember that all ski designers are also skiers. After they design an easy-to-manage freeride ski for their mainstream customers, those that began their ski lives as racers make another model or two for themselves. These they suffuse with a few of the race-bred technologies close to their collective heart. This helps explain the brilliant abundance of behaviors one encounters in the freeride firmament.
Acknowledge The Diversity
We acknowledge this diversity at realskiers.com by dividing our test scores into two bundles, one representing Finesse traits such as forgiveness and drifting, and another focused on Power properties, such as stability at speed and carving accuracy.
We believe that for every type of ski there are two types of skiers, those with well-developed technical skills and those without. This is the most significant behavioral divide in today’s wildly diverse freeride ski market.
The skis with the highest dose of race DNA in their make-up will be sure to please the Power skier with polished technique, while the Finesse skier who prioritizes ease of operation will find plenty of potential partners among the more user-friendly freeride models.
Photo: Race and Freeride Designs (realskiers.com)