As the 2014/15 season drew to a close, so did the window in which we test the next year’s crop of new skis, affording us a long view of the year just past and a short glimpse into what the immediate future holds for the alpine ski market.
If you break down the total market by genre, the number of new models being introduced in 2016 is spread fairly evenly across the spectrum of waist widths from skinny Technical skis (67mm-72mm underfoot) to the fattest Powder boards (over 113mm), with most of the action in the more popular genres that lie between these extremes.
The arena with the most model turnover is the narrowest class (74mm-84mm) of popular skis dubbed “Frontside,” intended primarily for on-trail use. This is an encouraging indication that the come-hither appeal of technical innovation will lure more Americans to adopt a narrower model as an everyday ride.
Innovation isn’t the only factor steering skiers towards narrower-waisted skis; as long as skiing remains an outdoor sport, weather will continue to be the primordial player. Four years without powder in the Sierras make a compelling case for procuring a pair of skinnier skis.
Apparently offsetting the pendulum swing back to narrower skis is a nearly equal number of new Big Mountain (101mm – 113mm) and Powder models in 2016 collections, but behind this apparent parity, sales of the fattest skis are a shrinking fraction of the turnover in the Frontside category.
When fat skis began to infiltrate the ski closets of ordinary American skiers, their girth alone was novelty enough to stimulate demand. Now that the mini-market for maxi-skis has matured, fat skis come in a variety of flavors as well as widths.
By “flavors,” I mean how skis respond to efforts to get them on edge. Skis that are both tail rockered and twin tipped do not behave one iota like square-tailed, directional models. Some wide skis won’t turn easily unless they have a platform to lean into; others cut into hard snow like a cleaver.
The trend to lighter weight has touched every segment but racing, and nowhere is it more evident, or more useful, than among wide-bodies. Their extra girth renders them potentially ponderous, so every ounce pared is important. Among the major brands, K2, Völkl, Blizzard, Head, Dynastar, Nordica and Fischer each debut a Big Mountain model that specifically addresses the weight problem. Others, such as Atomic, Rossignol and Salomon, are already offering a version of Big Mountain Lite.
The most requested kind of ski remains an “all-mountain” model, a description that encompasses so many behaviors that it’s best broken down into two related families, All-Mountain East (85mm – 94mm) and All-Mountain West (95mm – 100mm). Flexing their market muscle, the all-mountain genres, taken together, will have as many new conscripts in 2016 as the Frontside faction.
If narrower skis are gradually getting more traction, it doesn’t appear to be at the expense of the All-Mountain West segment, where flagship models went through major makeovers at Atomic, Blizzard, Dynastar, Fischer, Head, K2, Nordica and Völkl. All this investment validates the versatility inherent in this family, the fattest skis that don’t automatically call attention to their width when rolled edge to edge.
Long before the idea of the “all-mountain” ski was conceived, race skis filled this function as, indeed, they did every function. Now race skis are largely relegated to the sidelines, deemed, correctly or not, unsuitable for family skiing and unmanageable by all but a highly trained elite.
What a shame. Race skis are still the best execution of the ski maker’s art. At realskiers, we believe that what we call Technical skis (race skis and high performance carving models) will never be important if they’re never reviewed. We’ve resolved to cover the (non-FIS) race ski market to the degree we can in the hope that we can help rekindle America’s dormant love affair with the best skis made.
To ensure the best coverage of this unjustly overlooked category, realskiers will be conducting an on-snow evaluation of eleven top Technical models that we didn’t cover when we ran the same test last year.
This spring’s exercise will transpire early next week on the friendly slopes of Mammoth Mountain, greatly facilitated by the cooperation and collaboration of the ownership and staff of one of America’s finest specialty ski shops, Footloose Sports. Our deepest thanks to all who assist us in this endeavor.