Among elite consumer products, it’s hard to imagine a more hard-luck case than that of race skis in America. A mere 25 years ago, if you had any pretensions at all of being an expert they were the only game in town. Now they’re not even considered in the discussion of the best all-around skis.
This is nuts. Today’s race skis aren’t cathode ray tubes, transistors or telex machines. Race skis continue to represent the very highest achievement in the art of ski making. Brands like Head, Stöckli, Atomic and Fischer are obsessed with making the most immaculate race skis they can concoct because that’s where you’ve got to have your A game in order to compete.
Yet in the USA race skis are like rare flowers that bloom only once a year – on a fall “Race Night” at your local specialty shop, usually aimed at the adolescent competitor – then lie dormant. Even America’s premier ski maker, K2, who once sponsored World Cup champions like the fabled Mahre twins, dropped racing completely shortly after providing a young Bode Miller with his first shaped skis. The brand proceeded to ascend to the number one sales position in the U.S., so it’s absence from the race community didn’t seem to have any negative effects.
The shunning of race skis in this great land of ours is a crime so commonplace it passes unnoticed. Fortunately, it’s correctable, and the solution lies behind the eyeballs reading this sentence. Ask for these skis. Better yet, demand them. Better still, order them. If you want to experience the best skis made, you have to raise your hand and place your bid.
When America rediscovers race skis, what they’ll find is a multi-tiered matrix of models headlined by the honest-to-God, FIS-blessed competition skis that are of limited availability and rightly so. One step to the side are competition-grade skis that don’t conform to current FIS rules (or to anyone’s idea of an off-piste ski) and require Level 10 talent to manage.
While we usually end up with a couple of these thoroughbreds in our corral, most of the non-FIS race skis we examine here are known in the vernacular as “citizen race” or “beer league” skis. They deploy all the technology found in World Cup start houses, but add a little more shape and thin the profile or otherwise dial down the stiffness so people who don’t train incessantly can bend them. Although these are all competition-quality skis, each with a technological edge that’s supposedly just an teensy bit better than the other guys’ gizmos, when skied side-by-side they’re much more alike than they are different.
Our field is made up of roughly equal parts of slalom and giant slalom models, yet our panel routinely awards SL models its highest scores. This is mostly attributable to sidecut: it’s easier to let a SL ski make a long turn than to wrest a short turn out of a GS. That said, there’s nothing like putting all thoughts of short turns aside and barreling downhill on a ski that’s so stable, 60mph feels like 35.
Because this field prizes power and precision above all attributes, we’ve listed our Recommended models according to their Power ranking. While each ski’s aggregate Finesse grades are also given, they did not influence position on this list. All these skis are excellent, so distinctions among them aren’t about quality, but nuances in behavior.
Because Non-FIS Race skis aren’t often in a rep’s demo inventory, I take special pains to collect as many as I can and corral them at Footloose, near the base of Mammoth Mountain. I also recruit ex-racers like Jim Schaffner of Start Haus and Theron Lee of Bobo’s, both of whom are also active coaches, and my perennial wingman, Corty Lawrence, erstwhile co-owner of Footloose.
Unlike our examination of other categories, we’re not trying to identify the “best” Non-FIS Race ski, as every last one of them is great. Instead, we’re trying to describe the nuances in behavior that make some more demanding of the pilot and others more amenable to freeskiing. We realize that our observations play no part in any committed racer’s choice of model, as these decisions are determined by the athletes, their coaches and the suppliers who equip them. Our intent is to inform the civilian community who is more likely to free-ski these models than race them.
Our examination of the NFR field is not comprehensive. Dynastar, Elan, Fischer and Salomon models were MIA for a variety of reasons. We’ll try to catch up with them next year.
What makes this shortfall in data collection particularly vexing is that every model we were able to essay we adored. This isn’t pandering – this category is reasonably pander-proof – but a reflection of the fact that race ski technology represents each brand’s best effort. Peripheral considerations such as Off-Piste Performance pale in comparison to a single determinant of excellence: the clock.
The battle to make the best race skis never calls a ceasefire. Just because the ski in the catalog doesn’t change from one year to the next doesn’t mean the R&D department has hit the snooze button. It doesn’t make sense to re-tool every year for a market as slow-moving as the citizen race category, but reputations are built on innovation so it’s important to introduce fresh blood into the racing mainstream every few years.
In 2020, the brands who refreshed their NFR collection were Atomic and Blizzard, in both cases to stunning effect. Last year Völkl tweaked its Racetigers but we didn’t get on them until this spring, so they were new to us. In a word, wow. The Völkl Racetiger SL had the biggest performance envelope of any ski we examined, making it the best free-skier of the lot, in our testers’ estimation.
Some of the models we essayed are awfully close to the real deal, but there is still a wide gulf between the most aggro Non-FIS Race model and actual World Cup race machines. To challenge this supposition, I inserted one true, FIS GS, which happened to be a Stöckli Laser WRT GS FIS, into our mix. Compared to the Non-FIS field, they were practically unskiable. Within a few yards after pushing off, the skis inform their passenger that they’re heading for the finish line whether you care to come along or not. If you lack accuracy, timing, commitment and most of all, strength, you will not be in charge of coming events.
While race-room technologies continue to creep ahead every season, a couple of timeless verities remain true year in and year out. Truism number one is that there are more similarities among Non-FIS Race skis than differences. Truism two would beg to differ, noting that there are two clear sub-sets within the genre: skis that behave exactly like real, FIS-approved, race skis that beg to be skied with tireless aggression, and those that just want to have fun. Truism number three is that no matter if you’re on a slalom or a GS, you’ll have some of the most exhilarating runs of your life on a Non-FIS Race model.
As befits models built for speed, not for comfort, our Recommended models are presented here in order of their Power scores. High Finesse scores are worth noting but it’s the Power score that drives the pecking order.
Why do I bother to round up every Non-FIS Race model I can rustle, along with the talent required to rate them? Practically no one in America could give a damn about the category, much less what I have to say about it. In the modern world, there are myriad definitions of what constitutes an all-purpose ski, and not one of them fits the profile of a NFR model. Quite the opposite, in fact: race skis are used as the prime example of what an all-terrain ski isn’t. The world has indeed gone mad. In the halcyon days of my youth, the best all-terrain skis were race skis because all the best skis were race skis. A lot has happened to race skis since I was wearing long thongs, but one thing hasn’t changed: the best of them are still miraculous all-terrain tools. The best of them, exemplified by the
Everything about the Head Worldcup Rebels i.Speed Pro yells, “Racer ready?” It’s a rhetorical question, for ready or not, once you set the i.Speed Pro in motion you are off to the races. The first clue that this is a no-posers powerhouse is its honking plate, which contributes damping, leverage and the need for total commitment by the skier on every turn. Pick up a pair and you’ll get the second striking indication that this ski might be better than you: it’s loaded with Titanal. Remember, Head is the only supplier with a license to use Graphene, the lightest, strongest material yet industrialized, so it could, theoretically, reduce the weight of the i.Speed Pro. Instead, Head uses Graphene in this ski to manage flex distribution and loads up on Titanal for its irreplaceable ability to muffle high-speed vibrations. Whatever shock can penetrate the Titanal shield inside the i.Speed Pro will
The Rossignol Hero Elite ST Ti is the mellowest member of the Non-FIS Race cast we assembled last spring at Mammoth. It behaves as if all the demanding, my-way-or-the-highway traits of true race skis had been polished off, leaving a ski with race aptitude without the attitude. The Rossi Hero Elite ST’s high overall score is driven in large part by its unusually high rating for Finesse properties, including low-speed turning, forgiveness, drift-ability and Finesse/Power Balance. Its facility at drifting could be attributable to its Titanal Power Rail, a vertical band of Titanal that bisects the ski. This reduces torsional rigidity – ergo the extra permissiveness when not on edge – but reinforces contact along the long axis. The result is a smooth ride that doesn’t demand aggression to be appreciated.
You can’t fake it on an Atomic Redster G9. Posers will know they’re in trouble in about 50 feet. Your boots will suddenly feel eerily loose. As if sensing your weakness, the G9 will hit the afterburners and if you don’t catch up with it pronto and press into the front of your 130-flex boots, you could be in for a wild ride, as if riding in the back of a cartoon cab on the set of Who Shot Roger Rabbit? But if you show it proper respect in the first place and stand on it with controlled aggression, its acceleration will feel as smooth as the finest German sedan. You’re not just in control; you’re in charge of a speed-generating machine that feels capable of carving up the Hahnenkamm. There’s no doubt that part of the G9’s inspiring tranquility at speed is due to Servotec, a slender carbon rod
GS race skis rule the open slopes, and they do so mercilessly, running as hot as they can. They oblige the skier to see things their way, rather than submit to some half-ass effort at arcing. They don’t show much interest in deviating from the fall line until they reach Mach One, and even then they don’t bow into fat, round arcs but barely deflect off their beeline course. Like many gross generalities, the statements above don’t pertain to every member of the GS family. True, several non-FIS GS skis behave like über-specialists that only respond to well-trained technique, but Völkl got the memo that GS skis ought to be generalists, not specialists. The Racetiger GS can tuck into almost any shape of turn, grab it by the throat and ping off the edge with the energy normally associated with a slalom ski. Far from being finicky, it earned the
Remember those inflatable punching bags made so kids can work out their juvenile aggressions? They had a round, weighted bottom that allowed Mr. Binky to take the most vicious blow and bound right back up, ready to roll with the next haymaker. That’s sort of how it feels to descend on the Blizzard Firebird WRC, a slippery yet solid foundation that seems impossible to fall off of. The Firebird WRC is a beast of s GS ski that is easily tamed, as long as you meet a couple of prerequisites. First, stop asking it to turn at slow speeds, a total waste of its talents. The WRC solves this problem for you by continuing to accelerate until it feels inspired to take the top off its first turn at around 30mph. Second, keep it on trail. If you take it into soft snow it will burrow into it until it
Not since Alexander the Great has world conquest seemed so simple. All Michaela Shiffrin has to do is step into her magic Redster S9’s and a couple of minutes later she’s standing on top of a podium, wearing another gold medal. It’s clear at this juncture in Shiffrin’s journey that she is likely to shatter every record for World Cup victories, leaving legendary talents like Stenmark, Hirscher and Vonn in her wake. The possibility that she’s dominating her sport solely because she uses the best skis is as remote as Tiger Woods’ supremacy is due primarily to his choice of golf ball. Yet it’s precisely because of her incandescent talent that her choice of gear must be as meticulously managed as every other part of her skiing life. I’m not trying to suggest that you should cop a pair of S9’s just like Michaela’s, because for one thing, you can’t.
The Blizzard Firebird SRC feels like a GS ski trapped in an SL’s body. The slalom shape dictates a short-radius turn whenever it’s raked on edge, but its serenity at speed and willingness to open up its natural radius make it feel like a GS ski. Jim Schaffner’s staccato commentary reflects the SRC’s dual personality: “SL to GS to SL to GS, etc, etc, etc…” all those et ceteras plus an ellipsis to emphasize a string that never ends. “Best all-rounder SL,” Coach Schaffner concludes. Two key features that Blizzard added last year to its traditional wood and Titanal construction contribute to the SRC’s Zen-like serenity on edge. Carbon Armor is an extra slab of bi-directional carbon under the binding that amplifies force in the heart of the arc. To keep the ski planted like it had roots in the snow, two vertical carbon struts, called Carbon Spine, tri-sect the
Against the backdrop of the other GS race skis in this genre, the Kästle RX12 GS stands out like a ballerina among lumberjacks. Some of its superior fluidity has to be attributable to its lack of a racing plate or binding interface of any kind. The skier is closer to the snow, giving the RX12 GS a living pulse when pressured, unfiltered by extra layers of elastomers and metal. By elevating the skier on what amounts to a taller tower, a race plate takes the subtlety out of turning; once you tip the tower over, you’re committed to the ensuing high edge angle. The lower altitude of the RX12 GS makes it easier for the skier to feather the edge throughout the turn, rather than relying on the brusque, all-in style elevation encourages. It’s this suppleness that makes the RX12 GS so versatile in terms of both turn shape and
The Nordica Dobermann GSR isn’t interested in bolstering your self-esteem. Its attitude is, if you want to feel better about yourself, take a lesson. Or better yet, hire a coach. For the Dobermann GSR is like a street-legal race car: it’s been detuned for civilian use, but not by much. If you don’t take control of it, the GSR will most definitely take control of you. When you look at the Non-FIS Race category as a whole, most models have been defanged to the point that they could serve an expert as an all-terrain ski. Not the Dobermann GSR, which could care less about pandering to non-racers. It’s built on the straightforward assumption that it’s as elite a race ski as any blessed by the FIS, it just doesn’t conform to the dimensional limitations imposed by racing’s sanctioning body.
The Hero Elite LT Ti isn’t a watered-down race ski, just one that’s been domesticated. It still uses the race-room fabrication called Line Control Technology (LCT) comprised of a central rib of Ti wrapped in a viscoelastic shell that keeps the ski from counterflexing. The sense of contact throughout the turn is clean and accurate with a finish that focuses on maintaining its solid snow connection. A close inspection of its tech specs reveals a tip that’s as wide across the beam as a race slalom, with a waist and tail that are also a tad plumper than the norm for a GS race ski. Its shape helps the Hero Elite LT Ti tuck into a tighter arc than it likes to finish, so it doesn’t lose momentum as it barrels downhill. Within the fraternity of Non-FIS Race GS skis, the Hero Elite LT Ti comes closest to being a