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” 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.
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.
Last season it was Atomic’s turn to launch a new technology with its G series. This year several brands are introducing fresh tech. Blizzard’s Firebird series takes wing, Rossignol introduces a new method of maintaining snow contact in its popular Hero collection, Nordica invests FIS-level power in citizen shapes and Völkl uncages two new Racetigers.
While the technologies continue to evolve, a couple of timeless verities still ring true. 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.
You’d think it would be peaches and cream to get guys to try out race skis, but it again proved harder than I had imagined. Despite corralling quite a few 2019 models in one location, a lot of great skis got lost in the shuffle. The Head i.Race, Elan GSX, Blizzard Firebird WRC and Nordica Dobermann GSR and GSM eluded our grasp, and Non-FIS Race skis from Völkl and Fischer never made it to the test venue. Any notion that this survey is all-inclusive is ill informed.
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.
For our test purposes, it’s how the ski holds an edge at speed that matters. 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.
Regular readers of this space may note the absence of the Head Worldcup Rebels i.SL RD at the head of the model parade. Be reassured it’s still a category killer, but in the final analysis it doesn’t belong here but among its own, FIS-approved kind. It’s also a model that’s in constant re-development as Head engineers try to match the success they’ve had in speed events in slalom, so anything we test may not be representative of what’s found in the marketplace
The only ski here that wasn’t re-tested this season is the Kästle RX12 SL. Its review and scores are reprised from last season.
The RX12 SL is built on traditional bones, with a classic, metal/glass sandwich around a poplar/ash core, to which Kästle adds its special ingredient, the colorful Hollowtech tip, to keep its fully cambered baseline in contact with the snow. A continuous-radius sidecut extends all the way into the tip, so as soon as it’s tipped, it’s engaged. Unfettered by FIS restrictions on sidecut radius, Kästle went tighter, pinching the RX12 SL’s radius down to 12.5m in a 165cm.
That both Kästle RX12’s sit atop our Power rankings proves that our testers prefer the more forgiving branch of the race ski family tree. The RX12 GS behaves less like a true race GS than a narrow-waisted carver. It’s unadorned by any plate or interface except what may come with a given race binding, so it isn’t as tippy as a ski with more standheight. Being closer to the snow gives it a more all-mountain feel and allows the skier to roll gradually to the edge. The absence of extra hardware not only makes the RX12 lighter than category average, it helps to keep it supple and easy to bend.
That a race-bred GS ski from Atomic can charge the fall line with the unleashed fury of a feral cat on the tail of its prey won’t come as news to anyone who’s ever stepped into an Atomic race ski, but would you believe an Atomic GS that will also dice short turns like a Veg-O-Matic? The ski isn’t naturally intrigued by short turns, but it’s so narrow and quick the pilot can snap off a flush of unfinished slalom turns at will.
Sometimes it seems every new model in the Age of Lighter is Better is being made for some pixie who can’t bend a real ski. Put a big man who knows how to motivate down the hill on one of these weak reeds and it will fold like a $5 lawn chair. So it was interesting to read the comments of Corty Lawrence, a full-sized dude (and one of the best boot fitters of his, or any other, generation) when we pried him off the i.Speed Pro after several scorching runs. To compress Corty’s impressions into an aphorism Yoda might utter, “Total commitment yields total reward.” If you know where the accelerator is and aren’t afraid to stomp on it, you’re the target pro for the i.Speed Pro.
How many turns can you make in a run, in a day, in a season? It doesn’t matter what the answers are, for the Atomic Redster S9 has a bottomless well of SL arcs packed into its short and shapely frame. To the S9, every run must look like a racecourse. Its instinct for high-speed turning is so engrained it practically issues instructions to its pilot rather than takes them. If the S9’s desires were audible, the first prod to its pilot would be, “Go faster.” The types of whiplash turns it relishes need energy, so poking down the hill isn’t an option.
We usually judge a race ski for its Power properties and let the Finesse chips fall where they may, but the new Rossignol Hero Elite ST Ti stands out for its easy-going temperament in a field of more finicky rides. For example, both the Hero ST Ti and Atomic S9 can be described as “quick” and “agile,” but they go about their business in different ways. The S9 practically detonates at the end of the turn, while the Hero is more mellow, even allowing a little drift between turns. The Hero ST operates comfortably from a centered stance, slinging short turns side to side with the reliability of a metronome.
The SLX is one of the rare slalom skis with a open mind about turn shape, defying the notion that SL skis are too specialized to serve as free skis. All it takes to produce a liquid, long turn is lay off the edge angle. But you don’t buy an SLX to make big turns but to link together a string of pearl-round turns that never feel rushed. Note the SLX’s especially high Finesse score, backed by above-the-category-average marks for Forgiveness and Low-Speed Turning. Few slalom skis are as easy as they are powerful. The SLX belongs to this exclusive fraternity of friendly SL’s.
The 2019 Rossignol Hero Elite LT Ti is a new ski in several significant ways, but it remains the same model in spirit. The new elements begin with a deeper sidecut and a wider chassis overall, making the ski less true race-like and easier to tip into a tidy turn. The new model’s tighter sidecut radius feels all the quicker due to a lighter poplar core and most importantly, Line Control Technology (LCT), that uses far less Titanal than the usual two sheets to maintain snow contact. LCT consists of a central, vertical Ti laminate in a viscoelastic shell that runs end-to-end, resisting the ski’s natural tendency to counterflex.
Beneath the SRC’s burly Marker WC Piston Plate is an edge-to-edge layer of bi-directional carbon Blizzard calls C-Armor that turbo charges the ski’s power and stability through the middle of the turn. To augment acceleration across the fall line, two vertical carbon laminates, dubbed C-Spine, trisect the core from end to end. Working in unison with the Firebird SRC’s traditionally cambered baseline, C-Spine generates propulsive rebound that translates the dissipating energy of one turn into an aggressive entry into the next. “It’s very quick edge to edge” confirms one of the California Ski Company crew.