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 2018 Non-FIS Race Field
Over half of our 2018 Non-FIS Race field is comprised of returning veterans. Their scores are occasionally tweaked by a fresh test card or two, but our comments about them are evergreen. Among the new arrivals, one is a perennial debutante, Head’s i.SL RD, a race-room slalom its engineers work constantly to perfect. Kästle has two new entrants, the RX12 SL and GS, skis we didn’t expect to see cards on, as racing isn’t a focus for Kästle and these models aren’t expected to be widely distributed.
The other new skis in our 2018 field are from Atomic, where racing is a core competence central to the brand’s success. The new G9 and S9 are so intoxicating, you’ll fall in love on the first run and be dependent on them after a half day’s exposure to the addicting way they craft speed into turns.