I recently received a brief yet pithy email from an old friend and confrere, Tom Corlett, who posed a seemingly innocent question: “Is there now a real, definable difference in ski performance given the consolidated manufacturing?” Since finding some sort of “definable difference” among skis lies at the core of everything I do at Realskiers.com, the question got my attention, if not an immediate answer. Corlett’s query set off a series of thought bombs in my turbulent mind:
- How much differentiation is there among skis in today’s mature market?
- Every brand strives for some measure of uniqueness, but when you strip away the marketing hoo-hah, just how different are they, really?
- Which is more important, choosing the right length or the “right” brand?
- How important is waist width to model selection? When does wide become too wide?
- Has ski manufacturing consolidated to the point that brand boundaries blur? Or is ski making actually becoming more diversified?
- If ski makers get their raw materials from the same sources, and use similar processes to build their skis, what makes one ski design perform substantively differently from others?
- How much of a ski’s performance can be properly attributed to its construction and how much are these inherent attributes affected by how the base and edge are prepared?
- How is the hapless consumer going to figure any of this out, given that ski media is a wasteland of advertorials and phony “Top Ten” lists?
- Is there a coherent path any potential ski buyer can traverse that will lead to an optimal ski?
Finding the answer to this last question is the defining mission of Realskiers.com: how to select, from an ocean of possibilities, the one ski that will fulfill one’s needs and desires. To see how the Realskiers’ model selection methodology works, let’s trace the series of decisions a skier must contend with on the path to his or her perfect match.
Do You Intend to Hike Uphill?
In our test case, the prospective ski buyer is an experienced, in-resort skier who skis regularly and needs a new daily driver. The first step in winnowing down the range of options is to decide if the new rides will be used to access non-lift-served terrain. The ideal set-up required for backcountry – aka, alpine touring – is significantly different from that used for in-resort skiing. Due to the surge in interest in touring over the course of the last decade, a whole new crop of hybrid systems has emerged that are meant to bridge the gap between in-resort and ex-resort skiing. If the skier wants this range of application, it’s best to focus on the boots and bindings specially adapted for this purpose.
The same advice holds true for anyone searching for a dedicated touring system that optimizes uphill efficiency. You want to fish in a different pond than the in-resort skier. There are serious safety consequences for mixing touring and in-resort components of the ski/boot/binding system, so don’t fly solo through the Internet assembling your own system. At some point in this process, you’re going to need the professional assistance of a specialty shop; it’s best to establish this relationship at the beginning of the process rather than somewhere in the middle of it.
So, let’s assume the first big hurdle – how much hiking do you plan on doing? – has been cleared. We’re looking for an all-terrain, in-resort ski. That still leaves a whole lot of options on the table, but we before the parse this pile, what options are we eliminating, and why? Here’s a quick summary of the skis that don’t merit consideration as all-mountain models.
- FIS Race: The gulf between the race world and the non-race world has never been deeper or wider.
- Non–FIS Race: They’re probably the most fun skis for experts on groomed terrain, but they don’t travel well off-trail.
- Technical: The entire category is all but invisible in the U.S. There are a few gems in the genre that is the distillate of the once ubiquitous Carving category, but they’re unlikely to come up in any discussion of all-terrain skis.
- Frontside: Better in off-trail conditions than they’re given credit for, they nonetheless lack the flotation in crud and powder that all-mountain models deliver. Anyone of modest skills is better off here, as Frontside skis will facilitate skills development better than anything wider.
- Big Mountain: When there’s new snow to hunt, you’ll love how a Big Mountain model slices up crud and skims over wind-pack, but an everyday driver needs to handle these conditions and be quick on and off the edge on hardpack and in bumps.
- Powder: The name of the game is flotation, so surface area is king of this domain. The same qualities that make Powder models effortless in their natural habitat make them as helpless as a carp on a hot dock when it’s gone.
- Pipe & Park: The land of twin-tips, there are some sneaky-good all-terrain skis hidden in its ranks, but Pipe & Park models are best left to the youth market for whom they are intended. If acrobatics and skiing backwards aren’t your cup of tea, move on.
We’ve now culled the herd of options down to the meat of the American market, the two All-Mountain genres, which at Realskiers.com we’ve characterized as East and West. We bi-sect the all-terrain universe because there are detectable performance advantages/limitations to each half, such that every one of the dozen or so major ski suppliers offers a model that falls in the East’s 85mm-95mm waist-width clan and another that fits in the West’s 95mm-100mm range. The cynical might plausibly argue that brands are incentivized to multiply high-end models if only to occupy more rack space at retail, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t real differences between the All-Mountain East and All-Mountain West clusters.
The Gender Gap
This is as good a place as any to insert the thorny issue of gender. It’s germane at this juncture of the narrative because the East/West divide in the universe of All-Mountain models matters most to women, simply because women tend to be smaller than men. Women are also more vulnerable to knee injury, a dynamic that can be influenced by a ski wider than the tibia head, where knee ligaments are attached. It’s also easier to execute the shorter radius turns that women seem to prefer on a narrower platform. Put these factors together and it’s clear that most women would be most comfortable, confident and protected on an All-Mountain East model.
Men who are looking for short-turn proficiency, bump manageability and hard-snow edging accuracy would also be best served by dining at the All-Mountain East buffet. But for guys who are still searching for crud pockets days after a storm, or who simply want the biggest performance envelope regardless of snow conditions, an All-Mountain West model is a superior tool.
Women who are shopping in the high end of the market should be aware that in many instances, men’s and women’s All-Mountain models are essentially the same, except for cosmetics and size selection. Generally speaking, there’s no reason a woman can’t ski a men’s model, as long as the length is appropriate.
Skier Style, Sizing & Other Considerations
By this point in the process, our prospective ski buyer has pared the ski world down to a single genre, but that still leaves one or two models per brand in play. Now the investigation needs to get more granular, with the focus on the skier’s abilities and ambitions. Realskiers.com’s scoring methodology extracts the variables that distinguish two primary skier types: Power and Finesse. The distinction between the two isn’t about ability as much as it’s about style: the Power skier routinely rakes his skis up to a high edge angle and exerts a lot of force through the belly of the turn; the Finesse skier backs off on the degree of edge angle and force application and usually maintains a lower speed.
Once sorted by Power and Finesse properties, the range of suitable candidates dwindles to a manageable handful, any one of which would probably serve admirably. Our ski buyer most likely can’t make a bad choice among the remaining models, but he or she could still fumble on the one-yard line, so to speak, by choosing the wrong size.
But don’t fret. There isn’t a world of options; almost invariably, there are only two viable possibilities, separated by a mere 7cm or so. As a general guideline, you want to be on a shorter ski for a steady diet of groomers and a longer length for an all-terrain ski that will most likely be robustly rockered and so possessed of less running surface. Bear in mind that your skis know more about your weight than your height, so heavier skiers could use a little more ski to displace their surplus avoirdupois. One advantage of buying a superior ski is that the richer the construction, the more skier the ski can support. This higher weight allowance permits the skier to opt for the shorter of two lengths, facilitating the tighter cornering required in trees, malformed moguls and chutes.
To fully optimize the performance of whichever model and length our ski buyer eventually selects, consider the merits of a specialty base finish. Nothing releases the potential in a new (or old) ski like polished edges and a lubricious base grind. It’s the finishing touch that assures that no matter what ski one finally falls for, it will be the best it can be.
My perspicacious Dear Readers and Dear Listeners will doubtless note that I never answered Corlett’s question about the perceived similarities among skis, much less the slew of self-inflicted ponderings it ignited. These subjects will have to wait for another day. What I did provide is one example of a route through the modern maze of models that will lead to the optimal pairing of skier and ski.
It’s not a route I suggest you travel alone. At a minimum, you need a well-equipped, professionally staffed ski shop at your disposal, a relationship that is well worth nurturing. If you would also like an advocate and advisor at your side, my one-on-one consulting services are available for the trifling fee of $24.95 per annum, $19.95 for returning subscribers. I look forward to hearing from you.
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