Once upon a time, the Alpine ski market was relatively homogenous. Racing was the sole paradigm of excellence and race ski clones populated every product line. Everyone’s collection put race skis on a pedestal, made lower-cost spin-offs for the masses in the middle of the market and offered a huge menu of entry-level package skis.
Today’s market could not look much more different. Entry-level package skis still exist, but their ranks have thinned considerably. The rest of the 2020 ski market has fragmented into a kaleidoscope of options. Race skis no longer have any influence on the vast majority of recreational designs. In fact, the gap between the gear made for elite racers and that made for everyone else has never been greater. The two worlds no longer intersect at all.
How did the entire ski market switch from a baseline that looks like this…
How did we get from a universe where every baseline was fully cambered tip to tail, to one where camber is reduced to a small pocket underfoot, if it’s present at all? How did we travel from a place where experts could only chose between a slalom, a GS or a combi, to the current, crazy bazaar, over-stuffed with expert skis, each with its own special blend of terrain suitability?
…to one that looks more like this?
The Dumbing Down of Ski Design
This is going to take a moment to explain, so please bear with me.
The most disruptive force to alter the path of ski design began innocently enough. When Atomic introduced the Powder Magic, its target audience was the heli-skiing patrons who, even if they were skilled, would tire quickly in the bottomless snow. Since flying services charge by the vertical foot consumed, extending everyone’s ski day was a win-win proposition with no apparent downside.
Meanwhile, a pair of Elan engineers was experimenting with deep sidecuts, resulting in the introduction of the SCX (SideCut eXperiment) in 1994. The idea behind Elan’s “parabolic” sidecut was a ski that would virtually turn itself when tipped on edge. Soon Kneissl and Ivan Petkov’s S Ski had super-shaped skis of their own and a season or two later Head committed to the new “carving” sidecut design with its Cyber skis. By the close of the 1990’s, the last of the so-called “straight” skis bit the dust. Henceforward, all skis would be “shaped.”
(Incidentally, in my role as Equipment Editor for Snow Country Business, your esteemed Editor coined the term “shaped” skis as the preferred generic term for carving skis. But I digress.)
Somewhere in this same time frame a few race skis began to experiment with lifting the shovel a tiny bit off the snow. The first appearance of “early rise” tips went virtually unnoticed, but the seed that would grow into double-rockered baselines had been sown.
While a case could be made that carving sidecuts were a more impactful innovation than wide skis, in terms of building a profitable ski line, varying the width offered more opportunities for model proliferation than shape. You could try building your line around a lot of different, deep sidecuts – Head certainly made a go of it – but it was easier to make more or less the same ski in a variety of widths. Each width was associated with a slightly different ratio of on-trail to off-piste performance, e.g., 70/30, 60/40 or 50/50.
This is why the ski market now makes far more models for experts than they do for any single tranche of lower-skill skiers. There are seven different categories of Alpine skis for men and six for women. These numbers don’t include the distinctive Pipe and Park gang of twin-tips nor the abundant – and still growing – number of backcountry and Alpine Touring (AT) models.
Looking at all aspects of current design, width has wielded the most influence because width by itself isn’t quite easy enough to manage. To make width appealing, it has to be easier to turn, which normally would mean the skier would have to get better, maybe even take a lesson.
Ha! We’re talking about America here, Land of Instant Gratification. If snowboarders can tackle the front face of any mountain within a week, why can’t skiers on tools of roughly the same dimensions? All the ski designer had to do to make the fat ski easier to steer was lift the tip and tail out of the snow, leaving just a short foundation underfoot that could be swiveled side to side much more easily than it could be tilted on edge.
Skiers tend to be dreamers, and when we dream, we dream of powder.
Just in case the rockered tip and tail might encounter an errant clump of congealed ex-powder, ski designers further defused them by moving their widest point toward the center of the ski. This means the sidecut that somewhat dictates turn shape only kicks in during a short segment underfoot.
It also means the ski forebody, instead of seeking connection with the snow, now performs the same function as a Walmart greeter: it’s friendly and otherwise has no idea what goes on behind it.
If there is a single rationale that unites the design principles of shape, width, taper and rocker, it’s abbreviating – preferably eliminating – the learning curve for the user. The unifying design objective isn’t simply to make skiing more accessible to the uninitiated; it’s to tear down the barriers to entry entirely.
Certainly, any design innovation that contributes to lowering the hurdles to entry to our increasingly elitist sport must be good, right? It’s hard to argue the contrary, but it’s not hard to point out one obvious consequence of putting an unskilled skier on a wide ski: it will capture his or her ability like a fly in amber. These skiers may now be able to access ungroomed terrain they didn’t have the confidence to try before, but it doesn’t make them better, or safer, skiers.
If your spider sense is starting to tingle, it’s because the proliferation of these design elements – especially when all are involved to a large degree – has led to a situation where many, many skiers aren’t in a position to control their trajectory. (See last week’s Revelation on the relationship between ski width and knee health.) Not only are these skiers at risk, but everyone who shares our crowded slopes with them are also potentially in harm’s way.
I’ll bet there aren’t 10 people reading this who either haven’t been involved in a skiing collision, had a close call or knows someone who has been hit. That’s the price of substituting a barrier-breaking equipment solution for a more time-consuming training problem.
Please don’t get the idea I’m some Luddite who can’t stand all these new-fangled, skier-friendly concepts ruining my precious, foolproof, 20-year learning progression. I’m wildly in favor of shortening the learning curve; I just don’t want to see it abandoned all together.
I regret to inform you, Dear Reader, that while this piece is already too long, I’m not done yet. Next week, we’ll take a look at a better way to dumb down equipment, a path embarked upon in the 1970’s that has since hit a rough patch. See you next week.