The question comes up every year. Is it time for new skis?
The answer used to be found in the number of days the old skis had survived. Depending on the level of use (kids on bumps can destroy a pair in short order), a pair of skis can be good for at least 100 days. With the average skier heading for the mountains seven to 12 times a season, that would give a pair of skis a life span approaching 10 years.
That was fine in the days of traditional long skis, but a 10-year-old pair of skis today would be in the 190- to- 200-centimeter range in length and hopelessly outdated.
The best example is the racer. A decade ago, World Cup racers were skiing giant slalom on 205- to- 209-centimeter models. Today, the men are on 180- to-185-centimeter skis and the women on even shorter ones. If skis in those lengths work for the best skiers in the world, why would any recreational skier want anything longer? The short answer is they wouldn't. In skiing, as in everything else, the answer comes from technology.
Today's skis might still have a wood core, but around that wood is a multitude of exotic materials and construction techniques. Where fiberglass and steel used to provide the ultimate ski materials, today's skis are layered up with Kevlar, graphite, and titanium. Straight laminations have given way to a variety of structural forms giving today's short skis the same stability as the long skis of years past.
Different shapes and dimensions make the new skis easier to turn, and wider skis have greater flotation to handle the softer snow found off the groomed runs. If your skis are more than five years old, you're working too hard and not getting the performance you should.
Last winter we spent a few days at the annual On Snow Expo at Vermont's Stratton Mountain, which brings together all of the big manufacturers to allow ski shop operators in the Northeast to try out the next year's models. Those few days gave us some insight into what's in the shops as we prepare for a new season.
Skis and bindings are now designed together. In some cases, it's done by companies that own both ski and binding manufacturers. Atomic, Rossignol, and Salomon skis and bindings carry the same names, but other brands are under the same corporate roof even though the names vary. Look and Dynastar are together as are Marker and Volkl and Head and Tyrolia. Volkl and Marker are also under the K2 umbrella.
Categories have also changed. Instead of race skis, slaloms, giant slaloms, and recreational racers , we have all mountains, carvers, cruisers, and others. There are twin tips for the kids to use in moguls and terrain parks. In addition, almost every manufacturer offers skis designed specifically for women. These skis are typically lighter and softer and the binding systems use the ramp angle to help get the weight forward.
One company that has come on strong in recent years is Atomic, always known for race skis. But don't overlook its recreational offerings. The Metron series has been around for three years and is a good example of a versatile ski. We gave the 158-centimeter Metron 11 B5s a workout on groomed hardpack and partially skied out powder and it handled both with ease. The surprise was how well this wide ski carved when laid on edge. This is a characteristic found in many of the wider all mountain models.
Skiers spending most of their time on groomed runs might try the recreational racers, the SX 10 or the LT 12. They carve like race skis, but in 173- and 176-centimeter lengths are more forgiving.
Volkl's AC 3 Unlimited in a 170 -centimeter length was easy into the turn with a nice carve and surprising stability at speed. It was even better at speed in a 177, but the 170 is plenty. Skiers who fondly remember the P40 Platinum for its smooth performance will like the new RC, a ski that turns easily enough for recreational skiers while carving on an icy race course. A 173-centimeter model was plenty long enough.
In between these brands we skied a bunch of models from different manufacturers. Some were close to traditional width with wider tips, while others were wider overall. The Head 800i in a 170-centimeter length was easy turning and smooth carving. And this season Bode Miller, world champion and Olympic medalist, will be on Head skis, which tells us all we need to know about these race skis.
Perhaps the most radical concept was Rossignol's Radical Mutix with interchangeable arms extending fore and aft from the bindings. The longer arms give it a longer turning radius while the shorter arms shorten the turn radius. We tried it in a 165 with long arms and got an easy-turning, solid carving ride.
Salomon has the X-Wing Systems for all mountain models. In this series Salomon increases ski width as length increases. We tried the Tornado and the X-Wing 10, the first being a high performance model, the latter a less expensive rendition with less demanding characteristics, and got solid performance from both.
Unless you're replacing skis less than two years old, expect to go shorter. Most of the all mountain skis are also wider. Thanks to the new construction and materials these skis are quick edge to edge, easy into the turn, and have a solid feel underfoot. We've never had so many fine skis to choose from, but do take the time to demo.
Contact Dave Irons, a skier and freelance writer in Portland, Maine, at DIskigolf@cs.com.