Atomic Bent Chetler Pro Ski

Sports technology: ski design

Due to rapid improvements in materials and design, skiing is now easier than ever before. The second of our regular sports technology features looks at the latest developments in this popular winter sport.

Before I started skiing I assumed skis were simple things, little more than a couple of vaguely shaped planks, with bindings attached to their upper surface and a thin layer of wax on the bottom to make them move faster across the snow.

Had I been born 100 years ago, I might have been close to the truth with that assumption, but in recent years ski technology has gone into orbit.

So much so that whereas 30 years ago most keen skiers would have had one pair of skis for all purposes, today even a keen recreational skier may have different ones for powder skiing, ski touring and piste skiing (budget notwithstanding – those three types of skis would set you back close to £2,000).

The basic traits of any downhill ski have all changed markedly in recent years; most of the features described in this column were pretty much absent prior to the beginning of this century, and aspects such as 'rocker' are still evolving as we shall see.

'Sidecut', for instance, now varies depending on whether you want to ski on- or off-piste – sidecut describes the way a ski narrows from the tip to the centre ('waist'), then back out again at the tail. You'll see these three parameters marked on most skis in millimetres, for example 135-108-123. This also indicates the 'turn radius', which is the radius of the circle that would be created if the ski was allowed to make a full 360° turn.

The smaller the turn radius, the more sharply the ski will turn, and vice versa. Piste skiers, particularly slalom racers, will look for a small turn radius to give short, snappy turns, while off-piste skiers will go for a big turn radius for wider turns on open powder fields.

Another feature that sidecut influences is 'float', which is becoming an increasingly important consideration in ski design. A ski with a wider overall shape will invariably 'float' through deep snow much more effectively than a narrow ski, due to its bigger surface area. With the current boom in 'freeride' skiing (a trendy word for off-piste), you'll see a plethora of skis with waists well in excess of 100mm on the slopes these days; ten years ago, 100mm would have been considered quite extreme.

Something else that you can hardly fail to miss on this winter's new skis is 'rocker'. This is a term borrowed from surfing to describe a ski in which the tip and tail rise off the ground. It was developed for surfboards to prevent the nose of the board from digging into the face of a wave, moved from there to snowboards and then to skis.

Traditional ski designs had/have 'camber', in which the centre of the ski rises clear of the ground when there is no weight on it. When the skier puts on the ski, their weight forces it back onto the snow surface, and this results in good 'edge hold' from the metal edges allowing tight turns on piste.

However, rocker suits freeriders much more as it makes it easier to pivot and float the ski in deep snow and there's less chance of the tip of the ski ploughing beneath the snow and unbalancing the skier.

I met up with Al Morgan, technical editor of Ski+board magazine's annual ski tests, at the London Ski Show at the end of October and he told me: "The development and marketing attention of skis in recent seasons and for this season has primarily focused on freeride skis. Skis have also become lighter due to developments in construction, and the high-tech materials used allow the ski performance to be maintained, or even enhanced, despite the lighter weights."

Weight reduction

Morgan told me how companies such as Head are using graphene and/or Koroyd this winter in their new Joy range of women-specific skis to keep the weight down while maintaining good performance characteristics.

"This combined with rocker shapes means that skis have become so much easier to use, and despite the fact that the rocker shape initially came from powder skiing, it's now filtered down to all types, including the race category. It's also helped to make ski performance more predictable as skis don't catch or grab on the snow as much as they used to."

Morgan considers that reducing weight will continue to dominate ski development for the foreseeable future. "For this season, for example, several skis have used a lightweight honeycomb construction of the tip and tail which reduces weight, helps them to float over soft snow and generally makes them easier to ski. What's more, this has filtered down from 'freeride' skis to 'all-mountain' types."

All-mountain skis normally have a 75-90mm waist and best suit skiers who mostly stay on piste but delve occasionally into the back-country. Morgan thinks we'll see the even narrower skis that are used for piste skiing adopting this technology over the coming seasons.

Daniel Tanzer, product manager for skis and ski poles with leading US brand Scott, also points to reduction in ski weight as one of the biggest current innovations. "Scott is using carbon and Kevlar in its ski construction as a result of the company's long-standing heritage as carbon experts, and this has given us new levels of lightweight performance.

"We use a combination of an elliptic construction, paired with carbon and Kevlar laminates, which gives a really light ski that's especially good for ski touring and mountaineering, while our new three-dimension sidecut design improves edge control and power transmission underfoot and will be used in 2015/16 in our Superguide and Cascade models for ski mountaineering.

"The tip and tail radii allow for easy turn initiation, while the flat line of the ski and a larger turn radius provide stability, power and precise edge hold," Tanzer says. This isn't just marketing talk: Scott's ski designs have won numerous ski industry awards.

Tanzer believes the current trend to move away from the pistes to the back-country will be a major factor in skiing in the coming years. He points out that as skis get ever lighter it also becomes less demanding to climb with them either on your feet or strapped to your pack, and this, combined with improved safety equipment, is making the wild, untracked slopes away from ski resorts increasingly appealing to competent skiers.

Indeed, last winter I was one of the testers at the Ski Industry of Great Britain (SIGB) annual ski tests in Austria, and the plethora of back-country skis on trial was obvious for all to see.

I headed off-piste with fellow tester and ski writer Rob Stewart on a pair of big, wide Blizzard skis, and we both remarked how much easier these 'planks' are to ski now than they were just five years ago. When I bumped into Stewart at the Ski Show this autumn, he told me how impressed he'd been by the new offerings for this winter.

"Where it used to be downhill ski racers driving and influencing ski technology, now it's more freeriders. For me, the most interesting innovations for 2015 are the convex base design of some skis and tips that are 'hulled' out like the hull of a ship.

"These features are designed to allow expert skiers the ability to travel faster and with more control in deep snow, but the technology will undoubtedly trickle down to more recreational skis. The new version of the Atomic Bent Chetler Pro ski looks like being the most interesting, with a hull-shaped tip and tail, bigger length and skinny waist."

This combination of sophisticated technology and esoteric names may seem a bit 'out there' for something as simple and straightforward as sliding down a snowy hill, but the skis of 2015 are light years away from what we were skiing on at the turn of the century, and all the better for it. 

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