"I've got just what you're looking for..."
If you haven't shopped for skis in a few years, prepare yourself for big changes in the store. Traditionally manufactured skis are now increasingly fewer in number, replaced by newer constructions and designs. This is not considered unusual: refinement and evolution have always been a part of ski design. Fat skis, for instance, were designed specifically for powder skiing by less accomplished (or less macho) skiers and have proved to work very well. Then came the first "hourglass" designs in 1995.
Hourglass skis are a much more radical departure from accepted ski design and are marketed as everything from a beginner's helping hand to an expert's race ski. This is not surprising in itself--after all a new "breakthrough" seems to be promoted every year--but now there's a difference. Now you're hard-pressed to find a ski that's not an hourglass shape! Manufacturers and the ski press have jumped into this with both feet and unless there's a severe backlash of unhappy buyers, it looks like next year's models may not include any traditional models at all. The rules are changing...
There are two basic ways to buy a pair of skis. The first is by reading ski magazines to educate yourself about what makes skis perform the way that they do and to familiarize yourself with what's on the market. Then you can narrow your choices down to consider a couple of models based on price, availability, and how much you like the salesperson.
The second way is to look for a good salesperson and effectively communicate your needs to them. Based on what you tell them (and what they want to sell you), they then choose one or two skis they feel have the characteristics you're looking for in your price range. This can be a very effective method if you can find a knowledgeable, experienced salesperson. If you can't, you'll probably wind up paying too much for the wrong pair of skis.
With the market changing so radically, though, there's a real need to add another arrow to your quiver: the "demo ride." Demo rides are simply the opportunity to test a pair of skis before you buy them (ski shops have been providing this service for years). Usually, a shop will rent you a pair of skis and bindings for a day or for the weekend. Generally, the cost of the rental will be at least partially deducted from the cost of a new pair. And in most cases, everybody's happy. You get to try before you buy and the shop sells a pair of skis.
What makes a ski tick...
- However you buy them, a ski's physical characteristics largely determine how it behaves on the mountain. By familiarizing yourself with these characteristics, you can get a reasonable idea if the ski is appropriate for your style of skiing.
- Side cut is the difference between the width of the ski at the middle, and the width of the ski at the ends. Side cut is what is so radically different in the hourglass ski. Generally, a ski with more side cut is easier to turn. The tradeoff is that it wants to turn a lot, making it less suitable for high speed cruising. Supposedly this has been overcome, although many people prefer to take a "wait and see" attitude.
- Stiffness or "flex" is measured a few different ways. Generally a ski that's stiffer along its length is not as easy to ski as a softer ski but will be a higher-performing ski under someone with very good technique. That's because it can store more energy when flexed properly.
Lengthwise, stiffness can also be broken down into three areas: the shovel, the middle and the tail of the ski. A shovel may be softened to initiate turns more easily and "float" in powder. A tail may be stiffened to provide good rebound for the next turn. Generally, an even flex pattern creates a more predictable ski, while a more varied flex pattern accomplishes specific goals, such as the ability to "jam" racing gates or bumps.
Stiffness can also be measured torsionally or across the ski. A ski that's torsionally stiff will be higher-performing and is generally desirable, while a ski that's torsionally softer will be more "forgiving" of technique errors by novices.
Construction used to be a lot simpler to understand. A GS ski was built in a layered "sandwich" manner producing a faster ski that was quiet on the snow. Slalom skis were built around a "torsion box" that gave a ski a lively feel and promoted quickness edge-to-edge.
Nowadays, many skis have a load-bearing cap with a variety of materials stuffed underneath. Others are essentially a "ski within a ski": the outer construction bears the initial flex and the inner section comes into play when the ski is farther along its arc. Still others incorporate vibration-absorbing devices that range from simple elastic layers to piezo-electric devices. The current thinking seems to reflect a desire for a ski that's initially fairly "damp" yet lively when skied hard.
Length also was once a lot simpler to understand. A GS ski was designed to be skied at lengths often exceeding 205 centimeters, while a slalom ski performed best at lengths at least 5 to 10 centimeters shorter. Modern skis rarely exceed 205 cm and the new hourglass ones are designed to be skied much shorter than that.
Discover what's out there now
Major ski magazines have issues available by September that detail the results of their ski tests. While this information reflects their desire to assist manufacturer's ski sales, the information can still be valuable by providing direct comparisons between models. By looking at more than one test issue, you can often detect a consensus of opinion about a particular ski.
Safeguard against gross over-indulgence
On a budget? There will often be leftover skis from last year's stock still available. By looking at last year's magazine test reports, you can find a terrific pair at substantial discount. Ski stores often have Labor Day sales just to clear these out, so look in your local paper and get there early for the best selection.
Try before you buy
Now that you've narrowed your choices, try to arrange to take them out for a spin. Before you demo a pair of skis, make sure that the shop has tuned them properly. Are the edges sharp? Ask if the edges have been beveled. Is there a fresh coat of wax on the bottom? Often a shop will not have the time to work on the skis on a busy morning. So improve your odds of receiving a pair in good shape by arranging your demo at least a day in advance. There are specific things that you should try to evaluate. Depending on your style of skiing or the intended use of the skis, you'll need to check most of the following characteristics:
- Take the skis onto a freshly groomed surface first thing in the morning. Find out if the ski chatters over that "corduroy" or if it's relatively quiet.
- Make a series of longer radius turns. Does the ski arc cleanly and easily or does it feel unstable and nervous?
- Make a series of shorter turns. Does the ski come around easily, with good rebound into the next turn, or does it want to go straight down the hill and have to be forced into any other move?
- Find some very hard snow or ice and ski across the hill while putting your weight on your lower inside edge. Does the edge "bite" and provide a solid grip? Or does it break loose and force you to scramble?
- Ski badly and throw your weight forwards and back. Does the ski "forgive" you and give you an opportunity to correct your stance? Or does it shoot out from under you immediately and become impossible to turn?
- Ski properly in a balanced stance. Does the ski respond well to pressure and allow you to drive it into an arced shape with helpful rebound? Or does it feel like a wet noodle with little "spring" to it?
- If you're a better skier, take the skis onto ungroomed snow and see whether the shovel gets knocked around in crud or tracks through with little difficulty. If powder is available, see how well the ski "floats" in deep snow.
Finally, take the skis through the racing gates (actually this will be the first thing some people do). Does the ski jump out of the ruts or does it hold the line? Do you have explosive energy available to help you into the next turn? Is there exceptional edge grip throughout the entire ski or just underfoot?
Think about replacing your bindings
If your bindings are more than six years old or have had a great deal of use, strongly consider replacing them along with your old skis. If they become dangerously worn over the next few years, you'll have to redrill your skis to mount a new pair. While this is not supposed to affect performance if done once (sometimes twice), who wants a bunch of holes in their equipment? Also, redrilling is only successful if the new holes and old holes are not too close to each other.