Discovering something new in skiing may simply be the result of where you happen to be standing in the liftline. Guys have met their wives this way. Last winter I discovered a new variety of skis. Their tails were only 10 inches long.
It happened at Mid-Vail as I was searching the crowd for my wife (no, not a new one, the one I already have). Suddenly I was staring into the 52-year-old choirboy face of John McMurtry, former U.S. Ski Team coach. And next to him, one-time Ski Team strength trainer John Atkins. Both men work in the Vail clinic of Dr. Richard Steadman, who repairs the busted knees of famous pro athletes and ski racers. So great is the incidence of knee injury on the World Cup that the number of racers on the circuit today is equal to the number of knee surgeries performed on them.
There's growing agreement that the tail of the ski may play a significant role in knee injury. It can happen when the skier falls backward and no binding release occurs. The higher your boot is off the snow, the greater are the forces coming back from the ski through the boot to your knee. The combination of a long ski tail that's trapped in the snow and a highly elevated binding platform, or lifter, can be hazardous to your knees.
McMurtry led me to where four skis from different manufacturers were lying on the snow. I eyed a pair of 160-cm Völkl Carvers. They reminded me of the first short skis of 50 years ago, created when the tails of conventional 7-foot skis were sawed off. But no one had shorn these skis. They looked tail-less because the bindings were mounted so far back. "We're checking them out," McMurtry said. "Why don't you take a test run?"
"I hate short skis."
"You'll be surprised," he said. In front of me was what looked like the forebody of a 180-cm ski. "It will feel even longer because of 'The Flo.'" Named for its inventor, one-time TRW aerospace engineer Adrian Floreani, Flo is an anti-shock vibration damper of lead shot in synthetic oil, contained inside a 4-inch translucent tube, mounted behind the ski tip. Imagine throwing an overripe tomato against a wall. Thud. No bounce. That's Flo.
"OK," I muttered, "I'll try them." I stepped into the bindings...or I should say that I stepped up onto them because they looked twice as high as my own bindings.
On the chairlift, McMurtry told me they were 50 percent higher than the FIS limit on binding lifters. At the summit, I smoothly glided toward a blue run. I promised myself to erase from my mind the void behind my feet. As I accelerated in a straight schuss, I sensed none of the instability I often feel on short skis. The theory behind The Flo is that each ounce of weight adds the equivalent of 2 centimeters to the ski's length.
"I'll just ski the same way I do on my 197-cm Head Cybers," I said to myself. I made long arcing GS turns, pressuring the edge early. It was a pleasure to ride these odd-looking boards. The high platform furnished a sense of effortless edge control. Yet it appears the benefit comes without leveraging your knee-of interest to the Steadman Clinic.
Like binding safety expert Carl Ettlinger, who has long advocated "knee-friendly skis," Floreani believes the shaped ski's tail should be redesigned to reduce injury in recreational skiing. In effect, he has created a "phantom tail" to battle the "phantom foot" that Ettlinger believes to be at the root of many ACL injuries.
I wish him success. For years, I've suggested that manufacturers offer recreational skiers gear that puts a premium on comfort and reduced knee stress, as well as competition-caliber skis and high, stiff boots. Floreani will undoubtedly be mocked by the high priests of performance: "What serious skier would want to ski on something with almost no tail? It cannot perform!" To which Floreani responds: "Why do we ski? Is it to wear a pair of skis that the industry claims has the greatest performance? Or to have fun, avoid accidents, ski with little effort and treatt our bodies in a healthy way?"