Ski manufacturers,with few exceptions, serveup the most impenetrable names in the sporting goods universe. What does "RX9 Railflex2" say to you? Does mere mention of the "i.XRC 1100 SW" give you goose bumps? As it happens, the new Fischer RX9 Railflex2is one of the most thrilling long-turn carving skis ever made, and Head's iXRC 1100 SW is among the best boards to hit the snow in years. But their names look like faulty computer code and fail to convey the magic of today's gear. Skis, you see, have never been better.
SKI Magazine gear testers haven't ever seen a time-and that means you haven't either-when intermediate, or even beginner, skis have offered such extraordinary performance. On the mountain, today's middle-of-the-road intermediate skis crush the top expert skis of just a decade ago. "Not that many years back, we'd test skis to decide which ones were good," says veteran tester Edie Thys, a two-time U.S. Olympic downhiller. "Now we test to decide whom they're good for. There are very few dogs out there." Only time will tell, but it looks like we may be basking in the golden age of ski gear.
Why? Largely because of the sidecut revolution, which, more recently, has been augmented by the development of the "system," in which three once discrete components-ski, binding and binding interface (lifters and plates)-have been integrated into a seamless whole. Most systems allow a binding's toe- and heelpieces to glide slightly fore and aft, respectively, during a turn, letting skis flex freely underfoot, with no "flat spot" where the rigid boot sole is clamped to the ski.
Another driving force behind recent gear improvements is that new adhesives and more-affordable exotic materials now allow engineers to build what once they could only dream about. "Most of the ski gear we design today could not have been manufactured 10 years ago," says Tait Wardlaw, Dynastar's alpine business manager. "Short, deep-radius skis could not exist, because we didn't even have the materials, let alone a way to make them stick together. At that time, the only way a ski could hold any kind of a turn is if it was built so stiff that it was literally too strong to flex. Now, making a turn and holding it is effortless."
Last year, approximately 80 percent of SKI's Gold Medal skis were equipped with binding systems; this year, the number is closer to 90 percent. Why? Primarily because they work-and really do boost a ski's performance. Another reason, however, is that ski manufacturers are not above holding some of their best skis hostage, selling them only as part of a ski/binding system and driving package prices as high as $1,300. Either way, the days of remounting your old bindings on new boards to save a few bucks are going the way of the neighborhood milkman and the 25-cent can of Coke.
The next leap in technology you'll likely see will take place in electronics. Atomic, for example, has emerged with the first electronic binding, the Neox, which employs components made by its corporate sister, the Suunto watch company. Powered by a miniature watch-style battery, the Neox has sophisticated sensors that continually monitor the relationship between skier, binding and ski.
Does a clump of snow under your right boot have you slightly off-stance? Neox knows. Is the toe of your left boot askew? Just check the nifty LCD display window on the binding's toepiece. Neox also stores binding-release data, which helps you keep your bindings properly serviced (and, not coincidentally, helps provide liability cover for ski shops).
In skis, Head is using "intelligent chips," which constantly monitor and then adjust the torsional rigidity of its i.XRC models by sending electronic pulses that stiffen special fibers in the ski. It's only a matter of time before other gear gets electrified. Outerwear with built-in electronics to control an MP3 player, for example, is already available from manufactures such as Burton. Its Ronin 2L iPodd jacket includes a padded chest pocket for a player and a flexible "soft" control panel on the sleeve.
Ski boot innovation? For decades, that's been an oxymoron. But a few new features jump out this season. Head's Full Comfort System features an innovative chassis that cradles the midsection of the foot-inside the shell, but outside the liner. Leave it in for a tight fit. Take it out-whole or in part-for extra room.
Salomon's Spaceframe Asymmetrical Softening, developed for its race boot, has a more subtle impact. The lateral (little-toe) wall of the shell has been perforated with a honeycomb pattern of holes, which are filled with soft, rubbery material. This softens energy transmission to the edge of the uphill ski, the better to feather, or skid-steer, its arc. Lange and Rossignol have new heat-moldable liner technologies: a layer of nylon bristles takes a remarkably accurate, and surprisingly durable, impression of the foot.
Of course, not all change indicates progress. For instance, applause for the so-called "soft boot" boom has now faded into nearly complete silence. Rossignol was one of the pioneers in this genre, and some SKI testers thought the philosophy behind soft boots was a step forward: putting cushiony, comfortable material next to sensitive places like your instep, while leaving structurally rigid plastic in key locations for support. In the end, though, performance generally didn't measure up.(Or maybe the problem is just a puritanical streak in this country, which tends to look askance at anything that feels good.)
In general, however, the biggest problem you're likely to encounter in a ski shop this season won't be finding good gear. It'll be finding the right gear for you. Whatever you do, look beyond the indecipherable names. The RX9 Railflex2, you see, is actually a pretty hot ski.