In a year of extraordinary change, there are four extraordinary products-two skis, two boots-that, for various reasons, you won't see written up as medal-winners. And yet, they are all worthy of attention.
Perhaps the biggest paradigm leap comes from Salomon. Its Pilot "system" integrates ski and binding into a seamless whole designed to be greater than the sum of its parts (and sold only as a package; $949 for the Pilot 10.0, $849 for the 8.0). Instead of drilling through the topskin to attach the binding to the ski, Salomon ran axles through the sidewalls, one under the toe, one under the heel. The binding subtly rocks on these axles, allowing the ski to flex freely while distributing the skier's weight out over the ski's edges. It's an almost startling experience on snow. Given the right conditions (mostly groomed snow) and the right technique (stand over the middle) the Pilot delivers some of the sweetest, roundest arcs we've ever experienced, though off-piste, it can be overpowered by the strongest skiers. So why wasn't it tested? Because Salomon held it out of the test, citing internal concerns about how to position it and fearing that its performance was so different, testers might not "get it" right away.
Meanwhile, Rossignol has created something similarly new: All-Mountain Expert skis derived directly from its world-beating, ultra-short slalom ski, the T-Power 9S Deviator. Eureka, we cried. After years of being neglected amid the long-turn carving revolution, all you short-turn, fall-line rippers out there were finally about to see the benefits of the new shapes. The T-Power Viper ($749) is short. Really short. Though made for high-speed cruising and rock-steady hold on hard snow, maximum length is a diminutive 174 cm. At the ski's Vail unveiling, we spent a day trying to find its shortcoming (so to speak) but never did. So imagine our surprise when it didn't show up for testing. The reason: Rossi feared its quick little cruiser would be left behind by longer, more stable competitors. We think they sold the Viper short, and we urge all those short-turn fanatics out there to find a demo pair and conduct their own test.
In boots, innovation came from three companies: Atomic (whose Tritech boots you'll read about in these pages), Lange and Dalbello. Lange, long a performance leader, went after improved safety with its new Rear Release System, featured on the V9 ($575). In an effort to protect skiers from ACL sprains, the company employed a device that would reduce ligament stress during the rearward falls that commonly induce such injuries. RRS is an adjustable circuit breaker, if you will, mounted on the spine of the V9. It pops open under the strain of excessive rearward force, releasing the cuff of the boot to vertical (as in walk mode), theoretically reducing the load on the knee.
Only on-slope statistical analysis can assess the RRS's efficacy, but Lange deserves praise for addressing the issue. As for performance, the V9 narrowly missed medaling. The RRS was its Achilles' heel, introducing too much rearward "slop," or flexibility. Perhaps with refinements the problem can be resolved, and meanwhile, it might be a wise trade-off for skiers concerned about knee safety.
Dalbello goes after game-improvement through better biomechanical alignment. Its new Stance Geometry System (SGS) promises improved balance for knock-kneed and bowlegged skiers (some 60 percent of skiers). Currently, only a handful of boot technicians are capable of accurately analyzing stance problems. They then either use under-binding cant shims or grind boot soles at corrective angles-both expensive options. SGS brings canting to the masses. It's an articulating sole on which the boot shell is tilted in or out, then locked. Our test of the SGS Vario TF model ($595) yielded dramatic results. It's an excellent product for knock-kneed or bow-legged skiers. But as an option for experts or skiers with normal stances, it falls short. Testers found it heavy and complained that it lacked snow-feel.
RRS and SGS: In each case, the manufacturer gets credit for taking a fresh approach. Along with the Atomics, these products signal the end of what, frankly, had been an extended period of inertia in boot design.