Timing is everything. I had the good fortune to retire from ski racing just at the start of an equipment revolution. So now, as my technique gets less refined, the equipment gets more refined. The result is that has-beens like me are now the Ponce de Leon's of the ski world. We can get the same sensations as the racers we once were with the energy input of the weekend warriors we have become.
The addiction to good gear is tough to break. Once you've been dialed in, it's hard to be nonchalant about getting the goods. You have in this issue reviews of all the coming season's greatest gear. But how do you know what is best for you? First off, be assured that the skis for those of us who do not consider Spandex and a crash helmet as business attire are now a whole lot closer to "race stock" equipment. They are as close as you would want them to be. Trust me-you do not want Hermann Maier's skis. You may want Atomics, but not his Atomics, unless you also want a case of acute whiplash. You also don't want Maier's boots: He carries seven pairs of varying shell stiffness, the softest of which you and all the members of your ski club would be unable to collectively flex.
Equipment, you see, is a personal choice that must match your size, strength, style and ability-there is no absolute best stuff-there is only the right stuff.
In this day of the high-end demo centers, you can do what the racers do: try, try, and try some more. Often people think that they're not good enough to know the difference. To be sure, not everyone can articulate a ski's attributes, and it does help to listen to those people who can describe a ski as well as a connoisseur can describe a fine wine. But everyone can feel what's right and what's not. If, like some racers I know, you can only come up with two variations on your analyses, like "awesome" and "sucked," well, that's really all you need.
Do yourself a favor and have an open mind. Two years ago, when shorty slalom skis first showed up on the scene, the top racers predicted it would take years for them to catch on. In fact, the code name among the service technicians for Salomon's first shorty was "chick skis." At the 1999 World Alpine Championships in Vail, Colo., the top male slalom skiers were quoted as saying the short skis had no place with the big boys. But lo and behold, look what turned up on the glaciers for training last fall.
That set off an 11th-hour frenzy of testing for racers and reps throughout last season. On the World Cup, slalom skiers were testing radically different equipment, then racing and sometimes winning on it within the week. Brian Burnett, a service technician for the U.S. men's speed team, describes how the race for the right stuff has changed ski manufacturing.
"Skis are going from the drawing board to the snow in a matter of weeks instead of months," he says, noting that men's World Cup slalom skis now range from 168 cm to 175 cm, a far cry from the victorious 205s of the last three decades.
While the designs are being fine-tuned at the World Cup level, the short shift has already been adopted at the consumer counter. Even those of us with no history of fast-twitch muscle fibers can bang out 30 of the tightest, cleanest slalom turns we ever dreamed of-and then take them into the moguls. Don't try that on your old favorites.
The competitive chaos created by shorties is not unprecedented, and it demonstrates how a limited supply of the right stuff quickly creates a dog-eat-dog environment. One such battleground was the concept of lift. It all started with the Derbyflex plates that added lift and dampening to skis. Shortly after their first appearance, Derby's became an absolute necessity in competition, and the business of procuring this scarce resource was akin to buying crack. Because there were so few being manufactured, it wasn't unusual to drive long distances late at night to meet a source for the rubber and aluminum contraptions. And when somebody was iinjured or retired, the vultures circled with one question: "Who's getting the Derbys?"
Derbymania cooled when ski and binding manufacturers developed their own versions, conforming to height rules set by the FIS, skiing's international governing body. Racers kept adding lift until they were teetering atop a stack of plates and lifters, so the FIS stepped in to stop the madness with a maximum height regulation measured from the bottom of the ski to the bottom of the boot. But as one piece of the puzzle is solved another enters the mix. Almost immediately, the Austrians-who relentlessly push the limits and drive change-showed up in the ski boot equivalent of platform shoes that elevated the foot from inside the boot.
New regulations were passed that set a maximum distance from the bottom of the boot to the top of the footbed (FIS officials drop a rod inside the boot to measure). Still more height regulations may be enacted in women's skis, due to last season's high rate of injury. I bring this all up to assure you that the standards in the equipment you buy are not arbitrary, but the result of tireless trial and error.
The right stuff is most individualized when it comes to boots that have to be absolutely perfect in fit, stance, height and flex. Dialed-in boots are the single piece of equipment every ski racer works most to preserve and protect. If you feel as if you're a bit fussy when it comes to boots, you're in good company. Cindy Nelson still dusts off her vintage Eighties Cabers-amazingly fresh-looking and free of duct tape-for the U.S. Ski Team's annual Return of the Champions race. They are the same ones you'll see in every Ingemar Stenmark poster from the same era.
Several years ago, word leaked out that one boot company was stopping production of its most popular racing shell. Not about to let the Euros scoop up the suspected secret stash, a U.S. Ski Team rep engineered a sweep of the factory in Montebelluna, Italy, filling duffel bags with every discontinued shell that would fit. One of the recipients recalls, "I remember him pulling into the hotel parking lot in Bormio and boots were spilling out of his car. Those boots lasted three of us the rest of our careers. I still have one new old pair left that I might have to set up for this year." Without the benefit of a life's supply of your favorite boot, the best advice is to take the time to get your boots fit properly, then protect them with your life.
Sometimes in your search for gear, you just get lucky and end up with a piece of equipment that is magical, like wings on your feet that make any move possible. For the sponsored athlete, the trade-off of getting free equipment is that none of it comes with a deed of ownership. In other words, the rep giveth and the rep taketh away. The best you can hope for is that the gear gives you enough confidence to boost you permanently to a higher level and you can stay there when it inevitably disappears.
Trust yourself. If you get that feeling, buy it, whatever it is. And if you're around ex-ski racers, don't leave it unattended.