Backpack

HIGH ON SCIENCE

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

DAN BURKE December 12 1994
Backpack

HIGH ON SCIENCE

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

DAN BURKE December 12 1994

HIGH ON SCIENCE

Backpack

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

DAN BURKE

It used to be that the only science involved in downhill skiing was basic physics. Strap the human mass onto a pair of varnished floorboards, then allow gravity to work its magic. But that was before ski-equipment manufacturers invented a new sport: the pre-season shopping slalom, an activity that requires skiers to negotiate their way through an avalanche of marketing techno-jargon dreamed up by an industry in developmental overdrive. Observes former Canadian downhill champion Ken Read, now a Calgary-based ski consultant: “Everybody in the business is trying to have their own unique approach, their own solution, to performance.”

SPORTS SCENE

I

idea of mid-entries is to offer both the fit of an overlap boot—mid-entries have a four-buckle overlap design for adjustment of fit—and the convenience of rear entry.

One drawback with mid-entries is their complexity—composed of several moulded-plastic sections, the boot actually disengages from its forward-leaning position for entry and removal. As a result, Lange and competitors like Salomon have been busy modifying their designs. “They have changed the liner so that it moves back with the cuff,” says Greg Brocanier, a Toronto boot fitter.

“And Lange has made its buckle system a lot easier to use.”

A boot that certainly won’t suit a wide segment of the market is the Nórdica GPX RT, a Ferrari-like racing boot outfitted with a carbon-Kevlar sole and an “energy rail” that runs down the centre of the sole. According to the manufacturer, the energy rail absorbs “lateral stress” and “tortional twist,” while the carbonKevlar insert allows more intimate contact with the ski and snow surface. “Your movement is transmitted to the ski more efficiently with these boots,” says Mississauga, Ont., ski-equipment salesman Jason Paradine. “It makes you ski better.”

Unfortunately, the GPX RT’s hightech soles transmit not only the contours of the slope but also its temperature—usually sub-zero—to the skier’s foot. They are not warm. “When you’re looking for a boot for three or four runs, they’re great,” says Paradine. “But if you’re not going to be doing any radical skiing or getting any air, you don’t need them.”

In fact, new boots may not be nec, essary at all. Herb Stanway, a . 37-year-old Montreal busi| nessman and expert skier, 1 has skied with the same

Indeed, few popular sports are as heavily infused with high technology as skiing. Consider Lange’s recently developed “mid-entry” boots, which feature a hinged upper section that swings back for easy entry. By comparison, air-pumped basketball shoes and inline skates seem positively Flintstonian in design. And if the industry’s pitchmen are to be believed, the latest crop of advancements—including Nordica’s “carbon-Kevlar” boot sole inserts and Elan’s “cycloid”-edged skis—will ensure demonstrations of finesse in situations where once only wipeouts were possible.

Although ski wear has at best a marginal effect on performance, clothing designers have been no less attentive to technological opportunities. Phenix’s Bion II ski suit appears designed for space travel as much as for skiing.

In fact, NASA technology provided the Japanese company Swany with its design for Flexor gloves, the most advanced mitts on the market. Top-of-theline Flexors ($150 to $200) contain a heated liquid circulation system, much like a radiator.

Ultimately, a skier’s enjoyment depends on the eminently comprehensible concept of comfort. And where comfort is most crucial is in the boots.

While the 1980s brought “rear-entry” boots into vogue, this decade might eliminate them in favor of the mid-entry design developed four years ago by Lange. Tlie ease of putting on and removing a rear-entry model, which opens at the back, came at the expense of a snug fit. The

BUCKLE UP

pair of boots for the past eight years. Said Stanway: “The past couple of years, they’ve really started to fit and that’s what’s important. If I had to make a choice, I’d rather have lousy skis than boots that hurt.”

SEXY SKIS

The choice of skis depends on the type of skier— whether it be high-speed cruiser, mogul-basher or terminally graceless. For all skiers, and especially the latter breed, the good news is that refinements in ski con«afljf J§H fi struction over the past decade—and particularly since the introduction of the il ÊÊÊÊ monocoque or one-piece “cap ski”—have " enhanced performance at every level by

making turns easier. Like mid-entry boots, cap skis have been continually refined since Volant introduced them in 1989. Unlike a traditional ski, which consists of a separate top and sides glued together around a core, cap skis feature a single, sloping surface, which improves control and turning ability. Leading models ($500 to $800) are now produced by Elan, Salomon and several other companies. Says Ken Read: “Cap construction has improved the quality of skis dramatically.”

This season, however, brings an even more dramatic development: parabolic or “hourglass” skis. Thin at the waist and flaring wide towards both ends, parabolics are expected to be to skiing what oversized racquet heads have been to tennis. Experts say the curvaceous design makes turning easier still, an advantage that will appeal to many intermediate-level skiers. Already, three companies (Elan, S Ski and Kneissl) are manufacturing parabolics, though finding them in Canada remains difficult. Can Ski, an equipment boutique in Whistler, B.C., is approaching the market tentatively, having ordered only two pairs so far this season. Said Nick Bouvier, the store’s manager: “You’re supposed to be able to lean a lot with them. They’re like carving skis. But I can’t say I’ve ever seen them on the slopes.”

Indeed, parabolics may remain rare if not unseen in Eastern Canada, where retailers say they are ill-suited to j the prevailing hard-pack and sometimes icy ski conditions. I Read, however, sees some eastern potential for parabolics. “An evenly groomed hill is where they’ll work,” he says. “And with tiller technology, even grooming is simple.” But, adds Read, “the jury’s still very much out on parabolic skis.” One ski that has received a favorable verdict is the “fat boy,” a short, wide ski that is particularly popular among lovers of

n helicopter skiing. The fat-boy ^ concept is simple: the additional width increases a skier’s flotation in powder. Says Read: “The fat boys are what caught people’s imagination.”

BOLD BINDINGS

S

omehow, bindings do not capture the imagination as readily 1 as skiing’s sexier equipment items. But as the link between the boot and ski, they are integral conduits in the “energy transmission” process that is the focus of so much ski science. “There’s two sides to bindings,” says Can Ski’s Bouvier, an expert boot fitter originally from Monaco. “Intermediates and less experienced skiers buy them for [ski] release. Experts buy them for retention.”

Bouvier and others agree that the two most exciting bindings now available are the Marker M51SC and Salomon’s Suspension DR 9 EXP. Marker’s SC stands for “selective control,” which is plainly descriptive of a binding that can actually regulate the stiffness or “flex” of a ski. The SC has three selections: free flex for powder, stiff for icy, moderate for packed snow. An apparently sensible asset, the original SC is priced immoderately at about $300. A less expensive model is now available for lighter skiers.

Experts have found Salomon’s suspension binding to have its own equally remarkable qualities. “It takes all the chatter out of the skis,” says Bouvier. “At the same time, a raiser gets your boot to sit higher on the ski, which gives you more leverage, more edge control— more power in the edge bite.”

0VER-THE-T0P HATS

W!

'hile suits and gloves now appear in a wide range of hightech fabrics, this year’s most radical trend rests on an timeless material: fleece, used not only in ski vests and linings but also in a wide range of eccentric hats. The oddball hat trend began last season in Western Canada, where grunge-inspired snowboarders took to distinguishing themselves with unique headgear. “Hats are a big statement out West,” says Toronto native Joe Heskett, who worked at a B.C. resort last season. “You’ve got to have a stylish hat—yourYidX.”

One company that has taken the sub-cultish trend of novelty hats to the mass market is Murray Merkley Sportswear Ltd. of Toronto, which created a new division dedicated to jester-style and stocking caps made from fleece. Says company president Murray Merkley of the trend: “It has created a lot of excitement in the industry. You can do stuff with fleece that you just can’t do with knitting.”

Indeed, one U.S. company has used fleece to create a line of animal caricature headgear, one of which makes a skier look like a Viking with a sense of humor. Not everyone, however, is enamored of the trend. Ski purists like Nick Bouvier are hoping it won’t last. Observes Bouvier: “Last year, the funky hats started to get big. Hopefully, we will see it less and less this year.”

DAN BURKE