About 5 years ago, XC Ottawa identified an area where we thought we could improve in order to be more competitive with the best skiers in Canada and beyond. This area was ski selection. In other words, we were convinced that we should be able to have faster skis. This entails not only having skis that are simply of higher quality, but skis that were picked specifically for us and the variety of conditions for which we wanted to use them.
A given skier at the elite level, for instance, needs several pairs of both skate and classic skis, chosen with specific flex characteristics known to work well in particular conditions. The trouble was that at the time, finding someone who had the skill and the willingness to do this for us was very difficult. To our knowledge there was really no one in Ottawa that was available to the general public that was also what you might describe as a professional ski selector.
After some searching, we identified Zach Caldwell (now of Boulder Nordic Sport -www.bouldernordicsport.com- but then operating from his home in Vermont) as someone who could do this. For several years we made an annual trip to work with Zach picking skis for team members. The results were everything we had hoped for and more. The end result was that those of us who did this had not only skis that were better, but skis we understood. We knew which ones to use in particular snow conditions, and also in some cases and how to wax them to maximum effect.
We are happy to say that now, professional level ski testing is much more
easily available, particularly in the National Capital Region. Specifically,
some businesses that we can personally recommend are Fresh Air Experience (http://www.freshairexp.com)
and Gatineau Nordique Sport (http://gatineaunordiquesport.com) in Ottawa and Chelsea
respectively, and Racing Grind Service ( http://www.racinggrindservice.com
), near Quebec City. Farther afield, we can certainly also recommend the aformentioned Boulder Nordic Sport at www.bouldernordicsport.com.
Fresh Air Experience, for instance, can test your skis before you buy them, and is willing to guarantee that you will be happy with them. If you are not, they will exchange them. They can also test your current skis so that you can choose your new skis to complement what you have already. That, in our opinion, represents a major plus for the skier.
Now of course, you might be asking what it is that these "ski selectors" actually do? Maybe you are also wondering, well, even if I know what they do, how is this applicable to me or the skiers I coach?
Of course, I am not going to tell you all about the details of what goes in selecting Alex Harvey’s quiver of 50 or so pairs of skis. For one thing, I really have no idea. For another, the vast majority of it is likely not going to be relevant for people reading this.
At the same time, I can provide you with a rough overview of what professional testing of your present equipment, or perhaps equipment that you are looking to buy once you re-mortgage the house, might do for you.
Semi-experienced skiers will be able to tell you that spending a lot of money on a pair of skis does not represent, in any way, a guarantee that those skis will be good. While more expensive skis will make use of more technology and expensive material, they remain very variable in terms of flex, which is critical in terms of determining the following:
1. -The "absolute quality" of the ski. In other words, are these skis generally good, or not.
2.-Whether or not the ski is suited to the skier (this goes beyond the most basic considerations of height and weight)
3.-The conditions for which the ski will be most suited for.
This last point is probably of most interest to many of you. While it would be great if you could buy one set of skate or classic skis and have it work optimally in all conditions, this is simply impossible. Ski performance is really the result of the relationship between the ski and the snow that it is sliding on (well, for sure the person riding those skis actually matters more than anything else!) The flex of the ski, which is arguably responsible for most of its performance, does not change. The snow that it is sliding on, however, most certainly does. This means that ultimately, different conditions call for not only different wax and different structure in the base, but skis with different flex characteristics. These characteristics are possible to measure and evaluate, allowing a ski tester to pick skis with specific snow conditions in mind.
While from a financial perspective this is maybe unpleasant to hear, one professional technician, when pressed to put numbers on it, guessed that ski flex is responsible for about 70% of ski performance, base structure for about 20%, and wax for about 10%. While this relationship most certainly varies in response to a wide range of factors, it is safe to say that in terms of the overall performance of a ski, ski flex is extremely important.
Suppose that you have a pair of skis that you are really happy with in cold, hard conditions and are contemplating buying a new pair. You would probably want to make sure that the new pair is good for a different type of condition, say, for example, warm and slushy snow. Testing your skis allows you to eliminate much of the guesswork associated with choosing a ski for a particular snow condition.
The process of testing skis works roughly like this. The tester will take a ski and put it on a perfectly flat "testing apparatus”, and then apply different amounts of force (which he/she measures with a gauge) at slightly different places in a way that is designed to be representative of the real world demands of skiing.
For example, the tester might apply a force of 50% of the skier’s body weight at about 8cms behind the balance point to see what the ski will do when a skier is gliding with their weight evenly distributed on both skis. The tester will take note of things like "camber height" (how much room is there between the testing surface and the ski under the foot), the length and position of the wax pocket, and the amount of force that is required to flatten the ski (how much force will it take for the skier to press the wax into the snow?), and the distribution of pressure on the gliding surfaces, which provides an idea of the gliding and response characteristics of both skate and classic skis. As mentioned, the tester will conduct a number of measurements of this type to provide an overall picture of the ski.
For the average skier, the sum of these measurements will give you a very good idea of the following things and maybe a bit more.
-Is this ski basically a good ski?
-Is this ski a good ski that is also suited to me, both in terms of weight skiing level and skiing style?
-For what types of conditions is this ski most suited?
-For classic skis, how long is my wax pocket, and how many layers of wax should I normally be putting on?
-If I am using klister, how much should I shorten the wax pocket?
So now that you understand why it might be a good idea to get the skis you have tested, I would encourage you to go ahead and do it. I can pretty much guarantee that it will pay off in terms of your enjoyment on the trails this winter.