Skis 1998: The Specialists, Race Shapes

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When Deborah Campagnoni won the 1997 World Championships giant slalom in Sestriere, Italy, she cheated. She used those fat-tipped, skinny-waisted shaped skis that people use when they can't finish a turn on their own. Winter training wheels. Cheater skis.

For all of you who grew up believing that race skis have to look like rulers, we have this message: Times have changed. Shaped, giant slalom race skis—what we call Race Shapes—are here to stay. "Every race brand is now well down this road," says Tait Wardlaw, product manager for Dynastar. "This coming year, very few of our World Cup racers will be on anything but shaped GS skis, and every one of our American skiers will be on them." One note: Just because these Race Shapes are easier to turn doesn't mean you're allowed to sleep at the wheel. As Felix McGrath explains, "Because they react so quickly, they require even better timing." Hungry for speed? Look no further.

Gold Medal Skis

The Atomic Beta Race 9.28 (188-203 cm; $829), with its checkered-flag graphics, is nothing less than a speed machine. Two rubber dampeners keep the ski stuck to the hill, no matter how fast you go. And an asymmetrical shape—the small toe side has a 28-meter sidecut and the big toe side has a 30-meter sidecut—lets you pressure both skis in the turn without forcing you into an ultrawide stance. It may be the ultimate mix of race and shape.

"The best of both worlds," said Bigford. "The shape made it easy to turn, but there wasn't so much that it felt hooky." In fact, with slightly less curve than the other Race Shapes (97-61-82), the 9.28 can be skied in longer lengths. But it was the 9.28's tendency to remain unflappable at high speeds that endeared it to us. "This was one of my top picks," said Eva Merriam. "It instilled confidence in me throughout the turn."

So what if the K2 Merlin V (178-198 cm; $755) looks like a druid's bad dream. It grabs tight to boilerplate and is "versatile, stable and nicely round," said McGrath. A rock-solid Master's race ski, the V has enough rebound to launch you out of the turn, yet it behaves well enough to forgive almost all of your mistakes. The good manners come primarily from its piezoelectric dampeners, which absorb vibrations that come down the length of the ski. And the turn shape—the product of a 98-mm tip getting sucked into a 63.5-mm waist—perfectly delivers ease without edginess. The V promises big rewards to the racer who battles icy snow and variable terrain. "If you're balanced at the beginning of the turn," said Morgan, "you can do anything on this ski." At 198 cm, it's a near-super-G ski. At 193 cm, it's more versatile.

If you gave up on ski racing this year, you quit a year too soon— you missed the Rossignol 9X 9.9 (170-198 cm; $699), a tenacious yet shockingly easy dreamboat. "Smooth, quick and powerful," said Thys. "There's nothing this ski can't do."

The 9.9's smoothness (along with its bulbous 99-mm tip section) is what stands out most—the faster you go, the more subtle and responsive this Dualtec-wrapped cruiser seems to be. The result is "supreme confidence and comfort when the going gets rough," said Eva Merriam. Just lay the hip over a little (trust it to come back under you) then apply ankle pressure. Though you have to be strong with it, the 9.9 is a lightning-quick semi that shows its muscle from arc to arc to arc. Bigford voted it: "Best in course! Four-wheel drive with an attitude."

Not everybody spends all day in the racecourse, and the Volant SuperKarve I (178-198 cm; $575) will suit the racer who likes to duck out of the gates for a few freshies.

In the gates, the SuperKarve I is all business. "Solid and powerful," said David Merriam of its miraculous edgehold. "This ski never quits, even on rock-hard stuff." Campbell loved the Volant's "quiet ride" and the "strong tail section that never throws you." Perhaps the ski's biggest fan was McGrath, the toughest judge in the groupHe found the SuperKarve I particularly well-suited to the new racing technique: "Let your ski get out from under you and you can trust it will come back around. It holds extremely well."

A soft tip section means the SuperKarve I can be overpowered if you get too far forward, so ski this locomotive over the middle and the course is your oyster.

While a lot of race shapes tend to be ultradamp "snow-huggers" with a preference only for big, long arcs, the Völkl P30 Race Carver (170-200 cm; $735) is, in David Merriam's words, "light and lively."

The Race Carver isn't necessarily crazy about slalom turns, but if you change your mind in the middle of a big hard arc, the ski responds instantly. Considered by Morgan "the best all-around platform on the course," this ski also inspired "oohs" and "aahs" for its snappy response time. Simply put, the Race Carver is one of the highest performance race shapes on the market, and you can feel just as confident taking it for a ride off course to get some groomed steep thrills. "Tons of energy," said Bigford. "Great grip," said Thys. It's also a great choice for a hard-charging All- Mountain Expert. The Carver's muscular crunch will give traditionalists chills, and the razor-sharp, big-arc platform will make new-school racers want to play hooky all day.

Silver Medal

The lighter skier who still wants to dust the competition should consider the featherweight Dynastar Max Zero (170-197 cm; $625). "Does lots of things well, but it's definitely for lighter skiers," said Eva Merriam. "The Zero leans more toward all-mountain skiing than racing, but it would be a great one-ski choice for light racers," added McGrath. The integrated Power Stack lifters that raise the boot and binding 14 mm off the ski, and its dramatic sidecut—97-62-88—render automatic turns. Fun, snappy and light. The Salomon Equipe AXE(160-196 cm; $635) is about as relaxed and smooth a GS ski as we've ever tried. Which is surprising, given the ski's exaggerated sidecut—99-63.5-89. Looking at it, you'd expect a hooky, jumpy turner. But thanks to Salomon's twin Prolink dampening arms, the AXE really cuts through the rough stuff. The ski has the same sidecut as Salomon's popular Axendo skis, and would suit skiers both on and off the course. "Great for junior racers and smaller skiers who want more sidecut to help bring their skis out of big arcs," said Haecher.

Super Carvers

In the beginning, there was the Carve. The Carve gave confidence to the inexperienced, and it gave hope to the terminally intermediate. And it was fun. So much fun, in fact, that some people wanted to carve all day. n And the Super Carver was born. If you're a carving addict and you want to spend hours leaving trenches in the snow (or making snowboarders wonder if they chose the wrong sport), consider getting one of these skis. Just lay it over for dramatic turns. And big G-forces. And twisted necks from skiers in chairlifts who wonder what, exactly, you have on your feet. n For the first time, the Super Carvers are offering something else: Versatility. The gold medalists here actually let you have fun all over the hill. "These skis let you out of the turn as easily as they've always let you go into it," said Mike McMenamy. "They're fun, but they're also adaptable."

Gold Medal Super Carvers

The Atomic CarvX 9.14 (I50-180 cm; $599) is one of the smoothest carves on the market. What sets the 9.14 apart is its uncanny balance of big shape (a 14-meter sidecut is among the most dramatic ever made) and dampness. The key to its easy feel: The dual lobes of rubber that run its length and keep it in contact with the snow. "Soft and sensitive," said Shelton, "but steadfast in big arcs. It has whale flukes for a tail, but it really cooks in lots of turn shapes." Said Campbell: "A beautiful, versatile, stable ski. It lets you carve, but it also sets you free." Yowza. With a color-coordinated, beefy lifter plate on an already extreme-looking ski, the Elan SCX RP(173-193 cm; $625) is a hot rod that looks fast even standing still. The RP (made by the originator of the parabolic) is "an edge-to-edge sewing machine, stitching quick, pure crescents one after another," said Shelton. Masia also found the supple tip of the RP both a bain and a blessing: "It flops around a little, but if you back off, it's the best combination of smoothness and grip in the test." Perhaps the least interested in skidding of all of the skis tested, the RP is simply a ripping carver. While the Head Cyber Space (160-180 cm; $530, $560 w/Tyrolia Carve Plate) is named after the electronic void, it is no virtual ski—it is all real, all the time. "This ski seems to have the ultimate mix for a Super Carver—easy and welcoming into the arc, followed by tenacious edge grip," said Bigford.

"This ski has just the weight and dampness to allow it to hold in all phases of the turn," said McMenamy, who, like Bigford, found the Cyber Space particularly well-suited to hard snow. Thibeault loved the Cyber Space's "silky transition from turn initiation to exit," and all testers remarked on the ski's forgiveness. With smoothness and bite, the Cyber Space will make left-coasters and Yankees equally happy.

XTZ—Ecstasy. We get it. And despite the dopey pun, the Kà¤stle XTZ (160-180 cm; $415) lives up to its name, and knocked our socks off. "A runaway winner," said Campbell. "It improves with speed and can trench as well as any other in this group. The more you relax, the more it flows. This ski is certainly the best carver, but it's also more than that. It will have broad appeal." Whew. High praise from an elegant, upright stylist...but echoed throughout the test group: The XTZ can lay down trenches, but it also responds to subtle input. Said McMenamy: "It is incredibly versatile, but it's ready when you want to really rip." Lay it over as far or as little as you wish, and the XTZ will send you into flights of...oh, alright, ecstasy. While most skis in this group will do a lot of things well, there is one kind of snow that always seems to give the average Super Carver (none of them here) some problems: cut-up, beat-up, chopped-up stuff. Not the Kneissl Ergo CG (165-185 cm; $659, $819 w/plate) which Moscarella said "rips high-speed arcs, even through 6 to 8 inches of powder," which was unheard of in the Super Carvers just last year. And the Ergo CG pleased a lot of people for other reasons, too. "Enter the turn with an easy touch and a centered stance, and you'll be rewarded," said McMenamy. "The Ergo is as versatile a ski as you'll find in this category. Cat-like agility and a sweet disposition."

Conventional Skis

These GS skis have less sidecut than the race shapes, but still plenty of curve, Traditionalists with well-developed technique will appreciate their versatility and stability. And for dancing and dicing down the fall line, there's no substitute for a slalom steed.

Conventional GS: Gold Medals

Atomic Arc 24 (184-206 cm; $649)—Big-ski feel with a no-compromise edgehold.
Dynastar Coupe G9 Power Drive (182-209 cm; $695)—Tons of energy, tons of rebound.
Kà¤stle GS World Cup (185-205 cm; $695)—A silky-smooth truck, with a high-end laminate feel.
Rossignol 9X 9.3 (177-201 cm; $699)—Sophisticated, damp, smooth. Great for serious racers.
Salomon Equipe 1S (192-203 cm; $725)—Ultradamp, snow-hugging ski.

Conventional SL: Gold Medal

Dynastar Coupe S9 (180-206 cm; $650)— The ultimate in edgehold and quickness on any snow.
Elan MBX WC SL (183-203 cm; $625)—Big sweet spot with a forgiving tip section.
K2 QX11 ( 187-202 cm; $650)—The snappiest slalom ski in the test.
Rossignol 9S (173-205 cm; $699)—Big-league precision that requires an experienced driver.er plate on an already extreme-looking ski, the Elan SCX RP(173-193 cm; $625) is a hot rod that looks fast even standing still. The RP (made by the originator of the parabolic) is "an edge-to-edge sewing machine, stitching quick, pure crescents one after another," said Shelton. Masia also found the supple tip of the RP both a bain and a blessing: "It flops around a little, but if you back off, it's the best combination of smoothness and grip in the test." Perhaps the least interested in skidding of all of the skis tested, the RP is simply a ripping carver. While the Head Cyber Space (160-180 cm; $530, $560 w/Tyrolia Carve Plate) is named after the electronic void, it is no virtual ski—it is all real, all the time. "This ski seems to have the ultimate mix for a Super Carver—easy and welcoming into the arc, followed by tenacious edge grip," said Bigford.

"This ski has just the weight and dampness to allow it to hold in all phases of the turn," said McMenamy, who, like Bigford, found the Cyber Space particularly well-suited to hard snow. Thibeault loved the Cyber Space's "silky transition from turn initiation to exit," and all testers remarked on the ski's forgiveness. With smoothness and bite, the Cyber Space will make left-coasters and Yankees equally happy.

XTZ—Ecstasy. We get it. And despite the dopey pun, the Kà¤stle XTZ (160-180 cm; $415) lives up to its name, and knocked our socks off. "A runaway winner," said Campbell. "It improves with speed and can trench as well as any other in this group. The more you relax, the more it flows. This ski is certainly the best carver, but it's also more than that. It will have broad appeal." Whew. High praise from an elegant, upright stylist...but echoed throughout the test group: The XTZ can lay down trenches, but it also responds to subtle input. Said McMenamy: "It is incredibly versatile, but it's ready when you want to really rip." Lay it over as far or as little as you wish, and the XTZ will send you into flights of...oh, alright, ecstasy. While most skis in this group will do a lot of things well, there is one kind of snow that always seems to give the average Super Carver (none of them here) some problems: cut-up, beat-up, chopped-up stuff. Not the Kneissl Ergo CG (165-185 cm; $659, $819 w/plate) which Moscarella said "rips high-speed arcs, even through 6 to 8 inches of powder," which was unheard of in the Super Carvers just last year. And the Ergo CG pleased a lot of people for other reasons, too. "Enter the turn with an easy touch and a centered stance, and you'll be rewarded," said McMenamy. "The Ergo is as versatile a ski as you'll find in this category. Cat-like agility and a sweet disposition."

Conventional Skis

These GS skis have less sidecut than the race shapes, but still plenty of curve, Traditionalists with well-developed technique will appreciate their versatility and stability. And for dancing and dicing down the fall line, there's no substitute for a slalom steed.

Conventional GS: Gold Medals

Atomic Arc 24 (184-206 cm; $649)—Big-ski feel with a no-compromise edgehold.
Dynastar Coupe G9 Power Drive (182-209 cm; $695)—Tons of energy, tons of rebound.
Kà¤stle GS World Cup (185-205 cm; $695)—A silky-smooth truck, with a high-end laminate feel.
Rossignol 9X 9.3 (177-201 cm; $699)—Sophisticated, damp, smooth. Great for serious racers.
Salomon Equipe 1S (192-203 cm; $725)—Ultradamp, snow-hugging ski.

Conventional SL: Gold Medal

Dynastar Coupe S9 (180-206 cm; $650)— The ultimate in edgehold and quickness on any snow.
Elan MBX WC SL (183-203 cm; $625)—Big sweet spot with a forgiving tip section.
K2 QX11 ( 187-202 cm; $650)—The snappiest slalom ski in the test.
Rossignol 9S (173-205 cm; $699)—Big-league precision that requires an experienced driver.