A few years ago, it sounded like marketing hokum: Ski companies that also owned binding brands began suggesting that their skis would perform much better with their own bindings. Suddenly, that claim has the added advantage of being true. Today, "systems" rule¿and they headline SKI's picks for Gear Of The Year, our salute to the best new equipment. This year, along with skis and boots, we've added a binding¿the first deemed extraordinary enough to earn the honor. In every case, the products here raise the bar for ski-equipment technology. We think they'll increase your enjoyment, too. Check out the the slideshow to the right for pictures of the Gear of the Year: 2002.
ATOMIC Beta Carv 8.18 Device
$595 (with binding),
Skier Type: Aspiring Carver, Player
Mated to Atomic's proven 8.18, the new Device ClickIn binding offers lower-level skiers the smoothest, easiest, most stable path to improvement. Three rubberized lobes running the length of the 8.18 filter out unwanted vibration, while the Device allows the ski to flex completely in each turn. The result: a round, nearly automatic arc. The binding (no drilling required; just the adjustment of a single center screw) glides on a pre-mounted track. And the ski's perfect tip shape draws even cautious beginners into an easy arc. In fact, "you can take this all the way through upper intermediate, if you so desire," said one tester. And trust us: You'll so desire.
DYNASTAR AutoDrive Speed Cross
Skier Type: All-Mountain Expert, All-Mountain Cruiser
Dynastar's M.O. has always been light, spicy and whippet-quick, but rarely beefy, serious and burly. With the Speed Cross, that has changed¿and quickly¿thanks to the ski's ingenious plate-ski system. The ski melds a responsive cap shape in the tip (for slalomesque turn initiation) a powerful, more conventional vertical sidewall underfoot (for trustworthy bite) and a slender sidewall in the tail section (for smooth turn exits). The aluminum plate brings it all together without adding much weight. "Yee-hah," testers said¿a quote so oft repeated it could be the Speed Cross's new nickname. Quick turn initiation, confidence-inspiring lift and stability, and great hard-snow grip make it perhaps the ultimate all-mountain ski made this year.
SALOMON Pocket Rocket
Skier Type: Freerider
Once upon a time, skiing was about fun. Somewhere along the way, skiing became about technology. But oh, how Salomon has brought us back to the "day" everybody is referring to when they say, "back in the day." The Pocket Rocket is a toboggan that carves, clad in a metallic, sky-blue topskin. It has two tips and a waist section you could land an airplane on¿and it rips. "Even in short turns," one tester said, which is amazing, given that the ski is otherwise custom-made for big-mountain, deep-snow adventure. To be sure, it's not fun on boilerplate. But even on groomers, it's a gas. And its titanium-reinforced cap construction puts out serious energy in short, hard turns. Also note that the maximum length is 185 cm: The Pocket Rocket comes into its own in tight spots with deep cover. With Rockets on your feet, who needs a helicopter?
VÖLKL Carver Motion
$895 (with bindings),
Skier Type: All-Mountain Expert, All-Mountain Cruiser
The Völkl Carver Motion's many and varied thrills emanate from the center of its ingenious Motion system. A single pin allows the Marker Titanium 1200 binding (included) to glide smoothly and silently on rails built into the ski. This frees the sidecut to do its work. For a huge portion of the skiing public¿the group that prefers cruising groomers to busting chop¿this is probably the highest-performing, most-versatile cruising ski ever made. Völkl calls the ski's internnal construction "energY xt," which is light and flexible enough to respond to very slight energy input, but strong enough to be tenacious on hard snow. Your every impulse gets translated directly to the edges, and the Motion system means that your every downward push will yield a powerful, smooth turn exit¿like a trampoline that lets you control the bounce.
TECNICA Rival X9
Skier Type: Player, All-Mountain Cruiser
It isn't fair, but some people are better built for skiing. Their lower legs look and behave exactly like the ideal-human models designers use to conceive new boots. The rest of us¿slightly bow-legged or knock-kneed¿are fighting our boots every time we flex, because our lower legs wander slightly inward or outward. But not if we're in a pair of properly aligned Rivals from Tecnica. By adjusting the way the cuff attaches to the lower shell, Rivals can be aligned to accommodate the inward or outward paths of forward flex that real people experience. For those affected, testers said, it could be a breakthrough tool. And the Rival X9 could take frustrated intermediates to new levels. Other than that, it's just another great boot from Tecnica¿a top-performer for anyone. Even perfect people.
Rossignol Soft 1
Skier Type: All-Mountain Cruiser, Player, Aspiring Carver
What a great sport skiing is. Too bad your feet are killing you. Enter Rossignol, one of a handful of brands (including Salomon, Kneissl and Dolomite) developing boots that work without working you over. The Soft is what its name implies: cushy, comfy and easy to put on or take off. Hard plastics comprise a skeleton of power transmission¿the stuff you need to steer a ski. Elsewhere, especially across the top of the foot, the Soft 1 is warm and yielding. So it's a joy to put on; but does it hunt? Even our testers¿intrinsically skeptical, curmudgeonly people¿were surprised by the performance. It especially rewards "touch" skiers, with its sensitive snow-feel. No one recommended it for experts in search of exacting power. But for those concerned more with how they feel than how they look, Soft is an appealing prospect, indeed.
Marker Comp 1400 Piston Control
Skier Type: Racer, All-Mountain Expert
Remember the instant exhilaration you experienced the first time you tried a performance-enhancing binding? Neither did we. But still we feigned excitement when Marker invited us to try its Piston binding. The oil-filled Piston itself, located directly underfoot, is a new kind of vibration device, designed to control the rebound of the ski as the skier finishes a turn. A subtle effect? No. The Piston goes to work when the skier unweights, and the new carving edges are noticeably quieter, ready to engage sooner at the top of the new turn. As you might expect, turns that start well tend to finish well. Performance-enhancement, indeed.