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Olympics

Anatomy of an Olympic Race Ski

What makes a ski worthy of an Olympic athlete? Hint: It's not necessarily the technology.

The skis you’ll see in this year’s Olympic alpine races are like fine wines, assuming the wine could hold an edge racing down an icy slope at 70 miles per hour. Each athlete’s “ski stable” consists of 15-30 skis per racer, which every elite skier hauls from continent to continent throughout the World Cup circuit. Certain skis are used more often due to their consistent performance, some skis are retired after substantial use, and new skis are constantly being tested and brought into the mix on a selective basis.

The HEAD Rebels i.GS, the preferred weapon of choice for a number of Olympians this year.
The HEAD Rebels i.GS, the preferred weapon of choice for a number of Olympians this year, including Lindsey Vonn.Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

The basic construction of the skis Olympians use is actually quite traditional and hasn’t changed much over the past 30 years. The point at which a race ski becomes World Cup-worthy, however, is in the technician’s shop. Much like a Formula One Driver has a professional pit crew, every Olympian has a dedicated, professional tech that custom-shapes every ski’s sidewalls, top sheets, and base structure. It’s this customization that turns a factory-built ski into an Olympic-worthy racing machine.

First, each new ski’s flex is calibrated and matched with a partner that has the same flex pattern. This process involves machines and detailed measurements—not just bending the ski like you’ve done at your local shop. The sidewalls are grinded and shaped so that the area directly above the edge becomes concave, preventing the ski’s ability to be over-edged at high speeds. The concave sidewalls are then sanded to be as smooth as a baby’s bottom, further diminishing their resistance through the turn.

After further shaping and modification on the bases and top sheets to get the flex pattern perfect, the skis are tested by the skier during training all year long. This testing is where the wine metaphor comes into play: The athlete will notice details related to the part of the tree that the wooden core was shaped from, the temperature the epoxy set at in the factory during construction, and other micro-differences that a regular consumer might not notice, but a sommelier will be able to decipher and describe in a particular way.

Only the sommeliers in this case are Olympic skiers and their dedicated ski techs, making sure the athlete is on the right skis to be the best in the world. 

race ski sidewalls
Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

Sidewalls
The ceramic, super-hard sides of the ski are ground down to become concave, which prevents over-edging. The sidewalls are then finely sanded to be smooth so they are nearly frictionless.

Race ski bases
Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

Bases
Underfoot, the base material is made denser next to the edges to minimize energy loss through micro-vibrations. It also reinforces the edges since the sidewalls are modified.

Race ski top sheet edges
Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

Top sheet edges
Composed of elastomer sandwiched between two sheets of Titanal, the edges are ground down to create micro-changes in the flex pattern. 

Race ski top sheets
Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

Top sheet modifications
In downhill and Super G skis, strips of the top layer of Titanal are removed near the toe and heel pieces of the binding, which allows the ski to have some flex. Without removing these sections, the ski would not flex at all.