Cheaters Sometimes Prosper


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For the past two seasons I’ve been traveling around to ski demo events, observing people as they try new equipment and informally surveying them on the chairlift. I’ve learned a lot about the new skis, but perhaps more about the people who do-or don’t-use them. In this issue, you’ll read about our skeptics ski test, in which we attempt to convert diehard traditional-ski loyalists to shaped skis. It’s not always an easy sell. These are people who are satisfied with their own equipment and who don’t want the helping hand served up by the new skis.

There’s nothing wrong with healthy skepticism, but it doesn’t hurt to have an open mind either. What follows is an account of my own journey to conversion, with definitions to illustrate my point.

Luddite: One who is opposed to technological change. Derived from the 19th century English workmen who, with sledgehammers, destroyed labor-saving machinery. Luddites generally don’t like cheaters, especially when they’re cheating with technology. They proudly display stickers that say “short skis still suck,” and they cut a wide berth around demo tents, except when they’re heckling. In most cases, if you’re peddling something new, it’s best to keep your distance from Luddites, especially those wielding hammers.

Skepticism: An attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity, either in general or toward a particular object. Skeptics are less aggressive than Luddites in displaying their distaste for technology; however, they are wary of grand claims. When urged to accept shaped skis, they recall the Graduated Length Method and rear-entry boots, ski fads that didn’t pan out. Their cautious attitude is rooted in experience.

Cheat: 1. To deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud. 2. To influence or lead by deceit, trick or artifice. 3. To elude or thwart by or as if by outwitting. Synonyms for cheater: fraud, phony, impostor, conniver, scoundrel. Cheater is the label placed on anyone who seems to be having lots of fun without having to work for it.

I assumed that both Luddites and Skeptics were old codgers, stuck in their ways and unyielding to new ideas. But age has nothing to do with it. The most vehement traditionalists are often those most entrenched in the sport. They simply believe that their ability will outlast any fad. I understand this quite well, thanks to a personal history of technological resistance-and borderline Luddite tendencies.

Ten years ago, my dad suggested I try Derbyflex, the under-binding plate that had just been adopted by men on the World Cup. With added height and dampening properties, Derbyflex allowed for more power, better grip and tighter turns. I knowingly assured him that women didn’t need Derbyflex and that I would never use it. As proof, I pointed out that only one athlete was trying the plate, and I was suspicious of her anyway because she was always trying something new (trying to cheat, no doubt). Wise to my temperament, my father didn’t push the issue. But being well-versed in the business world, and knowing that every competitive edge counts, he wondered why I would wait for competitors to take the risks and reap the rewards.

Within a year, virtually all the women racers, including me, were using the plate. To this day it’s the one piece of equipment that every ski racer- regardless of world ranking-buys.

Years later, Dad started asking me about shaped skis. Wouldn’t they be good for racing? Before I had time to formulate my argument, Bode Miller created a stir in the racing community by winning a junior national title on a pair of K2 Fours, a recreational shaped ski. Perhaps it was an easy course, because surely these cheater skis couldn’t perform over difficult and varied terrain. Despite that widely-held perception, the racing community took notice, and by the next season, many of the top men were experimenting with more radical shapes.

After watching what was going on with the men, Deborahh Compagnoni decided she wasn’t going to wait around for Dynastar to make its shaped race ski, the SF, in a women’s length and instead raced the 1996-97 season on men’s skis. She walked away with the giant slalom title, winning races by several seconds. Did that make her a cheater, a “scoundrel”? True, she did “thwart by means of outwitting” the competition. But anyone who has seen Compagnoni’s mix of balance, power and precision knows that she could slice clean arcs on slats from a picket fence. She simply saw something better and went for it.

So shaped skis have proven their worth to racers. But people like me, who know how to work a ski yet no longer live by the timers, feed off the pure sensation of skiing. Because that involves more than carving the perfect arc, the shaped craze left us cold. At some of the demo events, I met up with other ex- ski racers who, like me, hadn’t updated their equipment since their racing days and still kept a stash of prized relics in the garage. Being classic skeptics who distrust anything that’s too easy, they had little interest in trying the new stuff. But because the demos were free, they felt compelled to try the shaped skis and substantiate their suspicions. Invariably, at the end of the day, when there were skis missing, they could be traced to the tough racer guys who refused to relinquish them.

As equipment editor at SKI, it’s my (admittedly pleasurable) job to try all the new skis, and throughout last season there were very few days when I was on my private conventional ski reserve. Unknowingly I was becoming a convert, which I finally realized last spring in Alaska. I had the opportunity to go heliskiing in the Chugach Range, with my own straight and skinny skis. High on a peak surrounded by pristine white, the Cook Inlet glistened below. It was paradise. Since I’d become accustomed to being on the new, wider shapes, I wasn’t thinking about equipment until I took the first turn. Heliskiing can be hit or miss until the guide finds the best exposure, and that first run found us atop a stretch of breakable crust. The snowboarders went first, cutting through the surface cleanly, as if slicing slightly stale bread. Next went a woman on fat skis, and then me, breaking through their tracks with squared-off jump turns. It would have been fine had I not been the only one struggling. But those “cheaters” (the guide included) were thriving in the junk, and that hurt. The bottom line: I was powder skiing in Alaska, and I was whining. At that moment I abandoned my pride and embraced technology.

I’ve taken exactly one run on my conventional skis this season, and based on that experience it doesn’t look as if they’ll get out much. I understand very well that nobody likes to be a pawn to marketing hype, and it’s not our intent to “lead by deceit, trick or artifice.” But by “depriving (yourself) of something valuable,” you may be cheating yourself.

If you’re a skeptic, give shaped skis a try. If you’re a Luddite, put down your hammer and, I beg you–please stay away from my garage.

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