A number of years ago, Time Magazine came under fire for giving its heralded "Man of the Year" award to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. "We don't just give awards to the really good guys," Time explained. "We give them out to the really nasty ones, too."
While that's a tempting idea, it wouldn't work in the ski industry. Skis have become so good in the past four years, we would be hard-pressed to find really bad ones. The companies that made the 1997-98 Skis of the Year are doing more than offering a great product. They are doing something especially rare-surging to the front of a race just as the race gets faster and more competitive.
This year, the race was to deliver a focused benefit without limiting the ski's versatility. Not surprisingly, then, these four models have distinctly different personalities, and will appeal to different skiers. But they are the same in one important way: They're the best in their class, and they won't fence you in. Like alchemists, the Skis of the Year will spin gold from your every turn.Free Thrills
Volant SuperKarve I (178-198 cm; $575)
In 1997, Shane McConkey's mom turned 53. Then she kicked everybody's butt at the Master's National Championships in Breckenridge. Her GS ski of choice: the Volant SuperKarve I. Her slalom ski of choice: the Volant SuperKarve I. Her super G ski of choice: yep. Still not impressed? Her son Shane won the U.S. Extreme Championships last year on a pair of...are we making ourselves clear?Of all expert shaped skis we tested in Beaver Creek, the one that elicited the most surprise and the most joy at the same time, because of its jaw-dropping versatility, was the SuperKarve I. In sum, Volant has managed to untie the Gordian knot of expert skis: In the past, the better the ski was, the more specialized it was. No longer. While the SuperKarve's 65-mm waist allows the ski to float in powder and dance through the glades, its supple tip section allows it to plow unperturbed through death cookies. And its stainless steel topskin makes it torsionally rigid, so it holds on boilerplate. And as Mrs. McConkey will tell you, it's fine in gates, too. Are you an expert tired of owning three pairs of skis for three different conditions? Get the Volant SuperKarve I, the expert's Ski of the Year.Arc Welding
Rossignol 9X 9.9 (170-198 cm; $699)
Not too long ago, serious racers put shapely race skis in the same category as hair transplants and double-knit suits: "Oh, sure," they'd say, "they're fine if you don't know any better, but they're not for me."For those who may have thought a top race ski with a big shape is for wimps, blimps and pretenders, we suggest you watch the World Cup this season. You'll get a good look at the most shapely GS and super G skis ever made because they'll be on the podium. And if you want that world-class bullet train feeling for yourself in a relatively user-friendly package, get the Rossignol 9X 9.9. It lays right down on the snow, accurately translates every subtle contour, and then takes off like a shot, as if on arced rails. For those accustomed to conventional race skis, the auto-pilot feel takes a little adjusting: Never before have we felt anything that initiates turns so easily and feels so solid when the real speed kicks in. In fact, there's nothing brittle-feeling about the 9.9 as it accelerates-just throaty horsepower. The 99-mm tip sucks the ski right into turns, and the heavy-duty Dualtec sidewall, pressed on its big sweet spot, sends you across the hill to the next gate. The 9X 9.9 leads the fastest category in the test. Smorgas-board
Atomic BetaCruise 9.22 (160-200 cm; $749)
There are few things in life more fun than discovering buried treasure. So start looking now: The Atomic BetaCruise 9.22 won't be made in huge numbers, and it won't necessarily be easy to find. But it will be worth the search-if you find it, you may not need another ski for quite some time.The 9.22 was built specifically for upper intermediates and new experts who love carving turns but who have been tentative (or even frustrated) at their inability to crack the back bowls or the long glades. The 9.22 gives you the code more easily and with more variety than any other ski. Powder, particularly for Easterners unaccustomed to its varying textures and depths, smooths out under the 9.22's burly yet subtle construction and its wide waist. And yet the big, turn-friendly 108-mm tip section makes maneuvering (even through trees and on hardpack) a simple matter of adding or subtracting ankle pressure. With minimal effort, you get huge float, zingy responsiveness and great hold on ice. Is it the dual rubber lobes that run down its back that give the 9.22 its Bentley Turbo ride? Is it all the schnitzel they ate over in Schladming while they were dreaming up this go-anywhere, do-everything ski? Who cares. Bowls are now playgrounds, and glades are now dance floors. Turning on the Lite
Völkl Snow Ranger Lite (163-198 cm; $475)
If you're lighter or less experienced, and if your budget is limited, look no further than the affordable, comfortable Völkl Snow Ranger Lite. It is one of the four Skis of the Year because it rewards those determined to expand their terrain horizons, even while they're honing their technique. In fact, when Völkl filled its wide-chassis Presto mold with the guts (and soul) of its Ski of the Year from last year (the Carver Plus), it created a hot hybrid. Not only does the Snow Ranger Lite float through rough or cut-up powder and hold well on the hard stuff, it instantly rewards a light, subtle touch with a light, subtle response. Which means the better you get (and this ski makes it easy to improve quickly), the more you'll get out of the ski.And, as with any Völkl, this ski doesn't use cut-rate construction. Top-shelf materials and careful construction from top to bottom distinguish it from others in its price range. We marveled at the Lite's sophisticated but incredibly easy feel. Not bad for a ski with a street price of under $400.