SIA Show Background and Overview
The 5,000-acre Devil’s Thumb Ranch was the host and testing grounds for the SIA On-Snow Nordic Demo. Not quite discernible in the photo are some backcountry Nordic ski tracks down the large sunlit snow slope in the distant right (Marker Hill).
This is the second year that the biggest US Ski Show, the SnowSports Industries of America (SIA) Snow Show, has hosted a Nordic On-Snow Demo. The Cross Country Ski Areas Association (CSAA), a non-profit “to promote the growth and improve the quality of cross country ski operations,” partnered with SIA to organize the Nordic Demo.
One of the main messages from the show was huge growth in interest and sales for backcountry ski equipment. According to SIA, backcountry ski and equipment sales are up 90% to 150% so far this season. A representative for Madshus reports strong backcountry ski sales for their popular “Cross Country Downhill” line of backcountry (BC) Nordic skis like the Eon and Epoch. The Silent Spider, a light backcountry ski, is Fischer’s third best selling ski. To meet interest and demand, Fischer has re-designed their entire line of S-Bound backcountry Nordic skis for 2011/2012.
Two excellent backcountry Nordic skis at the show. Bottom: the new Fischer S-Bound 78 (78-61-69, 2130 g 179 cm). Fischer has redesigned their line of BC Nordic skis for 2012. The main changes are to improve grip, turning, and gliding in soft snow. Top: the “new” Madshus Eon (2160 g 185 cm). This ski is the reincarnation of the Karhu XCD GT – same mold and construction, just different graphics on the deck.
New Waxless Technologies
At the Demo Atomic, Salomon, and Fisher all introduced “new” waxless grip technologies for 2011/2012. Some of the grip technologies have been in development since the 2002 Olympics, but many are only making their commercial debut for the coming season.
The theme for these waxless technologies is to move away from fish-scale patterns to a smoother grip material that performs more like a waxed ski. That is, good grip but retaining the fast, silent glide of a well waxed ski. For the future, the companies think that there is a possibility of these technologies working their way into BC skis. In fact, Fischer’s waxless technology, Zero, and Salomon’s G2 Micro have already made it to select touring skis for 2011/2012.
Atomic Skintec Waxless
Atomic Skintec is a high-speed reinvention of kicker skins, and is fast enough to be used on the Nordic race skis shown here. (We see an obvious application to backcountry Nordic skis for this technology.)
Skintech is Atomic’s highlighted technology for 2011/2012 and has top billing on the front page of their catalog. Unlike many “smooth” waxless grip technologies it is designed to work in all temperature ranges.
Skins are new? Yeah, using skins for grip on Nordic skis has been around forever, but skins glide terribly and are slow. Atomic has taken a new approach to make skins faster – fast enough that Skintec will only be on Atomic’s top end race skis for 2012. In simple terms, Skintec is a shorter version of a kicker skin that is integrated seamlessly into the bottom of the ski. The skin is just a smidge higher than the gliding surface. The skin pattern is short, about 30% shorter than the standard wax pocket or fish-scale grip pattern, which helps with gliding. A new “on-off” flex pattern, rather than a traditional progressive flex, works to keep the skins high and off the snow when gliding, and snapping down hard on the snow when kicking. (We were able to walk up some pretty steep inclines.)
We see obvious application for Skintec in BC skiing. With a couple of grip modules, including a skinless, glide-surface-only module, you could easily fine-tune your grip and glide to backcountry conditions much faster than conventional skins (the plates simply magnetize to the bottom of the ski). And Skintec should be faster and more efficient than conventional skins.
A very thin skin pattern is bonded to a plastic plate that drops into a cavity on the base of the ski. When inserted, the plate is flush with the gliding surface of the ski and the skin is just slightly higher than the gliding surface. The plate and skin unit is referred to a “grip module.” Removing and installing the grip module is easy, as it is only held in place by matching magnets in the ski cavity (silver dots) and on the bottom of the grip module.
Currently there are two Skintec Grip Modules. The full skin favors grip over glide; the partial skin favors glide over grip. For backcountry skiing we see an application for a skinless/glide-surface-only module for downhill joy!
Roman Toferer, Nordic race director for Atomic (with his back to the camera) shows SkinTec to Oskar Svärd. A three time Vasaloppet winner, Oskar is one of the best distance skiers in the world.
Salomon G2 Micro Waxless
Also debuting at the show and new for the 2011/2012 season was Salomon new waxless grip technology “G2 Micro.”
Unlike all the other technologies presented, Salomon G2 Micro is not a base insert, but a thin layer of grip material permanently bonded to the base of the ski in the grip pocket.
Salomon G2 Micro is not a base insert, but a thin layer of epoxy based material that is applied to the grip pocket of the ski. In addition, G2 Micro skis use a lower camber to work best with the G2 Micro. To make G2 Micro, graphite and silica compounds are mixed with an epoxy resin. The graphite and silica give the G2 Micro material enough texture to grip the snow, but compared to a conventional fish scale, the G2 Micro grip pattern is smooth. G2 Micro has a limited temperature range (-15 C to 5 C) compared to the broader temperature range of a fish scale grip pattern, but within its temperature range, Curtiss Graves of Salomon claims the G2 Micro should outperform fish scales and many waxed skis.
Testing waxless skis in fresh powder.
Salomon Zero Grip Waxless
Salomon “Zero Grip” is a waxless race technology for those tricky, wet conditions right around freezing 0 C (32 F). It is a rubber insert in the ski’s grip zone that is sanded to create a grip texture. It “performs better than kick wax in fresh snow [in] around freezing temperatures.” The Zero Grip base can be fine tuned to conditions by using sandpaper to either smooth or roughen the surface of the grip compound.
Fischer Zero Waxless
Fisher Zero has been used in race skis for a number of years (since the 2002 Olympics). It is a finely textured rubber compound. Zero looks smooth, and it glides silently like a smooth based waxed ski. You have to touch the Zero surface or look closely to discern the tiny surface filaments that grip the snow. Like the Salomon Zero Grip, the Fischer Zero base can be fine tuned to conditions by using sandpaper to either smooth or roughen the surface of the grip compound.
The new Zero grip section on the Fischer Superlight Zero ski (lower ski) compared to the more conventional fish-scale Crown grip section on the Superlight Crown Ski (upper ski).
Fischer Zero was originally conceived as a waxless race technology for those tricky conditions right around freezing, 0 C (32 F). In a 2009 race in just such conditions, the top six finishers were all using Fischer Zero skis.
According to Peter Ashley, VP for Nordic Products at Fischer, 20-40 F is a good working temperature range for Zero. At lower temperatures Zero tends to “grip too well.” I tested Superlight Zero skis from -20 to 1 C (-14 to 34 F). In warmer temperatures (20 F and above), Zero skis behave more like waxable skis – they glide well and delightfully make no noise. It, or an improved version with a broader temperature range, might be potential technology for the warmer temperatures of spring backcountry trips.
A detail of the Zero waxless grip material on a touring ski. The grip section is longer than a race ski and has two Zero grip materials. The center grip section (yellow/green) is softer and has more grip than the Zero used for a racking ski. The end grip sections (orange) have less grip as they transition to the gliding surface of the ski. In the touring ski, the orange/transition grip material extends slightly beyond the grip pocket.
When I tested Zero skis at -20 C they worked well enough in smooth set tracks and climbed like crazy, but they tended to grab a bit when skied out of tracks into fresh (hard and sharp) powder to descend a hill. I really needed to concentrate on “heels down and tips up.” And the skis stuttered a bit in the track at any place spindrift had blown in.
Fischer must have confidence in Zero and its broader applications since they have added it to select touring skis for 2011/2012. Their extremely popular performance touring ski, the Superlight, will come in a Zero version for 2011/2012. As befits a touring ski (versus a racing ski), the Superlight Zero favors grip a bit more over glide. We would imagine a similar grip configuration for a BC Nordic spring ski, if and when Fischer decides add it to their S-Bound series of BC skis.
Early morning setup on the first day of the Nordic Demo.