SKI RACING: AN UNLEVEL PLAYING FIELD


Ski racing is a lot like a lottery. With rare exceptions, equipment, but especially ski boots, can create what amounts to an unlevel playing field, one that can prevent racers from performing to their full potential. Because of the often significant physical differences in the feet and lower limbs from one competitor to another, the degree to which racers can be compromised by equipment varies greatly. This can be especially true if a racer happens to stumble upon the right combination. In ski racing, although luck is a factor, having the right feet with ski boots that allow them to function the way they were intended to can be everything.

Back in 1977 Lange was the only boot I had found of that allowed me to literally build a pair of race boots from the ground up. Like  Alan Trimble (boot tech for Lange USA), I was starting the process with a shell bottom and adjusting cuff side cant and forward lean angle of the rear spoiler to conform to the racer’s legs. In other words, I was building every pair of boots to each racer’s individual functional specification. But I was adjusting two other things that no one even seemed to even be aware were issues; net ramp angle and position of the ball of the foot and big toe in relation to the ski edge underfoot.

Net ramp angle is the inclination of the sole of the foot in relation to the surface of the snow. It affects the muscles a racer can use and especially the ability to apply force to the fore body of a ski and the ability to activate what I call the auto processes of edge control and turning forces. Two factors contribute to forward inclination; 1) the ramp angle of the boot board that the sole of the foot is supported on and , 2) the angle created by the heel and toe plates of the ski binding. I don’t know where they are today, but back in 1977 ramp angles were all over the map in both boot and binding brands and even models. Because of this, both the base angle of the boot sole plate and binding had to be considered as a unit in determining net ramp angle. Although few if any were aware of this issue, to me it explained why a racer’s skiing and results sometimes went downhill when they changed to a different ski binding or boot or worse, changed both. The generally accepted assumption, one that persists even today, is that a good athlete can ‘adjust’ to their equipment. Because of this, boots are not considered a factor. Fast skis are everything. While it is true that a talented racer can ski in just about any equipment, adaptation comes at a cost. The cost comes in the form of a reduced ability to perform.

If a NASCAR team were to announce that they intended to enter a stock sedan right off the showroom floor with no modifications in the Daytona 500 and that they would be competitive because their driver would ‘adapt’ to the lack of power and handling of the car they would be laughed off the circuit. If a world class sprinter announced that he or she that was going to compete wearing stiff leather dress shoes and that they would ‘adapt’ to the considerable limitations of the footwear no one would take them seriously. Yet most coaches, and even some racers, tend to minimize the role of the ski boot. When a racer dominates his or her competitors it is attributed to ‘exceptional talent’ and they are elevated to the status of a god with mystical powers.

In a November 13, 1990 Globe & Mail article appropriately titled, Boyd putting best foot forward,  Whistler’s Rob Boyd describes how the boots I had built for him changed his skiing and renewed his enthusiasm for racing. Said Boyd, “In Chile, I skied easily. It was fun again. It rekindled my love of skiing. Everything was so smooth…….” Boyd went on to say how he used to only worry about a solid fit in his boots, how he skied from the ankle up and that after skiing in the boots I had made for him he realized, “how much the foot can be used and should be used.”  Earlier that year my coaching counterpart, Glen (Meister) Wurtele (head coach of the men’s team), had summoned me to action in the World Cup Wars to work on Rob’s boots. After preparing his boots in my Whistler shop I flew to Portillo, Chile to hook up with the Canadian Ski Team who were training on the summer glacier.

The next day I was standing on a knoll about half way down a 45 second downhill course behind the lodge with the team coaches when Boyd took his first run in his new boots. When he came into view Boyd was skiing so differently that the coaches standing with the Meister and I didn’t recognize him. They were sure it was another racer. As he drew near, it became obvious that it really was Rob. When the coaches began to speculate as to what to what had caused such a dramatic change in Boyd’s technical skiing Wurtele said, “It’s his new boots”. The coaches were emphatic, ski boots could not possibly affect a racer’s skiing to that degree. Yes, they really can. In future posts I will explain why.