FAILURE TO CARVE


A feature article, To Bend a Ski, and an editorial, Old Dogs, New Gear, New Tricks, in the January 2016 issue of Ski Magazine made a shocking admission. In spite of the continued development of carving ski technology and millions of views of videos on how to make the pure carved turn, a group of PSIA instructors estimated that only one in ten skiers (10%) actually carves their turns.

Judging by my observations on the slopes of Whistler-Blackcomb, I believe 10% is wildly optimistic. I rarely see a skier who can actually carve a turn let alone carve a turn that is even close to the turns carved by Ligety, Shiffrin, Vonn or other world class racers. In my estimation, the caliber of skier has actually declined since the  Carving Revolution arrived in the mid ’90s. The question is why? I  believe that the origins of what is becoming increasingly evident as an unprecedented failure to carve, lies not so much in carving ski technology but in a failure of the ski teaching and coaching communities to appreciate, understand and especially teach the use of what I call the Carve Button. The Button in this case being an area about the size of a large button (3 cm)  under the ball of the outside foot of a turn that a skier pushes and holds (applies pressure to) to initiate and maintain a carve.

At one time, applying pressure to the ball of the outside foot was an integral part of the ski technique narrative. When Elan introduced the pre-production SCX parabolic or shape ski to a select group of US ski instructors in the spring of 1993 and later to the consumer for 1993-94 ski season, the importance of starting turns by pressuring the ball of the outside foot held a prominent place in the ski technique narrative.

By 1996, virtually every ski maker was offering shape skis prompting Snow Country magazine to trumpet in its Summer issue, “the Revolution is for real“. Even Popular Mechanics chimed in with an article called “Shaped Skis” in their December issue.

With the promise that even terminal intermediates could now buy a carved turn, it seemed as if the long awaited revolution had indeed finally arrived. But two years later, when Ron LeMaster published The Skier’s Edge, he didn’t seem to be buying it, at least not yet. Said LeMaster, “At least once every decade, some technical ski expert announces that a revolution has occurred in the sport”. He went on to state that the revolution is either due to some drastic change in equipment  or someone (usually the expert) has conceived of some new method of skiing that makes pretty much everything else skiers knew, obsolete.

In response to the revolution, legions of skiers who have been seeking a magic answer to their skiing problems, subscribe to the new technical juggernaut in the hope that they will finally become the skiers they always wished they were. LeMaster said that he makes no such claims, and that he believes “that the most sound elements of ski technique have been around for decades and decades, and what has changed is the frequency with which those techniques are expressed in the skiing of the sport’s best practitioner’s.”

In the two University of Ottawa studies of foot pressures of elite ski instructors done in 1998, the researchers  noted:

It has become quite common for instructors and coaches to ask their pupils to feel pressure under certain parts of their feet in order to ski better. It has also been a trend in skiing to inform students to initiate turns through the application of pressure in the forefoot area and to progressively “roll” from the front to the back of their feet.

From a ski technique standpoint, it was clear when analysing the data that as the skiers made their way through the turns, there was more pressure applied with the foot that was towards the outside of the curve, while during the transition between turns, both feet were loaded equally. This finding is in complete accordance with the principles being taught in ski schools.

A point that all the skis that the subjects used had in common is that the skis were all sharp side-cut skis (also called shaped skis).

ANALYSIS OF THE DISTRIBUTION OF PRESSURE UNDER THE FEET OF ELITE ALPINE SKI INSTRUCTORS: Dany Lafontaine, Mario Lamontagne, Daniel Dupuis & Binta Diallo,Laboratory for Research on the Biomechanics of Hockey, University of Ottawa, Canada: Proceedings of the XVI International Symposium on Biomechanics in Sports (1998), Konstanz, Germany, p.485

LeMaster seemed to agree with the findings of the University of Ottawa researchers. In The Skier’s Edge (also published in 1998), he states that for years he has taught skiers and coached racers with simple cues like Start the turn (with pressure) on the ball of the foot and Press your shin against the tongue of your boot.

If anything, the awareness of the importance of applying pressure to specific areas of the foot and especially applying pressure to the ball of the foot to initiate a turn, was growing in lock-step with the acceptance and growth of the shape ski. Yet, sometime after 1998, the ball of the foot, as a prime area of importance, vanished from the narrative of ski technique and the heel assumed the prime and apparently only area of pressure.

Meantime, the human lower limbs, as one the most complex anatomical structure known to man, started to become regarded as the equivalent of a 2 x4 which which to tip carving skis on edge and apply force to the skis. As the ‘leg as a lever’ and the ‘boot shaft as a handle’ mentality gathered momentum, ski boots got higher, straighter and tighter fitting, especially the shafts where high leverage buckles and dual cinch power straps were added to better secure the lever to the handle.

I can only speculate on the reasons behind what I regard as a tectonic shift in the wrong direction. But I believe the University of Ottawa studies provide some clues.

A factor that was not controlled during data collection was the equipment worn by the subjects. The skiers wore different boots, and used different skis, although two of them had the same brand and model of skis and boots. It still has yet to be determined if that factor had any effect on the results. Another equipment variation which may have affected in-boot measurements, is that some subjects (n=5) wore custom designed footbeds, while the other did not. As was stated for the skis and boots, it has yet to be determined if this piece of equipment affected results or not.

My read is all of the above. The ability of skier and especially a racer to apply high pressure to the head of the first metataral of the outside foot of a turn requires a ski boot that is precisely set up and closed to the same settings for every new use. The set up process can take many days with tweaking ongoing for weeks. Elite racers are sensitive to net ramp angles of the ski boot/binding combination to 0.1 degree.

Ensuring that a skier at any level has the boot set up necessary to enable the use of the Carve Button can be a labour intensive process requiring a structured approach and especially a structured analytical process with which to identity and properly correct any issues that arise. If the shaft of a boot is within a wide tolerance in terms of forward lean, virtually every skier can cinch a boot tightly about their leg and apply pressure to the ski with their heel. The KIS principle as in, Keep It Simple, provides a plausible explanation for the departure of pressure under the ball of the foot as a mechanism for initiating and maintaining a carve turn from the narrative ion ski technique. The problem is that people in general tend to assume that when an issue is not in a narrative it is not important. In such situations, there is no incentive to appreciate, let alone expend time and energy acquiring knowledge of an issue. In the case of pressure under the ball of the foot, this has been to the detriment of skiing and the primary cause of the Failure to Carve.

 

4 comments

  1. The article you are referring to in Ski magazine is laughable- barely 1 in 10 SKI instructors can carve a turn! “Railroad Track” turns are a good example of the 2×4/handle effect you talk about. Ski Schools typically view ski racing as “something else” that “actual” skiers have no need for because it simply doesn’t apply to their skiing “styles”. This became clear to me back when the SCX was released to “a select group of instructors in the spring of 1993”. I was one of those instructors teaching at Crested Butte at the time, when the Elan program was “dumped” on a small group of 2nd tier instructors because none of the elite PSIA instructors were interested in the program since they could “already carve turns”. There were only a few ex-racer ski instructor types that took those skis and sliced that mountain apart. Most ski instructors could not make that ski work however. Meanwhile skis started getting wider and everyone seemed to gravitate towards fatter skis instead because they seemed to help “make things easier” for people. The problem is – they do. It makes skiing like #%$@ easier for people to do- they sit back on flat skis and push the tails around anyway- these skis make “toilet turning” easier and more fun for the terminal intermediate skier. Between the ski instruction culture that “ski racing is bad”, ski manufacturers producing fashionable appliances that sell (FAT skis), and poorly set up ski boots, the carved turn has been hijacked in spite of the equipment. For these reasons, and others, I completely agree with you that the caliber of skier is in decline…

    1. Lee Lambert, it is comments like yours that make all my efforts on this blog worthwhile. You hit every nail on the head. You say it like it is.

      There is a photo of a skier on page 38 of the To Bend a Ski article that made my eyes bleed. One of the few comments that made any sense to me was by Michael Iman from Sugarbowl California on page 41. Iman was on target right up until he said, “start the turn on the outside ski and finish it with the inside ski”. I don’t think so. At the end of every turn, the skier has to reboot the system and set up the mechanics of what will become the new outside ski through a transition. Inman nails it when he says the inside ski acts as an inrigger.

      When I started skiing in 1970, racers were the gold standard of ski technique. But when skiing started to grow in leaps and bounds, the marketers took control. Free style became the new standard which was a non-standard. Soon, so long as a skier could make it down the ski slope to the shops, bars and restaurants owned by the mountains, any style made them an expert…… as in expert consumer. That was the beginning of the great sell out and the beginning of the end of skiing as a sport defined by refined technique expressed in beautiful fluid, dynamic movement. When I ride the lifts today, I need rose coloured lenses in my googles to make skiers look better than they are so they won’t make my eyes bleed from the pain.

  2. This mornings entertainment was skiing on antique skis from around 2000, Rossi Power 9 Race skis. The first set I skied I had modified to have the heel only 1/8″ higher than the toe, right now I am most comfortable at same height or toe slightly higher than the heel, but still was impressed at how well I could make turns with these skis because I sure couldn’t back in the day! I switched to another pair with the heel close to 3/8″ higher and that reminded me of how I skied back then, a lot of up and down motion because I was finishing the turns back in spite of my boot cuff allowing a tremendous amount of ankle flex but still a much better ability to edge etc. than I could in 2000. My boot fit in those days at the height of my stupidity was boots; one size too small, foot beds, foam liner, and tightly buckled.

    I’m convinced more than ever from this episode that the least important factor is the ski!! If I want to ski like I did in the old days all I have to do is grab a pair of unmodified boots and go flailing!!

    1. One of the reasons I started working with a small number of skiers and one racer in Europe last year was that my knowledge and understanding of the issues I had identified since 1973 had become much more refined. When I first started working with racers in 1977, it was common for a racer’s career to come to an abrupt end after they switched boots and/or bindings or both. Because I was able to get a good supply of size 4 Lange boots, I was working on a lot of boots for female racers with small feet. As feet got smaller, the ramp angle of both the bindings and boot boards got steeper. Through subjective experimentation, I arrived at about 3 degrees as the ideal ramp for applying pressure to a ski and creating a strong, powerful stance. In many cases, I had to make the boot board ramp negative to even get close to 3 degrees because of the angle created by the binding heel/toe piece height differences.

      In the past year, in working with a very knowledgeable Italian and my racer, it became apparent that the ideal ramp angle is in the order of 2.6 to 2.7 degrees. We calculate the angle mathematically. Once the optimal angle is arrived at, adding a 1 mm shim under the heel or forefoot will have a dramatic negative impact on a racer or elite skiers skiing. So, you are right. If the boot is set up optimally, you can have a great day using barrel staves or fence pickets for skis.

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