Skiing: On the boards: a fun-free ride

It's a snowy job, but someone's got to do it: the serious business of testing skis. `The Independent's' gentleman amateur, Stephen Wood, helped with the marking. Here's his report.
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No wonder late-season skiers at St Christophe, the next resort up the valley from St Anton in Austria, looked so puzzled; it was a bizarre scene. Near the bottom of the main lift, a sort of skiing street market had been set up on the snow. The traders had dug themselves into waist-deep holes and were surrounded with their wares, equipment so new that the passing skiers had never seen it before.

A group of athletic young "shoppers" milled around. They would select a pair of skis, disappear up the nearby drag lift, and make a few descents of the short slope. Then they would return the skis, make a few notes, and repeat the process with a different pair.

The bolder among the passing skiers edged forward and asked if they could have a go. No, they could not. These skis and poles, all 1997/8 models, were for the exclusive use of senior staff of the Snow+Rock shops, engaged in their annual ski test. The event, which took place in April, would help the company's buyers to choose which skis to offer this season in the shops and in the mail-order catalogue, published last week; it would enable the sales staff, having tested all the skis, to advise customers properly this autumn; and it would give Snow +Rock's management the opportunity to do a bit of team-building while most of the permanent staff were all in one place.

What is unusual about the test is that it is the ski manufacturers who are invited, along with their new products. Certainly Hannes Rupf, one of the "traders" representing K2 at the event, had never seen anything like it. "In Switzerland, it is the manufacturers who organise tests, and the retailers who are invited," said Rupf, a former racer who does prototype-testing for K2 in the USA, and has his own equipment shop at Flumserberg. "The problem is that to make proper comparisons you have to be systematic: you have to test different skis in the same snow conditions and mark them - as Snow +Rock does, and as we do at K2 - using test cards."

For this week-long test, the skis were grouped into nine categories, from "recreational carve" to "advanced traditional"; the 70-odd testers compared the skis in each category by giving them a mark (on a scale of one to 10) for each of 12 performance characteristics listed on the test card.

Snow+Rock has been running ski tests since 1986, but only in the last four years have the trials taken such a rigorous form: "To my knowledge, we are the only company in the world who does anything like it," says Dion Taylor, Snow+Rock's director of equipment. His basic buying choices have to be made before the test, but the score cards can change things dramatically. "Sometimes there's a surprise," says Taylor, "and there was in April. We included a couple of brands we have not been selling; one was Atomic, on which I'd had good reports. One result of the test was that we had to include its skis in our range this year."

Taylor admits that "some manufacturers don't like the way we run the test, primarily because they don't want to be seen as doing more for us than for other retailers. I can understand that. It's their choice; they don't have to come. But generally they all do, and that means that the skis are all properly prepared to give the best ride, so we can test them on a level platform." All the manufacturers' representatives at the test, Hannes Rupf included, were kept busy sharpening and buffing their products - although the barker in Atomic's dug-out added to the street-market atmosphere by insisting, at the top of his voice, that "There's been no special tuning on these skis! They're straight out of the bag!"

Of course, Snow+Rock takes such a big chunk of the UK equipment market (Taylor would not reveal how big it is) that the manufacturers do not have much of a choice whether or not to attend the test, even if - as is the case with Elan and Dynastar - their products have not featured recently in the Snow+Rock range. "Those manufacturers have been at the tests; and Dynastar was one of our major brands four or five years ago," says Taylor. "But my job is to buy the best products on the market at the time. These things go in cycles; a manufacturer may be in the doldrums for a few years, and then come up with a new concept and relaunch itself."

Last April's event was, Taylor says, "the best ever, in terms of the testing and the atmosphere". The Snow+Rock staff took it all very seriously, including the late-night carousing in St Anton's bars and discos. In the evenings, I made my excuses and left for the bedroom; more shamefully, and despite being issued with a set of score-cards, I also ducked out of the test. Not because endlessly going down the same slope is my idea of fun-free skiing, but because, at my level of ability, the concentration required to stay upright doesn't leave enough brain-function to evaluate a ski's initiation abilities on long-radius turns, as demanded by the score-card.

Still, I did make a few personal notes on the performance of the different models in the "advanced carve" and "recreational carve" categories. The Fischer Revolution models gave me "an easy ride" with "a consistent carve", but the Rossignol Cut was marked down for being "flappy"; the Head Cyber, on the other hand was "not flappy" and had "a smooth turn-in unaffected by variations in snow surface", and the same manufacturer's Cyber 22X Lady was - once I had overcome the indignity of being offered it - just as good. The K2 Merlin skis seemed "perfect" to me; but I had been happily using a pair of K2 Twos for most of the season.

And how did the test's surprise package, the Atomic skis, go down with me? All the way. The comment in my notebook on the pair I tried reads simply: "Fell over". Either they're lousy skis, or I'm a lousy ski-tester.

SKI TIPS: Every week, one tip from Chris Exall, instructor and winter sports consultant.

To stay in balance as you ski, imagine that your ski poles are heavy so your hands hang below your hips. This will help you to lower your stance and will improve your balance.