Skiing: Just one question - do they go?

When choosing new skis, there are more important factors to consider than buying the most expensive pair you can afford
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The Independent Travel

Which are the best skis money can buy? Blinded by dozens of garishly decorated models in the racks, you might be tempted to put that question to a ski-shop assistant. Don't. It's about as pointless as consulting a newsagent about the finest magazine on his shelves.

Which are the best skis money can buy? Blinded by dozens of garishly decorated models in the racks, you might be tempted to put that question to a ski-shop assistant. Don't. It's about as pointless as consulting a newsagent about the finest magazine on his shelves.

The correct question to ask is: "Which are the best skis for me?" Because these days the criteria for choosing skis are not just your skill level and fitness, and your body size and weight, but also the specific use to which the skis will be put. Do you want to ski off-piste or on-piste, or both? Are you keen to jump the bumps, and do tricks in mid-air? Is your ambition simply to get down the mountain as fast as possible, or as surely as possible? All these factors - and more - will determine what type of ski is most suitable for you.

Any customer intent on buying "the best" would probably be shown the highest-performance (and most expensive) racing skis. But as Dion Taylor, equipment director for the retail chain Snow+Rock, points out, these skis require a high level of skill to make them work properly. "A normal motorist would find driving a rally or racing car a complete nightmare: it would be impossible to stay on the road," he says. "Similarly, an average skier on a performance ski is going to be fighting it all the time. The idea of a skiing holiday is to enjoy yourself. So just because you've got the budget it doesn't mean you should buy an expensive, top-of-the-range ski."

After skiing skill (which Snow+Rock assesses by reference to 10 skier "types"), level of fitness is the second general determinant of the sort of ski that will suit you. "How much energy you can put into the skis is very important," says Taylor. "Ten years ago I used slalom skis; nowadays I'll have a couple of runs on them during a ski test, but that's enough. They're physically too demanding. You have to be realistic about your limitations when choosing skis." The skier's size and weight has less impact on the overall suitability of a ski, but it will affect the ideal length: in general, larger people need longer skis.

As for the types of ski, they break down into four basic groups: skis that perform best on-piste, and "freeride" models aimed primarily at off-piste skiers; "new-school" designs intended for trick skiing on-piste, in the snowboarders' half-pipe and across the bumps; and full-on competition skis.

To help select the range that it will sell, Snow+Rock has traditionally held a ski test in April, evaluating the following season's products by the laborious process of skiing on them down the same short slope in the same snow conditions. Part staff-training session (the sales staff who attend can obviously do a better job of helping customers when they have tried out the new skis), part corporate-bonding exercise (about 60 members of the staff take part), the test also gives the company's buyers valuable feedback from skiers of varying abilities on the performance of the skis that they are planning to order.

This year's test included two novelties, both from Salomon, a manufacturer whose reputation for innovation is the envy of the UK importers of rival brands. Its new Pilot bindings are bolted on to the side of the ski, rather than screwed to the top. The idea is that when a ski with top-mounted bindings is bowed to carve a turn, a "flat-spot" is created beneath the skier's boot, whereas the Pilot permits the ski to bend evenly along its length.

Regretfully, I admit that I could not feel the difference; but better skiers than I were impressed by the Pilot system, and Dion Taylor is convinced that other manufacturers will follow Salomon's lead. The company's other innovation, the Verse 9, gave me a lot more fun. It's an intermediate/ recreational ski that has the binding mounted about 7cm further forward than usual - an idea adopted, surprisingly, from Salomon's racing skis. The short front makes initiating turns easier, and the long tail gives consistent ride through the turn. At first, skiing on them feels like driving an articulated truck that wants to be a racing car: you dart into turns like a ski-blader, and then remember how much ski is trailing behind you. But once you've got the hang of it, the Verse 9 is a best-of-both-worlds ski, offering speed into the turns and power coming out of them.

Otherwise, the skis at the test continued existing trends. The freeride category grows ever larger: there were 20 different models to try, from six different manufacturers. And skis are growing ever shorter, with the Verse 9 and the Head Cyclone available in 140cm lengths, hardly much longer than the largest ski-blade.

So which models performed best on the test, according to the cards marked by all the Snow+Rock staff? Among those aimed at the predominantly on-piste skier, the Verse 9 and Head Cyclone did well in the entry-level category; the Salomon X-Scream 7, Atomic Beta Carve 9.18 and Head X60 were judged the best for good intermediates; and, despite their widely differing retail prices, all the skis in the expert category were highly rated.

Among the new-school trick-skis, the Salomon Teneighty and K2 Enemy stood out; and in the competition category the Atomic Beta Race skis were the winners, followed by the Salomon Poweraxe Equipe and Rossignol Plate models. From the huge crowd of skis in the mainly off-piste freeride category, the testers picked out the Salomon Scream 10 (which are fitted with the Pilot bindings) for experts and the Atomic Beta Ride and Völkl Vertigo ranges for less skilful skiers.