Skiing: Stay tuned and sharpen up your act

Should a bad skier blame his tools? Yes, if he has poorly prepared skis - so, hot wax at the ready, everyone, and get that belt sander running

Paul Enion took a brand-new pair of skis out of their box, carried them out to the car park and put them on. He stomped around for a while on the gravel and cement surfaces. Then he took the skis off, and banged their edges against a concrete post. Finally, he took them back into the workshop, where he sandpapered the base against its grain, and applied a little glue to the roughened surface. I had asked Salomon specially to prepare some skis for me; and Enion, the company's UK marketing product co-ordinator, made a good job of it.

Paul Enion took a brand-new pair of skis out of their box, carried them out to the car park and put them on. He stomped around for a while on the gravel and cement surfaces. Then he took the skis off, and banged their edges against a concrete post. Finally, he took them back into the workshop, where he sandpapered the base against its grain, and applied a little glue to the roughened surface. I had asked Salomon specially to prepare some skis for me; and Enion, the company's UK marketing product co-ordinator, made a good job of it.

Although used to skiing on rough surfaces - he came third in the 1999 English dry-ski-slope championship - Enion enjoyed the job, too: "It made a change, and I couldn't normally do that sort of thing without getting into trouble." But his systematic abuse of a pair of perfectly good skis had a serious purpose. Every skier knows that the condition of ski surfaces is important. Right now, those with a pair of skis in the loft are worrying whether they should to be taken for a tune-up; when the season starts, those who use hired skis will wonder, after a disastrous day on the slopes, whether bad snowmanship could be blamed on their tools. Just how important is ski preparation for used equipment? I had resolved to find out.

Essentially, a ski has three elements: the main structure, the base and the edges. The structure plays a critical role in the ski's performance, because its tendency to bend, flex and vibrate will determine the effectiveness of the base and edges - they can only do their job when they are in contact with the snow. But skis' structure is a given: although it may (like the human body) slacken with age, it cannot be adjusted. The base and edges, however, can be tuned to improve performance.

For the base, the objective is simply to enable the ski to run faster by reducing friction. This may involve filling scratches and pits, if necessary, with a material called Petex; then a grinding stone is used to make the base smooth. But not completely smooth: modern skis have tiny grooves - called, confusingly, a "structure" - which run along the base, to dissipate surface tension in the film of water formed as the ski runs across the snow. Finally, the surface is given a thin coating of hot wax, melted onto the base and scraped down, then finished with a hard brush. Waxing is something of a black art, with ski racers using various potions to cope with different snow textures; but for recreational skiers, a "universal" wax is applied, which lasts for a week in normal conditions. (On hard snow, ski technicians recommend frequent applications of the kind of rub-on wax bought in shoe-polish tins.)

Tuning ski edges is a more subtle process. At the sides, the steel strip is ground down with a belt sander, and the resulting fine burr of metal that protrudes beyond the base is removed with a stone: if it isn't, it acts like the keel of a yacht, and you need a rudder to turn the skis. At this stage, the edges are equally keen all along their length, sharp enough (according to the standard test) to cut a sliver from a fingernail But set up like that, skis - particularly those with a deep side-cut - would grab too sharply at their tip and tail. The solution is to "de-tune" them, using a hand file to soften the edge around the first contact point, about 6-8cm behind the tip, and at the tail.

To enable me to judge the effect of the tuning process, Salomon reversed it. Three pairs of its Axeteam skis, all 160cm long and with Salomon 700 bindings, were delivered for my test at the Snowdome indoor ski slope in Tamworth. Pair A was fresh out of the box and in perfect tune. The others had suffered major de-tuning, to simulate the effects of normal wear-and-tear (pair B) and, courtesy of Paul Enion, something closer to vandalism (pair C). On numerous descents of the hard-snow piste, I worked my way up through the three stages of tune.

Pair C had roughed-up edges and an atrocious base. The poor edge-performance was not particularly noticeable - but that was only because the skis were moving so slowly. I was never actually overtaken, but the Snowdome's slope seemed a lot longer than usual. Nevertheless, this first part of the test was disappointing: I had expected the skis to be almost uncontrollable, yet they worked... slowly.

Pair B was a great leap forward. This time, the base was in reasonable condition but the edges had been dulled. The skis were faster and more responsive; the difference in speed was remarkable, although I still could not feel the dullness of the edges. Troublingly, it occurred to me that if I had rented the previous pair in a resort, I would probably have skied with them all week, blaming myself, the ski manufacturer or the snow for my poor skiing. Without the opportunity to compare "identical" skis, it is difficult for a recreational skier to identify a tuning problem.

So it was only when I moved on to Pair A (brand-new, buffed-up, super-sharp edges) that I could really appreciate what a difference an edge makes. These skis were fast and very responsive, powering easily in and out of the turns. True, the Snowdome's slope was too short and too crowded - and the snow too "dirty" - to permit anything heroic; but normal use of a good pair of skis highlighted the faults of the others, and offered conclusive proof to me that ski-tuning is very important.

I thanked George Curleigh, Salomon's area sales manager, for his master-class in ski-tuning, and for setting up the test. What, I wondered, would he do with the pair of skis to which Paul Enion had done so much damage? "Well, he'll have to try to tune them up again, won't he?," Curleigh said. "That's his job." Back to the grindstone.

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