Skiing: Which skis to buy?

Our man on the mountainside gives you a sneak preview

You wouldn't buy a new car without taking it for a test drive; you would never walk out of a shop with an off-the-peg suit if you hadn't already tried it on. When it comes to buying ski equipment, unfortunately, the precaution of trying it before you buy it is available only for boots - and shuffling around in a ski shop for 20 minutes hardly replicates the experience of skiing in them all day for a week. As for choosing skis, that's a leap into the unknown: British buyers usually only get to test drive a new pair once they have bought them.

You wouldn't buy a new car without taking it for a test drive; you would never walk out of a shop with an off-the-peg suit if you hadn't already tried it on. When it comes to buying ski equipment, unfortunately, the precaution of trying it before you buy it is available only for boots - and shuffling around in a ski shop for 20 minutes hardly replicates the experience of skiing in them all day for a week. As for choosing skis, that's a leap into the unknown: British buyers usually only get to test drive a new pair once they have bought them.

But for a lucky few, mostly in the winter sports business, trying out the new season skis in the mountains is an annual event. Every April, ski-equipment retailer Snow+Rock conducts a test session in the Alps, in which its key staff (there were about 60 of them at St Anton in Austria this year) compare the performance of the skis which the company is planning to buy for the following season. The event's purpose is threefold: the results, compiled from detailed test cards completed by each skier for each ski, serve to confirm (or occasionally contradict) the judgments of Snow+Rock's buyers; the experience enables the staff to give informed advice about the skis' characteristics; and the trip permits the management to do some consciousness-raising and team-building.

Each year, Snow+Rock invites a handful of ski journalists to the test. For the last three years I have had the opportunity to ski the new models which are only now being set out in the retailers' racks.

The skis which obviously stand out there - as they did at the test - are the double-ended ones, with a pointed tip at the front and back. These are the new-school skis; short, wide and waisted. They are, says Dion Taylor, the director of marketing at Snow+Rock, part of the second generation of carving skis, but with attitude: "They've got that 'free-riding, no rules' image. They can be used on the snowboarders' half-pipes and on the new 'terrain parks', with jumps, drop-offs and table-tops, and the guys there are catching so much air with them that it makes snowboarders look like they're stuck to the ground."

New-school skis are, as you will have no doubt gathered from Taylor's terminology, designed to bring snowboarding style to skiing: hence the twin tips, which enable skiers to go "fakie" - ie backwards.

Taylor admits to having "tried that, with varying degrees of success"; my own experience with the nimble and responsive Salomon Teneighty (the only new-school model available to test) merely confirmed Taylor's view that "any skier can enjoy them, even without catching 50ft of air or doing backflips".

The other obvious change in the ski rack this year is the amount of space taken up by freeride skis. These are relatively long (by current standards) and wide skis, capable of coping with all snow conditions both on and off-piste; last season they proved very popular - the Salomon X-Scream Series was among Snow+Rock's best-sellers - and Taylor is confident success will continue. "Freeride skis enable you to go anywhere, to enjoy the whole mountain, and that is the characteristic aspiration of British skiers," he says.

"In Alpine countries, most skiers relate more closely to racing, and the freeride segment is a tiny part of the market; here, it's huge, because British skiers want to get off-piste and into broken-up snow."

The X-Scream Series was a winner in last year's test, and was the best in the Freeride Expert category in April. "The really good skiers loved it, but so did the intermediates," says Taylor.

"What makes it the best freeride ski is that it's good everywhere. The Atomic Beta Ride 10.20 is absolutely outstanding on-piste - as good as a race ski - but it's more demanding off-piste."

In the Freeride Advanced category, Salomon's X-Scream 9 came top in the test, closely followed by the Atomic Beta Ride 9.22.

Primarily an on-piste skier, and only on a flying visit to the test, I concentrated on the expert and advanced skis - and found that in three years my testing skills have improved. The ones I picked as the best, the Salomon Superaxe Series ("Quite firm, very manoeuvrable, excellent for pushing out of the turns: best skis on the test," said my notes) and the Atomic Beta Carv/X 9.18, came top in those two categories.

Taylor expects the Beta Carv, which he describes as "a classic red-run ski", to be a best-seller this year, along with the X-Scream Series; and he has high hopes for the Rossignol Rebel: "It's a wannabe freeride ski but with a good on-piste carving feel, and it's excellent value for money". The fact both the Beta Carv and X-Scream are established skis suggests that, in the wake of the carving revolution, the market has settled down - something which makes Taylor "really positive about this season". "I think skiers can confidently make a three-year investment without the fear that next year everything will have changed and people will look at their skis and say 'Oh, you didn't buy them did you?' "

Another cause for optimism is his belief that snowblading is "going to be huge this season: I have very high hopes for their sales." Last year's Snow+Rock catalogue featured four types of blade; this year's has nine, with three new models from Salomon and two from K2. Salomon has broadened the market with a children's blade, a 99.9cm model which pushes right up against the one-metre safety limit for skis with non-release bindings, and a black "Street" blade with extra width and attitude.

But Taylor's enthusiasm for blades is as much personal as commercial. "I've really taken to them, because they're enormous fun. We were ski- testing one day in Val d'Isere in January when the weather began to deteriorate; half the group went indoors, while the rest of us went out on blades, trying out tricks and jumps - and making a hash of them. But when you get those things on the edges they are awesome.

"At the end of the day we dropped off the back of the Rocher de Bellevarde on the OK run. There were some kids going down on race skis and we just shot past them. That's how much fun snowblades are when you're pushing them a bit."

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