RealSkiers: When Race Skis Ruled
Franz Klammer's Olympic gold in Innsbruck didn't just raise Fischer's profile among American skiers, it helped build the entire sport's popularity. (RealSkiers.com)
Last week on Realskiers.com I wrote about the best all-mountain skis made since that terminology became common usage. This week's reverie highlights some of the great race skis that served an earlier generation of skiers as their everyday ride.
The first race skis were wood, a construction archetype that reached its apogee in the Kästle Cortina, worn by the unbeatable Toni Sailer, who scooped up all three alpine gold medals at Cortina, Italy in 1956.
Then along came fiberglass, still the dominant structural element in the majority of models made today. I remember strolling into Molterer Sports in Aspen in the winter of 1970, where I paused to ogle the latest Kneissl White Stars, skis then regarded as the pinnacle of luxury and performance. (Red Stars and Blue Stars were only slightly less prestigious.) I was told by the heavily accented salesperson that the skis were made of fiberglass and that this material would soon be the accepted norm. I squinted skeptically. I was 19 so I was skeptical of everything. But the Austrian who enlightened me that evening was right, while I was, well, 19.
Fiberglass cemented its preeminence as the rising power in ski design with the arrival of the VR17 from Dynamic and the Strato from Rossignol. The stars of the great 1960's French Ski Team, Jean-Claude Killy and Guy Perillat, would routinely switch skis between the two brands depending on the event. Killy won his Olympic trifecta at Grenoble on VR17's, then used the Strato to sweep the remainder of the 1968 season. Glass was kicking ass.
Fiberglass wasn't the only new material to be adopted in this era. Pioneers Josef Fischer and Howard Head were working with aluminum prior to the rise of fiberglass, introducing metal's unique properties to the party. Two models in particular, the Fischer C4 Competition and Head Comp GS, were both stalwarts on the racecourse and earned legions of followers who never wore a start bib.
Every American of a certain generation at one time or another skied on a Head Comp, Standard or Master, but allow me to digress for a paragraph to place the Fischer on a special pedestal. Perhaps no single event made more non-skiers fans of our sport than Franz Klammer's dance with disaster that won the 1976 Innsbruck Olympic DH on Fischer C4's. Klammer's win made skiing matter, and Fischer rode a wave of brand recognition to broad popularity in the American market.
Metal worked marvels in GS and DH skis, but slalom sticks were a breed apart. The sustained success of the Mahre twins catapulted the popularity of the K2 VO Slalom, a glass-wrap torsion box, into the ionosphere. Fans of the explosive kick only slalom skis could generate were also smitten by the propulsive power of the Dynastar Omeglass, later harnessed for less athletic citizens as the Omesoft.
Eight years after the Kaiser's stunning victory, the Calgary Olympics provided the stage for the brash American Bill Johnson who promised victory on his Atomic ARC Team AF's. The RS version of this ski was so beloved it earned an enduring nickname, the Red Sled. The first American to win an Olympic gold in downhill, Johnson also won 3 other World Cup DH's that winter but his star dimmed thereafter while red sleds continued to shine on for several seasons.
Perhaps the most popular race model of all time was the teal green Rossignol 4SK, that captured the hearts of thousands of skiers in late 1980's and on into the '90's. A sublime blend of power and finesse properties, the 4SK even appealed to skiers who normally skied a GS, like Rossi's 4G. After a long run, the 4SK was replaced by the 7SK and later the 9 series, but neither successor achieved the runaway success of the original.
While Rossi held the masses in their thrall, the discerning expert with a few extra ducats to spend gravitated to Völkl's exquisite P9 series. My personal all-terrain ski of choice for several seasons, the P9 RS was on my feet for a few full-throttle assaults on Alta that still linger in memory.
In today's ultra-specialized world, very few skiers deploy a race ski as their all-purpose, every day ride. The situation is understandable, but it's still a shame. The current field of race skis comprises a cornucopia of carnal delights. During a day of skiing a mix of 2018 models, I happened to step into a pair of Atomic G9's. The sense of security was instantaneous and intense. In fact, in a few feet the skis were telling me, "you need to buckle your boots, cowboy," so I dutifully pulled over and cinched down.
The run that followed was easily the most impressive of the day and during this entire test season to date. The edge hold was utterly imperturbable, the speeds barely below the sound barrier. The skier feels invulnerable, as if protected by an invisible force field. Nothing else I've tested this year felt anything like it.
The next time you're pondering which ski your quiver might be missing, remember these words: for one of the great thrills our sport provides, step into the gravity stream on a pair of race skis and you'll soon experience flight.