Game changers in skiing - The carving ski

Game changers in skiing - The carving ski

Posted by Ridebrain

2019-12-20 14:58

A common myth is that skiing saw snowboarding sidecuts (and it’s popularity) and realized they needed change. That is not entirely true as you will find out below.

The year is


An executive at Olin was having trouble learning to ski.
He asked Frank Meatto who worked as an engineer at the company’s ski division, why they couldn’t build a sort of Prince tennis racquet for skiers – something that would make the learning process a lot easier. Meatto, along with Ed Pilpel, had been working on designs for a better race ski, and had an idea that the key to a great teaching ski would be a deep sidecut.

The duo came up with “Albert,” which ski industry insiders consider the first carving ski of modern shape.

Olin skis old black.jpgNot the "Albert" but the classic Mark VI

But let’s look back a bit further.

Sidecut – what allows a ski to carve – goes back to skiing’s prehistory. It was invented by now-forgotten artisans sometime before 1808 and was adopted universally after being popularized by Sondre Norheim and his friends in Telemark, Norway, around 1856.

Ski sidecut.pngThe skis of this era were normally carved by hand and the sidecut was around 4 mm.

These dimensions where those found under the feet of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen and was relevant for a long time. The measured turning radius on these skis were about 80 meters.

From 4mm to 7mm

When skis were made of carved hickory, it was pretty easy for a craftsman to experiment with sidecuts. The workmen at Thor Groswold’s factory were among the more innovative talents. They were happy to build a ski to an athlete’s specifications, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has watched him ski to learn that Dick Durrance liked a very turny shape. The 206cm Durrance signature model, from around 1939, measures 74-54-62mm. This is remarkably narrow for an alpine ski, unless it was meant exclusively for running slalom on ice. What most folks didn’t notice was that the ski offered a dramatic increase in sidecut depth to 7mm (radius 42 meters). And a wider GS-style ski, the 212cm Barney McLean model from 1950, ran 90-73-81 – sidecut depth 7.25mm and radius 48 meters.

1930s hickory ski.jpg1930s hickory skis

For the next four decades, 7mm became the standardized sidecut for race skis

The Kästle slalom used by the 1964 medalists Pepi Stiegler, Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga had a 6.75mm depth on a 64mm waist; the 1968 Rossignol Strato and Dynamic VR17 measured 6.75 and 6.5mm on a 69mm waist; and as late as 1983, the Rossignol SM GS ski still used the Strato shape

Dynamic VR17.pngThe Dynamic VR17

The Mahre brothers raced and won on slalom and GS skis with a 7mm sidecut depth, patterned after the French race skis The Mahres were so successful on the 710 and VO Slalom that the shape was widely imitated in Austrian factories – thus the first Fischer Vacuum Technique slalom was a mirror image of the VO, which of course was patterned closely on the original VR17.

The Mahre brothers.jpgThe Mahre twins, Steven and Phil.

All these skis featured a stiff tail, cracked edges, a sidecut shape close to 7mm and a waist width close to 68mm. Atomic, Kastle and Blizzard all built their own versions of this ski.

Ingemar Stenmark held an advantage over the Mahres, skiing on an Elan shape with an 8mm sidecut depth, giving him a 20% shorter turning radius of about 41 meters (rumors has it that Stenmark liked to file an extra millimeter off each edge at the waist, which would have given him a 9mm depth and a 37m radius).

The big differences between models were in flex pattern and materials – slalom skis had stiffer tails, GS skis had aluminum layers, recreational skis had a softer, rounder flex. If you were to graph the evolution of sidecut, the line would show a flat spot from 1940 to 1980.

Enter the snowboard era

In the mid 70s snowboards entered the scene. The 1975 Burton Backhill Board, a plywood “snurfer” 140cm long, sported a radical sidecut shape of 302-265-295mm, for a sidecut depth of 17mm and a radius of just 6 meters. The shape set a pattern — a modern 155cm freeride board typically has dimensions of 302-257-302mm for a radius of 7 meters.

Burton Backhill 1975.jpgThe Burton Backhill from 1975

It’s unknown how much the ski industry borrowed from snowboarding. Some say most ski designers ignored this phenomenon.

Around 1979, Head’s chief engineer John Howe and marketing chief Gary Kiedaisch came up with the concept Natural Turning Radius. With a short, agile recreational ski with a slightly deeper sidecut than the factory’s long high-speed cruising and racing skis. The idea reached the market in 1981, when the 180cm Head Yahoo (92.5-71.5-80mm), with a 7.3mm sidecut, offered a turn radius of about 35 meters.

The flexible aluminum ski was used for salespeople to demonstrating how a carved turn works. Some people who saw it thought, “why don’t they make real skis that way?”

Head Yahoo.pngHead Yahoo 2 with the same design as the Head Yahoo

But back to the start

The “Albert” created by Olin which is concidered the first modern caving ski had a very fat tip and ridiculously narrow waist: according to Pilpel, the dimensions were 128-40-79mm. The prototype would have had a sidecut depth of 31mm and a radius of 8 meters. The waist wasn’t wide enough to accommodate a ski boot, so Meatto engineered an elevated Delrin platform to carry the bindings.

Olin produced a run of 150 pairs for introduction at the 1986 SIA Trade Show. Instructors who tested it thought Albert was a fabulous idea, but retailers thought the asymmetric hourglass shape far too cartoonishly weird and declined to buy it. Albert slid into obscurity, but the patent drawings lived on in Olin’s corporate legacy, to surface in other offices.

Fat skis

In 1988, Atomic engineer Rupert Huber was asked to create a better powder ski. By this time, like most ski factories, Atomic was building snowboards. It seemed logical to Huber to use the capacious floatability of a wide snowboard as a powder ski, so he simply bandsawed a snowboard in half, turned its steel edges inward, and put ski bindings on it. The production version became the Atomic Powder Plus, at 133-115-122mm the world’s first superfat powder ski.

Atomic Powder Plus black.jpgAtomic Powder Plus, at 133-115-122mm the world’s first superfat powder ski.

But a year later Volkl began work on its mid-fat Explosiv; the original 190cm version carried a profile of 118-94-110mm, for a sidecut depth of 10mm and a scary-short radius of 28 meters.

Racing in the 80s

The Mahre brothers and Ingemar Stenmark dominated GS racing in the 70s and the 80s (finding a straighter line between gates) to the extent that course-setters responded by placing GS gates further across the fall line. A few race ski designers began to think about pushing the sidecut depth up to 9 or 10mm to match the new courses.

At K2, designer Walter Knott remembers, “We figured we needed a little deeper sidecut to help the racers make a cleaner turn.” Thus was born, in 1990, the aluminum K2 GS Race, with its 10mm sidecut. In 1991 a fiberglass version for fast recreational skiing came to life - the Velocity. Volant followed on, in 1992, with the Zmax G. By ’93, Dynastar also had a 12mm cruiser, the G9 race ski.

The Breakthrough

Jurij Franko graduated from the University of Ljubljana in 1983, with a degree in engineering, and joined Elan in ’87 as a lab manager. In 1988, he had an idea for a deep sidecut ski, and his colleague Pavel Skofic calculated a suitable flex pattern. They organized a project dubbed Sidecut Extreme – SCX – and set out to build prototypes. Over the next couple of years some very strange skis emanated from Franko’s lab.

elan scx skis monoblock parabolic.pngElan SCX monoblock parabolic

By 1991 Franko and Skofic had finalized a 203cm mold for a GS race ski with a 110-63-105mm profile – that’s a 22.25mm sidecut, three times what most racers were using for slalom at the time. The SCX was blazingly fast on the GS course. In its first local races, skiers on the SCX took eight of the top ten places. For any given turn, the racer needed less edge angle, and could, therefore, stand on a straighter, stronger leg. Folks on the World Cup circuit woke up.

By April ’93, Elan’s sales organizations in Europe and North America had seen the SCX prototype. Mike Adams, marketing director in the U.S., sent four sets of samples out to ski instructors around the country.

Elan SCX powder.jpg
Adams got the message. Franko and Skofic spent the summer creating a shorter version, scaling everything down but keeping the same radius. The result was a 163cm teaching ski for adults, and a 143cm junior race model. By December, Adams was demonstrating the short SCX to ski school directors and resort managers. “Everyone who skied on it was blown away,” Adams recalls.

Atomic, Fischer and Head had taken notice and quietly began to design 15mm sidecut skis of their own. There was the Fischer Revolution Ice (92-62-92mm), the Head Cyber 24 (94-61-90mm), and a whole group of identical skis marketed under the Atomic-built labels: Atomic, Dynamic, Hart, Rohrmoser, Colt. “It turns out that everything we thought we knew for forty years was wrong,” admitted one Austrian ski designer.

Elan SCX.jpgIn the spring of ’94, without reference to the Albert patent, a series of internal memos defined the profiles for what would become the K2 Four, Three and Two. With a width limit, the Four wound up with dimensions of 98-65-87 – a 14mm sidecut depth, describing a 22-meter radius at the 195cm length.
A modern myth has arisen that ski designers adopted deep sidecuts from snowboarding, but the folks at Elan and Kneissl didn't make snowboards and apparently paid no attention to the sport.
When the mold was finally cut the following year, the result arrived in New England just in time for a young racer named Bode Miller to try it out in the ’96 Junior National Championships. In four events at Sugarloaf that March, Bode took three firsts and a second. Overnight every Master’s racer in the country needed a pair of K2 Fours just to be in the game. And the rest is history.