Roots of Racing: Technology meets ski racing
Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum
This winter, Vail and Beaver Creek hosted the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships for a third time. The Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum has opened its ski racing archives to tell stories that connect the dots between today’s spectacular made-for-TV competitions and their humble beginnings. This series will feature many of the significant milestones, instigated here in Colorado by individuals now enshrined in the Hall of Fame, which helped shape skiing and international racing. When you are in Vail Village, stop by the museum for a trip through skiing’s past. For more information, go to http://www.skimuseum.net.
The World Pro Skiing Tour was instrumental in popularizing the sport of Alpine Skiing in the 1970s and ’80s. Headed by ski aficionado Bob Beattie, WPS was designed to attract a fan following. It featured an easy to understand head-to-head race format, a national telecast, and colorful characters that enraptured America. Beattie was more than successful, and alpine skiing prospered. As America’s eye focused more and more on the popular winter pastime, it also brought increased investment and invention. Skis changed, safety increased and even on-course technology improved. American ingenuity was released on the hill.
At first, slalom gates were nothing more than saplings jammed in the hillside. It wasn’t hard to improve them, and they were quickly upgraded to the more famous bamboo shoots we still occasionally see today. While better and more reliable, the bamboo was a little dangerous. Terry Palmer, who skied in the ’72 Olympics before joining the World Pro Skiing Tour, remembers them well. “Bamboo gates would splinter, they were dangerous. They would puncture your skin and hurt pretty bad.” The pros would finish slalom races bloody kneed and bruised. They wanted to take as direct line as possible, but the bamboo gates did not give very well, and fought back. Skiers blasted through anyway, ignoring the pain, knocking over the gates, and slowing the race down as course marshals repeatedly were forced to re-set a run. The skiers started wearing padding to counteract the bamboo.
Terry recalls his days on the U.S. Ski Team when racers started wearing volleyball knee pads to protect themselves, around 1971.
“We needed to protect ourselves,” he said. “We drew artistic peace symbols, or whatever on the pads. The coaches hated it.”
At a time when personal expression was butting heads with conformity, the kneepads presented a problem. Racing companies stepped in with a simple solution, and the following year they began making their own pads, with company logos printed on the front where once individual artwork had resided. Bamboo poles still battered the athletes, and forced them off line, but at least now it was done professionally.
The next big step came with the breakaway gate. While its first incarnation isn’t clear (Gianfranco De Vittori holds a patent dating from 1978, while the March 2009 issue of Skiing Heritage Journal credits Tom Jacobs and Reliable Racing with a 1979 introduction), Palmer does remember that World Pro Skiing was the first tour to adopt its usage. With the breakaway gate, the gate is attached to a hinge type apparatus that allows the gate to move laterally without pulling from the snow. It provided a give that was easier on the racer’s body, reduced pole knockouts and allowed skiers to take more and more aggressive lines. Top skiers were especially quick to adapt. “Guys like Andre (Arnold) and (Henri) Duvillard figured it out quicker, and it helped them win. You had to read the course, knowing when to attack and when to ride the ruts. Toward the end you could flatten them, but at the top you had to go around them. Especially with ruts,” Palmer said. The World Pro Skiing Tour format used a tournament system, with skiers advancing through the rounds. As the tournament progressed, those ruts would deepen, becoming miniature bobsled runs. It became more important to ride the ruts. “If you take a straight line, you might fall down,” he said. Gate panels further complicated things, making it harder to blast through the free standing poles, forcing skiers to go around.
After the gates improved, more technology followed. Slalom skis became shorter, with a bigger side cut. Ski quickness was important, as was turning speed. Terry notes that “the skis changed, but not to the point of changing how you skied. Technique and fundamentals are still important.” With shorter skis and more forgiving gates, racers were able to take more aggressive lines. They attacked the poles, and began wearing more padding. There arose shin guards, arm guards for cross blocking and saber bells on pole grips. Even helmets changed. In the ’80s, helmets had yet to gain popularity. They were predominantly used in the downhill events but rarely elsewhere. Once the breakaway gates started bouncing back into people’s faces, the racers started to use light helmets to hold their goggles into place. From there, they added face masks and jaw bars to add a little extra protection.
Today, we see Mikaela Shiffrin attack the slopes on a line like a rope. She is aggressive, fluid and fast. Her equipment, skis, apparel and even the gates she slides past all come from a time when America was in love with ski racing. The excitement of World Pro Skiing Tour helped bring a renaissance to equipment that has had lasting effects in both safety and speed.