When Alpine Skiing became popular in the 1800s, skis weren’t much more than a couple of wooden planks attached to your feet with leather and laces. Skis have certainly come a long way. After all, snowplowing down a hill on a pair of 2x4’s doesn’t exactly scream “thrill”. There are two main factors that have revolutionized alpine ski performance in the last century: material and shape.

Did you know? There are currently 56 different materials that are used regularly to make the core of an alpine ski.

Our skis endure a lot — they have to flex and absorb stress from many impact points at high speeds. Skis made 100 per cent of wood were heavy, hard to manoeuvre and absorbed moisture. Today, skis are made of many different materials sandwiched together in layers. This is important because skis need to be flexible, but also stable. When we combine different materials that have different functions, the appropriate material will absorb the brunt of a particular impact. For example, plastics and aluminum increase strength; graphite, Kevlar and polymers reduce vibration and distribute stress; fibreglass and carbon fibres make a ski stiffer and therefore faster; and sharp metal edges, which bite into the snow on a turn, increase control and enhance durability.

In the late 1980’s a ski engineer looked to the snowboard for inspiration. If you study a snowboard, it’s shaped like an hourglass, with its tips much wider than its waist. The engineer took the traditionally long, straight ski and cut arcs (sidecuts) from either side of the ski’s waist. What would this do? Imagine making a ski-turn on straight skis: it’s difficult because the whole edge of the ski can’t bite into the snow and you end up skidding, not carving. Now picture turning on skis with sidecuts — when you lean onto your edge the ski flexes and the whole edge touches the snow, bending into a shape that will naturally make a turn. It almost does the work for you!

Did you know? The fastest skier recorded to-date was speed-skier Simone Origone who was clocked at 251.4 km/h (156.2 mph). That’s faster than the terminal velocity of a free-falling skydiver.

You’ve also probably noticed that your skis are way shorter than the ones your parents stash up in the attic. This trend has everything to do with performance and ease of use. The shorter the ski, the smaller the turning radius (the arc you make when you turn). This means you can make quick, tight turns with maximum speed control.

Happy Skiing!

Learn More!

http://www.sciencebuzz.org/blog/bursts/science-skis

References

Casey, H.2001. Materials in ski design and development. Materials and Science in Sports. 11-17

http://iweb.tms.org/ED/01-5085-11.pdf

Corrocher, N.& Guerzoni, M. 2009. Product variety and price strategy in the ski manufacturing industry. Journal of Evolutionary Economics. 19 (4):471-486

http://www.springerlink.com/content/646636622p60k010/

Muller, E. 2008. Challenges in biomechanical field studies in winter sports. Proceedings of the 20th Congress of Japanese Sports Board.

http://www.jsb2008.umin.jp/pdf/program/lecture/lectures.pdf

Tejada-Flores. Ski Equipment vs. Ski Technique: A Historical View of How we Got Here

http://www.breakthroughonskis.com/Pages/_ski_instruction/instruction24.html

Article first published December 16, 2010.

Photo Credit: iStock

Kerry Hollingsworth

I'm a young professional, enthusiastic about all things science and education. I have an (Hons) B.Sc in Forensic Science and currently work for an educational publishing company. While every science is worth studying, I hold a special place in my heart for genetics, evolutionary biology, biological anthropology, biochemistry and space science.


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