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How Ski Racing Works

Posted February 23, 2010 12:01 AM by JGstott

Ski racing challenges a skier to get down a course as quickly as possible, which translates into how to turn a ski without slowing down.

With modern skis, we "turn" by tilting a ski up on edge (angulation) and then pressuring it to push the sidecut into an arc - the degree of tilt and pressure and the speed of the movement control the radius of the turn. The metal edge of the ski guides the arc of the turn as it "carves" through the snow.

Resisting Stiffness and Camber

The amount a ski resists these forces (stiffness and camber) affects both how quickly a skier can move from edge to edge, and how stable the ski is at high speed on very hard snow. Twisting motion is used on a small scale to guide skis once they are tilted and pressured. The only time twist comes into play in a major way is in the breaking maneuver at the end of the run.

Watch a racer stop in the finish area - he or she twists the ski sideways to put them in direct opposition to gravity- a very inefficient move if speed is your goal. The bottoms of skis are made of special plastics that hold waxes, which make the ski slide over the snow.

Alpine Events

In all alpine events, skiers are trying to move from edge to edge quickly and smoothly, forcing the ski to scribe arc after arc on the snow. In Slalom and Giant Slalom (GS), the most technical events, the movements are quick and sharp, pushing skis through tight turns in a narrow course marked by single poles or double gates. Skiers have to be very light on their feet and quick from edge to edge. In the speed events, Super-g and Downhill, skiers are moving at much higher speeds on a longer course with much wider turns. They maintain speed by rolling smoothly from edge to edge as they navigate their way through the gates. In between turns, they keep the skis as flat as possible to allow them to glide.

The application of ski design shifts as skiers compete in different events. Slalom and GS skis tend to be shorter, with more radical sidecut and less stiffness in the construction of the ski. Stiffness is a very relative term; World Cup race skis would still feel incredibly stiff to the average recreational skier. In the speed events, where stability at high speed becomes more important, the skis are longer and stiffer, giving the skier a stable platform from which to roll from edge to edge. Men's World Cup downhill events often involve speeds approaching 80 mph.

There are five alpine events on the World Cup circuit and at the Olympics: Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super Giant Slalom, Downhill, and the final event - a combination of Slalom and Downhill in which the combined times of the runs make a racer's total time. In all events, the goal is to get down the hill as fast as possible while still going around every gate.

Staying Close and Finishing Fast

In the name of speed, racers pass as close to the gate as possible. In Slalom, the skiers center of gravity (CG) often passes on the opposite side of the gate from the skis (the skier's CG is almost always inside of his or her feet except at the moment of moving from one turn to the next). That's why it looks like slalom racers are banging into the gate (they are).

Racers keep their center of gravity as close to a straight line downhill as possible, while guiding their skis around the outside of the gate. As the speed and distance from gate to gate increase in the events, the turns widen, and the difference between the skier's CG relative to the track of the skis and the turn is lessened. Also, hitting a gate at almost 80 mph is neither fun nor safe; at the 35 mph of a Slalom race, the skiers still need to wear pads and a face guard.

Despite modern construction and design, ski racing is still ruled by a very simple principle. Winners tend to be the people who can step on the gas when everyone else has decided to back off!

About the Author

Jay Stott is a writer, photographer, teacher and general 'ner-do-well. Before his current career arc, he spent 15 years teaching skiing and leading adventurers in the wilds of the American West. He currently lives in North Central Colorado. Visit him at

Editor's Note: Like this blog entry? Then be sure to check out How Skis Work.


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Anonymous Poster

Re: How Ski Racing Works

02/24/2010 1:29 PM

Why do you always write:

"This discussion was "closed" on mm/dd/yyyy hr:min PM. No comments are allowed.

Message from admins: Please comment in the blog, not the announcement."

Its more than a bit annoying.

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