You know the fat guy who arrives at the weekly cycling club ride with a new carbon fiber rig, the same one ridden by last year’s Tour de France winner? That’s how we felt showing up at the local 5K Nordic ski loop shod with Fischer’s top-end race ski, the Carbonlite Skate H-Plus. We had no business with skis that 2014 Olympians with racehorse VO2 max ratings were using in Sochi.
The truth about skis, and bikes and cameras for that matter, is that most of us will never use them to their fullest potential. But we’re in an era of trickle-down technology that allows us to do laps at the local golf course on the same skis that were used to win a whopping 65 percent of the medals in Sochi. And that’s not a bad thing. Using top-end gear allows users to focus on other aspects of sports: areas that are in their control, like fitness, technique and training. And it’s also a hell of a lot more enjoyable; for instance, driving a Porsche to the grocery store may not get you there faster, but you’ll volunteer to do it a lot more often.
While the first cross-country skis were simply two planks of hickory, modern ski construction consists of a lot more than meets the eye.
Tip and Tail
As the names suggest, these are the front and back of a ski. The tip is curved up to break deeper snow, more so with backcountry or touring skis.
The inside of the ski, mainly comprising the “box” under the skier’s foot. Skis have traditionally been made of wood or fiberglass layers but modern race skis are most often made from layers of carbon fiber.
The visible width difference from tip to “waist” to tail. Skate skis typically have minimal sidecut to maximize the amount of edge that makes contact with the snow when the skier pushes off.
The arch of a ski as viewed from the side. Classic skis have a more pronounced camber since it is the flex of this arch that provides kick as body weight compresses it against the snow and glide as it releases. Skate skis are typically flatter for more glide.
The bottom of the ski. On a classic ski, the “kick zone” is that section under the skier’s foot that compresses against the snow to provide traction, and where wax is applied. Base preparation is the science of grinding for a balance of good traction with ample glide.
The point of contact between boot and ski. There are two primary styles: New Nordic Norm (NNN) and the Salomon Nordic System (SNS), differentiated by how the bottom of the boot fits into the binding. Boots must be compatible with the binding.
Cross-country skiing is a Nordic sport, born in the remote forests of Scandinavia. So Fischer is a bit of an anomaly, hailing from the Alpine ski mecca of Austria. But the company has translated its ski-building know-how from the vertical to the horizontal. That’s because there’s a lot in common between the materials and construction process; Fischer was a pioneer in the use of carbon and has been a leader since the 1990s. Stiff and light are guiding principles, whether you’re bombing the Hahnenkamm or entering the finish straight in Lillehammer.
There’s not one thing that makes the Carbonlite Skate H-Plus skis the fastest on the market; rather, they’re the sum of their parts. At their core is multi-axial carbon that is laid up bidirectionally for added strength. AirCore design uses air pockets to further lighten the load. The tips and tails of the skis are carbon fiber, which keeps weight at the ski ends feathery for snappy kicks. Fischer also cuts out the tip of the ski, not for an easy place to hang them in your basement but to further reduce mass for lower swing weight. In skate skiing even more than its classic cousin, light weight is crucial since with every kick you’re lifting a leg and thrusting forward. Over the course of a 25-kilometer race, that’s a lot of lifting, so the less weight attached to your feet, the better.
Besides their weight savings, the Carbonlites also boast camber, sidecut and edge designs derived from athlete feedback and computer-aided design that ensure optimal contact with snow. Fischer makes two versions of the Carbonlites. The Skate Cold version is identical in construction but has a base structure ground for use on colder snow, whereas the H-Plus is optimized for warmer, slicker snow. This nuance is probably better felt by top-end skiers for whom base prep can mean the difference between being on the podium or not. On slow, cold Minnesota snow, the skis did feel a bit grippy but can be compensated for with glide waxing.
Paired with Fischer’s RCS Carbonlite boots and NIS Xelerator bindings, the Carbonlites make for an integrated system that feels seamless and locked down. The boots have a narrower last, carbon fiber chassis and external frame that provide a stiff platform for pushing off on the ski edge for maximum power transfer. These boots are made for racing; the insulation was a bit skimpy for colder temperatures and the old fashioned lacing was a bit finicky. But once the outer boot is zipped shut, a ratcheting clasp and velcro ankle strap allow fine-tuning for a snug fit with zero slop.
At well over a grand for boots, bindings and skis, this isn’t a setup for the occasional skier or penny pincher. The competing race skis from Madshus, Peltonen and Atomic are available for hundreds less, though they don’t come with the gold medal pedigree. For the aspiring racer or endorphin junkie who doesn’t flinch at spendy gear, there may be nothing better. But don’t take our word for it: just ask the fleet of elite skiers who brought home the hardware last winter in Sochi.