One of the most formidable barriers to classic skiing for newbies and experienced skiers alike is the challenge one often faces to pick and properly apply an effective kick wax for the prevailing conditions. Now, this selection is rather straightforward in what are known as “hard wax conditions” where the simple application of a natural or synthetic wax composition for the prevailing temperature range performs very well. In such dry, compacted powder, non-aggresive snow crystal conditions, no binder is needed and fussing with mixes of wax is of little value. Just apply the wax and go. However (except in the Rocky Mountain West and a few other places) such conditions rarely occur. Typically, a near-infinite number of unpredictable (and often changing) conditions are instead what the skier has to accommodate. To be successful in reliably waxing for such conditions requires years of experience and an increasingly vast encyclopedic knowledge of “what works when” and continued attempts at new solutions with a similarly increasingly vast array of wax compositions. It is a situation that deters many from classic skiing and is the reason we see such a predominant number of skiers in the sport who choose to only skate.
Unfortuantely, the “glacial-like” innovation and technology development rate that is extant in the cross country skiing world has led to very few kick/grip solutions for skiers. Way back in the 1970’s “fish scale” skis (or “Crown” skis) were developed that at least provided reliable kick in a wide variety of challenging conditions. However, ski glide with fishscale skis is highly compromised and as a result makes skiing with such skis not very much fun on the downhills- not to mention the handicap in improving and optimizing one’s classic technique with the deficient glide.
More recently, technology has been developed to facilitate good to very good kick and good to very good glide for conditions right around freezing (32 F, 0 C) and particularly when snow has recently fallen. This technology is called “Zeros” and utilizes a rubberized kick zone composition that can be “roughed-up” to allow for effective kick in conditions that typically prevail right around freezing. These skis were used extensively at the 2010 Olympics in Whistler BC Canada (also know as the “Rain Olympics” because of all of the rain and super wet snow that fell during the competitions). “Zeros” have since become an essential part of any competitive ski er’s quiver since there is still very little in the way of waxing technology that can effectively deal with such conditions. Both competitive skiers and recreational skiers are utilizing zeros at an increasing rate given the warming that is clearly evident throughout the world, i.e “zeros” conditions are becoming more and more common. Even here in the relatively dry and cold Northern Rockies, we use our zeros about 20% of the time (or about 30 sessions in a 150 session season). Such skis are indispensable since there really is nothing that works as well in “zeros” conditions.
Even more recently, ski manufacturers have slowly developed a kick technology for Nordic skis that utilizes a “skin” material that has been in use in Back Country and Ski Mountaineering for decades. Such “skins” simulate what actual animal fur “skins” did for ancient skiers in preceding millennia and that currently do for BackCountry and Ski Mountaineering skiers today. Originally skins were made from seal skin (hence the term “skins”) but all current ski skins are man-made woven cloth (mohair) or synthetic derivatives (e.g nylon fibers) with better durability, climbing performance, and glide speed. These man-made and Synthetic “skins” have been developed over many decades and have been broadly adopted by cross country ski manufacturers in about the last 5 years.
All of the major cross country skiing manufacturers now offer skin skis. Fischer, Madsus, Salomon, Atomic, and Rossignol all are also now offering numerous models including those specifically for racing. Each has their own approach to accomplish good kick and glide in difficult conditions with different skin compositions and designs. In this post I review the Salomon S/Race Skin ski as it compares to waxed skis and other synthetic kick solutions i.e. “zeros”. I will not compare Salomon S/Race Skin skis to other manufacturers models as I do not have access to skin skis that have been hand-picked for my biometrics and skiing style. Since ski flex is so important in ski performance it is of little value to compare skis without matching such parameters. So what will be described here is first-hand experience with comparisons of hand-picked Salomon S/Race Skin skis to other hand-picked Salomon racing classic skis in various snow conditions. Similar observations are highly likely to obtain with other manufacturers products in similar conditions and comparisons.
salomon s/race skin ski
The Salomon S/Race Skin ski is a combination of the latest race ski structure and flex characteristics with a race base, universal grind, and a state-of-the-art racing skin overlay. By overlay it is meant that the skin material is glued to the base and is not inlayed into the ski base.
Salomon has been working with the Switzerland-based pre-eminent synthetic skin technology developer and synthetic skin manufacturer Pomoca to further develop and apply Pomoca technology for use in both racing and recreational cross country skis. Since it’s beginnings in the 1930’s Pomoca (incorporated under this name in 1957) has been challenging the performance boundaries of “climbing skins” for touring and back country skis. Initially utilizing mohair fabrics, Pomoca revolutionized the “skins” market with the introduction of synthetic, nylon fiber-based skins in 1975. Since then they have been evolving the technology to improve both climbing and glide characteristics.
For racers, the Pomoca Race Pro 2.0 Vertical skin composition has been a reliable and fast choice for Ski Mountaineer racers in primarily vertical races. With acceptable glide combined with sufficient grip for steep ascents, the Pro 2.0 Vertical product is a mainstay at all Ski Mo competitions where races involve only (or primarily) vertical ascending. Realizing that such skin compositions could be effectively used for cross country skiing, Salomon and Pomoca have collaborated to bring the S/Race Skin ski to the market.
As already mentioned, the S/Race Skin ski from Salomon has a skin material that is very similar to (or exactly the same as) Pomoca’s ski mountaineering Race Pro 2.0 Vertical skin. This 100% mohair skin composition** is glued to the kick zone of the specially constructed ski. The skin material is pre-treated by Pomoca to ensure what they call “anti-glopping”. This is basically a hydrophobic coating that reduces or eliminates icing and should last the life of the skin according to the manufacturer. The S/Race ski itself is claimed to be the lightest classic ski that Salomon have ever manufactured and includes a unique construction specifically designed to maximize kick and glide with skin material.
The Salomon technical product literature provides the following information on the specific design and material aspects of the S/Race Skin ski:
Here is a higher resolution image of the Pomona fabric structure showing the high density of multiple-fiber “beams” that allow for grip and lay down when gliding. The high density of “beams” is said to be a key element for attaining exceptional glide.
The Salomon S/Race Skin ski brings together a number of technologies into a single product specifically designed for high-level training and, potentially, racing. I think Salomon have done exceedingly well in this venture as my on-snow use described below will support.
We received a pair of S/Race Skin skis just before leaving for a training camp in West Yellowstone the week prior to Thanksgiving. These skis had been picked for us by the Ski Whisperer at the factory this summer. Our expectations were that these skis would be used on difficult waxing days when we wanted to classic ski and did not want to fuss with wax. The skis would also be used for teaching at the local resort. We only ordered one pair because other users of skin skis (from other manufacturers) noted that, in general, cross country skin skis had great grip but they were very slow on the glide side. We wanted to see how the Salomon product performed prior to making an investment in two pairs.
West Yellowstone had a decent snow pack when we arrived but the next day it rained all day leading to saturated snow conditions where zeros were working well. That night the temperature fell significantly, the snow dried out, and the excellent grooming crew in West Yellowstone did a great job of setting the tracks. We went out with the S/Race Skin skis and a pair of racing skis with a “covered klister” system that was (we were told) being utilized by all of the elite-level skiers who were training that day. Arriving at the trail system we found the tracks and decks to be nicely packed but with a substantial amount of ice and the tracks were clearly glazed. The temperature was about -10C (15F). Out we went on Rendezvous, Jerry’s Journey and then the Dead Dog loop. Both ski pairs were performing well for grip, although the skins were “bomber” and the covered blister was very good but not “bomber”. As far as glide, we were astonished when the skin ski was out-gliding the waxed racing ski in the track! This continued throughout the session where the skin ski was either out-gliding the race ski or they were even. Amazing! On the deck however the skin ski would catch whatever loose snow there was and slow down a bit- and also “sing” (make a high pitched sound) which is never a good sign for glide optimization.
A speed test on a steep downhill in the track showed that the S/Race Skin skis will support speeds in excess of 48 kph- about as fast as we currently go on our waxed racing classic skis. On the deck this reduced to about 35 kph on the same hill. But remember- skin skis are “grab and go”… no muss, no fuss and therefore yielding just that much more time on trails and no frustration with figuring out the “right” wax combination. We call the S/Race Skin ski “Pink Pomoca Paradise”!
We continued to use and compare the S/Race skin ski to other waxable classic skis that we brought with us throughout the changing conditions we encountered. We had some new snow that was set without glazed tracks and the skin ski was clearly slower but not by much. As noted above, the skins will catch and slow down on loose unpacked or loosely packed powder that is often found on the decks so staying in the track will maximize glide. However, even in the track in slightly loose snow conditions the skis will slow down relative to a waxed equivalent. The skins also do not exhibit “free” glide in striding and one can feel the resistance in the glide phase on each stride. It is a small resistance that is real and would add up over the course of a race. But this is a small price to pay for the “grab and go” convenience and the consistently “bomber” kick, particularly for training.
The S/Race Skin skis were in such demand that it was coin toss as to who got them on any given day, so we called the Ski Whisperer and secured another pair, which has since arrived and has been found to provide performance that is equivalent to the first pair.
how to use s/race skin skis
Although the Salomon S/Race Skin skis can be fast in certain track conditions, they will likely never be a “race” ski on race day. This is because any well-informed and experienced classic ski waxer should be able to put together a wax program that works for kick and has superior glide for the conditions. However, for training the S/Race skis shine as they will enable a classic training session in virtually all difficult conditions where getting the wax right would be a significant effort. For me, training sessions are all about heart rates and the S/Race Skin will allow for a straightforward “grab-and-go” solution that ensures I can get the work done without any hassle. It may not be the fastest session but at least I can get the session completed and not spend time on the trails frustrated trying to get good kick. Rather I am just bombing up the hill repeats and challenging the limits of what the session is designed to work on.
Another primary use for the S/Race Skins is as a technique development tool. Here the “bomber” kick will allow one to concentrate on getting the split second timing right and therefore bring together all of the dynamic movements required to refine and optimize a good classic stride. Many skiers suffer from this on-snow development and refinement because they are on skis that are not kicking well. As a result the all-critical timing and dynamic movement coordination never come together for long enough to allow for the focused work, repetition, and myelination to take hold.
Finally, the S/Race Skin skis are ideally suited to those just starting out with classic technique- for all of reasons given above for classic ski racers: reliable “bomber” kick, “grab-and-go” convenience, and reasonable glide (and great glide in icy conditions). New classic skiers consistently bring up all of these factors when discussing their foray into the classic technique. Hopefully the new generation of skin skis will encourage more and more skiers to give classic skiing a try and lead to a larger classic ski population out on the trails.
“Grab-and-Go” convenience, “bomber” kick, and good to great glide in a lightweight, well designed ski for training for competitive skiers or as a daily ski for recreationalists. Highly recommended.
Update 31 Dec 2017: We have skied on the skin skis for a number of additional sessions and in additional conditions. A few days ago the snow conditions consisted of newly fallen warmish powder snow (20-23F) that had been groomed early in the morning. The air temperature warmed to about 29-31F and the tracks glazed over but did not ice. Bumble was on the skins and Bee was on Carbon skate skis with the same wax and similar grind. In the track the skins out-glided the skate skis- by a significant margin. On the deck the skins would catch any loose snow and slow down compared to the skate skis but they were still gliding well. So the lesson here is that there will be conditions where the skins may be in the running on race day and it would do one well to consider taking the skins along to any race where the waxing might be tricky. I know that we will be taking them.
* or “mohair” as some prefer, although mohair (a woven cloth made from Angora goat hair) is only one of a number of “skin” types e.g. some skins are made from synthetic fibers (e.g. nylon) or mix of synthetic and mohair fibers
**There is conflicting information about the composition of the S/Race Skin skin material. Some in the US indicate that the skin is synthetic, others say it is composite of mohair and synthetic, and the information provided by Salomon above says the skin is 100% mohair. Who knows? In any case it has very good glide compared with other competing skin materials.