søndag 5. mars 2017

Furry Skis? The verdict on skin-skis (felleski)

Apparently skis with an integrated mohair skins are nothing all that new, and since patents  ran out accordongly some time ago, all the main XC makers now offer 'furry soled skis'. However is this all just a fad?

Historical Beginners Skis

Patterned waxless skis got a bad name because they were mostly the reserve of beginners' products. However Atomic offer quite a few tour good skis with pattern,  for the North American market in particular it seems, and Salomon also have some better skis with rough patterns. Fischer have a near pro level ski (XCS carbon if I remember right) with their own patented pattern, which work quite well in my personal experience, and many an  "Oslo 50" or Birkebeiner competitor has a pair of these in reserve in the car in case conditions are going to vary greatly.

With Waxless patterned skis, by in large you get a longer zone which is patterned than that which is waxed or clistered up, because it has to grip in all conditions. This means they usually make a lot of noise on down hills, which means friction of course in what should be the glide zone. I would recommend grinding off and polishing the front of many of the patterned sections and taking either a short skin or clister with you for the more difficult days, rather than enduring the noise and extra friciton of one-size-fits all.  Also in some conditions the bare plastic will ball up with snow, so in fact they are no totally preparation free, they need to be glided.

Do the new integrated skin-skis make up for the short-comings of the older waxless, patterned skis?

Enter the Flush Furry Ski-:Skintec TM from Atomic.

Furry skis got a far more serious start with Atomic betting on a high end training ski, almost three times the peice of a cheap waxless starter ski. The magnetic system was all verry high tech, but it wasn't long before they glued in a standard, inch across skin on a wider range of training skis. We say training,  but these skis have already been used by many amateurs in Birkebeiner and other races where height and /or snow conditions are likely to change dramatically, making a clister or soft wax lowland wax job a balling mess in the new snow of the hill.

Since their inception, I have been itching to get my hands on a pair, but the investment /percieved risk held me back. Last season I managed to pick up a pair of used 208cm atomic skintecs with glued-in skin. This was a good two birds with oine stone purchase, because they were also my first "straight" sports skis ie minimal side cut and no concession to 'off piste'..... also my first with any carbon fibre in them.

 Pleased ? Yes very much so, but only as pleased as I could be with the conditions !

All Skis Have Their Limits or 'Envelope' of Performance

In truth, getting out in the ski-tracks without worrying is a bit misleading. As with your ordinary, common-or-garden training skis, there are going to be days when the spring (aka flex or spenn) in the ski is too hard - soft conditions render a hard tensioned ski like mine difficult- they become a labour, while ordinary or firm conditions seem to be no problem.

 Then we come to snow type, and here we have limitations of the untreated skin-ski. They don't like fine, new snow, and at the other extreme, very compressed or 'transformed' snow, aka concrete in the tram lines, neither of which are good for traction. Unfortunetly, both of which are typical of our southern Norwegian winter with dumps, wind blown poweder and then also thaw back or long term ing of old snow in cold , dry periods.

However in typical blue' and 'Lillac' conditions, to be found in  higher 'pastures' or better days, ie silky ski runs, then the skis are mile-eaters, with zero prep' (if you have the glider right or have Kuzmin scraped them!) . In slightly softer base snow then you get quite a lot of wirring noise but the friction seems minimal.

 You can easily argue that even a 5 minute,  cabin porch job of blue or purple fluoro' wax could behave just the same without any of the accompanying skin friction. There is the 'rub' then, just to be punny. In good conditions you would expect a simple, good wax job to grip and last.

When you get up to red-wax and clister conditions and into wet snow, the skin works really well until it obviously becomes waterlogged, when a decided suck happens. This required a 'rock' from toe to heel in order to break the suction on an otherwise fast down hill for me last week. In soft, wet conditions with a poor base, my skis are also so hard tensioned in their arch, that the tour becomes a slog in standard, kicking diagonal technique, and unrewardingly slow down hill due to friction and the narrow ski digging in. I've noticed that before, that my tour skis are nicer on softer base while folk were struggling. 

Everyone and their dog under 70 here however,  uses sports skis for "ski jogging' and I see why, like a racing bike with 120 psi tyres versus a shopper, you get a faster run in good conditions. But a wide skis have their time and place.

When you go over to concrete-like tram lines,  then you can forget a hard tension ski with a skin imho. There is no real traction more than a bare friction. Perhaps a softer spenn/flex will make for more press into the substrate crystals, but I am sceptical. However since the skis I have are hard tensioned, then I can double pole and then go over to fish bone, or be surprised with how grippy they are in the "skating" section between tracks. Here you get the first of two centre section surprises.

Firstly - The skin-ski grips well on coarse, crystalised or machine ground snow on the centre lane, where a waxed ski would either not grip well, or pick up crystals. 

Surprise two- this being because the skin usually has no pick up of snow crystals, unlike clister, red or sometimes even purple. The ski skates very, very well. Okay they are too long, and the poles will be too short, but I found all three main techniques worked well with the skis, where as wax skis will tend to judder and catch, or on coarse snow, loose their kick wax faster.

Conclusions - The Pros and Cons

So there are a couple of fringe benefits but what is the main thing? Well we get a lot of variable conditions here and sometimes a forecast of rain and sleet becomes heavy snow in reality. The main plus for me is then not having to strip back a soft wax or clister job. In hard conditions I get only about 12 km out of my best clister job, so i could rather pick a ski run where i can double pole, which is fantastic physical training.

In picking a ski, it is best to have grip for your style and expected snow conditions. So a hard spring (flex) in a ski can make for a lot more back slipping if you are not prepared to learn a more energetic technique innpushing down harder in a racing style.

We get a lot of conditions here in Southern Norway when one day is blue, the next red, then the tracks get old and need mechanical churning, then the crystals stick to your clister, then there is a freeze and new snow comes......Also the ski locations vary from 15m above sea level to 600m within a couple of hours from here, so you can expect to encounter variation day to day, place to place.

My last ski run though showed both the good and the evil of this particular pair of Atomics, with the eastern run to "Østertjenn" better for skins than waxes I believe, and a joy in all techniques, while the western section towards "Hekketjenn" had had sun and mild wind on it, and was just horrid for both the grip from the skin and the hard flex from the ski. That really brought it home to me, how poorer conditions are irritating!

Waxing Issues

So far I really, really enjoy these skis in good conditions and am prepared to try out the various products now available for keeping them waterlogg free, grippy or even clister grippy on the hard stuff, which is my main bug bear to date. No grip on the hard stuff, where an Ice Clister would be working for a while at least.

My next area of experiment is then in using wax and sprays ! This may seem to defy the point of skin skis. However the skis should be cleaned properly and then there are 'zero' conditioons when clogging crystals will be an issue, or wet condions when you get water logging and 'suck'. Swix have a cleaner spray and a prep' "skin glider" for this now.  There is also a spray wax which is for - i believe- new snow and icey conditions, which works a little like a hard wax but is optimised for the hairy substrate.
You can see that the skin does not reach further than half way up the sole of the binding, so you could -I suppose- wax this part on a hard day when the skin does not work or for soft, fine new snow.
Furthermore, on my skis and a couple of other models from the main manufacturers, the skin only comes back as far as the mid-sole. So there is a couple of inches in the "pocket" where i could use, for example, a blue-ice crystal.

Now I had tried "do it all" Start Grip Tape, with great success, but it had the same kind of limitations on hard packed snow, being a bit better on new snow though. However it wore out fairly quickly for the price on hard snow. Also I wanted to change to sportier skis, so I hit those two birds and am very pleased GIVEN good conditions. Crap conditions are just that, and I need a new indoor sport, or to splash out on Skate Ski Poles and boots for my end of sesson bargain skis i got and have toyed around with.

There is now a range of training skis and at least one, more tour oriented and so broader ski ( Salomon) on the market. I dare say there will be some back country skis with even longer fixed on skins, and perhaps the Salomon style slot system for adding a full legnth skin for steeper stuff. After all synthetic skins were first used for back country, and are now big sellers for the Randonee skier market.

Jumble Sale, soft flex , waxless skis, fun for slushy conditions !
I also have a pair of 'shopping' skis from a jumble sale, real 1979 types which are a wooden ski with a P-tex sole, and a classsic, long fish scale waxless pattern, over a 2 inch . These I had to force a tenner into the hand of the church elder for at the end of the jumble sale, he wanted rid off them! In 'old' snow I have a great time toddling around on these, skating and kicking, and relaxing. Not taking it too seriously in end of season slush, or up the pavement to the shops before the council scrape the snow off.

The moral here is think about what your level is, the right lengtrh and pre-tension in the ski for you and your ability or ambitions, and where and when you will be skiing. As a new beginner, if you are just going to do a weeks holiday or the odd weekend or dash out once a week, then a pair of well fitted patterned waxless will save you maybe a hundred quid/euros over a pair of skin skis. If though, you live in the mountains and want to get out often in well made tracks, and do some seruious training then yep, get a pair of skin skis with a kind of medium pre-tension for your weight, and also pay for some lessons with the money you save from buying a wax kit.

At the other end of the scale, as a ski racer, then a skin ski is going to be an extra ski for training. The atomic Skintec are quite a high end training ski with carbon fibre spring elements, at the price of racing skis, and were launched into this market.

 It will take you just about the life time of the ski to save back what you would have spent on grip waxes I dare say, it is more about saving time when conditions are changeable day to day or with altitude over the course of a race or tour.

So it is kind of horses for courses, and the greatest benefit are for those who never want to learn to wax up, or those where conditions are regularily from minus ten to plus three.


Addenum - 11th March 2017

I am even more pleased with the skis after a week of skiing in what you could call typical easter conditions. Wet snow some days, some new, heavy snow others and finally a few days with 'trasnformed' snow churned and relayed by the machines.

Yesterday was a good example - the skins performed really well in the cold snow of morning , which was churned and firm to hard, but still with a light crystaline surface which gave excellent grip. Fish boning came in a little earlier than with softer snow of course.   As the day went on, the strong spring sunshine softened many areas and the ski continued to perform really well. So in a nutshell you may have gone out waxed on red only to find universal clister conditions prevailed later, thus you see the benefit of the skin.

My complaint about the day, was nothing to do with the skins, but the hard conditions on the pisted mid sections meant that my long, hard flex skis were very unstable in half plough or full plough and I fell really often, bottling out when I saw rocks ahead or streams showing through the tracks! With such good glide on firm snow available, a more 'compliant' soft.


If you can get a pair of Skin skis which match your height, weight and ability (see next blog!) then I would say for the average fun & fitness skier there is nothing holding you back. As a pair of training skis, it looks like all the top manufacturers are offering models which would please the hardest Oslo 50 'mile eater' amateur and even the odd Pro' could find these handy for training in variable conditions over say rising altitudes.

I look forward to integrated skins being included in a wider range of types of ski, towards the more tour oriented and the out and out race ski. 

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