Fischer Speedmax

A couple of generations of HM skis with their distinctive flat sidewalls
A couple of generations of HM skis with their distinctive flat sidewalls

SpeedmaxAt the 2010 Olympics Fischer showed up with a new skate ski construction that they were calling “HM”. The HM skis were recognizable because the sidewall went straight off the edge of the ski, instead of resolving in a little lip at the intersection with the base. These skis immediately started showing up in races, and on podiums, and were quite a phenomenon for the remainder of the World Cup season. The Olympic production series all had a sticker on the top-sheet which made it easy to recognize – so for the rest of the season is was easy to spot the HM skis in World Cup competition (even watching the Eurosport coverage), and they were all over the place! The HM construction has been in-play ever since, and is now available for retail as the Speedmax model.

Hans Hubinger - "Hubi" - the most important guy at Fischer (when it comes to ski design)
Hans Hubinger – “Hubi” – the most important guy at Fischer (when it comes to ski design)

When I visited the factory the summer after the Olympics, Hans Hubinger (Fischer’s head of development) gave a more complete explanation of the HM ski. As we had heard at the Olympics, the base was bonded to the ski after the core and reinforcing laminations were molded in the press as normal (a process involving a lot of heat and pressure). This new “Cold Base Bonding” is one of the marketing tag-lines that has emerged in support of the Speedmax model, and it’s no joke!

Caution – the next few paragraphs are fairly technical, and may induce states of extreme boredom. Skip ahead if you’re nervous.

In general the materials in Fischer skis are quite “duroplastic” (that’s the word Hubi used) – meaning that they don’t change much when you heat them up. But the base material is extremely thermoplastic – it does expand a lot with heat. The skis are heated to something around or above 104 degrees C in the press, and the competing thermal properties of the various materials mean that, when the base is part of the lay-up, it is either pushing or pulling the other materials, depending on whether the press is heating or cooling (first it heats, and then it cools).

The varying thermal expansion does a couple of things. First, it creates inherent tension in the materials. This is important because the distribution of load and pressure is not the only thing that matters when it comes to ski performance. The distribution of tension in the materials also makes a big difference. When you change the shape of the ski (as you do when you step on it) you load up the materials with tension. When we’re picking skis we’re always “forecasting” the tensile response of the materials. The HM skis have a different response, and this is something we take into account when we pick the skis. We look for different starting characteristics from these skis.

The other big result of putting the whole ski, including the base, in the press at once, is that the outcome is somewhat unpredictable. The exact shape of what pops out of the mold depends a lot on the exact rate of heating and cooling, and there are all sorts of factors that can contribute to variation in those heating and cooling rates. Like the weather, for instance! By removing a lot of the variation in the thermal response of the materials in the press, the Speedmax construction ensures a more consistent and predictable production. This was a big part of the reason that the HM concept was destined for production skis from the very outset – improved quality control remains the holy grail of high-end race ski production. Fischer knows exactly what they want to build, and if their production methods allow them to produce skis consistently closer to their ideal, then they’ll build consistently better skis.

Speedmax above, Carbonlite below - different responses to changing temperatures.
Speedmax above, Carbonlite below – different responses to changing temperatures.

The thermal response of materials is not only a concern when you put the skis into a press. What about when you put skis into a cold environment, like, say, winter? Once again, the different thermal responses of the various materials means that the shape of the ski changes in the cold. The glue used to bond the base on the Speedmax skis has its own elastic properties, and it provides a sort of layer of suspension between the more thermally sensitive base material, and the less sensitive core and laminations. This means that the ski is much less susceptible to changing characteristics in changing temperatures. To demonstrate this I took the photo to the right. In the upper shot is a pair of HM skis, one of which had just been waxed with a 130 degree iron. Below that is a pair of normal carbonlites, also with one ski waxed with a 130 degree iron. Clearly the carbonlite ski that was ironed changed shape considerably. This is temporary – the shape changes back when the ski cools – but it illustrates the difference between the constructions.

Right from the beginning it’s been apparent that the HM skis were different, and not only because of the new method of applying the base. Hubi has never told me exactly what the other internal differences are, though he has acknowledged that there is a different core thickness profile. While the ski is nominally a 610 construction, it is best to think of it as a different model altogether, with distinct similarities to the 610.

OK – back to stuff you can read without going cross-eyed.
So – what does it all add up to? Fischer’s marketing material claims that the Speedmax is their “fastest” ski. Of course it does! What else would they claim? But is it really faster?

Peter Johansson and Chris Grover both got to hold Kikkan's "gold skis" after the Sprint Relay in Val di Fiemme. These are HM skis produced in 2010.
Peter Johansson and Chris Grover both got to hold Kikkan’s “gold skis” after the Sprint Relay in Val di Fiemme. This “680” pair are HM skis produced in 2010.

My first impression of the HM skis was that they would take over the world. But that’s not exactly what has happened. Fischer has continued to work with, and advance the design of the normal Carbonlite construction. HM skis have made their way into World Cup fleets, but they haven’t come to occupy a majority position. Some world cup techs don’t like them, while others do. Most racers have some really good pairs, but I’m not aware of anybody who used them exclusively. Real gear-heads might have recognized, over time, that Kikkan Randall has one pair of skis that she seems to race on all the time. Her 680 ski is an HM ski that I got for her from Michael Grossegger, the head Fischer racing guy for Biathlon. I’m pretty sure that Kikkan still owes Grossi a coffee date for that pair, which was the promise he extracted from me at the time. I have taken a number of pairs of HM skis for Amy and myself since 2010, and this past season Sophie Caldwell used a couple of pairs of Amy’s HM skis to good effect, scoring enough World Cup points to earn a USST nomination.

But, on the whole, the HM skis are not so much faster, as different. They have a more elastic feeling under foot – Amy and I both clearly prefer the feeling to the regular carbonlites. They tend to produce good races – when the running speed is at least equal to the normal skis, I think they go a little faster in terms of average speed (perhaps because of increased elasticity). Fischer claims that the cold-bonded base absorbs more wax, and I would certainly attest that they feel different to work on, both grinding and waxing. But I can’t make a case for the base material itself being faster.

Sophie and Ida testing new skis two days before the sprint in Val di Fiemme
Sophie and Ida testing new skis two days before the sprint in Val di Fiemme

What is totally clear is that Speedmax represents a meaningful step forward in terms of quality control in production. As a whole population, the Speedmax skis will be faster than anything Fischer has put out there before because there will be a higher percentage of skis that reflect exactly their design intent. I’m highly confident that the increased elasticity and action in the bridge of the skis will be well received. But I’m equally convinced that the normal carbonlites will remain a force to be reckoned with for as long as Fischer makes them with the same care and attention to detail that they have established.

These generalizations are representative of minor differences. If you were to hop on a Speedmax ski and a regular Carbonlite ski at a demo event, your preference would depend entirely on which pair of skis was better suited to the conditions on that day. As always, finding the right pair is a question of understanding the materials, and knowing what to look for. I’m quite confident that we can make people happy with either Carbonlite or Speedmax. If you’re buying skis from a shop that doesn’t know how to pick skis, I would strongly recommend the Speedmax, because their quality will be less dependent on the expertise of the shop.