Madshus REDline

Emil Hegle Svendson on his way to gold at Biathlon World Championships, racing on REDline skis.
Emil Hegle Svendson on his way to gold at Biathlon World Championships, racing on REDline skis.

The introduction of the new Madshus REDline skis got quite a lot of attention this past winter, as Madshus athletes seemed to be racing on them pretty much as soon as they hit the ground. The skis, along with the new Super Nano boots, are a new line of premium products that Madshus has brought to market a year ahead of their original schedule. As always, we need to ask ourselves how much of the new stuff is hype, and how much is a real advance of the materials and design. To answer this question we need to start with a basic understanding of the materials and design.

Twenty years ago Madshus set-off on their own with a new and unique method of building skis. “Fiberglass” skis had replaced wood skis in racing almost overnight in the early ‘70s, but all ski companies continued to use wood and other duroplastic structural materials in their composite construction skis.

In 1993 Madshus introduced a ski made of entirely thermoplastic materials. None of the component parts of these skis had any inherent structural qualities – the ski only made sense when all the materials were combined and glued together. At the 1994 Olympics Thomas Alsgaard vaulted to the forefront of the sport in the opening race, winning the 30K skate on a pair of the new Madshus “miracle” skis. The new REDline skis are the latest product of a development process that began with the design that was introduced in 1993. But to understand the real triumph that REDline represents, you need to back-up a couple of steps and understand the potential that was introduced twenty years ago with the TXC model.

There are limitations to every construction method. The variability inherent in most ski construction is mostly a product of competing thermal properties of the various materials when they’re in the press. The Madshus design addresses this issue from the outset with a carefully engineered layup of thermoplastic materials.  The materials are “soft” to start with – which means that Madshus can build pretty much anything they can imagine. The ski design is thermally stable through a broad range of temperatures because the design ensures that the materials in the ski balance each other. This means that Madshus has extremely low variability in their production because the specific rate of heating and cooling doesn’t have a large impact on the outcome. Madshus has, by a huge margin, the most consistent quality control of any brand.

So what’s the downside? Because the materials are entirely thermoplastic, they are quite sensitive to the kind of heat that gets applied with an iron when skis get waxed. If you understand that this thermal sensitivity is a product of the design, and you take steps to limit the build-up of heat in the core (and surrounding materials) of the ski, you should experience no difficulties. But if you allow too much heat to build-up in the ski you’ll end up with deformation. At times in the past two decades the thermal sensitivity has been more of an issue than at other times. Currently the skis are quite thermally stable, but still require careful treatment. We’ve heard the thermal sensitivity issues described by some people as “unacceptable”. If you regularly use a low iron temperature and iron for a long time, and if you don’t think you can change your waxing methodology, then you should avoid Madshus skis. If you’re adaptable, and are interested in innovative design, then you shouldn’t feel a need to limit yourself.

When you can build anything you can imagine, the trick becomes imagining the right thing. Madshus has assembled a team of athlete testers who are really driving the redesign process in the right direction in recent years. In the twenty years since the design concept was introduced, Madshus has accelerated their development process.

•In 1993 they introduced the TXC.
•In 2000 they reworked the concept and introduced the hypersonic model with a 3-dimensional topsheet shape.
•In 2006 they introduced a new core material, establishing a new flag-ship model in the Nanosonic.
•In 2010 they reworked the 3D profile and overall shape of the ski, releasing essentially a new model.
•In 2013, with the introduction of the REDline products, they’re bringing to market the result of the last three years of ongoing development work.

Each of these major steps has advanced the performance of the skis, as has the continual refinement of the layup of reinforcing laminations and press settings. But in my opinion the most significant progress has come with the most recent round of testing and development. This is impressive because the starting point was already quite refined. It’s one thing to introduce ground-breaking refinements to a raw and unfinished concept. It’s another thing to make a big step when your starting point is already really good. When the Madshus guys told me, a couple of years ago, that they were working on a total redesign of the classic skis I was worried – maybe even a bit upset – because I thought the existing skis were really good, and I didn’t want them to screw things up. Well, they didn’t screw things up. As we found out this past winter, they nailed it.

Bjorn Ivar Austrem
Bjorn Ivar Austrem with three iterations of prototype REDline classic skis

The RED in REDline stands for “Race Engineered Development”. It sounds kind of hokey, but they’re basically giving a name to the development process that we’ve seen and been impressed by each time we’ve worked with Madshus. They maintain a very close collaboration with a small number of testers, really focusing primarily on feedback from Thomas Alsgaard, Odd Bjorn Hjelmeseth, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen and Emil Hegel Svendsen. We’ve seen the process in action, and I really don’t know of another situation that makes such direct use of the feedback of a small handful of great skiers. On the receiving end of the feedback loop is Bjorn Ivar Austrem, the engineer who has masterminded the software-aided redesign of the new skis.

The simplified explanation of the REDline lineup is that they’ve dramatically altered the thickness profile of the skis. As I’ve mentioned a number of times in past articles, stiffness is a cube function of thickness – minor adjustments to the thickness of a layup will dramatically alter the characteristics of the ski. And some of these adjustments aren’t minor. In all the skis, but especially in the classic skis, the tip and tail profile has been made considerably thinner and therefor softer (and lower tension when it is deformed). They’ve also redistributed the material in the bridge, most notably moving the thickest point of the classic skis forward from a point near the heel, to something near the front of the foot.

So what does it add up to? Well, mostly it inspires me to toss around an even more generous helping of familiar and overused adjectives: “supple”, “elastic”, “responsive”, etc. But let’s get more specific.

On the skate skis the changes from the previous Nanosonic models are relatively subtle, and the basic model line-up is for the most part unchanged. The Skate “Cold” is the same camber profile as the 118 HP model, and the new “cold” designation is more appropriate than the old “hard pack”– we have found the 118 to be a really good universal cold ski. Some of these thickness profile changes have already been introduced with last year’s new 119 Soft Conditions / Regular model. My personal feeling is that the changes are even more pronounced in the 118 model, where they lighten the feeling in the forebody of the ski, and allow us to utilize a considerably wider range of flex values for specific conditions. For instance, in the old construction it was tough to make a really stiff 118 work with any versatility – it could be good in hardpack transformed, but anything over about 77 or 78kg was a fairly tough and unforgiving ski for my 66kg. With the new profile I’ve had great skis in softer snow with flex values in the range of 75kg, but have had very versatile and fast skis with 85-88kg skis in transformed and hardpack snow, with none of the downsides I’ve associated with previous models. My early testing of the new thickness profile had me convinced that the new skis would be dedicated soft snow ski, but that’s just because I hadn’t realized how well the stiffer ones worked!

REDline skis, making their way into Noah Hoffman's fleet
REDline skis, making their way into Noah Hoffman’s fleet

On the classic side we’ve seen bigger changes to the geometry, and a bigger performance shift. The REDline classic skis feel unlike anything else we’ve ever tested, and they feel incredibly “right”. Everybody I’ve spoken with who has skied on them describes them as being “nice to ski on”. The very thin tip and tail thickness makes for a compliant and easy-going feeling on the snow. The skis track well, and their in-track stability is great. In classic striding technique a big part of skiing well is simply standing well on the ski – great skiers stand in a very relaxed and easy way. These REDline skis are the easiest skis to stand on that I’ve ever used.

The pocket action is quite elastic and easy going. Finding the right finishing hardness is a big trick in making good classic skis, and because of their design Madshus can make extremely low modulus skis. That is to say, they can make skis that stay very soft all the way to full compression. This isn’t necessarily a good thing when taken to an extreme – back around 2006 they made a whole bunch of skis that felt amazingly supple and nice in the hands, but were so soft finishing that the carrying capacity of the pocket was really questionable. Finding the balance of sufficient strength and carrying capacity with a soft enough finish to make easy kicking action is central to the art of making great classic skis. The REDline classic skis appear to have hit that mark with better success than anything I’ve seen. Other designs have come close to the bulls-eye, but the REDline skis seem to actually expand the bulls-eye. They are incredibly tolerant of varying skier weights and wax jobs. It almost doesn’t seem to matter whether you’ve got two layers of wax, or eight – or whether you put a 140lb skier on them, or a 180lb skier. The first time I ever skied on them was in klister conditions at Sognefjell last June. Amy and I were there with Noah Hoffman and Kris Freeman. I took out a pair of the prototype REDline 210cm klister skis that, by any estimation, should have been too much ski for me. They were really easy to kick, and the skis felt incredibly fast. Noah and Kris had been doing a 30 minute threshold workout, and both were on their best klister skis. Both of those guys jumped on the REDline skis and found them to be perfect. I weight 140lbs, Noah is about 155, and Kris is about 180. It was an eye-opening test.

Perfect classic skis still depend on finding the right balance of pocket shape and action. The position and height of the high point of the camber, and the action of the pocket, are critical elements defining the balance of kick and glide. Most of the art of picking classic skis lies in successfully assessing those characteristics. It will be possible to find REDline skis that are slow, or hard to kick. But the basic materials are the most exciting thing I’ve seen come along….  maybe, ever. The bulls-eye is big and the sweet spot is sweet.
In case you missed it earlier – here’s Gunnar’s explanation: