Salomon 2018 Review – Preview

2017-18 Review

Salomon has been on a roll in recent years, having launched a series of updates and revisions to their race models that have pushed their ski offerings ever closer to the top of the pile. Last year they finally filled out a full line of S-Lab products with cold, universal, and warm models in both skate and classic, as well as classic zeros. It’s a well conceived and delivered line-up.

Last season’s new products were the “Blue” model skate ski and the classic zero ski. We entered the season with high hopes for both models, but with no prior testing experience. Salomon has not been the best at getting new material out early enough for meaningful testing, although this year things went a bit better (see the preview section below).

Our hopes were really high for the blue model skate skis – at least in part because cold new snow was the one area where we felt somewhat frustrated by the performance of the yellow “universal” model skis in the previous two years. When we arrived in Altenmarkt to select the skis in August we were initially disappointed that the new blue model did not represent a change in camber or material configuration. It was just a cold base material applied to the same ski. This didn’t address the overarching concern that we had with the characteristics of the yellow model in cold North American snow. On the other hand, the production looked good, with enough built-in variation in available cambers that we were able to select material with low and smooth release angles and appropriate contact areas for cold weather. While we always want experience with new materials on the snow, the fact that we were dealing with essentially the same model meant that we had a good starting point for selections.

One problem we often face with cold model skis is finding appropriate conditions for testing. Sometimes we don’t run into enough cold new snow early enough in the season to get a good read on things. December 2017 was somewhat exceptional in this regard, as we bumped into an extended period of incredibly cold weather – topped off with a Christmas vacation trip to Mont Ste Anne where I don’t think we saw temps above -20C for almost a week! The trip wasn’t set-up to be a testing trip, but the cold model Salomon skis got their chance to shine regardless. The combination of cold base material and our carefully selected cambers seemed to deliver some of the only skate skis that wanted to slide at all in the super-aggressive cold snow. We spent most of the week classic skiing because it was the only thing that was fun, and the blue model classic skis also really surfaced as a favorite.

The zero skis got an even earlier chance to shine, as the Super Tour in West Yellowstone featured a mass start classic in tricky conditions near freezing, and a big part of the field went on zero skis. Tad Elliott hadn’t ever skied on his new pair, but day-one on the zeros went pretty well. A flat-course classic race isn’t Tad’s best event, but he had a great day on “ridiculous” skis. We heard the sentiment echoed several times over the course of the season, and Salomon skiers started to think of those zero-degree days as big opportunities for them.

It’s worth noting that these zero skis are different from most. The common design is to inlay some clear or rubberized base material in the kick zone in order to provide durability and easy of preparation for the dense, fuzzy texture of a good pair of “hairies”. The Salomon model makes use of their extremely versatile clear base, also found on their red (warm) model skate and classic skis. The material is good to work with for making hairies, but is also extremely fast in a wide range of high moisture conditions, including new snow. So the skis have no special inlay, or clearly defined zero-zone. The cosmetic underlayment clearly defines an appropriate kick pocket, and the skis are easy to work with. But you also have the flexibility to keep the hairies short, and really emphasize speed. As a race solution, the design offers a great deal of flexibility.

As a side note – zero skis seemed to peak in the market back around 2010 or soon after. The recent ascendance of skin-skis as a mass-market driver has created some pressure in the industry to limit the number of offerings, and zero skis are being produced in smaller numbers, and with less broad distribution. This makes a certain amount of sense, since they tend to be a specialty race solution rather than a day-in-day-out ski (unless you live in the Northwest). At this point, Salomon may offer the best zero ever made. But they also offer one of the only zero models with a clear path of availability.

2018-19 Preview

At the Lahti World Championships in 2017 Tad Elliott raced on some skis that the Salomon race guys loaned him. He was almost apologetic – the stuff that I had selected and ground for him just wasn’t in the same ballpark. The new skis were from a series that Salomon had prepared for the championships, and in the 50K Tad was on skis just a couple of serial numbers away from the ones that Alex Harvey won with. He couldn’t explain what was different, but they were super secure on the icy tracks, and they just seemed to levitate. Good skis.

When we visited the factory in September I had it in mind to ask about the Lahti skis. But before I got a chance, I found a single broken ski standing by one of the workbenches. It clearly had a different core thickness profile, and was an altogether different object than the normal materials. I asked Jean-Marc about that ski. “Did I leave that out? You weren’t supposed to see that!” was his reply. He was joking (I think); they were going to tell us about the new skis, but we found one first.

Note the sidewall thickness - the upper skis are the new ones.
Note the sidewall thickness – the upper skis are the new ones.

The new “Lahti” skis have been thoroughly reworked. The core thickness has been increased in the bridge, which is critical because it reduces the reliance on camber to provide carrying capacity and strength in the end-flex. Our testing has shown that Salomon’s carbon skate models have had the lowest material stiffness in the bridge of any of the brands that we carry. That’s right – in material terms, Salomon has had the softest skis, and not by a small amount. This means that Salomon cambers are pushed pretty far in order to “preload” the spring to bring the “flex” into an appropriate range. Thanks to the thicker core profile, the new skis have quite a lot more material stiffness – pretty close to the other brands that we work with.

I think this material change will accomplish a couple of things for Salomon right up front. First, it will make their production much more consistent. With less reliance on the camber to provide strength, the variations in camber during production will have less of an effect on the characteristics of the skis. Variation in production has always been one of the major challenges of working with Salomon, and this will allow them to produce more skis closer to their design ideal. I think that the change will also give them a more tolerant ski design – a ski that works well in a broader range of conditions. They’ve been able to flatten the camber through the bridge transitions, which will give them more consistent bridge lengths and lower-angle transitions.

When I attended the first two World Cup weekends back in November and December, I took the opportunity to look over some of Jessie’s skis with Jason Cork. At that point most of her race skis had the new geometry. And when I went back in March for Holmenkollen, Jessie’s old-model race skis weren’t even on the wall anymore. The new design is clearly the direction that Salomon is headed for the future.

It’s worth noting that Salomon’s World Cup team does an incredible job supporting their athletes. Diggins is a super-star, so it’s not surprising that she gets good service, but Salomon does a lot of their own testing, and they regularly show up to check in and be sure that Jessie is getting the best skis they can provide onto the snow. This spring, Sophie Caldwell brought some Salomon skis back home to test during Super Tour finals. The six pairs she brought back were all from production series that Jessie had been using on the World Cup and at the Olympics, and they were awfully impressive feeling skis. The Salomon material, in combination with their World Cup service, has given her a difficult decision. In a small team with no 12-month wax techs and no supported out-of-season testing, a company that will bring winning skis to the wax truck has a leg-up on the competition!

Back home, we started working with these new skis in February, and immediately felt their promise. It’s worth noting that, while the skis are thicker in the core (higher sidewalls under foot), they’re also lighter. It’s not clear to me how they’ve done this, but it feels as though they have fewer or thinner laminations between the core and the base of the ski, based on the way they respond to heat from the iron. The first pairs that we worked with had some base deformation under the binding screws, and I was initially very concerned that this would be a point of weakness. However, after grinding them flat, the skis have been absolutely stable and shown no additional tendency to move. Salomon pre-drills their binding holes in the factory, and I wonder if they put the holes in too soon, or something like that. The later production I’ve seen does not appear to have this issue.

After about a month of working with the new skis on the Prolink platform, I swapped our 192cm pair over to Pilot bindings for Tad to test at Super Tour finals. I wasn’t sure what conditions would be, but the new skis felt good in everything, so I figured it wouldn’t be bad idea to have them available. Sure enough, they were head and shoulders above everything else in Tad’s fleet, and he raced them in the mass start 15K in Craftsbury, where he reported having unbelievably good skis, and finished on the podium after losing out in a sprint with Simi Hamilton.

So, we’ve kissed our first pair of new “Lahti” skis goodbye. Tad isn’t offering to give them back. But the good news is that Salomon has made an inline change for the yellow model for the coming season. To be clear, the blue model and the red model are still being produced with the old design; it is only the yellow model that is coming for next year in the new design. However, I feel strongly that the yellow “universal” model has just become both more universal, and better. In my opinion, the blue model for next season should be a specific solution for cold, new snow conditions, and will need to have a carefully selected camber. The red model remains a great solution for high moisture and old snow. I fully expect to see both of these models migrate toward the new construction eventually. In the meantime, there is no question that the new yellow model skate ski is a compelling step forward in Salomon’s product offerings. If you are a Salomon skier considering a new pair for next year, this is the ski you should get!