ARE FIS SKIS THE BEST FOR ADVANCED SKIERS?
I often receive emails from skiers looking to purchase skis and they ask what the differences are between FIS race construction skis and retail race skis? This question is often raised when considering SL skis and is a difficult decision, particularly when most technical videos show skiers skiing on FIS skis. As such I thought I’d make a short video (below) and share this article providing a comparison so that it helps you determine which is the right ski for you.
While the FIS SL and retail SL ski look very similar because of their graphics, they are altogether different in their construction, shape, flex and camber. It’s often rather hard to see the difference so let's first look at how you can visually identify one from the other. The tip and the plate under the binding are usually the two most obvious parts of the ski that one can look at to identify whether the ski is the FIS version or the retail version.
FIS: stronger with protective plastic or guard
Retail: aesthetically pleasing
Often the FIS version of an SL ski will have a more sturdy and robust tip for protection when skiing into slalom gates. This may not be the case with GS skis as they are less likely to ski into the gate. Each ski brand finishes the tip in a slightly different way but this is usually the first area of the ski that I look at to determine which version of the ski it is.
WORLD CUP (WC) PLATE
FIS: includes WC plate
Retail: usually does NOT include WC plate
The FIS ski will always have a thick WC plate under the binding. The benefit of a WC plate is that it provides greater leverage to edge. The further the ankle’s centre of mass from the ski base, the less muscle will be required to hold the ski on edge when resisting force. The plate also reduces the chance of “booting out” (boot hitting the snow and lifting the ski off the edge).
The major downside to WC plates is that they dramatically increase the overall weight of the ski. The stiffness of the ski increases around the middle and the greater edging leverage they provide creates the need for much more precise movements. This makes the ski less versatile when skiing on ungroomed terrain.
Nowadays some brands are adding the WC plate to their retail carving skis in the effort to improve the carving characteristics. While one needs to be mindful of the effect plates have, this addition could be the compromise between retail and FIS skis that recreational skiers are seeking.
FIS: narrower for faster and stronger edging
Retail: slightly wider for more stability in all snow conditions
Retail skis are slightly wider than their FIS counterpart in the effort to provide a more universal ski. The additional width allows more versatility to ski off piste and provides increased stability and float in softer snow. While the additional width may require slightly larger movements to action the skis, it forgives movements made with less precision which is perfect when venturing off the groomed, or perfecting a new movement.
The narrower FIS skis provide better alignment over the edge which again reduces muscular effort in maintaining edge under load. The narrower width allows a smaller action to edge which again increases the speed of edge change. FIS skis do not perform very well off piste as the skier has to be incredibly precise so as not to over edge and sink the ski.
FIS: much stiffer to cope with heavy load and very firm snow
Retail: softer for increased versatility and performance in all snow conditions
FIS skis are always going to have a more rigid flex pattern than retail skis. This rigidity is not only along the length of the ski as most people are aware, FIS skis are also more rigid torsionally. They are usually made with a laminated wood core and include additional layers of titanium for added strength.
The reason for this increased stiffness is because ski racers are generally performing on very firm conditions and carrying much higher speeds. The increased torsional stiffness ensures that when under load the tip and tail are holding the same edge angle as the middle of the ski where the boot is connected.
While increased stiffness seems like an attractive characteristic for a ski, this is a huge disadvantage if the skis are not under the loads they are created to bear. A ski that is too rigid for the task will be incredibly unforgiving, particularly in softer conditions. The skis will feel like they have the lifeless characteristics of a plank of wood unless being used on firm snow at the appropriate speed. Finally the increased stiffness of the FIS version demands absolute precision and will punish clumsy or unrefined technique.
FIS: full camber ski for better edge engagement and energy
Retail: often has early rise, or tip rocker, to assist in softer snow and ungroomed terrain
FIS skis all have a full camber construction to provide good edge hold on firm snow, increase the energy or rebound effect during the direction change and allow faster edge engagement. The downside is that a stiff, heavily cambered ski demands firm snow to bend effectively and travel along an arc.
Early rise or subtle tip rocker is a feature that some companies are starting to include in their retail performance lineup. While it is promoted that it helps initiate turns, I’m not as convinced. Effectively there is less edge touching the snow until the ski tips onto enough edge to gain contact. At that point the ski will start travelling on an arc. Where the early rise, or tip rocker is hugely beneficial is when skiing in softer snow conditions. The softer tip allows the front of the ski to stay afloat and reduces the chance of the ski nose diving which is hugely beneficial for non groomed skiing.
While these skis look similar, they are different in every way and I use them for different purposes.
If I am looking for a ski with unrelenting performance, for the firmest of groomed conditions, to use at the highest speeds, and to compliment well trained movements that I am confident performing, then I look to the FIS version of the ski. This ski is relentless in providing performance in the firmest conditions under heavy loads.
If I’m looking for a high performance ski that will work in all conditions (i.e. off piste, softer snow, bumps) then I will look to the retail version. The extra width will provide stability in all
conditions and the softer flex lets me get away with slight imperfections in technique. I also feel that the retail version is a great ski for learning, or training new movements due to its versatile and forgiving characteristics. While this ski handles ice very well, the only time I feel this ski underperforms is if skiing on an injected race slope at speed. I also find that the wider tips can clack together when skiing moguls if I’m not careful.
One must understand that the retail SL ski is not an intermediate ski. Time and time again I see instructors going to the FIS ski as they think its the “expert” ski. Both the retail and FIS versions are considered expert skis and feature in Volkl’s “Professional” lineup. As an advanced recreational skier or ski instructor, don’t just look at the top skiers in videos and select the FIS or WC SL. Choose the ski that is best suited to what you need it for.
I believe that the retail ski is the most appropriate ski for advanced recreational skiers and ski instructors. It will perform very well in all conditions and at all speeds. For additional rigidity and improved carving characteristics, you might consider pairing the WC plate on the retail ski. The SL Pro from Volkl offers this option
I hope this article has provided some useful information for when you’re next looking to purchase performance skis! Check out the video below for a good visual summary of this article. If you’d like to book a camp and be coached by Paul Lorenz, then please check out the clinics page of this website or click here.
If you’re looking for videos that will improve your skiing using simple exercises with clear instructions and guidance, then check out Projected Productions ALL ACCESS VIDEO PASS. You will find hours of videos from some of the world’s top instructors, coaches and athletes. Good luck and I look forward to seeing you out on the slopes!