'Hourglass' Skis Carve Out a Niche

Shorter, with radical side cuts, they look funny to some; but skis make turning much easier which adds to their enjoyment

CALL them ''hourglass,'' ''parabolic,'' ''super-side-cut'' or just plain ''funny skis.'' Whatever the name, these shorter, narrow-waisted, wide-in-the-shovel, broad-in-the-tail boards are being hailed as revolutionary.

Presidents of at least two ski companies, Elan and K2, forecast the skis will become the dominant design within three years. There is even scattered hope that these skis could restart the growth of skiing, which has been stuck in a no-growth pattern for years.

''They will have the biggest impact on skiing since Howard Head introduced metal to skis,'' says K2 Skis president Tim Petrick. He refers to the old black Head Standard, which 35 years ago was dubbed ''the cheater'' because it made turning easier.

(Looking for how to make a sport more pleasurable for more people, Head went on to invent the oversized tennis racket with its enlarged ''sweet spot.'' At first players scoffed, but the oversized racket soon became the norm.)

A growing bandwagon of converts say the new ski shapes and construction will do for skiing what graphite clubs and oversized rackets did for golf and tennis.

''The fact that [the new skis] work so well proves everything ski designers [previously] said was right was wrong,'' says Ski Magazine senior technical editor Seth Masia. ''Until five or six years ago, the dimensions of a racing ski hadn't changed much since the days of [Norwegian ski pioneer] Sondre Norheim in the 1860s.''

But new composites and construction techniques (including one-piece molded skis, as opposed to traditional laminated ones) first allowed designers to experiment with deeper side cuts on long racing skis. Under a World Cup giant slalom racer, such skis could carve a turn with perhaps a 10-meter shorter radius than older models but remain stiff enough to hold an edge on hard-packed snow.

At the same time, young snowboarders on newer, shorter boards with deeper side cuts were carving much tighter turns than skiers could. They looked as if they were having more fun than many skiers and, most important, represented skiing's only growth segment.

Whoa! Some ski designers wondered: Why not shorten a ski and make the side cut even more radical? Would that allow less-experienced skiers to feel the pleasure of a carved turn at slow speeds by little more than rolling their knees to put the skis on edge? If so, it would give relative newcomers something that has taken skiers years to master: the carved turn.

Last season, Elan introduced its short (163 cm or 183 cm - 5 ft., 4 in. to 6 ft.) SCX hourglass ski primarily to ski schools. It was an immediate hit. Executives at the big Sunday River resort here were so impressed they ordered 100 special rental pairs at an even shorter 143 cm length for their ''guaranteed'' learn-to-ski program this season. Other resorts coast to coast are experimenting with clinics using demonstration models of several brands of the new skis.

Historically, the dropout rate for new skiers is high, and nobody is predicting the new skis alone will convert ''never-evers.'' But many are saying the new skis could jump-start skiing's growth curve by retaining skiers - novices otherwise discouraged, ''terminal intermediates'' stuck on plateaus of no progress, bored or tired seasoned skiers looking for more fun and less fatigue in their descents.

''They're certainly going to make people want to ski more,'' predicts Elan president Mike Adams. ''Some people will use very short skis, no poles. A different ... middle ground of skiing will develop [with] the excitement and freedom of snowboarding.''

Sharon Wreforth of Boston is an in-line skater and midcareer nurse who says she loved her first-ever ski lesson here over Thanksgiving on the new Elan SCXs. At first the skis seemed as cumbersome as any. But, she says, ''I did notice a difference'' the following week when she took another lesson on conventional skis at another resort: The parabolics were ''much easier to turn.''

Unlike Elan, ski companies like Head, K2, and Fisher are aiming their less-radical new skis first at advanced skiers, emphasizing performance over ''easy.'' But all the new skis seem less fatiguing and user-friendly, although they generally require a few runs of experimenting. Although this season's 15,000 pairs of hourglass skis is five times last year's prodcution, some models are already scarce, if not sold out. But expect most ski companies to be out with their own versions next year. Most of them will have less radical side cuts than the Elans, producing turning radii closer to Head's 20-to-24 meter range rather than Elan's 8-to-14 meter arc.

Here's a brief run-down on some, including reports on a few Monitor test runs. (Approximate prices can vary.)

Elan SCX ($300) and SCX-MBX ($400). The most radical of all the models. The SCX is tailored to learners and those who just want to have fun. I found the 163 cm length too slippery for my style of skiing in hard icy conditions. But the 183 was fine, and the new MBX 163 was quick and fun in various conditions.

Head Cyber 24 ($535) and Cyber 20 ($440). A smooth compromise between the new and the old but already sold out for this season. Best bet is to try demos. I found the 24, 180 cm length responsive, easy to turn, and also as stable as a longer giant slalom ski.

Fischer Revolution Ice ($399). A remarkably versatile ski that next year will be joined by racing, all-mountain and lower-level models. The Ice responded almost effortlessly to whatever I asked at various speeds and conditions except for running straight, which most of the hourglass skis don't want to do - they want to turn.

Other hourglass skis include the expert K2 Four ''Smart Ski'' (next season to be joined by two lower-level skis); the Kneisl Ergo (first of today's hourglass skis and now, at 199 cm, longer than most); and the S Ski from Aspen (now in two models).

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