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Maintain that edge

The term "ski tuning" sounds like some kind of fern bar phraseology for a simple thing: getting your skis worked on. Similarly, it seems like another ski area hustle, on a par with time-sharing and fondue. But tuning really is necessary to get the best, or sometimes even acceptable, performance from your equipment.

Beppe Bonseri, one of the foremost ski technicians in the world who has prepared skis for Alberto Tomba and Marc Girardelli on the World Cup tour, says that the biggest myth about tuning is that it's for expert skiers only.

"It is the other way around," says Bonseri. "A good skier can ski on almost anything, but a beginner needs all the help he can get."

When your ski edges look like curlicued french fries, or there's a chunk of base peeled back revealing the nuclear core of your space-age boards, you know they need fixing. But shops also can set up your skis to perform as designed.

It's frustrating to be skiing right technically, only to be betrayed by your gear. A gradual dulling of ski edges, whether from too many rocks or just lots of use, makes it much harder to carve turns, especially on synthetic snow.

Skis can also be "railed" _ the edges become higher than the base _ which makes them more like American Flyer sleds than $500, precision-crafted, tools of the sport. Railed skis make it almost impossible to change direction.

Or the base can be convex, making it difficult to find or set an edge. And the edges can be riddled with nearly microscopic flaws that hook and grab and threaten to send you into the woods on every turn.

You may be blaming yourself for skiing difficulties, when it could be that the last time your skis were tuned, the edges weren't buffed to remove the tiny structuring burs left by the stone grinder.

Structuring is done to bases to minimize friction with the snow and thus enhanceperformance. Shops use a stone grinder to etch specific patterns on the ski bottoms, depending on the base type (sintered, extruded, graphite, etc.) and the snow conditions. In some shops where all the tuning is entrusted to expensive but insensitive machinery, skis don't always get a final check by a human, or even a machine buffing to remove those etchings from the edges.

A ski instructor I know suggests carrying 220-320 silicone carbide grit sandpaper with you and a small de-burring stone. That way if you find yourself on the mountain with some badly hooking skis, you can ease the problem yourself. "The most important single thing in ski tuning," stresses this instructor, "is a clean edge." Not so much super sharp as super smooth.

All of this, of course, carries with it the faint scent of fanaticism. Tuning can be taken to extremes and the lack of it isn't to blame for all our lame skiing.

But most of us are guilty of paying too little attention to our gear. And we could do some of the work ourselves. Industrial-scale repair work is best left to the shops. And it's easy enough to let them do everything else for you, too. In fact, increasing numbers of lodges offer a ski valet service, including overnight minor tune-ups.

But if you want to save some money (a quick structuring and edge sharpening can run anywhere from $15-$45) and some time, do some maintenance yourself: flat filing, sandpapering and the occasional hot-wax job.

Jay Cowan is a free-lance writer specializing in ski articles.