Ski Binding placement
Many skiers find themselves permanently stuck in the "back seat," with little idea why. Of course boots, technique and anatomy play central roles in stance and balance, but there is another, influential—if subtle—factor at work. Most skiers seem unaware that bindings in the wrong fore/aft position degrade performance of even the best skis and compromise balance.
The skis on the right are virtually the same length (175 vs. 176) yet the manufacturer of ski B places the binding center-mount mark nearly a full inch behind that of ski A.
In the old days—and to this very day for top-tier pros—the binding location method of choice was ball-of-foot at the center of the running surface; we'll call it BOF.
The way one determines BOF is to squash the skis together base-to-base, measure the length of the portion of the bases that actually touch each other, divide by two and make a mark on the sidewall at that point.
The skier then dons the shell (no inner boot), positions the foot so that there is equal distance behind heel and in front of longest toe and with the assistance of the technician, who find the exact location of the BOF by tapping on the sidewall of the boot until the skier feels the center of the ball of the foot. Kind of like tapping a wall with a hammer to determine where the stud is, except that the foot is more sensitive to touch than is the ear to pitch, so this is not as voodoo-like as it may sound! Just check and recheck to be certain you have located the exact spot on the shell where the ball of the foot will be positioned.
It doesn't hurt to flip the marked shell over and, as a last general check, visually confirm that the mark is in the ballpark on the other boot.
A more refined method of obtaining this location involves the use of the Campbell 2002 Balance Machine, described in detail on our subscription site.
However it is done, variations of this procedure can be found in race rooms around the world.
And yet . . .
Here two manufacturers of virtually identical shapes suggest radically different fore/aft binding positions. Moreover, each told us not to question their "tested wisdom," that the marks considered the side cut and flex pattern, among other factors.
Well, maybe, but physics and geometry are the same wherever running surface meets snow. Generally speaking, a rounder flex pattern (which they all tout as resulting from their "integrated" binding systems) makes a rounder arc. Move the ball of the foot back aft of the center of the running surface, and no matter what else you do, the turn will be less round.
Ditto the effect of moving the waist of a ski rearward. The farther back the waist, the more elliptical the turn shape.
So were we when first this came upon the radar. In fact, since the advent of mid-sole marks, most of us in the business assumed that one tedious old issue had simply gone away and we gave it little further thought.
Until the arrival of shaped skis, which most skiers at first loathed. The reason then, and thankfully increasingly less since, is that most skiers used skid-based technique rather than modern, carve-based technique.
Sales were flat and we soon began to notice something interesting in our ski tests. More and more elite level skiers were giving certain brands ever lower performance scores, while our less skilled retail test skiers rated those same models ever more highly.
As it turns out, one way to make a ski skid easily is to move the binding position back.
In Spring 2001, Steve Bagley of Superior Ski at Snowbird, and one of the nation's (and Realskiers') experts on alignment, headed a team of researchers sponsored by Nordica to perform controlled on-hill tests to determine practical effects of changes in binding placement.
Six skiers representing a mix of male/female, skill levels and modern and traditional technique both were asked to perform a series of exercises ranging from controlled drills to free skiing. Each skier was outfitted with two pair of identical skis, one mounted using the inscribed boot sole mark and the other mounted at BOF as determined by the Campbell Balancer.
To be sure, other variables seeped into the mix. The researchers, for example, did not know how each individual's boots were fit and aligned, nor how much ramp angle (the difference in height between ball of the foot and heel inside the boot) or how much forward lean each skier had.
They did not know whether the skier was using heel lifts, what kind of orthotics, if any, each had or how they might have fared in an on-snow tracking exercise to determine lateral alignment.
They did know, and this is the important part, that each skier used the same boot on each of the test set ups.
The results were surprising, to say the least. Without exception, all of these skiers, men and women, short and tall, young and old, skilled and less so... all of them performed better, with better basic stance, fore aft balance and movement patterns—in every exercise and while free skiing—when in the forward position. In other words, changing this one parameter, without regard for any other equipment issue, improved the subject skiers' technique immediately.
What does it mean?
We have approached several manufacturers who recommend a rearward mounting position and asked why the binding was placed so far back. As we note above, the nearly universal answer was something along the lines of: "We know what we are doing when we design skis. All this is taken into consideration when developing side cut profiles and other characteristics. And, besides our World Cup slalom athletes mount their bindings even farther back."
Well, what do you expect?
As far as elite athletes are concerned, especially 220 lb power players like Bode and The Hermannator running around on 165cm slalom skis, anything on the experimental edge of World Cup techno-testing is completely irrelevant to the average skier's experience.
What the research team saw with their own coaches' eyes was that every skier in the diverse group skied better in the forward position, with no other variables of any kind.
One manufacturer's spokesman (since moved on) actually came clean and corroborated our skidding theory.
His intriguing response: "Yes, we do place our athletes near the center of the running surface, and yes, our retail models place skiers farther back, but we don't want to give recreational skiers too much tail. They lean on the fronts of their boots to pressure the tips to enter the turn and can't handle increased tail length."
In other words, the rearward position makes it easier to skid and all but impossible to develop more modern carving technique.
Worse—since most skiers, goes industry thinking, skid turns, making it easier to skid will lead skidding skiers to conclude they are actually skiing better. It's called "Take the Easy Way Out Marketing" in our book.
And, of course, there's a chicken-or-egg aspect to this. Are recreational skiers leaning on the fronts of their boots because they want to, or are they forced to do so to make skis with these rearward mounting marks work? We have suspicions, but it's time to get to the heart of the matter.
What's a skier to do?
In many cases, unfortunately, there's nothing to be done. An integrated binding with no fore-aft adjustment goes where it goes and that's that.
Some bindings, particularly Atomics, Markers and Tyrolias, allow some fore aft adjustment. In this case, the skier can play with position on-hill to determine the best position.
A few high performance skis are still sold a la carte, with no binding. These skis (and it is no coincidence that they are virtually all top end models designed for competition or serious high performance) can be mounted using BOF, and the ones beneath the feet of many top-level pros are so mounted.
How can you find out what's what?
The good news is that there are two philosophies pursued by manufacturers. French manufacturers, in general, tend to place bindings farther forward than do their Germanic counterparts.
Let's be very careful. Many people are using Atomic, Head, Völkl, Elan and Fisher skis happily and with confidence. Many other skiers—in fact, probably more, given current market shares—are equally content with Dynastar, Rossignol and Salomon.
Still, it is true that a large number of top level pros and racers habitually mount skis using some form of BOF.