Off Track

Future Ski


Cross country skiing gear has come a long way since the sport's beginnings in Norway circa one million B.C. (or thereabouts). However, given all the scientific advances of the last few decades, we may be poised for a quantum leap in technology. To find out what sort of gizmos our skiing future might hold, I turned to in-house expert Sinan Kaptanoglu (otherwise known as my husband). Because he is a physicist, Sinan is my primary source for answers to questions ranging from "Who killed Genghis Khan?" to "What exactly is the space/time continuum?" He may not always come up with the right answer, but he saves me the trouble of tracking down real experts. I first address the problem of "downhill skier envy." No, we don't envy them the parking problems, the lift lines, or even the lifts themselves. We're just green over the way a typical downhill skier, perhaps still too young for kindergarten, can whip down a hill that would have a cross country skier pausing at the top to make out her will.

It's not that downhillers are better skiers. (Right? Right.) It's because they have metal edges and we don't, at least not on our classic or skate skis. To save us from hauling another pair of skis on our backs, Sinan suggests… retractable metal edges. You press a remote control button on your pole handle and—voila—a thin metal strip extends from the sides of your skis. For added whizziness, you can adjust the metal extension to the current conditions. Settings include "slush," "powder," "firm" and "say your prayers now." And while they're at it, the ski designers could throw in some retractable heel bindings to give us all the stability of a downhill skier, as well as retractable fish scales to transform our skis from skate to classic on those flash snowstorm days. However, we cannot take off into the future without jettisoning the last remaining relic of Stone Age skiing. I refer to wax.

Actually, I never touch the stuff. Once I tried reading a six and a half page waxing instruction guide, but I got stuck on the first page in between the brushing and scraping (or maybe it was scraping and then brushing). However, the good side to being wax-impaired is that when you come in nearly last in a race – not that I ever do -- you can blame it on your skis.

But the truth is, I'd rather have faster skis, even if it means placing the blame where it belongs (on Sinan). The solution is… self-modifying skis. Here follows some physics babble that some people may want to skip over. Let me summarize by saying the entire plan involves a fluorinated polymer base with pizza (oops—Sinan says, "not pizza; a piezo-electric layer of coating on unde your skis"). In other words, a tiny battery is used to apply an electric field that changes the coefficient of friction with regard to ice and water, meaning --you may rejoin us now-- it makes your skis more slippery. A miniature computer chip senses the temperature and humidity in the snow as you ski, and continually adjusts the electric field to give you the best glide possible. That is, if it doesn't work like most other computers and cause you to crash daily. Sinan assures me that this will be possible some day, but maybe not in my lifetime. I'm not sure if that means the invention is a long way off, or he is planning my early demise.

Once you have the perfect skis, you'll need clothing to match. Unfortunately, we skiers are confronted daily with the problem of how to dress. We all want to wear those form-fitting outfits that shout "speedster" as we traverse the trails, even if Granny actually covers more ground per hour with her walker. But the reality is that our sport, of necessity, happens in really cold places, so that if you stop skiing for more than 10 seconds you are immediately transformed into a giant, Lycra-wrapped icicle.

The solution is obvious: we need to be wired like Christmas trees, but without the lights -- unless you like to ski at night and want to make sure other skiers avoid colliding with you ("Here comes the weirdo with the lights," they'll say, turning quickly onto another path). No, I'm talking about threadlike wires woven into fabric and powered by miniature batteries that heat your outfit like an electric blanket. You could maintain the sleek, athletic profile that you'll need to accompany your faster-than-ever self-modifying skis, and stay toasty at the same time. Don't forget the spare batteries.

Finally for you backcountry skiers, how about a pair of GPS goggles that respond to your voice commands? A tiny display on each lens reveals useful data such as maps, temperature, wind speed, directions back to civilization and the time of "Friends" reruns. You can even adjust the level of darkness in the lenses from "dork" to "coolest dude." The military probably already has a bunch of these, but how about for the rest of us? A transporter to beam me to the front of the race wouldn't be half bad either.

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