After Kris Freeman’s good experience with the new NIS wedges on the final day of the Tour de Ski, there has been an increased focus on testing wedges for USST athletes and putting them into races when applicable. Observation during the World Championships indicates that plenty of other teams and athletes are paying more attention to wedges as well.
In general the response to wedges has been positive, but there is surely no clear consensus. The favorability of a binding wedge depends on the combination of three factors – the athlete, the skis, and the conditions.
It is clear that while wedges are sometimes a great addition, it’s equally clear that they’re not the answer for all people all the time. After the Tour de Ski final climb Kris thought that he might want wedges on all of his skis, all the time. At the start of World Championships he was pretty clear that if he was going to be using the wedges in races, then he needed to be training on them consistently. They definitely change his feeling on the snow, and it’s not all for the good. At the conclusion of World Champs Kris had all the wedges off his skis, and planned to add them cautiously, if at all. Noah Hoffman has also had misgivings. He started using the wedges at U23 World Championships, and after a couple of really frustratingly bad races in a row, he decided to do some testing of the idea. During the pre-Worlds camp in Sjusjoen Noah skied a bunch of laps on the same pair of skis, with and without wedges. In spite of the wedges making the skis feel clearly more “slippery”, Noah found that he skied more comfortably without them, and went a little fast as well. In general, I would say that skiers with good flexibility and mobility (particularly fore-aft) on their skis will have an easy time with wedges. Skiers who are a little stiffer in the lower leg might find their technique more disrupted. Kris had a conversation with Lukas Bauer during training one day and Lukas said that the wedges bother his shins. This is a comment I’ve heard from other people as well.
When I first started testing wedges in the winter of 2008 I was unimpressed with the difference that they made. It’s not that they felt bad, they just didn’t appear to make that much difference. At that point in time I was testing on Fischer 610 skis which were mounted at a position about 875 to 880mm from the tail of the ski. That’s where I liked to be positioned on that generation of skis. Since then the skis have had stronger elasticity under the foot, and I’ve found myself skiing further forward on the ski – at a position more like 890 to 895mm. In this position the wedges make a much bigger difference to the feeling of the ski. I also notice the difference on other brands. I think that most skis these days are being set-up high over the bridge to take advantage of the elasticity of the materials in the bridge. This means that a greater proportion of the skier’s load is being distributed to the front of the ski, and it seems that forebody loading is what the wedges counteract. At this point I would hazard the generalization that a stiffer ski, or a ski carrying more load on the forebody, would be more of a candidate for wedges than a softer ski, or a ski with light forebody pressure.
Softer and wetter snow seem to be a slam-dunk for the wedges – especially when testing on uphills (think Tour de Ski final climb in slush). In harder and dryer snow it becomes more of an equation balancing the sensation of speed with stability. In one race at World Champs Liz Stephen decided not to go with wedges because the skis lost stability, while in the somewhat softer conditions of the final 30K event she did use the wedges.
What to do about all this mess…
My feeling is that the wedges represent a significant benefit for most racers, at least some of the time. My recommendation is to test them, and train on them, before racing on them. In most conditions they will feel more slippery, but basing decisions on what feels most slippery is often misleading. The best way to test the wedges is to ski laps, and see how fast you go, and how it feels. The pace of these test laps needn’t be incredibly hard, but it should be high enough to be moving with full range of motion and representative power. Testing wedges is a little bit of a pain in the butt with screw-on bindings, but it’s worth doing. It’s easier, of course, with the NIS wedges. We haven’t had word on when those will be available for retail, but I would expect to see them by the start of next season.