Types of Skiing


Alpine Ski Racing

Alpine skiing evolved from cross country skiing and is a high speed discipline with various courses and extra elements included to create five different events. Alpine skiing includes two speed disciplines (Downhill and Super Giant Slalom) and two technical (Slalom and Giant Slalom).

Downhill

This is traditionally the most prestigious and exhilarating of the alpine events. It consists of a single downhill course which takes between ninety seconds and two minutes to complete. Gates are used to help competitors maintain a straight line and a safe speed, as well as avoid any major obstacles. The chief goal is to maintain the highest speed throughout course, particularly on the straights. However, negotiating the course without losing balance or line is also scored, which normally reflects the speed at which the whole course is completed.

The high speeds mean that the smallest irregularities in the course can cause the skier to become airborne. This is not desirable as it can cause the skier to lose their line and balance, and landing exerts tremendous force on the skis which reduces velocity. Riders therefore aim to stay as close to the ground as possible at all times to reduce the effect on their time.

As implied by the short race time and high speeds reached, that can be over 85 miles per hour. By consequence, this is a very intense competition and safety helmets are compulsory. The helmets are aerodynamically designed to reduce drag and provide a trade off between speed and safety. The poles are curved so as to sit against the body, further reducing air resistance. Optimal ski size is between 215 to 223cm, depending on weight, sex and height. These relatively long skis give rise to high speeds while maintaining stability through their flat tips. The skis are cut very straight as there is relatively little need to carry out sharp turns on most of the major downhill courses. Body air resistance is minimised with lycra suits, although these provide little protection and are subsequently only using at competition level generally speaking.

As with all international sports, rules and regulations are in flux due to constant discourse. The number of competitors and starting order is one example of this. As a general rule, the top fifty world ranked competitors qualify automatically, although pressure from television sponsors to make the sport more appealing for television viewers may change this. For a set of up to date rules please see the current International Skiing Federation (FIS) guidelines. The order in which competitors choose their position is calculated using their world rankings. Again the FIS website should be consulted for the details on how this is done.

Slalom

Slalom is the other end of the spectrum to downhill in terms of how the course is traversed. Slalom focuses primarily on the speed at which a series of very sharp turns can be made as a measure of manoeuvrability. It is considered to be the most technically challenging event and depends on miniscule adjustments in body shape and ski direction. Any missed gate is amplified massively into a time penalty, so the slightest inaccuracy can be catastrophic.

The course itself is made up of a series of between 45 and 75 gates on a relatively short distance and reasonably steep incline. Gates are made up of pairs of coloured flags that are either red or blue. Red and blue gates must be passed alternately and the front of the ski and boot must pass both the flags for the gate to be successfully crossed. The position of the gates that make up the run is decided by representatives from two of the competing nations in the top fifteen slalom nations. There are a set of regulations on how the gates can be arranged here.

  • Course Gates – The courses usually include open gates, closed gates, hairpins, delay gates and flushes. An open gate is one that lies perpendicular to the fall line (the line of descent directly down the slope), and so can be passed easily. A closed gate is one which lies parallel to the fall line, and is made of up of two flags lying one above the other. As such, the skier must ski horizontally across the slope to pass through the gate. A hairpin is made up of two or more closed gates in succession, which requires the skier to weave horizontally to pass through the gates successfully. A delay gate is one that displaces the course across the hill and so forces the skier to alter the rhythm of their course.

In competitive events, each person makes two runs on the same day to ensure conditions are as uniform as possible for the skiers. The position of the gates is changed between the two runs and, although the competitors are not allowed to practice the runs, they can inspect the course layout to decide on good racing lines and turn types to use. The two separate times are then combined to give a total, the fastest of these total times being the winning time.

  • Gate Clearing – Times are greatly affected by the course and weather conditions, and riders must vary their turning technique according to both of these elements. The history of slalom has seen different trends of gate clearing techniques. However, the two main methods are inside arm clearing and cross blocking. The conventional inside arm method involves clearing the gate flag with the inside arm, and the cross-block with the outside arm by having the body almost directly above the flag. The best slalom skiers will have both methods at their disposal and adopt whichever is most suitable for every section of the course without expending too much energy on altering body position and line.

Slalom skiing requires a high degree of carving and so must be relatively short, roughly 150cm, with wide tips and tails to provide maximum purchase on the snow during carving. As the fastest line requires the inside flag to be knocked down by the lower leg, shin and face guards as well as a helmet are compulsory.

Giant Slalom

Super G, Giant Slalom and the Combined events make up the rest of the Alpine Ski events. Each of them lie somewhere between Downhill and Slalom and have different requirements and attributes.

Giant Slalom is a slalom race in that it consists of gates that must be passed in the same way as the Slalom. As the word giant implies, the gates are more widely spaced and therefore require fewer sharp turns. The competitors sweep through the course in a less frantic manner and so emphasis is on precision and line. There are fewer gates than in the Slalom, usually around 50, although this depends on the length and incline of the course. The gates are usually spaced at least 10 metres apart along the course. There are rules imposed on the spacing of the gates which are available through the FIS website. The gates themselves also differ in that they consist of two poles linked by a piece of fabric known as a panel rather than two separate flags that must be skied between. The inside blocking technique described above is therefore more common in Giant Slalom rather than the comparatively aggressive cross blocking.

The rules regarding starting position, number of runs, winning times and course completion remain the same as in the Slalom. The safety equipment is the same as the Slalom, although slightly longer skis are used. Restrictions on the minimum ski lengths and maximum stand height (measurement between the surface of the snow and base of the boot) are constantly updated and can be obtained through the FIS.

Super Giant Slalom or Super G

Super G lies somewhere between Downhill and the Giant Slalom. The turn rate of Giant Slalom remains but the speeds reached are higher and so the courses tend to be longer. As with the Slalom, there is no practice run and so the course is inspected before competing, as the racing line is of paramount importance. There are a minimum of 35 gates for men and 30 for women and runs must take at least one minute, but they can can last over 90 seconds.

As expected, the technique is closer to that of Downhill than Slalom, with skiers assuming a tucked low posture to reduce drag whenever the course permits. There is no practice run and the Super G is seen as the ultimate test of combined racing skill and line planning. There is no practice run and racers are permitted one hour to inspect the track and visualise their route through the track. This is made more difficult by competitors only being given one attempt on the course rather than the traditional two with a combined time. Other regulations and equipment are the same as the other disciplines in Alpine Skiing, with the exception of ski length (which is set at minimum of 200cm for women and 205cm for men).

Combined

The combined Alpine race consists of one Downhill and two Slalom races, the courses of which are all shorter than in the individual events. The three races take place on the same day and the fastest total time for all three runs wins. In Olympic competitions, the Slalom takes place on the lower section of the Downhill course.

Nordic Combined Ski Racing

Norwegian soldiers are known to have been competing in skiing events since the eighteenth century. These are thought to have formed the basis for the six events that now make up the class of Nordic Combined Racing. It is an Olympic event that is competed in by males only.

Other international competitions including the three events (Individual, Sprint and Team) also take place. All the events include cross country skiing and ski jumping. Until the 1950s, the events began with the cross country section and finished with the jumps. As equipment and technique developed, however, the margin advantages gained in the cross country part became potentially too large to overcome in the jump section and so the order was reversed.

  • Individual Gundersen – The Individual Gundersen or Individual consists of a jump from a 90 metre hill followed by a 15 kilometre cross country ski race. Each skier makes two jumps that are scored according to distance and style and the scores are then converted to time handicaps. The highest scoring jumper starts the race section of the event first, followed by the next highest jumper and so on. The scoring depends on the hill, but generally 2 points are awarded per metre jumped and 1 point is then equivalent to a four second time advantage in the race. This conversion method is called the Gundersen method and lends itself to the name of the event. The winner is the first competitor to cross the finish line.
  • Sprint – The sprint event consists of a single jump over the 120 metre hill and then a 7.5 kilometre cross country ski race. The scoring is done in the same manner as the individual.
  • Team – As the name implies, groups of skiers compete in this event. Each of the four people in each team makes two jumps over the 120 metre hill and the scores are combined. Ten points gives rise to a fifteen second advantage for the second part of the event; a 4 x 5 kilometre cross country relay. The whole team must cross the line to finish, and the winning team is the one in which all members cross the line first.
  • Hurricane Sprint – This event works on the same principle as the sprint but distance is used as a handicap instead of time. The distance is worked out for the average speed of 6 metres per second and so every point is worth a 24 metre advantage.
  • Mass Start – This is an older style version of the event, where the cross country section takes place first and the winner is awarded 120 points. Each extra minute that the other competitors take to complete carries a penalty of 15 points. The jump section is scored purely on distance, although failing to perform a Telemark landing carries a penalty.

Cross Country

Cross country skiing is one of the Nordic skiing sports and is subsequently very popular in Europe, although interest is also growing in North America. This is mainly a recreational sport, owing to the massive cardiovascular benefits of exercising your arms and legs simultaneously. It has even spawned its own exercise machine known as the “Nordic Track”, which uses resistance cables and planks to replicate the motion in a confined space. It is one of the most accessible methods of skiing, as you control your own speed. It takes places on relatively flat terrain and so you are not at the mercy of gravity while trying to learn! Most people find that they are fairly comfortable with the method in hours rather than days, and it can be a good way to build confidence before taking to the slopes. As well as racing, the practice is a good way of exploring countryside that would normally be inaccessible.

There is a range of different racing events, but these only really vary in terms of distance and number of competitors:

Sprints

This consists of a series of timed races, each round eliminating a proportion of the slower skiers until only four remain. These four skiers compete in a single heat, the first to cross the finish line being the overall winner of the event. Pairs of skiers can also compete together as a team for the Team Sprint. There are men’s, women’s and mixed team events.

Mass Start

All competitors line up in rows and start the race together. The first skier across the finish line is the victor. The race can be mixed and takes place over distances of around 30km. The long distance accounts for the less than regimented method of starting the race.

Pursuit

The race is identical to the mass start except it must be completed using both of the cross-country skiing techniques (Classical and Free, both explained below). This requires a type of pit-stop where skis can be changed in order to change the skiing technique.

Relay

Teams of four complete a race in four legs. The fastest team wins and each member must tag the next to finish their leg.

Interval Start

As the name implies, the skiers start at intervals which can be of 15 or 30 seconds.

Biathlon

This refers to a competition which involves cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The sport grew out of military techniques in Scandinavia where border patrol companies used to compete against each other. It is now a major international multi-disciplinary sport competed at Olympic level.

The competitors race around a course which is broken up by rounds of rifle shooting. Performance in the shooting sections are converted into time penalties and added to the final time. The winner is, unsurprisingly, the one with the lowest time. Skiers must compete carrying the rifles on their backs and be able to load and fire the guns quickly to avoid losing time. Precision shooting is a difficult task at the best of times over 50 metres and so, when exhausted and cold, it becomes a real test of skill. The rifle shooting is also tested from standing or prone (kneeling) position. The biathlon events are varied further by adopting the different modes of start and technique detailed above.

Ski Jumping

This is one of the straightforward types of competition, but one of the most daunting. Skiers descend a ramp and then attempt to cover the longest distance possible without conceding points for style. Olympic events take place on a 90 or 120 metre hill, with a distance line set at 90 and 120 metres respectively from the point of take-off. Each competitor gains 1.8 points for each metre they travel in the air beyond this point, and loses points if they do not cover this distance. Style points depend on steady flight, balance, control and the landing, which must be a telemark skiing position with one foot leading the other.

Technique and equipment have greatly increased the distances attained over the last few decades. Most skiers adopt a V-Line with their skis in the air, the technique attributed to Sweden’s Jan Boklov in 1985. Ski length must be precise to maximise aerodynamics; the optimum being 1.46 multiplied by the skier’s height. Clothing is also designed to maximise upward lift and sustain the time in the air. This is achieved by using a spongy material that “inflates” while the skier is airborne.