integrating the science of expert performance and practice with modern ski racing
Line and Tactics for Ski Racing
Line is a really simple concept on paper but incredibly difficult to execute when you are in the course looking to improve your time. Line can control the racer. If you are on the wrong line, too early, too straight or too late, you begin to react to where the course has thrown you. Tactical options and speed are often lost in order to make the next gate. By contrast, if you ski the correct line, you can control your options the course. You can determine the strategy of where you wish to start and end the turn, where to take chances and where to play it safe. Line can be defined as starting the turn at the rise line and coming under the gate in one continuous arch. However, add slope, conditions, ruts, fall always, transitions, rhythm, etc, and line becomes a skill that requires experience, strategy and significant planning.
Note: Line is dynamic to each racer’s ability and strengths. An athlete will have a different base line determined by their ability to hold a tighter turn.
Base Line (Classic Line)
Base Line: The Base line is as important to ski racing as the foundation of a great turn. An athlete must be able the ski the Base Line consistently before the athlete can race the course correctly. The Base Lines begins the carve above the gate and after the racer crosses the rise line. The Base Line is green in the image above. It is considered the "Safest" because the Base Line gives you a chance to adjust your approach so that the racers finish above No Man’s Land. The Base Line is the foundation for any ski racer. It is where most athletes want to ski 90% of the race.
Percent of direction change when passing the gate. 60%-80%
Aggressive Line: The Aggressive Line is yellow because racers need to use caution and stay hyper-aware throughout the turn on an aggressive line. The gains coming from the decrease of distance traveled and length of transition with the aggressive line comes at a risk of losing flexibility and forgivingness of mistakes for the athlete. Mistakes in approach and timing magnify the risk of being low and slow as opposed to the Base Line, which gives you a chance to adjust your approach to the pole after you’ve started carving. The Aggressive Line doesn’t allow for course correction mid-turn; once you are on an Aggressive Line, you are committed, and you must commit to making a portion of the turn below the pole. This is where the snow and course gets beat up the most (holes in the course). It is incredibly challenging to carve cleanly below the pole.
Percent of direction change when passing the gate. 40%-60%
Reactive Line. The red line represents Reactive Line. While this line appears to be the same on paper as the Base Line, albeit lower, you do not want to be here, especially if you are running after the first 30 racers. The racer is at the mercy of the course and conditions. The racer will have to make a horizontal move across the hill, losing time and speed, to make the next gate.
Percent of direction change when passing the gate. 0%-50%
No Man’s Land:
This is a spot below the gate and before the middle of the transition. This is where the snow gets very questionable and holes develop. Winding up the turn in this area means the athlete must deal with a less than optimal line and degraded course conditions. The athlete must react to these variables rather than planning for the line and strategy coming up. They become reactive rather proactive. If you are running late with the course in less than optimal conditions, your first goal should be to adjust your line to avoid this area.
Base Line vs Aggressive Line
The aggressive line has the advantage of passing the pole closer to the apex of the turn and in the fall line rather than in the final third of the arc. The transition is shorter with a steeper angle of attack, and the total distance traveled is less. The whole line has been moved down the hill and the radius has been moved in and centered in relation to the gates. There is a distinct advantage to the aggressive line in that there is a shorter distance to travel; however, there is also the loss of hill space and options to adjust as the line runs lower.
The image above shows two lines of approaching the gates. The circles represent the same turning radius of a ski. The loss in the image above refers to the loss of distance of the hill and the ability to choose the line for the next gate.
The reality of racing is that it is rare that a racer only uses a base or an aggressive line, but rather a hybrid of the two. The hybrid approach that most advanced racers employ uses the base line as a foundation for the course and uses the aggressive line in sections that they feel is worth the risk. The better the racer the more times that this will happen in the course.
It is important to plan this in advance when inspecting the course. Look for sections or combinations that you feel comfortable with the risk of a more aggressive line. Equally important is inspecting the course for sections where you should play it safe. Transition of terrain and rhythm changes are notorious for catching athletes off guard. Giant holes are left in race courses because athletes have to jam their turns to get back onto a skiable line (No Man’s Land).
Control and Options
Running a high or Base Line is safer and more consistent than the shorter aggressive line and it has two distinct advantages, Control and Options. When an athlete is free skiing, they can make a turn anywhere and in any turn shape they wish. When a skier enters a race course, the athlete loses that control. The turn must be made where the gates are placed. The Base Line still allows the racer to have some form of control over the shape and strength of the turn. By completing the turn above No Man’s Land, the racer can choose how they will approach the upcoming gates. If you finish the turn on a lower, more aggressive line and you find you need to adjust your line for course reasons, it will cost you significant time or energy to make that change.
Note: Stivots, pivots and jams are technical or tactical maneuvers to control speed and line.
Three additional factors prevent racers from correctly running the Aggressive Line:
1. Course Conditions. There are difficult snow conditions and ruts below the gate which adds to the risk of being pushed off the line. If you are not running with the first 15 racers, the course conditions are going to look different from when you inspected.
2. Patience. The athletes do not have the patience to delay the initiation so that they can make one single arch. Patience is often referred to going DEEP into the turn. The effect of not waiting long enough is that the athlete will have to let off the pressure in the initiation phase to get past the gate. This also compounds the pressure and direction in the completion phase creating a jam at the bottom of the turn.
3. Jamming the Line. If the athlete is low coming out of the turn, they will try to make a line correction. Speed and energy are used up to make this correction.
Patience: Respecting the Rise Line
Patience is key in executing the correct line. It has been described many different ways over the years. "Going Deep" into the turn refers to waiting until the skis pass the rise line before any significant pressure is put into the initiation of the turn. Patience is needed to allow the skis to get deep into the turn. In the image, the athlete must wait until the skis enter zone 2 before they apply any significant pressure.