What really happens to your skis when you take them in for a service? A former Olympic racer turned ski tuner explains
You are about to drive a steep, switchback road down a mountain, when the skies unleash a torrential rainstorm. How do you feel, given you suspect that the tyres of your hire car are nearly bald?
Anxious, probably – and weak at the knees. Which is how many of us skiers feel when the piste in front of us drops suddenly away, steep and icy.
“If your skis are poorly prepared and the edges are not sharp and you hit ice, it is like driving a wet stretch of road on bald tyres,” says Christophe Roux, a recently retired Swiss ski racer. “You have no grip. It’s impossible. Sharpening is super-important for safety.”
Christophe Roux knows a thing or two about taking corners tightly at speed. A native of the Swiss resort of Verbier, he took up racing aged six, and went on to compete in the international circuit for four years. A slalom specialist, he retired after competing in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.
Now 27, he works in the family ski shop, Philippe Roux (named after his father), and one of his roles is to service skis for locals and holidaymakers. It is probably not a job that you will have seen done: the machinery is bulky and noisy, and usually lives somewhere out the back.
Christophe’s machine is a monster, occupying a big workshop inside Verbier’s bus station. It performs a series of tasks in a automated sequence, and can service 40 pairs of skis or snowboards an hour. Christophe says there are just three like this in Switzerland – perhaps not surprising, given the 500,000 Swiss francs (£332,000) price tag. But it is kept busy, servicing rental skis every time they are returned to the shop, as well as clients’ privately owned skis – up to 200 pairs a day in all.
Before Christophe loads my skis onto the robot, he checks the bases for damage. Scratches and gouges show where I have skied over stones. He has a separate machine for such repairs, one that fills holes in the base with a black material called P-tex. This is fed in from what look like giant rolls of liquorice, heated, forced into the holes and scraped smooth; within seconds, it has dried hard.
Christophe scrapes surplus P-tex off the edges, and then loads the skis onto the main machine, below a computer screen. First, he selects a structure for the base of the ski. This is the faint, fine patterning you can see under a ski if you hold it up to the light. Here, once again, the comparison with a car tyre on a wet road is apt, because a ski skims across the snow on a microscopic film of water – and the job of the base structure, like the tread in a tyre, is to disperse that water as effectively as possible.
The machine offers a choice of 46 different structures, suitable for everything from snowboards to twin-tip skis, users from children to racers, with patterns ranging from Christmas-tree to criss-cross. For my skis Christophe picks a hatched structure, determines the parameters for sharpening – and the machine gets to work.
The robot moves the skis into position, a red laser beam zaps along them to measure their dimensions, and vacuum suckers fasten onto the skis, before whisking them into the belly of the machine.
First the skis pass several times back and forth over a spinning grinding stone and then a smaller finishing stone, to create the base structure. You can’t make out much through the windows of the machine, though – so much white fluid is swirling around that the skis look as though they have slid into a milkshake machine by mistake. There’s around half a ton of the liquid sloshing around the machine, apparently – mixed with an additive to stop the ski edges rusting.
Next, the edges of the skis are sharpened. For the side edges, Christophe has picked an angle of 88 degrees – sharp enough to get good grip, but not so sharp that the skis will blunt quickly. The skis glide backwards and forwards between two ceramic belts, spraying out so many sparks that I wonder whether they will have any edges left.
“Actually you remove much more metal if you do the job by hand,” says Christophe. “Even when you sharpen the rental skis all the time, some will last as long as two seasons.”
The machine then tunes the metal edges on the underside of the skis – the base edges. Christophe explains that these are bevelled, so that the profile of the base of the ski is slightly convex; this prevents a suction effect between the skis and the snow. For my skis, Christophe has chosen an angle of 0.5 degrees, which he says will allow the skis to pivot and change edges smoothly.
Finally, a blower removes excess liquid from the skis. The machine can also wax, but for the servicing of clients’ skis, Christophe prefers to do the job by hand.
He rubs a stick of wax along the base of my skis, before placing the skis base-up on a rack. An infra-red lamp glides along the length of the skis, melting the wax. Christophe then polishes the base of each ski on a rotary brush. “There you go,” he says. “You’ll see, tomorrow you’ll be riding a pair of rockets.”
The thought unsettles me, but obviously for Christophe this is a positive concept. He competed for Switzerland up to European Cup level, before representing Moldova for four years – including for two years on the World Cup circuit. At the Vancouver Winter Olympics, he ranked 28th out of 120. “I was thrilled,” he says, “it was my ambition to come in the top 30. It was the most amazing experience.”
Alongside his work in the shop, Christophe now works part-time as an instructor at the Swiss Ski School in Verbier, and also helps run a weekly race called the Challenge Philippe Roux (his father skied the World Cup circuit for seven years).
This takes place every Saturday, and offers budding Olympians and leisure skiers alike the chance to race in a giant slalom in competition conditions. Just one piece of advice – make sure your skis are in good shape before trying.
- A full service for a pair of skis costs CHF 70 (£46.50) at Philippe Roux (00 41 27 771 47 12; www.philippe-roux.ch).
- Competing in the Challenge Philippe Roux costs CHF 20 (£13) when booked in advance (CHF 15 for children); enrol through the Swiss Ski School (027 775 33 63, www.verbierbooking.ch).
- Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the Verbier tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
- Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)