Friday, March 13, 2009

When the skiers sat back


Being taught to flex your knees and lean forward over your skis constituted the classic ski lesson for 50 years. "Bend zee knees, ten dollars pleez!" was a common joke among ski school customers. But it came to an end in 1967, when as editor-in-chief of Ski magazine I featured a skier on the cover whose knees were bent alright, but his rear end looked like it was suspended over the tails of his skis. "Look, they're sitting back!" screamed the headline. "Introducing avalement, the new ski technique that demolishes a sacred cow."

What was avalement? Did it really mean that skiers should sit back? Who started it, and why all the fuss?

The inventor of avalement was Frenchman Georges Joubert, a French ski trainer and the most prolific author of ski technique books and articles who ever lived. He and his co-author, 1960 Olympic downhill gold medalist Jean Vuarnet, constantly analyzed sequence photos of racers. From the images, they conjured up techniques such as the serpent turn and the oeuf, the egg-like, streamlining tuck position for downhill.

In 1967, I arranged for Dial Press in New York to publish Joubert and Vuarnet's first book translated into English, "How to Ski the New French Way." In the book, Joubert applied the word avalement, meaning swallowing, to a minor technique which, he claimed, Jean-Claude Killy and others were using to win races. He showed how a skier can keep head and upper body moving in a smooth line downhill through the bumps, swallowing the terrain irregularities by allowing the knees to fold and unfold like an accordion. The action is critical in racing where repeated inefficient up-and-down motions add seconds to the clock.

The equivalent of a terrain irregularity also happens at the conclusion of a turn when pressure on the skis builds up, rebounding the skier as a bump does. With avalement, the skier absorbed the up-motion, and his feet jetted forward into the new turn, giving the impression that he was sitting back on his skis. But he better not be sitting back, warned Joubert. It was critical for the upper body to get over the skis to start the next turn.

Innovations can have unforeseen consequences. Off the race course, a new breed of skiers ignored Joubert's warning. They loved the idea of sitting back. They bought plastic spoilers to heighten the backs of their boots, magnifying pressure on the tails, and sending their tips flaring into the sky. They called it hotdogging or freestyle, and with long hair and wet T-shirt contests it fomented a revolution in skiing that continues to this day.

John Fry is the author of The Story of Modern Skiing, with 90 photographs, published by University Press of New England in 1996.

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