SOELDEN, Austria — Ted Ligety’s giant slalom rivals hope they’ve finally solved the puzzle.
Following last year’s rule change for GS skis, the American stunned his competitors as he started to win races by margins the sport hadn’t seen for decades. Ligety won six of eight World Cup races and successfully defended his world title in the discipline.
The season-opening race Sunday will provide a hint as to whether other racers are catching up, with Ligety eyeing his third straight victory on the Rettenbach glacier. Last year, he beat the field by a massive 2.75 seconds.
The American’s dominance was, first of all, the reward for his extensive preparation. He put in countless hours of material testing and physical training a year before the longer and narrower skis were required.
But his equipment supplier developed custom-made binding plates that perfectly suited his style of skiing.
“I guess with how I skied in GS, everyone switched to a similar plate,” Ligety said. “It’s just a copycat kind of thing. I had success on it so the other guys are trying it.”
The plates are mounted under the bindings, making the boots sit higher above the ski. It enables a skier to put more pressure on the edges of the skis.
Unfortunately for the likes of Marcel Hirscher and Alexis Pinturault, Ligety’s ski setup isn’t that easy to copy.
Ligety and manufacturer Head are reluctant to provide detailed information about the plates. And either way, they wouldn’t work similarly for everyone.
“I know a lot of companies were not into making aluminum plates because they’re expensive to make,” Ligety said. “But now they realize it’s actually a good setup. It’s not perfect for everybody. Not everybody on Head uses it. It’s really a personal thing.”
According to Ligety, the plate “doesn’t get in the way of the flex of the ski as much.”
“It has a lot of hinges in it,” he said. “The plate itself doesn’t bend at all, it’s just hinged in a lot of places, and free floating in a lot of places so it allows the ski to bend better, which for me it allows a better transfer of power.”
Overall champion Hirscher, who took one of the two giant slaloms Ligety didn’t win, has tried the American’s setup himself — but wasn’t satisfied.
“It worked quite well for him personally, but it won’t work perfectly for everybody,” the Austrian said. “Atomic has made a similar ski available but it didn’t suit me too well. Much depends on your physique.”
Instead, Hirscher has been focusing on his on his skiing technique, acknowledging Ligety’s smoother GS turns.
“Basically, that’s true,” the Austrian said. “You can always improve. I am working on it, but it’s not so easy. That’s definitely Ted’s plus factor.”
As Ligety had already been their leading GS racer, Head started to design the new skis specifically for his needs, according to the company’s race chief Rainer Salzgeber.
“He had his own model specially built for him,” Salzgeber said. “We started relatively early — one year before — and did many test runs. During the 11-12 season, it was a bit difficult for the athletes to test new material all the time. But for 12-13, it has definitely paid off.”
Head made several prototypes of the plate Ligety is using and let other skiers test them as well — with different results.
“It suits (Ligety) specifically because of his racing style,” Salzgeber said. “Athletes like Aksel (Lund Svindal) just use the standard model and are faster with it.”
According to Italian GS specialist Davide Simoncelli, it wasn’t just the special plate that made Ligety so strong.
“You could put Ligety, Hirscher or Pinturault on any sort of ski and they would still be far ahead of a lot of other skiers,” said Simoncelli, who races on Salomon skis. “It’s too easy to talk just about the materials. We all need to work harder to match them.”