There was nothing significantly new in Alpine snowboard design since the switch from asymmetrical to symmetrical race boards in the mid 1990s. My 1994 Nitro Scorpion is broadly the same as my 06/07 F2 slalom, at least from the rider's perspective.
Meanwhile on the race circuit, board design started to win races. In a segment of the market largely free from the attention of marketing people, something important was happening.
I was too busy riding neck-deep powder at the time, but here's how what reads like a Kessler press release describes it:
[...] Kessler has been specializing in titanal construction snowboards for years. Since vaulting onto the US scene with Philipp Schoch's Gold in the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, Kessler titanal boards have racked up an overwhelming number of wins. Kessler has continually tested and refined board construction techniques, and produces the most advanced, most copied, and most envied titanal boards in the world.
Hallmarks of the Kessler construction are superior torsional strength, with a supple longitudinal flex pattern that enables the board to track unerringly over difficult race conditions. The boards provide tenacious edgehold, smooth tracking, and a damp, controlled ride.
Whatever they were doing, it was working. By 2010-11, the technology crossed the Atlantic and if you're not using a similar approach you're not in the game. I thought it time to check it out.
The new technology is a combination of several factors - see side bar. Collectively these add up to something said to be as significant as the switch from asym to symmetric boards. And it's not over yet: this stuff's already old hat, with bleeding edge attention now on "plates". Alpine riding may be a minor side show in the snowboarding business, but it's encouraging that it's still driving the sport forward technically.
Nose and Tail Profile
The board profile specified in the Kessler Patent is one key element of the new designs. I don't particularly like the term "nose and tail rocker" for this as the word "rocker" is used to mean multiple different things. Kessler's patent describes the fact that on a traditional board, there's a "shoulder" both at the front and back of the board where the camber of the board switches to the upturned nose or tail profile. Traditionally this "shoulder" curve radius is probably whatever the board shaper thought looked aesthetically correct. Kessler points out that a simple radius design there means that there's more pressure on the shoulder than on the rest of the board's edge when in reverse camber. The result of this over-pressure would be... that the board could well break away at the nose or tail on marginal surfaces. So Kessler did a bit of design work and produced a board with a base profile at nose and tail which doesn't do this... enter the "decambered/rockered nose/tail".
Note that the point about this is that it delivers an even pressure distribution along the edge, not specifically that it increases the effective running edge (although it may well also do that).
I'm not sure precisely what sidecut designs are being used, but no one's talking about "radial" or "elliptical" or "quadratic" any more, and radius numbers are no longer quite so important as they once were. The Kessler patent talks about clothoid, which seems like an obvious design for a sidecut in hindsight, but it's unclear if that's what they're actually using, or where you'd put the centre of such a curve. Others talk about "variable side cuts", and Jack Michaud demonstrates that broadly the new designs have a tighter radius at the front than the back.
Taper of one sort or another has been around as long as snowboards. There was a big switch to tapered designs for powder a few years ago following the introduction of the original Burton Fish. From Jack's measurements, it's obvious that taper is a significant factor in the new Alpine board designs.
I remember Volant metal skis (which were steel) from years ago (1989-2001) according to this source. The same resource suggests that aluminium skis have been built since 1947 off and on. The big noise now is Titanal, which is a trade name for an alloy of aluminium. They sandwich the board core with this stuff instead of wrapping it with glass-fibre, stick some rubber in there, stick it together with some carbon fibre and then win races. It seems that the characteristics of the metal sandwich are superior to the glass sandwich from a rider's perspective.
It's hardly a fair test, but indoor snow is a huge step forward from the plastic I learnt on, and it's about 13 hours closer to me than the mountains.
At the fridge the Kessler is noticeably different from anything else you'll see. The snowboarders there are skate-oriented people with huge toilet-sitting stances on wide and short floppy boards. Baggy pants are still very much the fashion, although they're now in matching colours to the jackets. It's only a matter of time until they're in one-piece suits again. Old guys riding quick black raceboards are probably as weird to them as they seem to me.
The board's a riot at a fridge. With only a 160 meter slope to play on it's hard to get up enough speed to do anything other than short-swings, but the 156 Kessler can rail the whole way across the slope (30 meters or so). On a quiet day I think you could carve rings there easily enough.
The board feels "chuckable", in the way an overpowered wave-board windsurfer feels. It's all power and control. There's not much terrain in a fridge, but the board likes the bumps and loves air. Probably it's just the length and flex, but it feels like you can get on and ride it any old way. Actually you can't; this was my first ride of the season and eventually I discovered that if you sit on the tail it'll throw you off like any other board.
Although I was in continual fear of being shouted at for speeding, I never got the board up to resort cruising speed, so I can't say how it'll respond when asked to turn under load. But it's a Slalom board, so I don't think it'll fold up.
For small crowded slopes, and with the level of objectivity you're going to get from someone who's just spent a grand on this thing, it's the best thing I've ridden.
So let's take it to some bigger slopes and see if it works there...
Kessler Slalom Board Specs
| ||SL 162||SL 156||SL 150|
|Side cut radius
||Sandwich, Wood Core, Titanal
Kessler sees off all comers at Whistler
Well it runs pretty well on real pistes. From the start this was an easy board to ride - that could be because my weight/style were just right for the board, or it could be because of the fancy technology. Whatever, it works. I could carve circles pretty much from the first run. I fell off the back a couple of times as I got used to piste (most of my riding these days is powder), but once I remembered to keep forwards that didn't happen again.
At one point I jumped a cat road at what I thought was a reasonable speed and found myself in the mogul slope I'd seen but riding about twice as fast as I expected. There was a nasty crash although no long term damage. I think you ride faster on this than you think you're riding.
Whistler had fewer speed cops than it does at peak period, and in any case this board is fun slow or fast, so I slowed down and showed them a few turns and didn't get flagged all day.
I need more test runs, but I think the board is well matched to my weight/ style, and it as a wider speed range than ordinary boards I think, being a good ride at pedestrial speeds but not losing out at higher speeds. I don't recall beeing overtaken by anyone, not that I was racing.
I rode it a second day a few weeks later, at Grouse mountain in the rain with zero visibility. That was more challenging, but the board was again the fastest thing on the hill. Probably everyone else was too smart to ride fast in those conditions. I have some video of this which I'll add in here if it turns out to be anything other than terrible.