A Closer Look at Boards and Bindings
A. Intended use
Sooner or later you will progress in your riding ability and commitment to the point where borrowing a friend’s board or using rental equipment just doesn’t work anymore. It’s time to check your credit rating or hit up the grandparents for a loan and buy a board of your own. The problem is, what should you buy? Equipment is becoming more sophisticated every year, and board designs are becoming more specialized, with models aimed at every niche of the market. With the manifold and divergent demands of the freestyle and alpine/race board designs, it really isn’t feasible to buy one board to do everything, if you expect it to do everything well. Most manufacturers have at least one board in the line designed as an ‘all mountain’ board, but that is no guarantee that it will suit your needs. Sit down for a spell, and figure out what type of riding you do the most, or what type you would eventually like to excel at.
From past experience, it seems to me that if you don’t know quite how you want to ride, a soft-flexing alpine board might be the way to fly. Having ridden an asymmetric race board with very stiff ski boots for several years in powder, bumps, slush, ice, and everything in between, I can say that the limiting factor overall has been my own adaptability, and not the design of the board37. On the other hand, the freestyle boards I have ridden occasion have been disappointing in their lack of versatility. For spinning around and riding backwards they work quite well, but for general freeriding, they are limited, in terms of the speed at which they become unstable and scary. This is not to say that freestyle boards can’t be ridden at speed, as I know of several talented individuals who have successfully raced on this equipment. This takes more skill, energy and determination than most riders are capable of, however. Snowboarding, after all, is supposed to be a fun undertaking, not a grueling event.
Durability is another issue. I have never broken one of my race boards, and not for a lack of use. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a lot of the freestyle boards used by friends and acquaintances. Regardless of the manufacturer, freestyle boards just don’t seem to hold up to continuous use. If you have any intention at all of carving turns, the best thing you can buy would be a used race board with a lot of miles on it. If the edges are still in good shape, and the board is not bent or broken, it will have a favorable flex pattern. Since it has been well used, much of the whippiness will have long since disappeared. Used race boards are still good at speed and on hard snow, because their damping characteristics will remain intact. Be careful when buying a used board of any type, and look it over carefully for visible signs of structural damage.
Concerning board length, you can follow the manufacturers recommendation, with the following consideration: If the area you ride at has a multitude of steep, narrow trails, you probably don’t want a long, stiff board with a shallow sidecut. Think about where you usually ride, and what kinds of turns will best fit the mountain. If this is your first real board, and you don’t have a lot of space to learn how to ride it effectively, you probably won’t enjoy the experience. In that case, you would be best off with a shorter board with a deeper sidecut and softer flex pattern.
If you decide that freestyle is the way to go, once again, think about what kind of terrain you will ride the most. If you are a plumbers helper, and spend all of your time working the pipe, then a specialized half-pipe board will fit the bill. If you wish to ride to and from the pipe in all snow conditions, and wish to enjoy the experience, then be wary of limiting yourself with a board that is too specialized. Wide stances at small angles and low profile tips won’t do you much good in weird snow in the woods.
B. Board shape: Symmetric vs. asymmetric
Should you decide to buy an alpine board, you must then choose between symmetric and asymmetric designs. Their dissimilar shapes hint at different design philosophies, and each manufacturer’s method of building the better mousetrap. What follows is my understanding of board shapes.
When alpine boards first began to become popular, they were all symmetric in design. Since the basic snowboarding stance is somewhat sideways relative to the long axis of the board, it makes sense that turns to one side might be a little different than to the other. After all, our knees don’t hinge backwards. At the time, it seemed that some design aid would facilitate heelside turns. It was assumed that the board would probably not be on such a high edge angle due the one-way nature of the knee joint. And so, the sidecut on the heelside was made a little deeper. Then someone noticed that, if the center of pressure between the toes was further forward than the center of pressure between the heels, maybe the board would turn smoother if the sidecut on each side was somehow aligned with these ‘centers of pressure’. After all, it made sense to evenly pressure each side of the board to avoid chatter and other turning maladies. So now you have a board with sidecut arranged to accomodate an asymmetric movement of the body to pressure each edge. Riders found that to work within the design of the board, their edge change movement from side to side should be along the diagonal which corresponded to the shift of the sidecut. Meanwhile, riding technique continued to evolve.
As racers became more technically proficient, the courses they competed on became more demanding38. Some came to the conclusion that if they could move their center of mass from one edge to the other in a more efficient way, they would probably ride faster. A diagonal movement from edge to edge involves a greater distance than a movement straight across the width of the board. Unfortunately, the asymmetric shift of the sidecut fought the attempt to move laterally, as it was far too easy to overpressure the nose of the board on a heelside turn, and the deeper sidecut caused the board to ‘hook’ uphill. So, the symmetric race board was reintroduced, with a revised internal composition to deal with the ‘uneven’ pressuring between toe and heel edge. Much borrowing has been done to take advantage of the advances in materials used in the ski industry, allowing board designers greater freedom to work on board shape without compromising rideability.
Having ridden both symmetric and asymmetric race boards, I can say that they both ride well, but that the symmetric boards seem to be more forgiving, while no less quick turning. This may seem odd, as many of the symmetric boards are somewhat wider than most asyms. I suppose that this is the result of a more efficient edge to edge movement pattern, and/or more pronounced sidecut. Interestingly enough, it appears that many of the newer asymmetric boards are employing less of a sidecut shift, perhaps in a move to take advantage of new materials and composition without abandoning the advantages of the asymmetric shape. As boards have become torsionally stiffer, the differences in pressure distribution between toe and heel edges of either symmetric or asymmetric designs has become less of a factor in board performance. As torsional flex decreases, the arrangement of the feet becomes more input similar to the toe and heel of a ski boot, and the edge to edge movements can be simplified and refined. This means you can ride faster and turn quicker on current technology and design.
C. Board width: Narrow and wide
Snowboards of all types are not consistent in their width, not even within their respective genres. Function specific freestyle boards are getting shorter and wider. This allows for flatter stance angles for people with large feet, and greater lateral stability when landing from impromptu airtime. In soft or slushy snow conditions, these board float better. Race boards on the other hand, are getting longer and shorter, in both cases becoming progressively narrower.
Popular sentiment has it that a narrow board is noticeably quicker in turning than a wider board of the same type. My own observation has been that a narrower board, while quick, is much less stable, and much less versatile in a variety of snow conditions. In order to make a board quicker, the manufacturers should look not so much to overall width, but to the difference between tip and tail width, and waist width. In other words, sidecut.
A rider with fairly large feet, on a narrow board, will be useless in all but favorable conditions. The stance angles dictated by foot size and board width will put the rider in a position similar to that as if he were skiing, but without advantage of strong lateral balance. If you have large feet, don’t buy a narrow board. If you have small feet, narrow boards are fine, if you can set your bindings up in a functional position.
At the moment there three general types of bindings on the market, two of which are designed for use with soft-shell boots.
A. Soft boot bindings. These two similar bindings differ mainly in the number of straps and the height and flexibility of the high-back. Bindings designed for all purpose freestyle and half-pipe use have a toe and ankle strap, and a relativly low back which can be adjusted for forward lean preferences. These bindings allow for maximum flexibility of the ankle joint, which is important not only to become twisted and distorted in the air, but so that these airborne maneuvers can be successfully landed as well. Since these bindings are used on boards with softer flex patterns, the freestyle rider can sacrifice leverage for mobility. The other soft boot binding uses a third strap around the shin, with a higher back. These also have a forward lean adjustment which links the highback to the baseplate for greater leverage. This type of binding can be used on both freestyle and alpine boards. The third strap can be loosened or removed, and the connection between baseplate and highback can be disconnected. If you are unsure of your preferential riding mode, this binding works as a funtional intermediary between the freestyle setup and the third binding type, the plate binding.
B. Plate bindings. Used with the hardshell boot of your choice, these are used primarily for alpine riding and racing. On these boards, quick response, conservation of kinetic energy and precise release of potential energy is important. Leverage is only limited by the stiffness of the boot, which means you can tip the board up as high on it’s edge as you like without fatiguing your feet. This translates into precise pressure application to initiate and control a carved turn. The disadvantage is often too much precision, which makes for difficult learning. Sloppy movements on the part of the rider produces more board movement than is desireable. If you want to carve, and you know it, and you already have some riding ability, then plate bindings are probably a good choice.
C. Other There are several important modifications to current bindings which are already available, or will be shortly.
An exceptionally low lowback is offered as an option for some bindings, while on others, it comes as standard equipment. The idea is to reduce interference between the back of the binding and the achilles tendon area. This allows more freedom of movement while doing tricks and spinning. The manueverability comes as a tradeoff to leverage, and overall riding performance.
A few companies are offering a freestyle, lowback binding without a baseplate. The idea here is that the removal of material increases the sensitivity between boot and board, and makes the snowboard feel more like a skateboard. Unfortunately, the lack of a baseplate requires a different mounting pattern. If you have a board with inserts, and want to use this type of binding, you will have to install t-bolts through the base of the board to accomodate the new pattern.
As far as plate bindings are concerned, the new toy on the market is a step-in type rear binding. This eliminates the need to reach down and latch in the rear foot when getting off a lift. This is not a release type binding; the latch has to be manually released to remove the foot. Convenience comes at the expense of complexity. With the fragility of current binding offerings, I would prefer to have a stronger and less convenient binding, rather than a convenient binding with too many moving parts.
Though it is possible to use all bindings on all boards, it is not recommended that freestyle bindings be used on stiff race boards, or plate bindings be used on soft freestyle boards. These mismatched board/binding choices result in a lack of control, or an overpowering of the board. Without instruction, learning to ride on plate bindings can be very frustrating, as your movements need to be more specific and less dramatic, and until you know how to move, you may find the ride rough and awkward.
(37…I can say… It was not so much my adaptability, it was my limited understanding of cause and effect as pertains to equipment setup. As far as freestyle boards and soft boots are concerned, I have a strong negative reaction to energy leakage and slop in the system. If we do not seek to add play to the steering linkages of our cars, and if we don’t drive around with under-inflated tires, then why is it such a good idea to have sloppy boots and bindings? I understand that a range of movement is desireable, but range of movement does not imply ‘sloppy interface’. The gear has improved a lot over the years, but it has a long way to go, in my opinion.
I snapped my original Madd 158 in half after the topsheet cracked between two of the insert holes. The crack developed due to a stress concentration at the leading edge of the base disc on my TD1.
I finally broke the core on a Factory Prime157 after using it daily for almost four (?) seasons. My current Madd 158 is suffering from topsheet delamination and core damage, but it is a pre-production model, and it still rides well despite the damage. I ride almost every day, in modified ski boots, so I think the board breakage over the span of 15 years is acceptable.
(38) As racers… Competition often breeds technical evolution. The problem is that a racer who has achieved success using a given technique cannot afford to experiment much, lest they confuse the old technique with the new technique while competing. It takes a long, long time to replace a previously effective means of riding with an even more effective way of riding, particularly when you have been riding much the same way for a long time. In order for snowboard racing technique to evolve, it has to undergo periodic paradigm shifts, whereby an unknown comes into the sport riding in a way that others are not, beating them all consistently in the process. E,G, in skiing, Alberto Tomba, Hermann Maier, Bode Miller. Snowboarding is a relatively young sport; a sport whose technical development, as far as gear is concerned, has not yet reached adolescence. Until riders can effectively utilize the suspension capacity of their legs rather than depending on flexy bindings, damping materials, and board length, racers will continue to bounce and skip through courses with their arms flailing. Consider what the RS-1 did for mountain biking, and long travel forks did for moto-cross years before. The size of the motor doesn’t matter if you can’t keep the wheels on the ground. If the prevailing mode of snowboarding is one in which the rider hunkers down in an attempt to remain stable and balanced, then the sport will not evolve much. The best model for future riding technique is, at present, GS skiing.