Originally Posted by uncle crud
I'm curious about the historic point when the gates went from flexi poles to breakaways.
In addition to the great replies that have been posted thus far, here's some more info on the transition to break-a-way/rapid gates:
It's true that the hinged, plastic gate was first used in World Cup competition in the 1980-81 season, having been in development for some time before. These early gates were about 1.3 to 1.4 inches in diameter, quite a bit larger than today's SPM-braand gates. They also had slightly stiffer hinges and shorter bases that had mild screw ramping on them.
As such, slalom skiers were slow to adapt to these gates for a few basic reasons:
- Not all teams trained with them.
- Courses were still being set as they were with bamboo, with more distance across the fall line.
- Protective equipment hadn't evolved to protect the shins.
Most of the top slalom skiers of the early 1980s skied this rounder line: the Mahres, Stenmark, et al.
The first of this generation of racers to really master the new gates was Marc Girardelli, who had an incredible slalom season in 1984-85, skiing a much tighter line than previous top slalom specialists (still using inside-arm clearing, as well).
Much like Bode rising through the ranks on his K2 Fours, it took an upstart to start the radical change in SL technique. Rok Petrovic worked with Yugoslavian coach Joze Sparovec to create a more efficient means of skiing slalom: the outside-arm gate clear (a.k.a. the "cross-block"). Petrovic dominated the Europa Cup SL standings in 1984-85, and dominated the World Cup in 1985-86.
Soon, all other racers followed suit, learning to block gates with the outside arm like the up-and-coming younger racers. By 1987-88, everybody (Stenmark included) was using the outside-arm block in SL, to great success. The lone exception was Girardelli, who eventually relented in 1991-92, first switching to a "no-block" method, then to outside-arm clearing. His resistance was due to a belief that outside-arm clearing had a tendency to introduce rotation into one's skiing, which he and his father believed to be detrimental to a four-event skier.
Back to the evolution of the gate: the main drawbacks of the first generations of rapid gates were:
- brittle plastic that tended to shatter either near the top of the gate shaft (thus risking facial injuries), or at the hinge base (which caused the same issues as broken bamboo: try to set an edge on it and you crash).
- weak hinges that couldn't perform over a season or in extremely cold weather.
- a tendency to vibrate loose from their holes, again creating the "loose gate" crash risk.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, various maufacturers refined the plastics, making stronger concoctions that were more impact-resistant and more pliable in cold temperatures. They also built stronger (and simpler) hinges that were both more durable and easier to replace. And a Colorado manufacturer developed a base that could screw into the snow and ice using a special wrench, greatly reducing the tendency for gates to vibrate loose over the course of a race.
(Also, the FIS repealed the regulation that required flags to be placed on SL gates in the early 1990s.)
Additionally, some gate manufacturers worked on creating gates with a narrower shaft, approxiamately 0.8 to 1.0 inches in diameter. These gates were lighter and eaiser to knock over - ideal for junior skiers, requiring a less exaggerated motion to knock over, as well as providing less resistance to lower weight skiers who hit them with their shins (where the least amount of mechanical advantage is found). Eventually, their utility was appreciated by senior racers, and the gates were approved for FIS use in the late 1990s. These are the gates you see today.
And these new gates are still tough on the shins, and the hands still provide assistance in knocking them over (again, the mechanical advantage of a long lever [hand hitting upper third of gate] versus a short lever [shin hitting gate near base/fulcrum]).
Whew! That was exhaustive! But I hope it proves informative.