A Bag of Tricks | The Airbag System Trusted by the World's Fastest Skiers
“It’s a safety revolution for the athletes. It can give them more confidence...”
We’ve teamed up with Dainese to shine a spotlight on luminaries from across the world of action sports and adventure – from big name athletes to epic innovations that showcase ambition and achievement that goes above and beyond the norm. Here, we speak to Dainese Racing Director Marco Pastore about the D-air Ski System - a game changing invention in skiing safety worn by the best in the world at the Olympic Games.
When US skier Lindsey Vonn won the downhill world cup sprint in Garmisch in Germany on 3 February 2018, she did so by two hundredths of a second from Italian Sofia Goggia. When Vonn won the second downhill race on the Kandahar mountain the following day, it was by just 0.11 seconds from the future Olympic gold-medallist Goggia, who was again her closest rival.
Every millisecond counts in alpine ski racing, and when you’re flying down a mountain at speeds of over 80mph, that can be a dangerous thing.
Not all Americans were as lucky as Lindsey Vonn in Garmisch. Jacqueline Wiles crashed hard, fractured her fibula and tibia and was ruled out of the Winter Olympics later that month. The next day veteran speed skiing star Stacey Cook took a horrible tumble at over 100km/h, though after staggering back to her feet, she appeared to be okay.
“It’s a safety revolution for the athletes. It can give them more confidence to reach their limits and go 100 percent"
Later Stacey took to Facebook to post: “There’s a weird kind of confidence you can take from doing an 80mph+ body slam into a wall followed by a face-bashing into the ice. It’s knowing that I can take a hit and carry on.
“I’m on my way to Korea with a sweet black eye and some sore lower legs but am confident in my therapy to get me [back] on snow soon. I am oh so thankful for my protective gear that I believe allowed me to defy what seems possible and walk away from this."
Then Stacey Cook signed off with two hashtags. One being the comical ‘#blackandblueisthenewpretty’, and the other simply stating: ‘#airbagsrock’.
Airbags are a relatively new addition to the protective wardrobe of professional alpine skiers, but with everyday that passes the momentum behind them grows stronger.
The innovation was dreamt up by Italian firm Dainese over a decade ago, though it was originally implemented in motorcycle racing.
“We started developing it for the motorbike in the 2000s," says Marco Pastore, racing director at Dainese. “Now with skiing we’ve been equipping the pros with the airbag system for four or five years.
“We had our first meeting with FIS (the International Ski Federation) in 2011 and they got to know the system and understand how it works and they’ve supported us since."
The airbag system is called D-air Ski, and it was officially approved by FIS on 1 January 2015.
Marco explains that it’s basically a wearable airbag that covers the racer’s torso and shoulders and monitors the user’s body position and velocity using gyroscopes, accelerometers and a GPS tracker. If it detects that the skier has or is about to crash it will fully inflate in just 0.1 of a second.
“It's a safety revolution for the athletes," continued Marco. “It’s something that can give them more confidence to go out there and reach their limits and to be more confident when they go 100 percent.
“It’s a risky sport. You go fast and issues are always possible but this kind of technology can help avoid big injuries."
He’s certainly not lying about the risks of the sport.
A study from 2014 showed that crashes are responsible for 96 percent of upper body injuries in alpine skiing (while most lower body crashes are not caused by crashing), and that elite downhill skiers have an almost 30 percent chance of getting injured at some point in their competitive year.
“At the moment you can see races where they ski more than 120 or 130km/h. It’s so impressive"
Dainese say their D-air system can absorb up to 60 percent of the impact of any given crash, and unlike a standardised car airbag, the system stays inflated for several seconds after the crash to cover the often savage turbulence that can occur after a bail on skis.
After Dainese introduced their airbag system to the motorcycling world in 2006 it took several years before it became universally used - but now it’s mandatory in the sport, and Marco reckons the same thing could happen down the line with the skiing airbag.
“We now have more or less 30 athletes on the men’s circuit [using the system] and we’ve started with the ladies as well," he said. “We have 10 ladies racing World Cup with the D-air ski system. Step by step we are going forward and we are confident that sooner or later there will be a new rule. It has to come from FIS of course.
“We’ve given a strong message to the ski teams and to the ski federation and they’re aware of the technology now. The athletes appreciate that."
Austrian downhill star Matthias Mayer was one of the early adopters of the D-air ski system, and Marco admits that this helped move the project forward. People are bound to listen to the word of a man who has two gold medals - one from the 2014 downhill and one from the 2018 Super-G in Pyeongchang - after all.
"He was one of the first skiers who believed in the product. He wanted to start using it and to develop the best fitting and the best ergonomics, and many athletes followed him. In the beginning there were only four or five men using it but now there are more than 30 athletes."
Of course, while the basis of the D-air Ski airbag system was taken from the motorcycling equivalent, there were also numerous changes needed to make it appropriate for skiing.
If you go flying off your bike in a Moto GP race then it’s clear that you’re about to crash, but airtime in an alpine skiing race doesn’t necessarily mean you're going to bail. Athletes regularly jump tens of metres in each race, so the skiing system needed rigged very specifically.
Dainese’s algorithm can tell based on the information provided by their sensors whether an athlete is about to crash or whether they’re just lifting off or landing from a jump.
“It was a lot of work," Marco adds. “At the beginning it was tough. We had to collect a lot of data in test stages but step by step we got to the final system.
“We had to develop something which was aerodynamic as well, but in a neutral way. We couldn’t give athletes an aerodynamic advantage, but we couldn’t disadvantage them either or they wouldn’t wear it."
Marco is a former alpine skier himself, having raced on the elite World Cup series for two seasons, and raced for 10 years in total before injury forced him into retirement in 2001.
“It’s a good feeling to go that fast," he says. “In recent years all the equipment has improved too. The slopes have improved - the World Cup hills are perfectly prepared, there are nets to protect you from crashes and the skis, the boots, the protectors, the gloves and the racing suits are all developed to help you reach your absolute limits and go faster than ever.
“At the moment you can see races where they ski more than 120 or 130km/h (80mph). It’s so impressive. I’m still so motivated to give something back; to the products and to the racers in terms of technical support and protection.
“I know this technology. I’ve followed the project from the beginning and especially now, it’s necessary. I’m sure it would have been a big advantage to have it when I raced."
Who knows how many injuries it could have prevented in the 17 years since then, and of course, it’s hard to tell directly how many injuries the system prevents now.
One thing is for sure though - the best alpine skiers in the world trust the D-air ski system, and a racer as established and experienced as Stacey Cook believes it allowed her to “defy what [seemed] possible and walk away from" a crash at over 80mph in Germany just last week.
It sounds like a no-brainer to us, and given that Sofia Goggia and Matthias Mayer both won gold in the protection system, we wouldn't be surprised if every racer in the World Cup was wearing one within a few years.
Stay tuned to our Dainese Luminaries hub for more from the world of ambition and adventure.
Next month we meet the man who not only pioneered the D-air Ski System but who has taken the downhill skiing world by storm in his esteemed career, Matthias Mayer.