There is a lot on our plate lately, however, we got plates on our minds; snowboard plates, which are all the rage these days. Judging by the interest in plates lately, one would think that this is a new invention. However, looking back, it becomes obvious that snowboard plates have been around for quite some time. Snowboard plates are performance enhancing systems or in more precise term interfaces.
The main function of the ultimate snowboard interface system is to eliminate “dead spots” in the snowboard while it is being wielded by the rider to carve a turn. By “dead spots” we mean discontinuity in the arc shape of the snowboard under load during carving due to the non deformation of the bindings mounted to the snowboard. Note that this is not unique to snowboards; skis experience the same discontinuity as a result of the rigid binding/boot system.
The other function of the snowboard plate is to provide leverage to the rider. This aspect of the plate must be considered carefully so as to optimize the center of gravity or center of mass. This brief note will not delve in details into the physics or mechanics of snowboarding; however, these will be mentioned whenever necessary. Prior to the more recent innovations in Alpine snowboards, plates also serve the function of modifying the flex pattern of the board. It is a novel technique utilized to customize standard production boards. A good case in point is the customization of the MLY Race board rode by Adam Hostetter at the Nagano Olympics. These boards even come standard with insert patterns for the Tinkler plates.
While plates are not new in snowboarding, the recent innovations in snowboarding that utilizes the clothoid shape to the snowboard as well as titanal to help with vibration dampening and increased edge hold has also generated an added benefit to plates in terms of vibration dampening. This form of isolation is something racers have always tried to minimize in the past but now try to optimize. We shall talk about this optimization later.
Snowboard plates can be classified into three categories: active systems, semi-active systems and passive systems. The passive systems are nothing short of a plain riser and function mostly for leverage. In this classification group, one will find the popular Palmer plates. This type of plate is very popular in boardercross with most riders voting to keep plates in this racing discipline at a rudimentary stage and voting to not allow active systems. So, the passive system does not eliminate “dead spots” during carving. This should not be surprising since most boardercross courses are now designed to minimize carving and maximize gliding, jumping, and pumping. One can consider boardercross as “old school” racing and the desire to modernize this sport is quite low or maybe there is some romance with freestyle that has always shun racing for the much more elegant spins and gymnastics that have no place in racing. All one has to look at is the Torino Olympics when the US lost a gold metal at the last jump when all that was needed was a cruise to the finish line. So, boardercross stays old school when it comes to plates and freestyling; may be these athletes may vote for to add style points as a part of the judging system. If this comes about, then the athlete that crosses the finish line first may actually not win because of her/his lousy style at the jump phase or his/her carving style on the berm is not quite there.
The semi-active systems allow some elimination of dead spots by using materials that eliminate vibrations and allow for some deformation of the board along the carve line by minimizing the binding “dead spot” effect. The F2 S-Flex absorber plate system is probably the torch bearer for the semi-active plate system. We will not delve into the limitations of these kinds of systems. However, most of plates in this category are prone to overloading the binding insert system and compromising board performance and core integrity. Some material improvements have lead to more effective semi-active plates like the Kessler Rocket X for boardercross or the Kessler Rocket S as in speed for the alpine disciplines. These new materials in semi-active plate systems are podium climbers as well.
The active system category, the most important system of all is all the rave in alpine snowboarding, as we mentioned earlier. The number of products available is exploding. However, one must be cautious in product selection, as these performance enhancing toys are not cheap. We shall discuss this selection process in details later. To give some perspective into how we got to where we are today, the most successful plate system in this category is the Hangl-Spirig. It showed it superiority at the Torino Olympics. Granted the Salt Lake Olympics was dominated by board design. In Torino, the board advantage was eliminated as most athletes could order the same custom boards. However, the athletes with the Swiss-made Hangl-Spirig system appeared to be at an added advantage given the same board.
The Torino gold and silver medalists spotting Hangl-Spirig plates
The Hangl-Spirig provided all the advantages of a perfect plate system; dampening, effective edge hold on the most boiler plate world cup course, complete elimination of dead spots, etc. The only disadvantage of this plate is the weight. Another disadvantage is the tedious assembly/dis-assembly of the plate. This was later addressed but other lighter systems with ease of assembly were developed. There are many reasons for this plate falling out of favor. The Hangl-Spirig was not readily available, as it was a pet project of Mr. Spirig who has more important and profitable company to run; so, one can say availability is a major factor in the plate system falling out of favor; the parts count (assembly) in addition to the weight issue also contributed. The Hangl-Spirig was quickly replaced by the Vist plate.
The Vist plate is classified as a contact plate system in the active plate system category, with its reduced weight, became very popular and climbed the podium at most world cup events. It’s active system, elimination of the dreaded binding “dead spot” some dampening made it the plate of choice. Vist have considerable amount of plate experience in the ski world and leverage that knowledge into snowboarding. However, assembly and dis-assembly was still a minor annoyance Alpine riders put up with. Kessler then developed its World Cup plate with many advantages over the Vist. One major disadvantage of the Vist plate is the fact that it modifies the flex pattern of the board. Therefore in board manufacturing, this effect has to taken into account. This is not a major factor, as most athletes are on custom built boards anyway. The Kessler plate addressed a few of the Vist plate disadvantages. Plate width adjustments were provided so that it can fit different waist width boards in addition to minimizing assembly and dis-assembly issues. Most of all, it minimize the plate effect in modifying the board flex. The contact plate system is fairly universal and can be used with most boards regardless of manufacturer. The plate actually protects the board from being overloaded and failure.
All was good and dandy in the active plate system category until the Benji effect came into play. By the Benji effect we mean Benjamin Karl, the World Champion. Benjamin Karl developed a plate that is classified as a bridged plate system, whereby the rider stands on flat plate that is isolated from the snowboard by a simple but sophisticated hardware that allows for the board to bend without any binding interference. The rider stands on the bridge plate that is anchored at four points on the snowboard. This is different form the Vist or Kessler plate in that there is no contact between the plate and the board. The elimination of the plate/board contact changes the way the athletes ride. It reduces the athlete’s fatigue, it improves athlete’s efficiency and many more. Bridge plates exploded, every athlete, every carver, every alpine rider wants one. Why? Bacause!!! Because Benji won a lot of races and became the world champion on this plate and because Jasey jay Anderson won the Gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics and podiums at world cup races on the Apex plate that was developed under the Own The Podium Canadian initiative.
The Vancouver podium.
We have to offer a very strong word of caution here. One would think that the bridge plate system is the most dominant plate binding system as we write this article. There is no data to support this position. The Vist plate still podiums, the Kessler plate still podiums and when the podium spots for the Hangl-Spirig plates system is considered the bridge plate system cannot be considered as dominant at all. The Hangl-Spirig system is the most sophisticated system there is in terms of design, engineering and materials. The last item, materials can be improved and the system can be made lighter. However, the major advantage of the bridge plate system is the reduction in athlete’s fatigue. Without mentioning names, all one has to do is look at the roster of matured athletes that would have retired but are still kicking the butts of the younger stronger athletes. The battle between the oldest and youngest athlete on the Austrian team at a world cup event last season lend some credence to this position. We also think that this system is responsible for the coming out of retirement of the Vancouver Gold medalist as well as fueling his defense of the Olympic gold medal title.
We briefly mentioned the influence of the plate on the flex pattern of the boards. For the contact plate configuration, the rails connecting the front bindings to the rear bindings have been softened to minimize this effect. This allows the board to react the way it was designed and built. Therefore, the contact plate is appearing to behave more like the Hangl-Spirig system on the athlete. However, the contact plate system only has one connection point sliding, in most cases, the front connection point; whereas the Hangl-Spirig slides under each foot and can be configured left or right (regular or goofy).
The bridge plate configuration plate has to be solid and stiff. The stiffness level and other mechanical properties of the plate influence in a significant way board behavior and performance. Most athletes found out the hard way that just because one anchor point slides does not result in a properly functioning plate. The bridge plates have become more specialized and are designed to work with specific board design. In short, the bridge plate should be designed to work with specific boards. As an example, the Apex plate was designed to work effectively and efficiently with Kessler Snowboards, the SG plate was designed to work with the SG Snowboards, the Jasey Jay plate is designed to work with Jasey Jay Snowboards. We now know of an athlete that is rocking a Jasey Jay plate on a Kessler snowboard with success. There is a plate manufactured in Greece that was designed to work efficiently and effectively with Kessler Snowboards. We are yet to find a universal bridge plate that can work effectively and efficiently with any alpine snowboard. So, before one purchases a bridge plate, it is imperative that one knows what snowboard that plate was designed around, as one plate does not fit all.
Apex Sport of Ontario Canada, coming off its success in Vancouver used the the Apex plate system to standardized the insert pattern now known as the universal plate mount system (UPM) which is a modification of the Hangl-Spirig insert pattern. Apex Sport’s Apex Standard Insert Pattern (ASIP) is the same as UPM, check out Apex Sport site for details on the standardization process. These insert patterns connect to the board close to the knife edge of the snowboard. The advantages of this configuration pattern are intuitively obvious. However, proper design of the mounting hardware can minimize significantly the advantages of the Hangl-type insert pattern when a standard 4X4 insert pattern is used like in the SG plate system or the new Apex 4X4 hardware.
Our friend Mike Tinkler may be up to something. Remember the Tinkler plate of old developed by Mike Tinkler, this innovative mind has developed a bridged plate system that is innovative and unique with some Hangl-Spirig features. So, there is no end to innovation in alpine snowboarding. One just have to wonder about boardercross and the thinking there. It is a great thing to have a wide alpine snowboard, that is a race board with upturned tip and tail but why stop there. These old BX rippers can be competing longer and using their experience to school the younger stronger athletes if they embrace innovation like their alpine counterparts, oh well!