CALGARY - An air bag soon to be introduced to World Cup ski racing was tested on the backs of Canadian athletes.
Jan Hudec, Erik Guay and Manny Osborne-Paradis were among the lab rats for a vest designed to inflate around a skier's shoulders, upper back and chest in a crash.
The D-air Ski technology was developed by Dainese, a sports equipment and apparel company which sponsors the three Canadians, in partnership with the sport's international governing body.
Hudec, Guay and Osborne-Paradis joined sponsored skiers from other countries in wearing the D-air during World Cup training runs last season.
"I have to say and I'm happy to say the Canadian team is one of the most interested when it comes to safety," said Vittorio Cafaggi, who is responsible for the development of strategic projects for Dainese.
The Federation International du Ski (FIS) was initially going to allow skiers to start wearing the air bag in World Cup races Dec. 19-20 in Val-Gardena, Italy. Its introduction has been delayed because the device exceeded maximum thickness under the rules.
Skiers can race with air bag systems "which conform to the FIS rules and specifications" after Dec. 31, FIS announced last week. The racers can continue to try out the air bag in training runs until then.
The men's World Cup downhill season opens Saturday in Lake Louise, Alta., with a super-G to follow Sunday.
Ski racers have worn back braces, called "turtlebacks" because of their shape, for several years. But the D-air is designed to increase protection by inflating about five centimetres.
Hudec, who won an Olympic bronze medal in super-G in February, is a believer in the technology itself.
"Fundamentally it's a good idea, obviously. Anything that can make the sport safer can actually make it more exciting because guys will push more and be in a better place to push the limits," the Calgarian said.
Guay, the 2011 world downhill champion, says he wore the air bag in every training run in 2013-14.
"There's a lot of back injuries, there's a lot of knee injuries and if we can take out certain elements of risk, I think it's a good thing," Guay said.
"This D-air, you don't even feel it when you're going down. It's only when you're about to crash that it sort of inflates. It's not like you turn into the Michelin man where you can't control anything and can't see anything.
"It's only about seven centimetres that it blows up so it sort of protects your neck and thoracic area, as well as your back. It's just that extra layer of protection before you hit the nets."
The ski air bag is a spinoff from similar protection motorcycle racers have worn for years in Moto Grand Prix. The air bag deploys when the rider is unseated from the motorcycle.
Given the sharp angles of skiers' bodies and the occasional striking of a gate with their shoulders, what's to stop the air bag from accidentally inflating during a race?
"That's why we call it intelligent clothing. It can distinguish between a normal conduction and an accident situation," Cafaggi explained from Vicenza, Italy.
"The brain of the system has one name — algorithm — which is a mathematical function that constantly analyzes all the data coming from the sensors. Through this analysis, it can decide if what it sees is an accident or not. As there are seven sensors, you have a pretty good flow of data coming into the algorithm and being processed."
The air bag is also equipped with three accelerometers, three gyroscopes and one global positioning unit, Cafaggi added.
Wearing the D-air in races will be voluntary, so it remains to be seen who will be the early adopters.
Ski racers are loath to wear anything they think compromises aerodynamics in a sport where a hundredth of a second is the difference between a medal and no medal.
Because of wind-tunnel testing, both FIS and Dainese are satisfied the D-air is "aerodynamically neutral", which means it doesn't positively or negatively affect aerodynamics.
Hudec will not be the only skier needing convincing, however.
"I believe in its safety and everything else," Hudec said. "But at the end of the day, if nine out of 10 racers are not wearing it and you're wearing it and you are 10th or eighth, even if you ski poorly or your skis weren't good enough that day or whatever else, it's always going to be in the back of your mind whether it played a role or not or was a factor."
Osborne-Paradis says the air bag is another piece of safety equipment skiers can become accustomed to, but adds race suits may have to be adapted to it.
"You put a back brace on, you put your shin guards on, you put your mouth guard on, you put your helmet on. It's just one more thing to make you feel invincible on the hill. That's the advantage," he said.
"It's more, is it more work to get in your tuck, can you tuck as low as you need to tuck? Our suits are already so tight, it might mean designing a downhill suit that actually fits that."
When asked if he'll wear the air back in races come January, Osborne-Paradis said: "I have no idea. It totally depends on my season and how it feels."
FIS wants to reduce the number of injuries to its elite athletes and has been working with Dainese on the D-air for four years. Hudec thinks FIS should go all-in and make the air bag mandatory in racing.
"Otherwise, it's unreasonable to see some athletes wearing it and some not," he said.
The other issue both Guay and Hudec foresee is even though the D-air is hidden under a racing suit, skiers who are sponsored by other companies will be reluctant to don gear produced by a competing sponsor.
"The issue is going to be Dainese is so far ahead of all the other companies now that the other companies have to basically catch up or (their skiers) not wear it," Guay said. "We're at that position."
Cafaggi expects skiers will eventually buy in to technology that can keep them racing. Skiers can't earn World Cup points, win prize money or satisfy sponsors if they're injured on the sidelines.
"What I can say is I can bring the experience I have in motorcycle racing. At the beginning, only a few were using the back protectors. Now everyone is wearing one," Cafaggi said. "It took 15 years. It's not something that will happen immediately, but it will happen."
Hudec crashed and hurt his lower back in a World Cup super-G training run in March. He says the air bag wouldn't have prevented the injury because it doesn't extend that far down his back.
"I had a bit of a motorbike crash this summer and I wish I would have been wearing it at the time," Hudec said. "Ironically enough, I was not skiing. I was on a motorbike, which was the thing it was designed for in the first place.
"If I would have worn it, I actually probably would have not hurt my shoulder at all. I barely got hurt and if I had been wearing it, I would have been totally unscathed."