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The State of the Arc

The State of the Arc

Features
By Paul Hochman
posted: 02/02/2004

Late one December night in Slovenia, in a factory complex outside the ancient city of Bled, a white-jacketed engineer sat hunched over his drafting table. It was 1989, a week before Christmas. A light, perhaps a single Soviet-era bulb, hung from a wire above his head.

Let's call the technician "Jurij Franco." And let's say that far from having the sparrow's shoulders of a man of science, Franco's broad back strained the seams of his lab coat. In fact, let's say that Franco was a former Slovenian racing star who barely missed going to Sarajevo in 1984 and was, this evening, taking his solace in ski science.

It was then, in the stillness of the lab, that Franco suddenly stood up, raised his arms and shouted, sending his stool spinning backward on rickety casters. Barn swallows, nesting in the eaves above him, fluttered a brief complaint and returned to sleep. Ski history had just been made.

OK, so it wasn't exactly like that. The lights were fluorescent, for one thing. And the barn swallows are a guess. But it is true that the shaped-ski revolution began in a eureka moment in 1989, in a tiny research room in the Elan ski factory in Begunje, Slovenia. And that Franco and his construction ace, Pavel Skofic, along with former racer Matjaz Sarabon, had been focused on this inalienable skiing fact: Skis that carve turns are faster than skis that don't. So Elan would make skis that carved. And thus the shaped-ski revolution was born.

Since Elan's epiphany 14 years ago, the process-and the product-of ski industry innovation has undergone a phase shift. Gone are the days when a tweak here or a tuck there would suffice for a new year's model. Today, wildly successful skis can get technology makeovers that render them unrecognizable (and vastly better) the following season. It's similar to the blessing and the curse of high technology, where novelty wrapped in innovation yields improvement and confusion in equal doses.

Which is precisely what this story is about. Below is a quick primer on the history, and the future, of ski trends. Some of the advances may seem complicated, but what these trends mean for you is simple: You're going to improve-rapidly.

Consider the ski industry's newest innovation, the "system," in which ski and binding are engineered as a single complementary unit. Systems are designed to offer the sweetest, roundest carved turn in the history of the sport. Three seasons ago, systems won perhaps 2 percent of the SKI Buyers Guide Gold Medals. This year, the number is close to 80 percent.

The theory is simple: If a ski flexes freely and roundly, it will feel and perform better. Time was, a free flex seemed a technical impossibility. Here's why: When a ski flexes, the toe and heel pieces of the binding move inward, toward each other. Then, they suddenly stop. Boot soles, after all, don't flex much. So the ski flexes roundly from its tip to the binding toepiece, and from its tail to the heelpiece, but not underfoot. In other words, the clean arc shape the engineers strive for gets corrupted. Systems are designed to allow the ski to flex evenly underfoot. But here's another issue: Assuming systems work-and, in our experience, they do-they're expensive. After all, instead of just buying a ski, now you're asked to buy a binding, too. Is it worth it? One of our testers claims the technology would have won him "four gold medals, going away" in the Olympics 20 years ago. And a system might win you your first perfect turn.

This revolution began, of course, with Jurij Franco's simple idea: He would design a pure-carve race ski. In the course of the product's development, Franco and Elan also realized that the new ski, which they called the SCX (for "Sidecut Experimental") had another astounding property: If it were short enough, it allowed beginners to perform perfect carved turns, too. And experts who tried the ski were suddenly exposed to the thrilling, carney-ride weightlessness of a soping, carved arc; a feeling that had been, until that point, reserved for snowboarders.

The first "Lightspeed SCX Parabolic" reached the SKI Magazine ski test in April 1994. Nobody knew what it was, exactly, but we knew it was cool. And utterly new. By 1997, Elan was winning design awards, and its sales had quadrupled.

Copycats and improvements quickly followed. The big French ski companies, particularly the top executives at Rossignol, had this response to the new skis: They laughed. "This shape-ski thing, it is bullshit," said Rossignol president Jacques Rodet at an industry forum in December 1996. "A fad," he famously predicted in his thick, stentorian Gauloise. "And a stupid one." Implied, of course, was that anyone who liked the new, "hourglass" or "parabolic" shapes was also stupid, and the battle lines had been drawn.

Just as quickly, the war was over, thanks to another enormous leap forward in ski technology, the shapely K2 Four, which became the best-selling ski in America, virtually overnight. The real change, the killer app, came when company engineer Anthony DeRocco put a Space Age dampening element (a piezoelectric ceramic chip) under the K2 Four's topskin. When you tapped the ski with an index finger, a red light above the chip flickered through a clear window in the ski's cap. "If It's Blinkin', It's Thinkin'!" went K2's marketing jingle.

To add insult to the French's injury, that same spring, a lanky slacker type named Bode Miller, using a gunslinger's racing technique, swept the Junior Olympics on a pair of K2 Four factory seconds.

Two things happened after K2's Four became a hit. First, manufacturers immediately started throwing out their "conventional," straight-sidecut designs. And second, they started adding structural elements onto their skis' topskins to try to capture the marketing magic in K2's flashy little lump. In other words, the reasoning suddenly went: To sell a lot of skis, you absolutely had to have shapes rivaling Jane Mansfield's, and you absolutely had to have something hanging off of your product: Contours. Bumps. Humps. Posts. Prolinks. Charger Plates. You name it. Ski racks at ski shops started to look like plumbing display cases.

Then came the system. In a matter of about two seasons, the new approach changed the business. And the revolution this time was led by the French. The first real system, in which the ski and binding were intended to work as a single unit, came from the French company Salomon, in its X-Scream Pilot, which arrived in 2000. Instead of screwing bindings to the topskin, Salomon placed two axles through the ski's sidewall, allowing unprecedented flex.

The feeling was unbelievable: If you stood over the middle of the ski and banked your hips on groomed snow, the sweetest, roundest most viscerally satisfying turn you'd ever felt would flow right up your toes and into your nether regions. It was that good. Not surprisingly, the concept now dominates. In fact, just as ski companies once ditched their no-shape skis in favor of shaped skis over the course of two seasons, so they are now headed for an all-system world.

Ski boots have had less dramatic advances-on the outside, anyway. In fact, most boot innovation has come in response to the pain the products were inflicting on those who used them. "For sure, the biggest change in ski boot technology is inside the boot," says former Dynastar Lange president Charlie Adams. "The basic exterior design-overlap shell, four-buckle, two-piece construction-is about the same. But the difference in fit is extraordinary. The old ones feel as if they were actually designed as torture chambers."

Lange introduced the first plastic boot in 1963 and then the first plastic boot with buckles in 1967. They were a huge step forward from the old leather boots, but they hurt. It wasn't until late 1971 that the Hanson brothers, whose father worked at Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich., came up with a new solution: rear entry. "It was consumer friendly for sure," says Dan McKenna, product manager for Dolomite, about rear-entry boots. "It was so much easier to put on in the shop. But it wasn't exactly performance-friendly." In other words, putting your foot into what amounts to an oversize bedroom slipper and clamping it down with cables doesn't give you much snow feel.

But it was the compromise-the Lange Mid in 1988-that sent boots marching in their current direction. The Mid was the first boot with a central or "middle" opening, allowing a slight backward hinging of the cuff (for easy entry) with a four-buckle overlap design (for control). And it saved the company. "I remember this vividly," says Adams. "In 1987, our business had been shattered by rear entry. We went from leading the industry to almost out of business." But two years after the introduction of the Mid, Lange had grown sales 400 percent.

Today, the modern "soft" boot is another attempt to do the same thing-balance comfort with performance. Manufacturers like Rossignol have started to place soft-material inserts in strategically located spots to boost comfort. In other words, where plastic used to press against your instep (for no reason at all, since your instep isn't used in a turn), now there is something softer. Clearly, where you need the hard architecture-the heel pocket, the forefoot, the cuff hinge-it's there for you. But soft materials are encroaching.

Will it work? Will soft boots be the next shaped skis? Perhaps. But more likely, conventional boots will be softened, improved and then annexed. In other words, since most of the major ski companies now make boots, it's not surprising to hear rumors about boot-binding-ski systems that would try to literally make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or at least bump up industry margins.

Either way, what is sure is that Jurij Franco and his colleagues in research labs all over the world are still dreaming of the next big thing. Specifically: electronics. While nobody is talking about it much-yet-there have been furtive attempts to jump-start the mechanical pleasures we feel on the hill with electronic helpers. A nod, perhaps, to K2's foray into piezoelectrics. Or to Head's current use of them. Or to a binding that has more electrodes than ball bearings.

But regardless of how many electrons may fly through your gear, any advance will be in service of something more poetic: that weightless moment in hip-deep powder you poached in a back glade or the heart-in-throat thrill of floating over a knoll into terrain you once only dreamed about. It could be expensive. But it'll likely be worth every cent. ntry. "It was consumer friendly for sure," says Dan McKenna, product manager for Dolomite, about rear-entry boots. "It was so much easier to put on in the shop. But it wasn't exactly performance-friendly." In other words, putting your foot into what amounts to an oversize bedroom slipper and clamping it down with cables doesn't give you much snow feel.

But it was the compromise-the Lange Mid in 1988-that sent boots marching in their current direction. The Mid was the first boot with a central or "middle" opening, allowing a slight backward hinging of the cuff (for easy entry) with a four-buckle overlap design (for control). And it saved the company. "I remember this vividly," says Adams. "In 1987, our business had been shattered by rear entry. We went from leading the industry to almost out of business." But two years after the introduction of the Mid, Lange had grown sales 400 percent.

Today, the modern "soft" boot is another attempt to do the same thing-balance comfort with performance. Manufacturers like Rossignol have started to place soft-material inserts in strategically located spots to boost comfort. In other words, where plastic used to press against your instep (for no reason at all, since your instep isn't used in a turn), now there is something softer. Clearly, where you need the hard architecture-the heel pocket, the forefoot, the cuff hinge-it's there for you. But soft materials are encroaching.

Will it work? Will soft boots be the next shaped skis? Perhaps. But more likely, conventional boots will be softened, improved and then annexed. In other words, since most of the major ski companies now make boots, it's not surprising to hear rumors about boot-binding-ski systems that would try to literally make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or at least bump up industry margins.

Either way, what is sure is that Jurij Franco and his colleagues in research labs all over the world are still dreaming of the next big thing. Specifically: electronics. While nobody is talking about it much-yet-there have been furtive attempts to jump-start the mechanical pleasures we feel on the hill with electronic helpers. A nod, perhaps, to K2's foray into piezoelectrics. Or to Head's current use of them. Or to a binding that has more electrodes than ball bearings.

But regardless of how many electrons may fly through your gear, any advance will be in service of something more poetic: that weightless moment in hip-deep powder you poached in a back glade or the heart-in-throat thrill of floating over a knoll into terrain you once only dreamed about. It could be expensive. But it'll likely be worth every cent.

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