Reviews & Previews – Salomon for 2016-17

We’re just about one month away from our first ski selection trip of the year. As we gather orders and build our pick-list, we’re putting out some information on what we learned from the past season, and what we expect from our big industry partners in the next season. There is a lot of good stuff happening in the industry, and we’ll be putting a lot of information out in the next couple of weeks. If you have specific questions, feel free to email me at zc@caldwellsport.com – there’s a very high probability that I’ll actually have time to give you a considered response at this time of year!

Because there is so much new stuff to discuss with Salomon, we’re starting with them. This will get fairly long. Sorry (but really, you know you love it).

In the spring of 2011 we moved back to Vermont from a four year stint in BC and Colorado, and we restarted Caldwell Sport as an independent business. At that time we started a partnership with Salomon. We didn’t have a ton of experience on the brand, and Salomon was only about six years into their Nordic ski project. But we made a bet on the future with Salomon based on a really strong feeling that their team and process had them on a stable and successful path.

In the past five years Salomon has pushed the process along consistently, but not without their share of struggles. They brought amazing boot technology to market, but really struggled with pricing, production, and delivery. At the same time they lost ground in the binding battle, as the NNN platform gained traction worldwide. They introduced a Soft Ground skate ski that felt amazing in its early iterations, but then failed to deliver the expected performance in many subsequent production runs. And their classic skis remained difficult to pin-down; the bottom-line appeared to be that they were fighting their materials a bit and pushing the cambers too hard to get what they wanted.

Selecting skis in Altenmarkt with Jenny Beckman from Salomon

Selecting skis in Altenmarkt with Jenny Beckman from Salomon

All of these realities presented some real challenges in the marketplace, and I can honestly say that we questioned our commitment to the relationship at times. We worked hard with the Salomon material, but it wasn’t a profitable partnership for us, and we struggled to get good buy-in with our customers.

Well… In the past year everything has come into focus for Salomon, and “all of a sudden” they’re in a very strong position with a great comprehensive program to support top level racing. I put “all of a sudden” in quotes, because it’s worth keeping in mind that all their current outstanding offerings are the result of consistent, patient, systematic work and control; all the qualities that we first recognized and bet on five years ago.

There is a pretty long list of things that Salomon is doing right these days, and for the sake of clarity I’m going to outline it somewhat systematically and chronologically according to our experience.

1 – Carbon Skate LAB Ski

Tad raced this pair of Carbon Skate LAB skis to a podium finish in the Craftsbury Super Tour individual skate race this winter (with a TB2w).

Tad raced this pair of Carbon Skate LAB skis to a second place finish in the Craftsbury Super Tour individual skate race this winter (with a TB2w).

With the introduction of the Carbon Skate LAB ski Salomon jumped directly to the forefront of the market’s imagination. They rolled-out the first successful ski to use carbon as a primary structural element, instead of just a reinforcing lamination. They went from having the heaviest skate ski on the market to having one of the very lightest. And they did it all with their characteristically excellent design sense, highlighting material selection. The skis looked awesome.

None of that would have mattered if the skis didn’t perform. But they did perform! They were adopted quickly by Salomon’s World Cup skiers in almost all conditions, and started showing up on podiums right away.

After testing the Carbon skis in the winter of 2014-15 with good success, we decided to select only Carbon skis for ’15-16. Customer interest was immediately high, and our pre-season orders were more than double what we had previously seen with Salomon. And when the skis hit the snow, customer satisfaction was very high. The Carbon skate skis combine lively action and outstanding stability with world class speed. During the past season they produced tremendous results, and some of the best customer feedback we’ve ever seen.

2 – Carbon Skate LAB Clear Base Warm Ski

Possibly not the best illustration since you can't see the bases. But these are the medal skis, right after the medal race. Jason Cork, coach and service tech.

Possibly not the best illustration since you can’t see the bases. But these are the medal skis, right after the medal race. Jason Cork, coach and service tech.

At the Falun World Championships Jessie Diggins picked up a pair of new clear-base Carbon skis from the Salomon guys. This was a prototype ski for wet conditions, and it utilized a new prototype clear base – not the same material that Salomon had been using previously on their white-based skis. Jessie won a silver medal on those skis on a day when a last-minute snow storm took many contenders out of the race, and when most clear-base solutions were terribly slow. Maurice Manificat also grabbed a medal on the clear-base skis.

The first general production series of clear-base skis came mid-winter this year, and we had good experience with them right away. The camber profile on these skis isn’t categorically different from the normal black-base Carbon skis, but their versatility in a wide range of wet conditions is outstanding. I believe that the Salomon clear base is the most versatile clear-base material on the market, and is suitable for use on a single pair of all-around wet skis. Our other brands offer great clear-base options, but the limitations of the base material in new snow make those quite specialized skis, and we’re not comfortable recommending them as primary warm conditions options. For next year we’re happy to recommend the clear-base Carbon skate skis as a go-to warm option.

3 – ProLink Binding System

It had to happen, and it’s worth calling it what it is: Salomon made a fully compatible knock-off of the NNN binding system. The binding platform wars have gone badly for Salomon ever since Fischer adopted the NNN platform, which tipped the scales toward NNN worldwide. This really hurt Salomon because they went from being a leader in the boot market, toward a more fringe position. None of this has anything to do with the effectiveness of the binding platform itself – it has far more to do with market reach and availability. NNN was simply winning the binding platform war. This hurt especially badly because bindings themselves are absurdly profitable. The price of bindings is one of the only things in the industry that really gets my ire up – it’s pure profit-grabbing to charge the money they charge for a commodity that costs only a few dollars to produce. No matter how you slice it, bindings are hugely profitable, and the loss of market share was going to hurt Salomon.

Salomon’s ProLink offering can hardly be considered new or unique, but it was very surprising how quickly and positively it was received both in racing and the marketplace. My understanding is that the World Cup field has gone almost exclusively to the ProLink platform, and I think it’s just a matter of time before the SNS standards (Pilot and Profil) fade away altogether. Salomon did a really outstanding job with the execution of the ProLink binding – it’s light, stable, and secure; with all of the excellent design feel of all Salomon products.

I think Rotefella made a big mistake in discontinuing their R3 screw-on binding in favor of a screw-mounted NIS plate. It’s easy to understand their motivation; the patent protection ran out on the NNN system, but not on the NIS interface. But their screw-on NIS plate is a clunky affair that only offers 10mm (too big!) increments in binding position adjustment (as compared to 5mm on the bonded NIS plates), and demands 8 screws, and offers no heel-plate adjustability. With the introduction of the ProLink binding I can’t think of a good reason to order any more screw-on NIS plates! They have essentially handed the market to Salomon for screw-on bindings unless and until they reintroduce their own version of a screw-mount binding for use on rollerskis and non-NIS skis.

Point of clarification: The ProLink system is fully NNN-compatible, but not compatible with existing SNS (pilot, propulse, profil) boots or bindings. You can use ProLink bindings with ProLink or with NNN boots. SNS system boots will not work with the new bindings. Our understanding is that Salomon will offer interchangeable binding cleats for some top-end boot models, so they’ll work like bike shoe cleats, which allow you to configure one pair of shoes for multiple pedal platforms. But we haven’t seen this in action. For now, a switch to ProLink means a full platform switch.

Pre-drilled holes - they're under the sticker, which you leave on the ski.

Pre-drilled holes – they’re under the sticker, which you leave on the ski.

4 Pre-Drilled Skis

One of the notable advantages of the NIS system is the ability to test different binding positions on the snow and find the “sweet spot” for mounting the skis. However, the adjustable NIS system has never turned into a day-to-day asset – once the position is settled it’s really rare for skiers to move their bindings around for different conditions or courses. Functionally, a permanently mounted binding is just as good, provided it’s mounted in the right place!

Historically the mounting position for skis has been a subject of considerable conversation, and has almost always been based on the balance point of the ski. In fact, the balance point and the mounting position are both design considerations, and they don’t necessarily line-up. All of this is complicated by the fact that balance points aren’t as consistent as we’d all like to believe – they can be different by a number of mm between two skis in a pair – but the performance characteristics of the skis are built into the bridge and camber configuration, and the optimal mounting point doesn’t shift with the balance point. For years we’ve been using measured mount positions (mm from the tail of the ski) based on information from the manufacturers and our own testing.

Salomon has now taken all of this off the table with pre-drilled skis. When I heard about their plan to pre-drill everything I groaned – figuring they’d probably get it wrong. But so far it seems as though they’ve really got it right. We’ve been using the pre-drilled holes ever since they started showing up, and the skis have been working perfectly. While there will likely be some pairs here and there that aren’t optimal with the factory-drilled position, I expect that this move will eliminate a lot of anxiety and misunderstanding, and will be a big positive for everybody concerned.

5 New Classic LAB Skis

You can see through these things - they're translucent!

You can see through these things – they’re translucent!

This is the big one – I’ve saved the best for last.

When we first visited the Salomon factory in 2011 we worked with Jean-Marc Draeyer who had recently been hired to oversee the race program in the factory. Jean-Marc has huge experience in racing, and at the time he told us that it was a goal for Salomon to make the best classic skis in the world. We smiled and nodded – they had a long way to go. For the past two years we’ve selected Salomon classic skis for customers who ordered them in advance, but we haven’t carried any in our shop inventory. We could find good classic skis, but it wasn’t always easy or all that rewarding, and we sure weren’t going to try to talk any customers into selecting them over our other brands.

Last fall when we visited the factory we saw Thomas Saillet – the head engineer for Salomon Nordic – and he showed us the new line of Classic LAB skis, and the reference curves that would be used in production for in-line quality control. This was clearly a new product line from the ground-up, and looked extremely promising. These skis have been mistakenly referred to as “Carbon Classic” skis in the marketplace ever since they started showing up. That’s wrong – they have no more structural carbon than the previous versions, and Thomas was pretty clear with us that Carbon isn’t a great material for making classic skis.

But carbon or not – these skis have been reimagined from top to bottom– everything about them is new – material configuration, geometry, molds, cambers… everything. There are three models, for three ranges of conditions, and I think they’ve got them all pretty well dialed. We first saw pre-production models in old cosmetics in Jessie’s fleet in Falun, and we started working with pre-production versions of these skis in the older cosmetic in Tad’s fleet at the start of the season. We’ve had our hands on a bunch more of the skis as they’ve come into production as the season went along. We also worked with Salomon to set-up Jim Galanes for a testing project in Colorado (where winter happened) for the second half of the season, and we have a ton of feedback from him. If you want good, critical feedback from somebody who know classic skis, start with a World Cup podium skier from the classic era who’s opinions haven’t softened much as he’s aged. Jim is a phenomenal skier and a real student of all aspects of the sport, including skis. His feedback has been critical, but overwhelmingly positive. Here’s the run-down of the three models, with information gathered from Jim, and from our experience, including a bunch of work with Tad.

Blue Model
This is a specific cold new snow “powder” ski with very smooth camber characteristics, and low, long pocket with relatively low carrying capacity. This is the model I was most skeptical of from the outset because these characteristics all add up to “slow” in my experience. Jim’s initial response after some brief testing on his flex tester was the same:

“In general what I thought from looking at the skis proved to be totally inaccurate. I though the cold skis had a pretty weak camber bridge in the front of the pocket and flexing those skis I could feel what I call a uniform collapse in the front of the pocket. However, in all of the test the cold skis defied my feelings and were easy to kick, even in softer snow, had great free glide when striding onto the ski and had very quick acceleration and top speed when tucking at high speeds.”
“I would highly recommend this ski for cold dry conditions. The only down side of the cold ski was the stability of the ski in high speed down-hill corners.”

It’s worth noting that Jim saw a lot of new snow, but not terribly frequent or aggressive grooming. My expectation is that this ski will be a great easy drywax ski for days when you don’t need binder or basewax. There are plenty of areas of the country that see these conditions regularly, but even in those areas we find that race-day grooming and course traffic usually demand a ski with the carrying capacity to handle some binder or basewax, and some additional layers of kick wax with the ability to adjust the wax prior to the start. My guess is that the Blue model skis will be a true favorite for training and recreational skiing on bluebird days, but that it will see less action in racing, whether we’re talking about marathons, citizen races, or World Cups.

Incidentally, I don’t have much additional information about the stability characteristics that Jim referred to. My guess is that the downhill cornering issue had more to do with the blue ski that Jim had being a much softer ski than his other skis (roughly 10% softer than his yellow model skis). As far as I can tell the material characteristics in terms of longitudinal and torsional stiffness are similar between the blue and yellow models.

Yellow Model

Yellow is the color Salomon have given to their “universal” ski (which is a bit confusing to me). But the ski isn’t confusing. This model has a higher carrying capacity, a little more shape (residual camber) in the pocket, and a more focused pressure distribution. My feeling about these skis is that they’re exceptionally versatile, and can be selected to address a wide variety of conditions from all-around drywax to binder, to klister covered, to straight cold klister. I anticipate selecting more of these than the other models because they’ve got such range, and can be utilized with a great deal of flexibility. Few of our customers carry more than two or three pairs of classic skis, and many have just one. If we have to pick a ski to bridge ranges, it’s going to be one of these.

Jim’s experience on these was more qualified than his experience on the cold skis – mostly because he saw a lot of the right conditions for the cold skis:

“In general I preferred the lively feel and the energy of the Universal ski more than the Cold skis. But the performance of the cold skis particularly when I cranked up the pace as much as I can, was exceptional.”
“We just did not have firm enough tracks and the right snow conditions for these (universal) skis. Looking at them I believe they should be a very good binder and hard wax ski.”

50km National Championships - Tad was leading at this moment...

50km National Championships – Tad was leading at this moment…

Red Model

This is the new klister ski, and from what we’ve seen this has to be the single most notable product release of the season. When these skis hit the snow in klister conditions on the World Cup late season this year, Salomon skiers had some amazing results. In particular, Maurice Manificat started to look like more of a classic specialist than a skate specialist. In the skiathlon in Lahti he broke the field to pieces in the classic portion. And in the final stage of Ski Tour Canada – a classic pursuit in brutally soft klister conditions – Maurice and Matti Heikkinen had the two fastest splits on the day on Salomon klister skis, with Sundby a distant 3rd, 50 seconds back. In that same race Jean Marc Gaillard had the 9th split, and Ivan Babikov had the 13th split, also on Salomon. And on the same day Jessie Diggins had the third fastest split in the women’s race – a clear stand-out classic result in her World Cup career.

We have a little more insight on the skis from Tad Elliott, who had two pairs to work with this year. Using the new red model, he had great skis in both the skiathlon and the classic pursuit in Canmore. He was one of only four American men who managed to hang-on and avoid elimination in the multi-lap races. And at Super Tour finals Tad had possibly the performance of his life in the 50K classic to finish second, after leading several laps in the second half. By his own report, and according to all the other racers in the field, Tad had exceptional skis. We had the same wax on Noah Hoffman and on Kris Freeman, and they also had good skis, but nothing as fast as Tad.

Jim’s feedback has been equally impressive.

“I was surprised by how even and easy the kick was even as the snow softened. But even more impressive to me was when the snow softened a lot and developed a lot of suction I could feel substantial kick wax drag on the (reference-ski from another one of our brands) and the Salomon Universal ski, but the Salomon klister ski did not feel the wax drag and the ski was still kicking well and relatively free, where the other two skis were slow and slippery. In the hard tracks the Salomon Klister ski was exceptional. 100% kick, great freeness, and a very stable ski. There really was no comparison in the skis, I really liked the Salomon klister ski.”

Tired Tad at the finish of the 50K

Tired Tad at the finish of the 50K

Great klister skis are a real thing, but for the most part they’re hard to come by in general production skis. Most companies produce a “plus” model ski that can be used for a variety of conditions, but a true, dedicated klister ski is a rare thing to find in a production offering. As Jim noted, having the right ski in klister conditions offers both better speed and more secure kick. We’ve had good luck finding true klister skis from Madshus in recent years, but this addition from Salomon is big news for us.

Outlook
Last year, with the introduction of the Carbon Skate LAB skate ski, our Salomon ski sales went up nearly 260% in quantity (and more than that in dollars, since the Carbon skis are more expensive that the Equipe 10). The classic ski will come into our line-up at a lower price-point than the carbon ski ($665). This reflects the more traditional material selection, but it bothers me because it gives the impression that the Classic LAB skis are somehow not a “premium” product. For what it’s worth, if the pricing had been up to me, I would have pegged it at exactly the same price as the Carbon Skate LAB. These are absolutely a premium product, worthy of every effort we can make with them. Because the brand will need some time to build momentum on the classic side of things, we’ll be conservative in our inventory commitment, and will base our speculative selection on the level of pre-order interest that we receive. Our Salomon selection trip will come later in the summer, so we’ve got some time to gauge interest. We will absolutely have these skis available to test in our demo fleet, and will carry at least some inventory into the season.

We don’t do too much with boots, and I don’t know what Salomon plans to do on that side of things, short of offering boots in both ProLink and SNS platforms. The astonishingly cool Carbon Skate LAB boot has been a bit of a fiasco with astronomical pricing and big delivery issues. I’m certain that we’ll see those issues resolved at some point soon. In the meantime, Salomon is offering outstanding products and outstanding value in their ski line, and they appear to have successfully unshackled their brand from the emerging limitations of the SNS platform. I fully expect Salomon to claim more market share in the coming seasons, both in our business, and in the racing sector as a whole.

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