Reviews & Previews – Ski Trab for 2016

Daniele and Adriano Trabucchi at their factory
Daniele and Adriano Trabucchi at their factory

Last August we visited the Ski Trab factory in Bormio, Italy. We spent a little time with Adriano and Daniele Trabucchi – the brothers who run the company, and we reviewed the design, materials, and construction of the skis. And in the winter we had a good fleet of demo skis to work with on the snow. It wasn’t a full launch of the product line-up for us, but it was a firm statement of intent. Which begs the question; why?

In truth, we didn’t set out looking for another ski company. We don’t need another ski company. Our investment in these relationships is big, and there are limits to what we can take on. But Ski Trab was intriguing, and our curiosity got the best of us.

Ski Trab was intriguing for a variety of reasons. They are perhaps the most highly regarded brand in competition ski mountaineering, and have a reputation for outstanding material workmanship. Ski Trab cross country skis have made their way into the market for quite a few years, and are popular enough to have passed through our hands for grinding a bunch of times. We’ve always been impressed with the material feel – they are high quality objects. It’s our job to be skeptical of stuff we don’t know, and we’ll never be quick to endorse a ski brand because it feels good in our hands or on the grinder, but we have to admit that we were intrigued.

The other reason for our interest was the quality of interest in the ski community. Ski Trab is a small brand – many people don’t even know about them – but the people who have them tend to be passionate fans of the skis. We had friends and customers – people who we know and respect – telling us that these were amazing skis.

In our business, Amy and I have clearly defined roles. I’m a bit of a dreamer – the idea guy and the talker. Amy runs the business side of the business, and keeps us alive with astute and conservative management. Usually the dialogue goes something like this:

Zach: “Hey, can we….”
Amy: “No.”

Evening view from the hotel up on Stelvio glacier.
Evening view from the hotel up on Stelvio glacier.

But in this case I pointed out that Ski Trab is located in Bormio, in the heart of the Italian Alps, at the foot of Passo Stelvio – one of the most spectacular places in the world. Amy agreed that it would be a “good idea to at least pay them a visit”. So we scheduled an on-snow glacier camp with Noah on the Stelvio glacier, and planned a couple of days in the factory. Neither of us expected to encounter the passion, professionalism, and level of attention to detail that we found when we visited the Trabucchis. It became obvious very quickly that we would have to work with these guys.

I want to be clear about something here. Ski Trab cross country race skis are excellent, and we’ll discuss their strengths below. But I don’t believe that they’re the most refined product on the market. Ski Trab is a very small company without a big World Cup race program. A World Cup program is extremely costly, and it’s obvious why Ski Trab can’t afford to operate at that level – they’re just too small to bear the expense. Companies that have a World Cup program have an amazing feedback mechanism for the testing and development of their products. But ultimately, every company that is part of the World Cup circus is seeing the same races, and talking to the same people. They’re working in close proximity to their competitors, and there is plenty of “cross pollination” of ideas (otherwise known as copying) that goes on. In the end, even though every company works with different materials and manufacturing methods, they’re all pulled in the same direction by a common tide. This can be a really good thing, because the intensity of the competition means that every company is forced to bring their A-game. But it often feels that true innovation may be somewhat stifled in an environment where everybody is watching everybody else so closely, and margins are so small.

Ski Trab operates outside of the very competitive and high-level, but somewhat myopic environment of the World Cup fishbowl. They take feedback from a variety of sources – mostly domestic racers in Italy – and they do a ton of their own testing. If they have a crazy idea, there isn’t really anybody to tell them its crazy. They certainly have the material know-how and tooling to make some amazing skis, and it seems to me that their skis have the greatest potential to be “more different” than just about anything else out there. It raises an interesting question in my mind; when your ski design isn’t being driven by the qualities that the World Cup racers and techs are asking for at the moment, do the solutions look different? I mean, the sport is the sport – we’ve often noted that the demands are more or less the same at all levels. But does the balance of values evolve differently in a more independent environment? In the end, I think this is the most intriguing thing about Ski Trab for me – they’re almost like a totally independent experiment in ski evolution.

Daniele and Adriano showing us the press settings. This was totally posed... "now point at the screen..."
Daniele and Adriano showing us the press settings. This was totally posed… “now point at the screen…”

The differences in starting point understanding and feedback system create some pretty big differences in the way that Trabucchis think about and describe their skis right from the outset. Perhaps the biggest difference from other companies is how little Ski Trab leans on camber to create different ski characteristics. While most companies have small variations in material lay-up and more variability built into camber during the pressing process, Ski Trab works with one basic camber concept, and varies the material lay-up much more actively than most companies. In their skate skis they work with as many as six different combinations of reinforcing lamination material and steer the flex characteristics of their product this way far more than we’re accustomed to seeing. This is an interesting approach, creating some real material differences between the different layups, and it forces us to think a little differently about how we test and evaluate the skis.

It’s clear that we’ve still got work to do to fully understand the range of products and control of variables that Ski Trab works with. This season we took a big bite, and found some interesting results. The specifics of those results, regarding which models and layups we like best, aren’t refined enough for us to make any pronouncements. But we’ve got a much stronger understanding than we did a year ago about the skis. Specifics aside, it’s worth examining the general feedback we’ve had, and why we’ll continue down this path with Ski Trab. I have to note that we had very little opportunity to work with the Ski Trab classic skis this season because we had basically zero days of decent classic skiing locally. Our classic forays were almost always on race weekends or during busy demos when we simply didn’t have time to get to know new classic skis. So for this year our learning experience is mostly centered on skate skis.

Amy enjoying the ice on Stelvio glacier
Amy enjoying the ice on Stelvio glacier

Stability versus STABILITY

We tend to toss around the term “stability” like it means only one thing. In fact, it’s a bit more subtle than that. Put in basic terms, we can differentiate between edging stability (which has a huge amount to do with torsional rigidity, sidecut, and material support for the edge of the ski) and flat-ski stability (which has more to do with load distribution and camber profile). Ultimately, different skiers will consider different ski designs to be more or less “stable” according to their position on the skis and their skiing style. A more active skier who spends more time on the edge of the ski might favor more edge stability, while a flat-ski glider who skis at a lower tempo and rides the ski for longer might really be looking for the kind of flat-ski stability that supports their position on the ski. It’s best to think of stability in individual skier terms as “skiability” – the platform that best supports the most natural motions. All brands have their strengths, and one of our jobs is to help skiers find the brand and model that best supports their motion patterns and physical aptitudes.

It's a rough life, testing skis...
It’s a rough life, testing skis…

Well, Ski Trab pretty much crushes all of the stability categories. As Amy puts it, in challenging conditions the Ski Trab skate skis pretty much take balance and stability off the list of concerns. You just don’t have to think about staying on top of them or finding the edge. This was most dramatically illustrated for us up on the Stelvio glacier. We were up there in early September and conditions had melted down to about the minimum amount of “snow” that they could work with. Daytime temps on the glacier were getting into the tropical range – not just warm, but hot. And then everything would freeze up overnight. The grooming took place in the mid-afternoon at peak warmth, and we were out on the snow by shortly after seven AM to get a good session in before it all turned to total slush. You can imagine that the surface at seven AM was more or less mildly textured blue ice. The hardest and most skitterish snow I’ve seen anywhere. Even on this “snow”, the Ski Trabs put skating within easy reach. Edging was simply not a problem.

We saw the same thing throughout a variety of challenging conditions all season long. It was pretty rare for us to see simple, nice, packed powder “wintertime” snow this year. We skied on a lot of very heavily groomed and trafficked manmade snow. One of the trickiest testing days we saw all year was the day before the Birkie where a course closure forced multitudes of people onto a poorly groomed section of out and back trail that was basically wet-ice. It was really fun to put our Ski Trab demos on the snow on that day.

Michael Meissner with his daughter Geneva, and his Ski Trab Birkie boards.
Michael Meissner with his daughter Geneva, and his Ski Trab Birkie boards.

Our good friend Michael Meissner put it best (shortly before we set him up on a pair for the next day) when he came back from testing and said “this is a very well mannered ski”. You have to know Michael and hear it in his voice to know what that means. I would call him “genteel” if it weren’t for the mild connotation of ostentation conveyed by the word. He’s the furthest thing from ostentatious – just a genuinely nice guy who is almost implausibly generous with compliments and appreciation. Maybe it’s better to call him well-mannered. At any rate, I took his assessment of the skis to be a rare and powerful understatement from a guy who always seems to find the best quality in everything. He loved the skis and had a great race on them the next day (in much mushier conditions).

Anytime we emphasize the stability of a ski we seem to harbor some reservations about its speed. Conventional wisdom suggests that you can always gain stability if you’re willing to sacrifice speed, and vice versa. I don’t know whether we ever had the Ski Trabs straight-up win our testing for pure gliding speed, but they sure didn’t feel slow. If anything I felt that they didn’t produce the high-end speed under foot that I’m accustomed to looking for from good World Cup skis. As “well mannered” as they are, they don’t seem to want to jump out from under foot when you jam on them. Maybe they don’t feel terribly exciting to me? However, I have to concede that I’m not certain these high-end performance characteristics result in superior race performance, even for high-level skiers. Our best indication of race performance comes when we test average speed over a full lap of sustained skiing. In these tests the Ski Trabs fare very well, and always outperform our expectations based subjective evaluation of speed. We tend to perform well on Ski Trab skis. In the end, good performance is the best predictor of good performance!

So, we will continue to work with Ski Trab. Based on what we saw this year, we really believe that they might be the best option for many of our customers. We don’t expect Ski Trab to become huge, but it would be a disservice to the ski community not to make these skis available. Most of the people who have bought them have done it after demoing them, and we expect that to continue to be the trend. So we’ll be sure to have a good demo fleet and lots of opportunity for people to test Ski Trab along with our other brands.