When we started working with Salomon a couple of years ago I made a big deal about the direction that the company was headed. At World Championships in Val di Fiemme they demonstrated that they have really good control of the process, delivering race-deciding performance in a number of events. Most notably, Jason Lamy-Chappuis won a couple of Nordic Combined events with visibly dominant skis, and Jessie Diggins dismantled the field in the women’s sprint relay en-route to a gold medal, in spite of having her pole ripped out of her hand on the climb in her final lap(!!).
Working in the waxing compound you’re rubbing elbows with waxers and industry techs all day every day, and you notice when things get noticed. Well, peopled noticed the success that these skis were having. It turns out that Jessie’s skis and Jason’s skis came from the same production series, and they both had the same grind from the Salomon racing department. The Salomon racing guys were quick to credit their grinder, who’s become a good friend and one of my favorite guys on the World Cup. But the skis needed to be designed and built. They needed to be tested and identified, and then they needed the right grind. And finally, they needed to find their way onto the feet of the right athletes to produce medals. If anybody doubted that Salomon was a serious player in the ski world at a World Cup level, those doubts were emphatically put to rest in Val di Fiemme.
2011-12 was our first season working with Salomon on skis. We pursued our partnership with Salomon after providing fleet management and grinding support to Tad Elliott the previous year. The relationship really developed as a three-way partnership with Tad, us, and Salomon to improve our understanding, support Tad’s equipment needs, and introduce some additional variety to our ski inventory.
The project worked out as well as we could possibly have hoped. We had a great trip to Europe to visit Salomon headquarters in Annecy France, and picked some great skis at the factory in Altenmarkt Austria. Tad hit the season running with good success early on the new materials with a points-scoring performance in the World Cup 30K skate in Davos. After Christmas I headed to Europe to work with the US Ski Team at the Tour de Ski where I was providing ski service for Holly Brooks, and working directly with the Salomon race service guys on a daily basis to identify good skis and put new stuff on the snow. Meanwhile, back in Rumford, Tad was on his way to winning the 15K at us Nationals, and Amy was working with Jennie Bender helping to test skis as a follow-up to a fleet evaluation and set-up that we did earlier in December. The Salomon party really culminated for me last year when I went out to the Birkie to wax for a handful of Salomon athletes and we got two overall wins with Tad and Holly (you can read the story here).
Amy and I have recently returned from our second trip to visit Salomon in Annecy and Altenmarkt, and pick skis. Salomon is the “the new brand” in our world, but we’ve become really comfortable with our understanding of the skis. We’ve spent more time skiing on them, done more work for Salomon athletes, and have a better understanding of what goes into the skis from concept to production.
About the skis
The Salomon concept lives and grows in France. It’s important to recognize the nature of a “concept”. Fischer has been working with the same concepts for many years. They continually test and incrementally improve their products, but a full-scale reinvention is very rare. Other companies change concepts more frequently, and this is fine as long as the result is improvement. But continual changes in the design concept can also result in a lot of tail-chasing and stagnation in the progress of quality and performance over time. A well conceived concept provides the framework for conservative, incremental improvement. Small steps add up quickly, and a company with a good and stable design concept will always be in the game. In spite of its young age as a ski company, Salomon has embraced a concept that they’ve stuck with to really good effect, and they’re enjoying the benefits of continual incremental improvement.
So, about this “concept”… what is it? Salomon marketing has talked about a “stiff and low-riding camber” from day-one. In general a ski can have low resting camber and a stiff finishing flex (think Fischer), or high resting camber and a soft finishing flex (think Rossignol). There needs to be balance between these factors, or else you get a noodle (low and soft) or a leaf-spring (high and stiff), neither of which will perform well. I’ve been told by one of the guys in the racing department that they started with the Fischer concept. These guys aren’t apologetic for taking a very well established starting point (nor should they be), and in no way is the Salomon ski a “copy” of a Fischer. What is important is that Salomon has started with a proven concept, they have understood it in their own terms, and produced skis that reflect their understanding. Because the process is young it is evolving more quickly than what we see from some other companies – particularly with respect to the classic skis. But there is no tail-chasing; the level is high and improving, which is evident in the success of the racing program.
From concept we move to production. This is the real nuts and bolts of the operation, and the area where controlling variables becomes critical. We discussed the need for balance in the concept; well the ultimate success of the product depends on balance in the finished product. Skis are dynamic objects with a great deal of subtlety, and they’re made of multiple materials (often with competing thermal properties) pressed together under heat and pressure. A minor adjustment to the press settings, or to the heating or cooling systems, or to the materials qualities of any one of the laminations, can result in a surprisingly huge variation in the resulting ski. These are challenges that all ski companies face in production, and Salomon is no exception.
The set-up is this: the measurement machine picture above with Frise makes 11 different measurements of the ski in various different states (unloaded, loaded, etc). For each model, length and flex category (soft, medium, hard) a range of acceptable values for each of these parameters is specified by the design team. In the press area of the factory, where the skis are put together (core, base, cap, laminations, glue), put into the mold, and put into the press, they have another one of these ski measuring machines. Salomon has a couple of people who are dedicated Salomon employees who oversee the production of Salomon skis, and help to ensure that the skis coming out of the press have the right balance of characteristics. Periodically, during the production of skis, a raw ski (not trimmed or finished) will be taken over to the measuring machine and checked. If necessary, production is halted while press adjustments are made, and they carry on.
Jean-Marc Draeyer is a fascinating and charismatic guy who works in the factory as the “Salomon Custom Ski Program Manager”. The Custom Ski program is essentially a race-stock program that introduces a level of control in post-production and ensures that inventory distributed through the racing program is of the highest possible quality. Jean-Marc has worked in the industry for years, ever since he quit racing for the Swiss team and bought a ticket for Rio. Before he left he got a call from the federation asking him to go work on the World Cup service staff. Instead of going to Rio he ended up in Labrador City. He’s been working in the ski world – mostly providing World Cup service and wax support – ever since, and he still hasn’t been to Brazil. He speaks German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Russian (only expletives, but that seems to be all he needs to get along), and I don’t even know how many other languages. And he knows skis. He listens before he talks, and when he talks you wish you had been spending more time listening.
Jean-Marc’s job is to make sure that what comes out of production will work on the snow. The production parameters that are specified by the design team leave room for “bad” skis, because it remains a question of balance. The relationship between VSP and mid-flex can be wrong while both values are within the specified ranges. So Jean-Marc inspects the skis. All of them. After the skis come out of the press they are trimmed and finished on the automated finishing line. Grooves are finished with a mill, edges are beveled and the bases are ground. Then they go to a quality control department where they get measured on yet another one of the same ski measurement machines (Amer has invested a lot in really high quality measurement). And then, if they are Equipe 10s, they go to Jean-Marc. At this point the skis are still singles – they haven’t been paired-up. Jean-Marc and his colleague Marcus Meister do that – pair the skis and sort them into inventory piles. The skis that Jean-Marc really likes (or at least a selection of them) go into the Custom Ski inventory, and the skis that he really doesn’t like get rejected. The rest go into normal distribution channels. Meanwhile, Jean-Marc works with the press-operators and production overseers on a daily basis to provide feedback on the balance of the parameters. If the concept of Salomon skis lives and grows in France, the realization of that concept occurs in Austria, and Jean-Marc Draeyer is guiding the process.