I have previously hinted that we would be carrying a third brand of skis this year. We’ve finally got the arrangements mostly made for another trip to Europe, this time to visit the Salomon company headquarters in Annecy, France, and to pick skis in Altenmark, Austria.
Working with a ski brand represents a big commitment of time and energy, and it’s not something we undertake lightly. We have good relationships throughout the industry, and could probably develop a successful partnership with most any brand. So, why Salomon?
Investment and Ambition-
Starting a ski brand from scratch is a big undertaking. Salomon is a late entry in the ski game, at a time when economies of scale and increased production standards have reduced the market to relatively few stable brands. Modernized production materials and methods have created almost impossible barriers to entry in ski manufacturing. Don’t look for any new start-ups on that end of things! Salomon has worked with other manufacturers since they introduced their Nordic line. But they’ve done it with their own design and vision all along. The commitment required to launch a line of skis is huge, and Salomon has shown a willingness to invest in the process for the time necessary to succeed. That’s saying a lot, through a period of time that included some really bad snow years and bad times for the industry.
It would be easy to dismiss Salomon as a branding and marketing company that simply slaps their name on other companies skis. But that’s a big misrepresentation of the reality. At this point Salomon is owned by Amer, the parent company of a number of other big sports brands, including Atomic. Salomon skis are manufactured in the Amer-owned Atomic factory in Altenmark, Austria. Salomon shares manufacturing methods and presses with Atomic. But the skis are designed by a Salomon team, based on a Salomon concept.
Control and Direction-
Two qualities I want to see in any manufacturer are control and direction. Control of the process and materials is mastery of the ability to build what you mean to build. It means you know what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it. Direction in development is an understanding of what you want to achieve. If you know what you want to build, how it’s going to work, and why it will be the best solution, then you have direction. If you know how to realize the concept in materials and production, and you can reproduce it, then you have control. Without direction and control, any good skis you make will come by mistake. With direction and control, you will succeed.
In the past two years I have met at least four different people involved in the design, development and support of Salomon race skis. These guys have been able to communicate a clear direction – one that they all understand and share. And they’ve shown the control required to realize their vision. It’s a work in process – developing great skis takes time. But it’s happening, and it will continue.
The Athlete Connection-
Last season I started working closely with Tad Elliott through BNS. I was not a big Salomon fan to start with – my very limited experience on the brand hadn’t been amazing. However, the experience was limited, and it was starting to become clear that Salomon was achieving a measure of success in the racing world. Tad had approached us about helping him out with some grinds, and after discussing things Nathan and I agreed that we would do it, but only if we could go all the way. That meant looking at everything, zero grinding skis, testing on snow in West Yellowstone, regrinding, and continuing the process through the winter.
Tad is a consummate professional – something that seems to come with a background as a pro mountain biker. He’s a really easy guy to work with and get along with, and he takes very seriously his commitment to his sponsors. He also knows what he needs out of his equipment – he doesn’t work as hard as he works to be at a disadvantage. When I started the process I was pretty sure that my recommendation would be to start looking for alternatives to Salomon skis.
I was wrong.
Tad’s skis weren’t all winners, but the good ones were really, really good. Nathan did the early testing with Tad in West Yellowstone, and while there were some bad feeling skis in the mix, there were some really good ones as well. Tad went out and proved it by winning the West Yellowstone Nor Am skate race a few days after testing with Nathan. I hooked up with him a little later on a couple of different days. As we worked more and more with the skis, regrinding some of them and testing in different circumstances, we started to recognize a couple of patters. The newer stuff was better – in particular, the skis built at the very end of 2009 and in early 2010 marked a real turn for the better in quality. We had to move bindings forward on a pair or two because they were too far back – causing the skis to feel dead. We continued the process at World Championships in Oslo. On the day before the 15K classic I was out testing some of Tad’s classic skis, and skiing around with Kris Freeman. At one point I went whipping past Kris on a downhill – all 64kg of me. I got a serious “WTF?” look from Kris, and as he skied up to me on the next hill he said “so, Tad’s skis don’t all suck?” Nope. Not half.
Working with Tad was great because it gave me access to good materials and a lot of cooperation from Salomon’s racing department. I tested some new wet skis for Tad at the Tour de Ski, and carried them home with me, since wet skis were a gap in his fleet. That was thanks to Salomon US organizing things in advance with Bertrand, the World Cup service guy. At World Champs the Salomon guys remained supportive, and in the end we came through the season with a really good sense of what Tad had, and how to work with it.
So – no discussion about swapping brands ever occurred. Quite the opposite. Based on working with Tad, and working with the Salomon team to help Tad, I’ve decided to invest more in continuing the process. Direction and Control. Ambition and Investment. These qualities follow success everywhere you find it. I found these qualities in Salomon.