Ski Factory Impressions
This summer I was fortunate enough to visit several different ski factories in Europe with Zach. After our first year back in operation as Caldwell Sport, we felt that investing in my understanding of skis from the ground up was important for our business. We’re a small business, and it’s necessary for both of us to have a high level of expertise in all aspects of the operation. There is no better way to learn about skis than to go to the source and handle skis every day for a few weeks with no distractions. I am pretty sure this is Zach’s idea of heaven.
Our first trip of the summer was to Norway. Zach planned the trip so that we could spend a few days skiing on the snow at Sognefjell, about a 3 hour drive north of Lillehammer, with some of the US Ski Team guys that he coaches. Sognefjell is a remote mountainous area located above the Sognefjord. Its elevation is about 4500ft and holds snow well into the summer. There is a hostel-like lodge there that serves five very carbohydrate rich meals a day. They salt and groom a 7km winding loop (with hills and turns) twice a day. When we were there, all of the major ski companies were testing their products along with some of the Norwegian National Team, German Biathlon, United Bakeries Marathon Team and a host of other teams from Norway, Sweden and Finland. Because all of the major ski companies are based out of Europe, this ends up being a relatively close testing area for them. While we were there, we were able to test some prototype products that are really interesting ideas. If all goes well, these products will be brought to market over the next few years. We were able to get a sense of what concepts ski companies were working with and what direction they are headed.
After 15 hours of skiing in 6 sessions at Sognefjell, we headed back to Lillehammer to spend a week picking skis at the Madshus factory in nearby Biri. I have become a bigger and bigger fan of Madshus skis over the past few years, so I was really looking forward to going to the factory. Although any factory setting is far from glamorous, the Madshus factory was a totally impressive facility. They take extreme care selecting all of the materials that go into their skis and have built some of the most exact machines in the industry. They are so exact that they have to make slight adjustments during a production cycle so that not every pair of skis is identical! Anyway, after a week of drinking the Madshus “Kool Aid” and making sure that our Demo fleet had a very good race fleet for me in my size range, I left Madshus feeling even more excited to test their skis this season.
After Madshus, the next stop on the ski pilgrimage for me was to the Salomon Headquarters in Annecy, France in August. While Salomon produces their skis in Altenmarkt, Austria; their World Cup service team is based out of Annecy and all their development and prototyping happens there. They actually have a press in Annecy where they can produce a new ski to test without having to halt the whole production line in Austria. It was a great opportunity to spend a little time with Patrice Frisson-Roche, one of the Salomon World Cup service guys, to learn a bit about what skis they have been testing and liking on the World Cup. Over the next two days, which also happened to be a weekend, we spent 10 hours on road bicycles near Annecy biking several of the roads and Cols that the Tour de France often visits. Thanks much to Alex Haas, the Salomon international marketing director, and his good friend who is the marketing director for German soccer for showing us some incredible riding around Annecy. In spite of very sore bums and legs, it was an amazing three days.
From Annecy we went to the Salomon ski factory in Altenmarkt, Austria. Salomon shares a factory with Atomic which are both owned by Amer Sports. It is interesting to see two totally different ski companies working side by side. They have two separate design teams that work independently of one another. Most of the factory workers are working for Amer and not directly for either ski company. Jean-Marc Draeyer works for Salomon and is very involved with ensuring the quality of every pair of Salomon skis. Overall, my impressions of the Salomon factory were very positive. Although Salomon hasn’t been making skis for all that long compared to the other ski companies out there, they’ve done a good job bringing in some very hard working and knowledgeable people.
We were also very fortunate to have 2 free days in Altenmarkt due to an Austrian holiday and another weekend day. Zach and I took advantage of the nice weather and the Austrian Alps and did 2 fantastic hikes from Ramsau, one of them taking us up and around the Dachstein glacier. Although the Dachstein is used as a summer ski training venue, August tends to be its low point for good skiing during the year so we were happy to be hiking instead of slogging around on dirty, very slow glacier ice.
Also, during our week in Austria, we were able to squeeze in a day visiting the Fischer factory in Ried. Although Ried is unfortunately not located in the beautiful Austrian Alps, it was a great opportunity to get to take a look inside the factory that has been the leader in making cross country skis over the past few decades. The Fischer factory certainly did not disappoint. It is definitely the largest of the factories and it is clear that they continually reinvest in their machines and technology. It was also great to see into the racing department and see a whole bunch of Dario Cologna’s skis get dropped off for grinding. Thanks to Andy Forstner (another World Cup service guy) for showing us around.
In all, I learned a lot about the different ski brands we carry this summer. One of the biggest lessons that I learned was that to be truly knowledgeable with skis, one must be a continuous and eager student of skis. Ski companies are constantly trying to refine their skis and make them lighter and faster. They come up with new concepts, develop them and then test them over and over again. I know one thing that I will do this winter is use every ski as a ski testing opportunity. Knowledge comes with hard work. Fortunately, like all of our customers, I don’t mind this type of “hard work”.