Pivot Point: Imagining Skiing During the Pandemic

Peter MindeMay 15, 2020
Stadium in Ruka, Finland. (Photo: Nordic Focus)

Over two days in March, the North American World Cup races were cancelled. Amid rising health concerns, NCAA Championships also shut down after one race; Junior Nationals after two races. Canadian National Championships never got off the ground. After the abrupt end of winter, people are trying to assess how the pandemic will affect the coming winter.

In The Atlantic, Juliette Kayyem posits that “From a public health perspective, the pandemic will not end for another 18 months.”  She speculates that it may take 18 months to develop a suitable vaccine, which must then be distributed. How will this affect ski racing as we have come to know it?

While this metric pertains to alpine resorts, it’s stark any way you slice it: with spring break looming or in full swing, alpine lodging occupancy dropped 54% from March 2019 when alpine resorts began closing.

“The timing of it couldn’t be better for the ski industry,” said Zach Caldwell, proprietor of Caldwell Sport. “We lost the tail end of the season. That was a big bummer. We had most of the season and it was a good one.  We in the industry have the luxury of being able to sit back, observe, and see what happens, and wait to finalize plans.”

If one can extrapolate from one retailer’s experience, sales cratered in March after a strong start to the year. Matt Liebsch, a co-owner of Pioneer Midwest in Minnesota, concurs.  Pioneer did very well at the beginning of the year, but saw March sales fall off as social distancing set in.

“We had really good growth in January and February,” Liebsch said. Pioneer finished March down thirty percent in revenue compared to last year. Prior to coronavirus, Liebsch said, Pioneer would sell two to six pairs of race skis each day. “We’re at zero right now. When you shelter in place, I think that means you park your money in place. The virus has thrown things off.”

Federico Pellegrino of Italy testing skis in Falun, Sweden. (Photo: NordicFocus)

According to Jeff Courter, Rossignol North America’s nordic category manager, the bulk of its sales to retailers were complete by the time social distancing became the new normal.

“For any major ski brand industry-wide, [the pandemic] hit at a time where the majority of sales had really happened already. We missed out on a lot of opportunities to capitalize on spring sales and spring break. We’re trying to help our retailers in North America to try and get through the times,” Courter said. He added that spring break sales can help retailers clear out inventory so they can prepare for the coming year.

Typically, Liebsch makes two trips a year to Europe for custom ski picking as well as pre-ordering skis to sell off the rack. He said that bulk pre-season orders from manufacturers were generally due to vendors between late February and late March. They’re shipped to arrive in the U.S. between mid August and mid October. “That’s all in the books. It’s kind of a shot in the dark.”

“We try to [work with] our discerning, race-oriented customers that want a wet ski or a better ski than what they have in September, October,” said Liebsch. “That clears my plate for [recreational skiers] and the start of [Minnesota’s] high school race season in November and December. I don’t get to talk about grinds, race wax, or camber construction. I’m explaining to mom and dad the difference between a classic ski and a skate ski.”

“The majority of our orders [for the coming year] have already come in by mid-March,” Rossignol’s Courter said. “But anyone – not just us – any ski company in general, once we get a little farther into this, and kind of see how things lay out for the fall, some of the smaller retailers may have to make some adjustments to what they thought about bringing in.”

While most retailers have ordered skis for the coming season, it’s not known how the pandemic will affect manufacturing schedules. Citing the safety of its staff and their families, Courter said that one of Rossignol’s main factories, located in Spain, had closed down for safety reasons in early April. It’s scheduled to reopen on May 4.

Looking for ways to get back on schedule, Courter said that Rossi facilities would be running three shifts. Normally, their ski production is done by July. At present, this year they plan on making skis through August.

“The majority of the factories that we work with have been able to stay open,” Courter said. He added that one factory had experienced a slowdown as some raw materials haven’t been delivered.

Bryan Cook, Madshus USA sales manager, wrote in an email, “Generally, we are constantly producing skis with the majority happening between the months of December and April. This means that we are just about wrapping up all of our preseason orders for the coming season. We then look to ship the skis, via ocean, between the months of June and September, as most dealers request their product to be in store between September and November.”

Krista Pärmäkoski of Finland testing skis in Falun, Sweden. (Photo: Nordic Focus)

Zach Caldwell, proprietor of Vermont’s Caldwell Sport, also travels to Europe to pick skis. Speaking on April 13, he said the Austrian companies he works with underwent a mandatory shutdown, but are opening back up. According to Caldwell, they’re ready to schedule ski picking. While the ski companies seemed optimistic, Caldwell is waiting to see what happens when social distancing is relaxed.

“I can get to a ski factory and interact with about three people and pick the skis I need. What I do need to be able to do is travel. And that’s not something I’m willing to do right now, even if it was wide open. Once the international travel piece looks OK, there’s nothing standing between me and picking skis for people,” Caldwell said.

For both Caldwell and Liebsch, races next winter pose a bigger question than shipping schedules. How will the possibility, even the likelihood, of continued social distancing affect racing next winter?

“But both the competitive aspect and social aspect of competition is what drives a lot of our sport,” Caldwell said. “We’re going to lose a lot of people if we shut that off for a year. I think there are ways to prepare for a season of distancing measures, and that’s a bigger story from my perspective than what does the industry look like.”

“The biggest issue that I have is the prospect for racing next season,” he added. He’s concerned about the feasibility of having several hundred competitors, plus coaches and family, at Eastern Cups. [The Eastern Cup races are the New England qualifying races for Junior Nationals.]

Concerned about the impact social distancing may have on racing, Caldwell wrote to the New England Nordic Ski Association [NENSA], urging them to consider alternatives to traditional races.

“We should be making plans to ensure that there are competitive and social outlets for racers absent the ability to run [traditional race formats],” Caldwell said. “NENSA could put together a combination between Strava and NASTAR where they put standardized courses at touring centers and drop off chip timing. Develop an app that people can subscribe to and pay an entry fee with a head tax to check out a chip and go ski a course.  Have the touring center handicap the snow speed with a ski trap and generate a score, generate a region wide points list and share it on social media.”

“There are a lot of models that can perpetuate that, absent an Eastern Cup circuit or a Craftsbury Marathon or whatever,” he added. “We as a sport need to be thinking about this because we’ve got a lot of lead time to prepare for this. We need to be thinking about that. One thing we can’t do is Zwift. We don’t have that technology in skiing.”

The wheels have been turning in New England when it comes to developing contingency plans. “This year is not going to look like anything we’ve ever had.” Amie Smith, Executive Director of NENSA, told FasterSkier.

“We’re saying, ‘what can it look like? What opportunities can we give our membership? How can we keep everyone connected during this time of sheltering at home?’” Smith acknowledged Caldwell’s email to NENSA, but didn’t touch on it directly.

Normally, NENSA conducts a regional elite group (REG) camp for juniors at Stratton Mountain School at the end of June.  That’s been postponed to the end of August. Meanwhile, NENSA is devising ways to have a virtual camp instead. They are also planning virtual coaching clinics.

As for the coming winter, Smith asked, “Can we even gather? If crowds are limited to 50, we are going to have to totally change how we do Eastern Cups. It won’t be business as usual.”

Insofar as recreational skiing goes, Smith posited, “Would ski centers be able to open their lodges? How could they safely collect trail fees?” (Faster Skier contacted several ski centers for this article, but none responded.)

Some of the young skiers at the NENSA Eastern Cup in Craftsbury, Vermont. Young and old are welcome at the NENSA Eastern Cups. (Photo: John Lazenby)

“It’s not going to look like our normal race season, but hopefully we can have some great training, coaching education, race opportunities,” she said. “But we totally don’t know what that will look like. We need to have alternatives and ideas of how that would look. Will race starts be a minute apart?  Will they be two minutes?

“Our staff is in a good place, we’re excited to see what we can put together and keep everyone engaged and feeling like there’s still a community,” Smith said. “Because I do hope we come out the other side, and that there will be a day when we don’t have to keep 6 or 9 or 15 feet apart, and that we can go back to doing our normal racing. But I don’t think that’s going to be next season.”

For the near term, it appears that business as usual on the race front and storefront is over.

The investment of early-season dollars and time as it relates to inventory will have to wait a bit longer to determine how the pandemic evolves and the gradual release of social distancing requirements. “I’m thinking we can still rebound and have a great winter next year, if we’ve got snow,” Liebsch said. “I’m confident that I’ll be ski picking in September,” Liebsch concluded. “If I’m not, the whole world has big issues.”

Peter Minde

Peter Minde is a FasterSkier contributor and personal trainer specializing in functional strength and corrective exercise. Whether skiing, trail running, or cycling, he’s always looking to see what’s at the top of the next hill. From the wilds of north N.J., he skis for Peru Nordic. On Twitter @PeteMinde or at www.oxygenfedsport.com.

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