Völkl didn’t actually invent the concept of quality control, but denizens of our little corner of the universe can be forgiven for thinking so. It set the standard for base finish for so long, if someone gave a trophy for the best QC they’d have to name it the Völkl Prize. Yet this noteworthy achievement probably plays only a minor role in why skiers who buy Völkls never buy just one pair; instead, they become Völkl junkies. Not that they become dissolute, as it takes an athlete to happily co-exist with the Völkls of yore, but they do become dependent. Mama, don’t take my Mantras (or Kenjas) away!
During Völkl’s ascension to market preeminence, it earned a reputation for powerful, technical skis with a small sweet spot and an unslakable thirst for speed. Völkl came to regard its experts-only-need-apply reputation as a stigma that limited its sales potential, so it set in motion a long-term plan to change how the brand was perceived by changing, sometimes radically, how it made skis.
The trick in this transformation was how to wean their public off its ultra-traditional, thick, fully cambered skis without losing its established base among the sport’s elite. It began by tampering with the Gotama, an off-trail ski that served as a logical place to excise an Old School, arched camber line and substitute a fully rockered baseline.
Once the new Gotama with the flat baseline was accepted, Völkl applied the same technique with its Frontside carvers, with the same result: the RTM 84 won instant adherents. With each passing season another venerable model passed through the modernization machinery.
The process continued in 2014, as the Kendo and Kenja were brought into the New Age fold with double rockered baselines with just a remnant of camber underfoot, and the revered Mantra and Aura were transformed into off-trail models with a camber-less, fully rockered baseline, all the better to smear with. The power that was once the exclusive province of highly skilled athletes became accessible to the nearly skilled, as well.
When Völkl unveiled the V-Werks Katana several seasons ago, it would have been supernaturally prescient to foretell that by 2017 it would be the inspiration for nearly all important models from 81 to 108mm underfoot. The V-Werks Katana was an experiment to see what would happen if a ski was made of a lot of highly compressed carbon and little else. It skied like the world’s fattest carving ski, not exactly a niche everyone was stampeding to occupy.
But the V-Werks Katana was onto something. It was possible to pare away a lot of material from a conventional ski construction and, if the remaining structure were strong enough, it would still perform at a high level. Völkl called this new shape 3D.Ridge, named for the raised central platform that’s forms the thickest part of the ski.
By 2016, 3D.Ridge design permeated the Völkl line, spreading the Lighter is Better gospel to all skiers. There was only one fly in this low-fat ointment: none of the Katana’s kinder skied with the authority of the original, all-carbon 3D.Ridge, which then as now costs a fortune to make and therefore isn’t marketable to the masses. In 2018 Völkl revealed the perfect patch for the power shortage, a bottom layer of glass configured to increase the torsional rigidity, called 3D. Glass. Ingenious in its simplicity, stunning in its impact on performance, 3D.Glass was the best across-the-board product upgrade of 2018.
It’s difficult to overstate the benefits of 3D.Glass, the craftily configured sheet of fiberglass that elevates the edge grip of every model it touches. The secret to 3D.Glass’s effectiveness is that it doesn’t just lay on the bottom of the stack of laminated components, but runs up the sidewall and tucks over its top, essentially forming an anchored, open box with the other elements as filling.
3D.Glass makes a ski livelier because glass is the springiest material in the ski. It makes a ski more resistant to twist because it has its own sidewalls. It helps maintain edge contact on hard snow and bats away clumps of broken snow off trail. It can’t put your boots on for you, but it does just about everything else.
Three years ago, Völkl unveiled the fifth generation of its legendary Mantra, the M5. The Mantra M5 was created to win back the experts who once formed the backbone of the brand’s market support. The key to its success was a new way of deploying Titanal, breaking the top laminate into 3 pieces. Two long stirrups of .6mm Titanal wrap around the tip and tail, while a third, .3mm strip occupies the center of the ski. None of the pieces connect, which allows a honking layer of glass directly below them to “breathe.”
By that I mean the broken-up top laminate makes it both easier for the skier to flex the center of the ski and, just as importantly, allows the fiberglass sheet to compress. The instant the skier releases the pressure, ping!, the glass rebounds and pops the skier into the top of the next turn. If there’s one trait the new Titanal Frame could hang its hat on, it’s rebound energy.
Last season Titanal Frame spread its wings, infiltrating the Frontside genre with the Deacon 84 and moving to the front of the line in the All-Mountain East category with the Kendo 88. Not coincidentally, the Kendo 88 and Deacon 84 also share the 3D. Radius Sidecut, an ingenious way of creating a classic “combi,” or hybrid GS/SL ski. If you ride the ski at a low edge angle, you’ll engage the longer radius tip and tail so you can cruise without fear of being yanked into a tight turn. To activate the slalomesque midsection, the skier needs to elevate the edge angle and apply pressure to the softened-up center section, and bingo! The ski tightens its turn radius instantly and in the same heartbeat releases the edge with enthusiasm. Once you understand how to operate it, 3D Radius is a gas to engage.
At the other end of the agility scale lies the Mantra 102, also introduced two years ago and also embellished with Titanal Frame and 3D.Radius, which in this over-sized application creates a ski that tries to subdue terrain rather than caress it.
Völkl has a huge fan base among strong women skiers who now have three Titanal Frame models to call their own: Kenja 88, Secret 102 and the new Secret 96. None of these women’s models have been watered down to placate the masses; they’re every bit as bold and badass as their unisex counterparts.
The 2022 Season
For the 2022 season, Völkl has laid in place two more elements that will continue to influence the direction of its entire off-trail collection for the next few years, Tailored Titanal Frame and Tailored Carbon Tips. The flagships for the new technologies are the new Mantra M6 and Secret 96 for women. Suffice it to say, the future at Völkl looks very bright indeed.
But this is not the right time or place for brevity, so allow me to divulge the details. Tailored Titanal Frame adjusts the dimensions of the front Titanal Frame by size, a change that has the most effect on the longest and shortest sizes. The change may sound subtle, but its impact is profound. Each length is now more balanced in its behavior, and won’t balk at the top of the turn.
Working in concert with Tailored Titanal Frame is Tailored Carbon Tips, a tech first marketed in the Deacon v.werks. The technical story is that prepreg carbon only comes in limited, pre-set configurations; basically, either linear stringers or a crisscross pattern. Tailored Carbon Tips liberates the ski designer to create exactly the matrix he or she wants.
The marketing story of Tailored Carbon Tips is that Völkl tested dozens of TCT designs to achieve the precise degree of shock dampening desired. This extensive testing went on despite the limitations imposed by the worldwide pandemic.
The performance story of TCT and Tailored Titanal Frame is, in a word, wow. The Age of Rocker has led to the virtual disembodiment of the front of many, if not most, all-terrain skis. With the new Mantra and Secret, the technical skier can re-connect the forebody with the rest of the ski. Sure, both models are double-rockered – 3D.Radius Sidecut wouldn’t work without it – but the overall sensation is one of connection, not looseness.
While the experts who have always loved Völkl will swoon over the Mantra M6 and the Secret 96, it’s the lower skill skiers who really benefit from the changes they embody. Now that each size is essentially its own ski, the shorter skis are exponentially easier to manage for the less skilled.
It bears mention that Völkl created these more expensive components and elaborate constructions in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and market environment that encouraged standing pat rather than obsoleting what’s on the rack. Völkl willfully created a new design that would raise its COG, knowing full well it couldn’t recover the added investment by jacking up its prices.
During a Zoom press briefing last fall, I asked Andy Mann, Völkl’s product manager for it off-trail series, how he was able to slide this puck past management’s usual insistence on maintaining gross margin. He answered that ownership and management trusted the design team to make it all work. Especially in light of this season’s peculiar circumstances, Völkl’s willingness to invest in making a better ski sets it apart from the brands that curbed their ambitions.
Last season, Völkl tried to stretch its market reach downward, creating a $599 Big Mountain model, the Blaze 106. It happened to arrive just as the U.S. market demand for a hybrid, in-resort/backcountry model went ballistic. This year, Völkl has added a Blaze 86 and 86W to the mix, both at $499, which should serve as step-up models whether the skier’s ambitions lie in-bounds or out.
Völkl has always had a place in its heart and in its product line for an on-piste family that isn’t bred for racing, but neither is it for neophytes. Think of the retired Code series, or the first-generation Deacon 76. It is into this slot that Völkl has inserted the Deacon Masters, in a 76 and a 72. I’d call them “gentlemen’s cruisers,” except they are absolute aces at short turns and they’re built more like a Racetiger than a Deacon, with a World Cup wood core, two full sheets of Titanal and a 10mm World Cup plate underfoot. If you’ve ever raced, you’ll get it, and want to get one of them.
At the other end of the width spectrum, the Katana 108, introduced just last year, got short shrift on these pages as we never got on one. We still didn’t see enough data to recommend it, but I finally got on it and it’s a gem. I expected to ski like a Panzer, mowing down all before it, but it was stunningly nimble, able to swivel around tight trees and generally behave more like an acrobat than a lumberjack.