The ski gear season that lies just ahead of us will, at least superficially, look a lot like the season that just concluded. As I alerted my Dear Readers at this time last year in The Golden Age of Incrementalism, the pace of new ski development is slowing to a trot. While there were six product families of new or improved skis folded into the market mix across the vast landscape of the Frontside, All-Mountain East, All-Mountain West and Big Mountain categories, most of these were second-tier offerings within their own brands, and a couple of new model clans failed to clear our Recommended cut line.
Among the new arrivals, two in particular stand out for their across-the-board excellence: the Rustler/Sheeva collection of off-piste-biased SUV’s from Blizzard, and Salomon’s All-Mountain/Frontside Stance collection, comprised of a trio of accessible, in-resort all-stars. K2’s step-down “C” collection of Mindbenders fills the commercial need for an aggressive price point.
A couple of new series focus on groomed-snow preeminence: Forza from Rossignol assumes the carving clan role most recently played by React, while Nordica has a suite of new model relatives on a continuum from Dobermann to Spitfire to Steadfast. It’s a pity most Americans won’t even consider one of these skis, as they are huge fun to ski in their preferred domain and might even encourage a so-so skier to make a carved turn a habit instead of an occasional miracle.
The Most Important Ski of the Year
It’s rare for a new ski model to be launched all on its own, if for no other reason than more models mean more chances to snag another sale, so why send out one lone pilgrim when you can increase your opportunities with a threesome? So, it was easy to overlook the debut of the Rossignol Essential as a publicity stunt meant to exalt environmental virtues without actually affecting how skis are made.
I confess, I missed the point of the Essential. Then I skied it.
It was like time traveling, back to an era when EVERYONE skied a slalom ski, be it a Rossi 4S K or K2 VO Slalom, or any of the hundreds of derivatives spun off from the race slalom skis of the day. It was quick, it was lively, it asked you to get down and make some damn turns, which it would reward with a ping! off one edge and on to the next.
Sure didn’t ski like a PR stunt.
But the point of the Essential isn’t its performance per se, but that it was made mostly from recycled materials. If you want to know more about how Rossignol pulled this off and where the recycling program is headed, follow the trail here.
Boots Steal the Spotlight
We call the sport we love “skiing,” not “booting,” yet one’s boots are exponentially more important than one’s choice of skis. Since the introduction of the plastic shell, two dominant archetypes have emerged: a two-piece, 4-buckle boot that predominates among the elite in the race community, and a 3-piece, 3-buckle arrangement that has found a following among the best free-skiers. While both designs have evolved since their inception, most of the improvements have been in the arena of fit and comfort. A lot of tinkering has been done over the intervening decades, but the defining characteristics of both primal constructions have not changed.
The status quo is about to get rocked to its roots. Lange, arguably the most imitated 2-piece shell design in skiing’s brief history, has found a very clever way to alter the flex and rebound characteristics of this primordial construction. The upper cuff of the new Lange Shadow extends past what was formerly its only pivot point and attaches the extended arm to the lower shell below and slightly behind the traditional point of rotation. This creates a new, longer lever arm that allows the skier to translate forward pressure more efficiently with less effort, shorter travel and less shell distortion.
It’s a brilliant piece of engineering, and I imagine Lange will be well rewarded by their retail partners. To seal the deal – and, I imagine, close thousands of sales – Lange has also created a new liner that is unquestionably the most comfortable performance inner boot Lange has ever made. The cellular structure of the new Auxetic Tech liner doesn’t deform the way traditional foam does; the individual cells don’t flatten out when stressed, but give equally in all directions. The net effect is a sense of intimate envelopment that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere in a high-end market dominated by race-boot clones.
A breakthrough of this magnitude doesn’t come along every day, or even every decade, yet the 2024 season will mark not only a major move forward in two-piece shell design, but the revival of some of the design traits that put 3-piece, external-tongue designs on the map back in the early 1980’s. Since the demise of Raichle, no boot brand has done more than Dalbello to optimize the 3-piece shell and tongue. For 2024, Dalbello is introducing a re-design of its venerable Krypton/Chakra/Il Moro boots that moves the ankle pivot down and back, close to where it was in the days when Bill Johnson put Raichle in the limelight. This should optimize the virtues of the 3-piece shell design, as it puts the critical second buckle where it needs to be to create a 45o angle of retention that won’t migrate during flex.
The changes wrought by Lange and Dalbello on their flagship designs have resulted in an unexpected confluence in their flex/rebound behavior. When I’m fitting a client in ski boots, I rarely will cross the 2-piece/3-piece shell divide, as the two bundles of sensations are so different, the comparison often ends up more confusing than clarifying. While I haven’t yet slipped into a Cabrio LV, my suspicions are that Dalbello’s return to something close to the original 3-piece design and Lange’s adventurous new take on a 2-piece construction may end up having more similarities in sensation than differences. To be continued…
BOA Busts a Move
The BOA cable retention system that first threaded its way into snowsports via snowboard boots and is now found, well, everywhere, has found a foothold in the boot market that is certain to grow in the seasons ahead. Four brands – Atomic, Fischer, Salomon and K2 – have added a BOA forefoot adjustment system to at least one model in their 2024 collections. In Atomic’s case, only a single hybrid boot, the Hawx Ultra XTD BOA, adopted BOA (at least for now), a modification in synch with the lightweight ethos of the backcountry. Fischer’s first foray into BOA adorns the medium-volume RC Pro MV, the meat of its market, for maximum impact. Salomon added BOA as an option on all its S/Pro Supra iterations, like Fischer’s a medium-volume last that is a perennial sales leader. K2 placed the biggest bet on BOA, offering all of its Recon, Anthem and Mindbender boots both with and without BOA. Salomon’s BOA-equipped models command a $50 premium at retail; K2’s upcharge is $100.
Now that the BOA train has left the station, there will be no stopping its marketing momentum. There will be more models and more brands on board next year, but don’t expect all boot suppliers to buy a ticket. BOA has its limitations, and not all boot designers are willing to cede design authority to BOA when fashioning their shells. My lingering concern is that BOA’s comforting, wrapping sensation might be mistaken for an accurate shell fit, when the key to proper bootfitting lies in retaining the rearfoot, heel and ankle. The fact that their product can be misused or misapplied isn’t BOA’s fault, but the impression that one can dial in the desired fit tension – regardless of the shell last – will likely lead to more consumers feeling okay about buying their boots online. I’m not a big fan of developments that move skiers closer to this precipice.
Skiers Aren’t Buying Skis
It used to be part of my job to estimate the size of every slice of the U.S. and Canadian ski markets, a weeks-long wrestling match with data that simply didn’t add up. While the reasons why we still have bad data aren’t exactly the same as the root causes that prevailed in the early 1980’s, we continue to struggle to define basics such as how many active skiers there are and how many skis are sold across all channels.
Let me share a snapshot that encapsulates my concerns: around 1987, we estimated a population of roughly 8,000,000 active skiers, with “active” providing a veil of fuzziness that probably overestimated the total. Sales of adult skis were around 1.4 million, with an average renewal rate of every 7 years. [All these numbers are culled from memory, but close enough for this exercise.]
Recently, SIA released a figure of 30,000,000 active snowsports participants. Hilarious. Of course, they mean skiers of all stripes and definitions, but you’d have to include a large contingent of dead skiers to arrive at this figure. Let’s take the less ludicrous assumption of 10,000,000 and – getting to my point – comparing it to a U.S. retail ski market of around 450,000 – 475,000 pairs sold at wholesale.
One of the problems with estimating North American market size today are blind spots that have only gotten murkier with the passage of time. How many small-batch ski makers are there, and how many skis are they selling direct to consumers every year? How many skiers rely on the robust demo-ski market to equip them, foregoing ownership entirely? What is the size of the hike-to-ski market? How many skiers are lining up daily to head OB, and how has this market changed in the last five years? How many major brands are successfully selling their wares directly to an online consumer, compared to those incurring the substantial expense of B-2-C commerce, only to ultimately fall below the waterline of profitability?
One obvious answer to why more skiers buy fewer skis is that the ones they already own are still just fine, thank you. The modern ski almost does the skiing for you, and with a little maintenance can last many years. But even a good ski that still meets its owner’s expectations needs a binding, and bindings eventually land on a list of the uninsured. That doesn’t begin to explain where almost a million ski sales went.
But demos do. If you can afford a multi-area season pass and the airfare necessary to exploit it, you can afford to pay a premium for a great ski that you don’t need to haul around with you. The erstwhile president of Tecnica in this country and one of the brightest minds in the supplier community, warned his peers of “death by demo.” And this was before resorts began stocking their own huge demo fleets to serve a public that considered ownership a disposable burden.
The bottom line is that, whether it’s due to exorbitant luggage fees, the relative affluence of today’s skier, the perception that any ski will get the job done or the assumption that ownership entails onerous obligations that rentals do not, skiers are buying fewer skis, less often. We have succeeded in making ski ownership unattractive for the majority of folks who can afford to ski.
One prediction I feel comfortable making in spite of all the turbulence in the American ski market, is that every in-resort skier who once wanted a backcountry set-up now has one, most likely ensconced in the closet or locker where his or her B team forever dwells in the shadows.
Ski Market Foundations are Cracking
While the skis you sift through on the rack of your favorite specialty shop this fall won’t have changed much since last season, the marketplace that has been distributing and promulgating skis and the sport of skiing for the last half a century is morphing as fast as Terminator 2 in the smelting pot.
At the risk of sounding negative, or xenophobic or simply ill-informed, one of the major stress fractures in the business side of our beloved sport derives from a long-standing conflict between how ski companies customarily operate and the imperatives of money managers who strive for maximum returns and accounting conformity among their flock of companies. Even the best ski outfits don’t look like they belong in a community of commodity brands.
None of these corporate conundrums would matter to you, Dear Reader, unless the demand for greater profit margins cuts into product quality, as it inevitably must. But substituting a cheaper material is a pardonable sin; cutting experienced people who form the sinew and bone of any organization are mistakes that aren’t so easily reversed.
I realize that all businesses go through periods of contraction that don’t just hurt the bottom line, but do real people real harm. But it’s more than just individual brands that are struggling with massive market changes such as direct-to-consumer sales via the Internet; it’s the fabric of the whole kit and kaboodle that’s coming undone.
The ski market’s annual trade show not only provided a venue for writing the next season’s orders, it served as the major platform for brand storytelling in the U.S., a fact well exploited by savvy brands like K2 under the guidance of Tim Petrick. Now K2 doesn’t even attend the much smaller and less ambitious gathering that has formed around a nucleus of specialty shops that at least fills some of the functions once supplied by the now moribund national show.
The transition of the national ski show from something resembling a joyous jamboree to a no-frills, order-taking exercise can be interpreted as market efficiency in action, but regardless of its considerable cost-saving, something other than just costs is also being cut. There’s something about eye-to-eye interaction that can’t be replaced with a Zoom call. We need the glue of personal relationships to hold us together as a community, and these relationships, left unnourished, risk dying from neglect.
Corralling All That’s New in One Place
Because there are so few new 2024 models that merit consideration, I’ve elected to compile links to all the new ski reviews in one place, so Realskiers.com site visitors wouldn’t have to hunt all over the lot to find them. You’ll find links to each review in the New Model Round-up below. As always, Realskiers.com members will see longer, more nuanced narratives and detailed test results on all Recommended unisex models.
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