Coping with Success

By: Jackson Hogen

Published: January 14, 2020

Blizzard could not possibly have foreseen how a funky collection of freeride skis, curiously named after rodeo bulls, would virtually transform its brand. For one thing, Blizzard was, then as now, firmly planted in the center of Austrian ski country, where the national obsession is World Cup racing. Making what would become perhaps the most dominant collection of off-trail models ever concocted wasn’t on the to-do list. To that point, no Austrian brand, including Blizzard, had shown much feel for what the best skiers craved, a true all-terrain ski with no holes in its resume. (Due props to Atomic for making the first fat skis, but by ten years later K2 had grabbed the freeride spotlight.)

As I write these words during the first week of 2020, roughly ten years after Blizzard launched its first Flipcore collection, the brand is on fire. The fuse was lit when in its debut year, the unknown Cochise was anointed Skiing magazine’s Ski of the Year. I was testing for SKI at the time, and I still remember my first run on a Bonafide. I was probably still hyperventilating when I called Jed Duke at Blizzard to request a 187cm as soon as they cut the mold for the longer length.

I knew I had just experienced something special and rare. Like the first blush of all relationships worthy of the name, there’s excitement but also doubt: how can such magic be sustained? When will love’s first bloom fade? Or worse yet, when will the brand grow tired of this series and consign it, like all who went before it, to oblivion?

Flash forward to today and Blizzard’s Flipcore models have become a franchise unto themselves. Against all odds, its flagship women’s model, the Black Pearl 88, is the best selling ski in America, and has been for the past three years. (This has never happened before and I daresay is unlikely to reoccur in my lifetime.) The Bonafide has become the de facto measure of the All-Mountain West genre. The only pretender to its throne in recent years has been the Enforcer 100, which has engendered its own brand-within-a-brand family at company cousin Nordica.

All products are on a development cycle, which means that all skis are scheduled to be improved whether they need it or not. The Bonafide and its Flipcore confederates have already passed through such crucibles a couple of times and emerged improved without being substantially altered in their intent.

This is the trick of managing a successful design: how do you change it without effing it up and losing what you already had? How do you effect real change without really changing what made you successful?

In Blizzard’s case, the solution has been to dive ever deeper into the details. The basic goal doesn’t change: how to make a ski with a broad performance range that is also a truly all-condition ski. What you strive for beyond the rudiments of excellence is the refinement of feel, the ability to make the ski react intuitively to a skier’s movements.

That’s the simplest way to describe what Blizzard has changed in its 2020/21 versions of the Bonafide 97, Black Pearl 97, Black Pearl 88 and Brahma 88: they feel better. The tips and tails are a little softer, so there’s no hesitation rolling on or off the edge, but what’s underfoot is still braced with 3 sheets of Titanal (in the Bonafide 97 and Brahma 88) for race-caliber edge grip. The flex feels balanced so the skier never feels off-center. There’s no stress in the system.

All these attributes would be wonderful on a carving ski that never left the groom. The outré beauty of the Blizzard off-trail skis is that they feel this connected in everything. There’s no point in naming all the conditions they can handle, since they have it all covered.

It won’t come as news to my regular Dear Readers that I fell hard for the new Bonafide 97.   I found it a little silkier, a little rounder, a little friendlier to all mankind, but otherwise my dear, old Bonafide. The lone criticism leveled at the current Bonafide is that it performs best on the feet of an expert. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that experts can always extract more from a ski, the Bonafide 97 renders this quibble moot by being gentle enough for an intermediate to manage.

I was also spellbound by the new Brahma, whose round, unbreakable arcs reminded me of a soft GS ski. The ski is so attuned to the skier’s flow that it becomes virtually invisible, a facilitator of flight.

Later the same day I skied a 177cm Black Pearl. No wonder so many women love this ski. It’s a wish-fulfillment device. Lighter men should take a look at it. It’s a revelation.

The technology that elevates the next generation of Flipcore models from their ancestors is a core construction called TrueBlend. Models like the Bonafide and Brahma have always used lightweight poplar and higher density beech in the core, but TrueBlend micro-manages how and where the two woods are laminated, altering each model’s flex not just by model, but by size. Lacy tendrils of mocha-colored beech hopscotch around pale, parallel stacks of poplar, distributing density and damping in meticulously targeted doses.

With each new generation comes the opportunity to re-align every element, so the 20/21 Flipcore flagships have added a little more shape and a little less rocker, but these tweaks are more to harmonize with the flex changes than to call attention to themselves. Were I to summarize the net effect of the TrueBlend, sidecut and baseline tweaks, I’d say the Bonafide and Brahma have become more accessible to lower skill skiers while the Black Pearl 88 and 97 have raised their performance ceiling to include nearly every woman (and most men).

In last week’s Revelation, I spoke to the importance of understanding the brand behind the models you find most enticing. Blizzard, Nordica and Tecnica are all part of the Tecnica Group and all these brands are currently thriving. Tecnica’s collaboration with North American dealers (Project P-165) continues to pay dividends with the unveiling of a new Mach1 MV. [We’ll talk more about boots in subsequent Revelations.] Nordica is poised to introduce a new Enforcer 100 and Enforcer 94, revitalizing its own brand-within-a-brand franchise.

Innovative new products don’t make themselves. There wouldn’t be a Bonafide or a Black Pearl without the input of an American athlete, Arne Backstrom, who first envisioned the advantages of molding a ski upside down.

The Bonafide and Brahma wouldn’t be as well conceived without Stefano Mantegazza guiding their creation. The Black Pearl wouldn’t have achieved the previously unattainable without the persistence of Leslie Baker-Brown, recently named worldwide director of Tecnica and Blizzard’s Women 2 Women program. Jed Duke, who I once called to reserve a pair of as yet unmade Bonafides, now heads the R&D department he used to report to.

It’s good to see decades of dedication rewarded. As someone who has spent a good chunk of his career sweating over the minutia that separates the great from the pedestrian, it’s somehow validating to see an R&D culture succeeding in an age of shortcuts.

Blizzard’s current hot streak is all the more amazing when one considers how far the brand has come. I spent several months working with the Mittersill factory in the late 1990’s, before the Tecnica Group acquired it. It was a hotbed of inconsistency. That factory is to all intents and purposes gone, replaced with entirely new machinery and methods. The transformation raised the product quality from iffy to immaculate.

Having a spanking new factory is certainly a huge advantage, but it’s only as good as the people who run it. For giving its managers an environment where new ideas can be properly developed and marketed, the Tecnica Group has earned our recognition and respect.

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