The Missing Link

By: Jackson Hogen

Published: October 30, 2018

Every elite racer in the world is at the very least checked for it. You can be one of the finest technical skiers extant and feel helpless without it. Sheer talent cannot compensate for its absence. It’s called alignment, and it refers to adjusting the side-to-side angle of the boot so the skier stands dynamically balanced on his or her skis.

Alignment is a complex issue, and the simple explanation just given doesn’t begin to illuminate all its nuances. To put the issue in perspective, proper alignment is a prerequisite for great technical skiing yet is rarely applied to lesser lights and never reaches the depths of the rental market, where it could easily be the difference between making or breaking a new skier’s will to go on.

Because awareness of the advantages of alignment are largely confined to those in the race community, the ski market as a whole tends to treat it as a “nice to have” feature for skiers who have already clawed their way to advanced ability without it, when for many skiers it’s a biomechanical necessity regardless of their skill level.

Scenes from an alignment session with Paul Archer.

Point being, if you’re bowlegged, intuitively, you’d think you would have one hell of a time getting to your inside edge. In reality it’s the exact opposite; there’s too much edge too soon making it extremely difficult to balance on that ski. (Knock-kneed skiers have the opposite problem and are unable to get their skis on edge.) Sharpening your edges won’t help, lessons are limited in what they can do and getting a comfortable boot won’t matter. You still won’t be able to buy a turn. Even if you don’t quit in frustration, you’ll arrive at the unsatisfying realization that you’ll never be any good.

Jack Walzer knows this feeling very well. Growing up in New England, Jack participated in a full gamut of sports with his peers, all of whom were of roughly equal athletic potential. Until it came to skiing, where Jack’s buddies seemed to get the knack of it while he struggled to keep up. “They looked so smooth,” he calls now, “while I looked like a cowboy on skis.” It wasn’t until 12 years later, after he first had his boots canted to match his bowed legs, that it all suddenly made sense. “Finally, I could feel the whole edge under me, instead of a fleeting four inches.”

But you don’t have to be bow-legged or knock-kneed to benefit from proper alignment. Every boot model extant has its own particular inward/outward bias, which may or may not match the skier’s stance without modifications.

Walzer’s past epiphany lends personal impetus to his current crusade to raise the public’s consciousness about the benefits of alignment. As the general manager of Jans, located in downtown Park City and the base of Deer Valley, he’s well positioned to address the problem. Working alongside Walzer for the better part of the last three decades has been Paul Archer, an erstwhile bootfitter and alignment specialist who has been working on canting solutions for as long as he’s been fitting boots. With Archer in the role of bootfit Yoda, Jans is able to imbue its staff with the skills and confidence to apply balancing remedies to skiers of all abilities and ambitions.

Andy Buckley brings 18 years of experience as a U.S. Ski Team technician to every hand tuned ski.

Just as proper alignment is often the missing rung that keeps intermediate skiers from climbing further up the ability ladder, the inability of the bootfitter to witness his subject’s skiing handicaps his (or her) diagnostic abilities. Jans is hoping to close the gap between a skier’s real needs and the recommended remedies required to redress them: video. A camera installed in a shack on a gentle slope named Success at Deer Valley captures the skier as he or she skis toward it. When viewed later that day by bootfitter and skier, the video reveals how the unbalanced skier struggles to compensate for the intractable problems dictated by his or her natural stance.

The video gives the bootfitter much more accurate information than is likely to be provided in a standard interview. After positioning the skier in a way that maximizes fore/aft balance and compensates for lateral misalignment, the skier repeats the video exercise. The results are routinely mind-blowing.

Closing the feedback loop puts teeth in the alignment process and instills confidence in both skier and bootfitter that the skier is now capable of continuing a skills progression that will lead to the Promised Land of expertise. Bear in mind, Archer and Walzer have been pushing alignment for decades – they didn’t just get religion, they’ve had it all along. But the new location at Deer Valley has reignited Walzer’s determination “to mainstream custom bootfitting,” rather than limiting its application to an exclusive elite.

Another key element in Jans expanded presence at Deer Valley is the store’s signature Rennstall World Class Tuning Center. As is the case with alignment, the combination of hand tuning with state-of-the-art robotics is well known to the race community and barely practiced outside it. And as with alignment, the difference in the ski experience between doing the minimum and doing the job right is off the charts.

To ensure its technicians are of the same world-class caliber as its Wintersteiger machines, the new Rennstall location comes with a new head technician, Andy Buckley, fresh off an 18-year career working with the U.S. Ski Team. Buckley’s presence “gives us more horsepower,” says Walzer, as the go-to place for base prep.

The take-away I hope you retain from this Revelation, Dear Reader, is the immense value provided by true specialty shops that take the time to educate their customers and provide them with game-changing technology adapted to each skier’s needs. This isn’t the mission of the mass merchant, or the chain store or the Internet warehouse.

The qualities that distinguish the true specialist derive from two intertwined strands of store DNA: the founder’s passion and the continued presence of empowered mentors who maintain it on the floor and in the shop. Jan Peterson, Jans eponymous founder, was an iconic leader who was able to maintain his core staff of mentors for decades. Peterson passed away a few seasons ago, but his spirit still burns bright among those like Walzer, Archer and Buckley who share his evangelical commitment to elevate customer service to the highest standard of care.

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