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On Skiing: As the World Turns

Vive la difference ... between skis of differing nationalities.

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Published: September 2004

With the global economy blurring borders, will ski gear lose its nationalistic edge? Let’s hope not.Put me on a ski, any ski, and blindfold me. The second thing I’ll do is hit a lift tower. But first, I’ll probably be able to tell you what country that ski comes from. Not because I’m an extraordinarily astute gear-tester, but because the differences between the skis of one nation versus another can be that stark.

Ski performance, thank heaven, is still a point of national pride—and in some cases, that’s putting it mildly. A gear product manager once told me of an exchange that took place during a design meeting at his company’s Austrian headquarters. The discussion centered on whether to use lightweight foam in the core of a new ski. It would be lighter, more playful and cheaper to manufacture. Yet one of the older members of the design committee resisted, calmly at first, then more and more emphatically, but without offering his reasons. Finally, when cornered, he exploded: “Because we don’t want our skis to (expletive) ski like that (expletive) French (expletive)!”

It’s easy to imagine a Frenchman saying the same of Austrian skis. And we can only hope that it always will be so. In the age of outsourcing and multinational corporations, the distinctions between ski nationalities have already begun to blur, but certain characteristics still shout a ski’s origins just as clearly as the “Made In” stamp on the sidewalls.

Take the Germans—and by that I mean German-based Völkl, Austrian-based Atomic, Head, Fischer and Blizzard, and Swiss-based Stöckli. (I know: The Swiss are mostly a French-speaking people. But, as a tribe, they strike me as a lot more German than French-and have you ever skied a Stöckli?)

Sweeping generalities are always lazy and irresponsible, but in this case they largely hold true. If Germanic people are supposed to be precise, disciplined, exacting and analytical, well, so is their gear. Their skis’ performance parameters are almost always hard-snow and race-based. The Germanics have given us (affect Schwarzenegger accent here) the kah-ving ski-and are puzzled that the rest of us find them one-dimensional. Even their midfats are precise to a fault. Wood cores and laminates, metal-reinforced constructions and square-sidewalls are the norm. Völkl even owns its own poplar forest of future ski cores. In short, if you’re looking for precision, power and stability at any speed, buy Germanic.

Then there are the French: Rossignol, Salomon and Dynastar. The French are all about soul these days. Alone in the vast montagnes, they surf the mountainsides, daring the elements, seeking adventure in the extreme. Of course, much of that is uniquely French pride and posturing. They say one in five Frenchmen calls himself a skier, which is laudable. But if you’ve ever spent a day on the slopes at Chamonix or Alpe d’Huez, it’s quickly apparent that the heroics of the average French skier occur mostly at the lunch table. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that in my book.

The French have been quicker to experiment with new constructions-cap skis, for example. More important, they’ve been quicker to embrace foam cores-sometimes to save money, but just as often to achieve a distinctive French feel: lighter, damper, more supple. If you can’t notice the difference in a French ski, you might be able to hear it: Some foam cores have a distinct sound at speed, a faint hollow ring. With the hyperpoliticized atmosphere around the globe these days, what you won’t find on French slopes-as you might imagine-are a lot of American skis.

All along, K2, the only U.S. brand of any significant size, has draped itself in the flag, famously plastering its skis with red, white and blue. (Of course, it recently outsourced its manufacturing to China.) This year, K2 even appears to be on war footing, along with the rest of the country. Notice the names of 2004-05 models? Apache, Hellfire, Recon, Cross Fire. It reads like Donald Rumsfeld’s Christmas list. The exception is K2’s Factory Series, which has gone ghetto-an evenn more uniquely American concept-with gritty, violent urban landscapes. Guns, bullets and SWAT teams sell skis? Apparently, yes.

K2, with its glass-wrapped, wood-core torsion-box constructions, is also distinctively American in its performance: lively, light, playful and forgiving. Vibration? Why dampen a good buzz? Edge-grip? Find some softer snow, dude. Heaven knows, K2 has tried to make credible race skis but, Mahre boys aside, competition against the clock just isn’t part of its free-spirited corporate culture. Better to build in a little imprecision, no? If only to piss off the Germans.

That leaves Nordica and Elan. The former is an Italian company. But remember, take a wrong turn at the top of any Dolomite and you’ll likely end up washing down your schweinbraten with a stein of doppelbock. Italian skis emulate the best qualities of the Northern European skis. (No surprise: Their designers have included more than one transplanted Austrian.) By and large, however, the Italians, with their long tradition as skilled shoemakers, are left in charge of making ski boots for the world. And what are ski boots if not uniquely Italian: stylish, expensive and, as any retailer will tell you, a month late being delivered.

As for Elan, it too skis like a Germanic brand. That’s not surprising, given Slovenia’s proximity to Austria. And yet, more than any other nation, Slovenia is a melting pot of ski manufacturing. With its state-of-the-art factory and affordable labor force, it’s an outsourcing destination for at least four other gear manufacturers.

That points to a trend not unique to Slovenia. In recent years, the Czechs, Spaniards and Chinese have entered the ski-manufacturing business on behalf of the Austrians, French and Americans. That raises an unsettling specter: Will the charming distinctions that signal a ski’s nationality be homogenized away in the era of global commerce and the E.U.? It’d be a shame. I like my skis with a sharp edge.

Sept. 2004