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Ski Resort Life

The Slovenian Dream

Elan is celebrating 75 years of changing the way we ski.

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Entering Slovenia from Austria, time seems to shift. Looking up at the Julian Alps after exiting the five-mile-long Karawks tunnel from Austria, it becomes clear that the terrain on the southern side of the border is indistinguishable from the north, but I instantly feel more relaxed. So does Matjaz Meglic, the man driving the car.

Meglic and I had spent the day skiing at Katschburg Ski Resort in southern Austria, playing around on Elan’s piste-friendly Wingman ski line while his daughter and her friends worked on mastering their edges. When we stopped for lunch, the group of 10-year-olds switched between giggling at jokes in Slovenian and ordering kids-menu schnitzel in German before Meglic told them to work on their English. After all, there was an American at the table. I spent the one-and-a-half-hour car ride from the ski area to Begunje, Slovenia, wondering why I didn’t start learning at least one other language at that age (or ever, at this point).

Matjaz Meglic skiing at Katschberg, Austria
Matjaz Meglic on the Elan Wingman 86 CTi.Photo credit: Crystal Sagan

Since this visit to Slovenia in 2019, it’s not hyperbole to say that the world has changed. And while Slovenia has had its fair share of problems in 2020, there have also been many bright spots for the small country, particularly in the realm of sport. Over the summer, two Slovenians battled it out for first place during one of the most exciting Tour de France bike races in recent memory. NBA All-Star Luka Doncic became the second-youngest player to finish in the Top 5 for MVP voting in the bubble. Zan Kranjec stood on the World Cup GS podium in Adelboden in March and Santa Caterina Valfurva in December. And the country’s iconic ski brand, Elan, celebrated 75 years of building skis.

Elan Ski Museum
History on the wall of the Elan Ski Museum in Begunje, Slovenia.Photo credit: Crystal Sagan

Walking into the Elan ski museum in Begunje with Meglic—Elan’s Global Director of Sales—it’s easy to feel the shared history the brand has with the sport of skiing. The skis made to help Slovenians fight the Nazis hang on the wall beside planks that Ingmar Stenmark wore when he claimed one of his 86 World Cup victories. The first skis with parabolic sidecut—the Elan SCX—hang near an oversized advertisement of Glen Plake’s massive mohawk promoting the first Ripstick line. And, perhaps most strikingly, women are included prominently throughout the museum, calling out their influence on both the building of skis and using them to make history on snow.

The History of Elan

Rudi Finzgar
Rudi Finzgar and a pair of skis he made himself.Photo courtesy of Elan

Elan’s beginnings started with skis created for Partisans to use when fighting the Nazis. Rudi Finzgar—who competed in ski jumping at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch at the age of 15, on skis that he had built himself—and a team of nine Slovenian engineers made these skis during World War II. When the war ended, Finzgar and his team continued to make skis after moving their production to the factory in Begunje. Originally called the Workers’ Ski Cooperative, the name Elan was adopted by the company in 1952.

The company rose to international acclaim later on thanks to Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish skiing legend who spent his entire World Cup career on Elans. The winningest World Cup skier of all time didn’t join the company without a bit of communist skepticism, however.

Ingemar Stenmark at Madonna Campiglio
Ingemar Stenmakr after a win at Madonna di Campiglio.Photo courtesy of Elan

“Years ago, when Stenmark was not yet an Olympic champion, we wanted to put him under contract,” said Vinko Bogataj, former head of Elan’s Ski Department, in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1984. At the time, Slovenia was part of communist Yugoslavia, and every employee at the factory had to vote for nearly every business decision, including whether or not Elan should pay Stenmark to use their skis.

“This was very difficult to persuade our workers to agree to,” continued Bogataj. “They found it very hard to believe that paying this young skier a goodly amount of money would result in increasing the money we would get through sales of skis. We had to admit it was something of a gamble. They were very skeptical. They finally decided that they would at least try it for a while. If they had voted no, Elan skis would have had a very different career, I think.”

Sidecut Extreme

Skiing at Katschberg, Austria
The author (left) and Meglic’s family friends at Katschberg, Austria.Photo credit: Crystal Sagan

“By participating in and winning at the World Cup level, Elan helped make skiing part of the [Slovenian] national heritage,” Meglic tells me over tea outside his office after a tour through the large, loud, and impressive production line. The factory produces 250,000 pairs of Elan-branded skis every year, and 150,000 more for other brands seeking the technology, innovation, and consistency that has set this factory apart for decades.

The most important example of the factory’s keen innovation skills happened in the early 1990s. Based on ideas and designs of Slovenian engineers Jure Franko and Pavel Skofic, Elan released a GS race ski in 1991 with the sidecut dimensions of 110mm in the shovel, 63mm underfoot, and 105mm in the tail. This hourglass shape was revolutionary, and Skofi had dubbed this shape “sidecut extreme,” or SCX.

“When Jure tried to describe the turn shape to a journalist, he used the word ‘parabolic,’ and that’s what we named the ski,” said Mike Adams in the September 2005 issue of Skiing Heritage Journal.

Building skis at the Elan Factory
A worker builds a pair of Elan Element skis at the Elan Factor in Begunje, Slovenia.Photo credit: Crystal Sagan

Adams, who was Elan’s U.S. Marketing Director in the early ‘90s, sent the first version of the SCX to ski instructors across North America to use as a teaching tool. The sidecut proved to be so easy to ski that other brands started making their own versions of parabolic skis and began to overtake Elan in sales thanks to bigger marketing budgets.

And, despite a few years of success following the release of the SCX, the factory in Begunje faced a myriad of financial problems that stretched on for nearly a decade.

Glen Plake and the Rebirth of Elan

Ripsticks at the Elan Factory
A fresh batch of Elan Ripstick 96s, a ski Glen Plake has been critical in designing, get ready to go into a series of base-finishing machines at the Elan ski factory.Photo credit: Crystal Sagan

The country of Slovenia bought the factory from Croatian banks in 1999, then worked to turn the brand around. Meglic was hired in 2002 as an area sales manager, a role he gladly accepted thanks to the new management’s clear vision and mission: Build quality products that passionate skiers love.

“When it comes to brands, a story is not enough,” Meglic tells me. “Consumers are too advanced in research and knowledge to just buy a story.” It’s the combination of a story and quality products that can make a brand stand out in a very competitive marketplace, he adds.

Elan signed Glen Plake as its primary North American athlete ambassador in 2006, during a period in which the sport of skiing was progressing very quickly with a plethora of new-school ski stars stealing the spotlight from the original pioneers of freeskiing.

A decade later, however, when the brand released the first generation of the Ripstick line, freestyle progression and hardcore mentalities had taken a backseat to the idea that skiing should always be a good time, and American skiers started to buy fun skis that can do it all.

Over the past four years, Plake has risen to a level of relevance and notoriety he hasn’t seen since the ‘90s, along with the ski brand he’s been working with for nearly 15 years.

“American skiers are really discovering that there is no B.S. to this brand,” says Meglic. And the same can be said for the second generation of the Ripstick skis, which remain lightweight, do-it-all skis with just enough added horsepower and stability to please skiers with a love of speed.

Along with the Ripstick line and new owners, Elan also invested heavily in the women’s line over the past half-decade. W Studio, founded in 2005, “started as a different approach to women’s skis,” says Meglic. The primary key to the success of the W Studio program has been Melanja Korosec, who started with Elan in 2010 and has since become the Global Brand Director, making her one of the most powerful women in the entire ski industry. For the brand’s 75th year, they made huge investments in the entire women’s line, earning accolades at SKI’s primary test and at other magazines as well.

“Elan’s genuine commitment to engaging more women in the sport of skiing is widely invested across our line and through the W Studio community,” says Korosec in a press release celebrating the investments the brand made in women’s-specific skis this season.

Walking through the production line at the Elan factory, the majority of people working on building skis are women. This is an element of the W Studio program that is unseen by the general consumer. “Building the product, developing the skis, and communication at all levels creates a true 360-degree approach” for getting women involved and empowered by skiing, says Meglic.

Bled, Slovenia
Lake Bled, near Begunje, Slovenia.Photo credit: Crystal Sagan

The day after visiting the factory, I spend time walking around the incredibly beautiful town of Bled and its majestic castle, a short drive from the factory in Begunje. It’s a rainy spring day, so skiing at Kranjska Gora is not possible. I meet up with Meglic and his wife and daughter for a dinner of locally caught fish and delicious Slovenian wine on the shore of Lake Bled. His daughter is more comfortable now compared to the day skiing at Katschberg, and her English is even better. She helps translate the conversation in English to her mom, confident and smiling with her third language.

Like Meglic’s daughter, the future is bright for Elan. “Through the years the one thing that remains constant is that a great day on the hill is defined by good times with friends and family,” said Leon Korosec, Elan’s current Wintersports Director, at the beginning of the brand’s 75th year. “Elan has stayed true to this philosophy and will continue to innovate and handcraft skis in the heart of the Alps.”