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When is a ski ready?

Tue, Nov  3, 2009 - By Rick Halling

There is an eternal conflict shared by car, bike and ski companies.  At what point do you unleash a new design unto the public?  How much testing, how many races, does a ski or a bike or a car need to undertake before it is ready for the market?  The Italian car manufacturer Alfa Romeo had a race director named Enzo Ferrari who left Alfa and started his own company over this very issue.  Atomic has Roman Toferer and they don’t want him starting his own company over an argument about development.

A YOUNG ENZO FERRARI

A YOUNG ENZO FERRARI TESTING A NEW DESIGN WITH HIS STAFF.

A manufacturer can have the fastest and most stable racing ski ever designed.  But the second it goes into production, that company needs to test new flex patterns, new sidecuts and new base materials or it will be left behind by the competition.   Let’s say a company comes out with a new sidecut that proves to be quite the weapon in early spring snow.  They give test skis with that sidecut to some top athletes who try them on summer glaciers (warm and wet) or they take the skis to New Zealand (cold and dry).  The testers rave about the new design and insist that the company should go into full production with the new sidecut.  This is now the new race ski for that company and it is what master and junior skiers in North America and Europe buy for the following year.  Only problem is that it was never properly tested in firm track conditions and this new and very expensive race ski is about as stable as a Yugo with bald tires on an icy road.  No big deal for that company’s race department, they just whip up a batch of the old skis, give them the new graphics and hand them off to their sponsored racers.  It is the average skier in Oslo, Minneapolis or Nagano who pays the price for inadequate testing.

ROMAN TOFERER TESTING A NEW DESIGN

A YOUNG ROMAN TOFERER TESTING A NEW DESIGN WITH HIS STAFF.

All companies have been guilty of something similar to the above scenario at one time or another.  It is Roman Toferer’s job to make sure Atomic does nothing like that on his watch.  What is the right time frame for testing, developing and then releasing a new design?  Go too long and you are denying a winning tool to the racers and consumers.   Let it out too early and thousands of skiers might buy something that turns into a disappointment.  There are no clear parameters to tell a race director when a ski is ready.  Instead, it is up to his gut instincts to know if he has developed a winner.  We discussed this development with Roman Toferer and tried to learn more about what goes into a racing ski:

RICK HALLING:  What is the first step in testing a new sidecut or core material?  Are there tests you can do in the factory without even going onto the snow?

ROMAN TOFERER:  At first you always start with an idea you get during testing or skiing just for fun together with athletes or team service people, mostly it goes into a  first discussion to make sure if there is manufacturing chances even to produce a kind of this idea.

Sure there is a lot of tests necessary to analyze materials or other things which are the goals to make a good ski, finally laboratory knowledge is a good thing to be familiar with.

ATHLETES AND FACTORY TECHNICIANS

 
IT IS IMPORTANT THAT ATHLETES AND FACTORY TECHNICIANS JUST PLAIN LIKE EACH OTHER.  INITIAL TESTING BEGINS WITH FREE SKIING TOGETHER.

RICK HALLING:  So let’s say you have a new sidecut that you think is going to be a winner.  Do you and your staff test it first on snow before you give it to athletes for testing?

ROMAN TOFERER:  Of course developing process means:

  • idea
  • material analyses
  • molding
  • prototyping
  • laboratory test of proto
  • first on snow test intern
  • first test with very few people able to feel differences in workout ( service or athletes)
  • long term testing (100% WC proven)
  • ready to present


RICK HALLING:  If this  new sidecut has proven to be something you and your testers feel is an improvement,  who do you go to next?  What athletes do you like to work with and what national teams do you like for testing?

ROMAN TOFERER:  We have to provide best skis world wide so we have to use a lot of different testers in different snow conditions.

Snow in Whistler is different than snow in Siberia for example so we need to be clear with that as well, but clearly we can say team Norway and U.S. are the most useable in this case.

Billy Demong, Atomic

 
BILLY DEMONG OF THE US SKI TEAM IS PROVING TO BE NOT ONLY ONE OF THE WORLD’S BEST RACERS, HE IS ALSO ONE OF THE WORLD’S BEST TESTERS.

 

RICK HALLING:  Look at some of Atomic’s top Worldcup racers.  Frode Andresen is a big guy, at least by elite racing standards, who is pushing 190 pounds.  Andrea Henkel is all of 5’2” and 105 pounds.  Do you try to get input from all of our racers of every size on how they feel about a new design?

ROMAN TOFERER:  Sure you can not use same adjustment for different lengths and weights that’s clear.  If you have good design for a skate ski, you can not just make some 184’s and give them to  Claudia Nystad or Lindsey Dehlin and say they are the testers.   I have to make some 178’s for Riita Liisa Roponen and Andrea Henkel and I have to make some 190’s for Todd Lodwick, Billy Demong and Frode Andresen.  It is so important you test with all sizes of skiers.

Riita Liisa Roponen, Atomic

RIITA LIISA ROPONEN MADE ONE OF THE MOST ASTONISHING COME FROM BEHIND VICTORIES IN WORLDCUP HISTORY LAST YEAR IN FALUN.  SHE HAS PROVEN TO BE AN INVALUBLE TESTER FOR WOMEN’S FLEX PATTERNS.

RICK HALLING:  How about snow conditions.  How do you make sure a new sidecut or laminate will work well in all conditions and not just the Dachstein glacier in spring. 

ROMAN TOFERER:  That explains the long term period of testing ( 100% Worldcup proven) what means the skis have to be proven every where thru out almost a Worldcup season.  That is why we have been travelling to British Columbia and other continents the last few years.  We test the whole globe.  That is what must be done before a ski go to ski stores.

RICK HALLING:  And  durability?  The current Worldcup skis have laminates that are new from what was used two years ago.  How do you make sure a new material is durable without taking two to three years of constant use?

ROMAN TOFERER:  Laboratory test of materials, you can simulate a lot.

Atomic Laboratory testing

WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF LABORATORY?

RICK HALLING:  Combat tested.  Are you reluctant to move forward with a design until it has proven success on the Worldcup?

ROMAN TOFERER:  Sometimes you have to trust in what your doing, no risk no fun.  We would never begin mass production of a design if it has not won medals in the Worldcup.

RICK HALLING:  Billy Demong, Todd Lodwick, Giorgio DiCenta, Andrea Henkel and Riita-Liisa Roponen had some of the best races of their lives last winter on the new Featherlight.  When did you produce the first prototype with this technology?

ROMAN TOFERER:  Really first proto on snow was at Sognefjell almost 10 month in front of Liberec, so this was a fast one.

RICK  HALLING:  What are some of the changes you have made to the Featherlight since you first introduced as a prototype?

ROMAN TOFERER:  This we keep as a secret.

RICK HALLING:  Some companies like to submit articles that are little more than poorly disguised infomercials.  I like to think Atomic sends in actual articles.  Let’s be honest, in the days before you or your predecessor Peter Juric came on board, Atomic produced some race skis that definitely would not meet our current standards.  What are you doing differently in regards to testing and development as opposed to 10 years ago?

ROMAN TOFERER:  Everything moved into teamwork between people where everyone is a skier by himself or at least have been a skier in a high level.  The communication and the use of athletes have been showing that this is the right way to go.  Every one has his part to fulfill when it comes to the developing process what I think is the goal for our great products.  Results have been showing  its not that necessary to have such big racing team.

RICK HALLING:  That translates as a nice way of saying that the new staff is made up of engineers with an elite racing background and you do a better job now of communicating with the athletes.

ROMAN TOFERER:  Genau.  Exactly. 

RICK HALLING:  Can you truthfully say that when a consumer walks into a shop and buys a race ski made by Atomic that it has been tested more than any other race ski on the market?

ROMAN TOFERER:  Regarding race skis, well I would that is very possible.