On January 14, 2016

How shaped skis changed the downhill experience and industry

By Karen D. Lorentz

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of Elan, the Slovenia ski manufacturing company. Since 1945, Elan has grown from a small ski workshop into a specialty manufacturing company that manufactures snowboards, sailboats, sports equipment, and wind turbines.

Most significantly, Elan became a pioneer of innovation in skis and changed the way we ski today.

Developing skis

From the time the first hunter-gatherers needed a way to negotiate winter snows, they fashioned wooden boards called “snow shoes” to travel over the snow. Historians tell us that a subtle hourglass ski shape came into play in the 1800s. By narrowing the ski under foot (“waist”), it was easier to turn the skis.

In the 1970s, the popularization of the snowboard changed things as Jake Burton Carpenter’s Burton Backhill Board sported a radical sidecut and very short turn radius.

Head was one of the first ski manufacturers to experiment with this new development and came up with a new design for a shorter recreational ski with a slightly deeper sidecut than the factory’s long racing skis. In 1981, the 180-cm Head Yahoo (92.5-71.5-80mm tip to tail widths) with a 7.3mm sidecut, offered a turn radius of about 35 meters. Many other manufacturers began to experiment as well, as racers were into carving turns and winning with sidecuts in the 7mm+ range.

Then in 1988, Elan engineer Jurij Franko and his colleague Pavel Skofic had an idea for a deep sidecut ski and organized a project called Sidecut Extreme or SCX. By 1991 they had a 203-cm GS race ski with a 110-63-105mm profile, featuring a 22.25mm sidecut with a turn radius of 15 meters. The new ski carved a clean turn with less edge angle and from this winning race ski the new , shaped ski for the rest of us was born.

Introducing the “weird ski” to America

In January 1991 Peter Kidd, an Elan ski rep, and two others tested “a strange looking ski at Stowe.” Because it looked so different, he and (then) Marketing Director of Elan USA Mike Adams discussed how they were going to sell it.

They decided that, “the best way to sell it would be through education” and to suggest it “as a teaching tool,” Kidd told me in 2008.

While figuring out what to do with the weird skis, Kidd bumped into Bill Irwin, a PSIA certified instructor and assistant ski school director at Sugarbush. Kidd suggested that there might be a place for Irwin working for Elan. Irwin tested the skis at Sugarbush and was hired by Adams as Elan’s sales manager forSpecial Markets.

“I managed the intro program for the SCX and with the help of my Elan staff did most of the introductions of the ski around the country at 200 ski areas and dealers,” Irwin said. There was “industry-wide skepticism” at first, he said, noting a few exceptions.

One of those exceptions occurred at Sunday River, where owner Les Otten had introduced his Guaranteed Learn-to-Ski and Perfect Turn Skier Development programs.

“The very first on-snow demonstration of the new product in the United States was at Sunday River for owner Les Otten, his wife, and his friends and staff. We even flew people over from Slovenia. They loved it and I believe Les was the one to say it was like using an oversized tennis racquet,” Kidd recalled. That was winter/spring 1992.

Later, when Aspen turned down Elan’s offer to be a national demonstration site for the new Elan SCX 163-cm adult parabolic skis, Otten had welcomed the opportunity. Liking them and seeing the potential, Sunday River experimented by putting learners in ski clinics on them. When the test groups showed that the skis were much easier to learn on, Otten became convinced that they were not only the wave of the future but also a great hope for a rebound in skiing.

In 1995–96, Otten put the even shorter 143-cm Elan SCX skis into the rental fleets of all three of his resorts which used the skis for all introductory ski clinics. It was considered a bold move at a time when many were still debating whether the super sidecut ski was just a fad!.

When Otten couldn’t get enough Elans one year, he noted that it took a personal visit with the president of Rossignol at Sunday River to get him to call the factory in France and convince them to make the 1,000 pair Otten needed. (Part of the reluctance on the part of ski manufacturers had to do with just having spent huge sums on ski molds for the new “cap construction” skis.)

For the 1996–97 season, all ASC resorts (Otten’s new company) had Elan and Rossignol shaped skis — some 10,000 pair — in their rental fleets and offered a free guided  demo program.

Okemo, another early adopter

Okemo was the other area to get on the shaped-ski bandwagon early on.

“Marty Harrison was one of the first ski school directors to try the new skis, embrace them as a learning tool, and offer them in an area’s ski school,” Irwin noted. In 1993, the SCX was still a long ski so this was a brave move that many a ski school director refused to make!.

But having witnessed how the snowboard had contributed to easier carving for snowboarders due to the shape of the board, Harrison tested the radical ski with its exaggerated hourglass shape in the spring of 1993 and implemented use of the new Elan SCX parabolic skis for the 1993-94 season.

At first, they were offered as “an alternative learning option” to level 5 through 9 skiers due to their initial, traditional long lengths. “We are introducing a radical new ski, the Elan SCX, which greatly assists skiers to understand, execute, and ‘fee’ a properly carved turn,” the ski school brochure proclaimed.

The SCX was soon shortened “but was still a little long by today’s standards,” Harrison recalled. As they got shorter and their flex traits improved, more areas got on the bandwagon. With their head start, Okemo remained ahead of the curve when it came to shaped-ski instruction.

Killington joins the revolution

At first, some called the new Elan SCX “the shovel” due to its the ultra wide tip. But, always interested in ways to improve learning, former Killington President Hank Lunde had encouraged the ski school to take a look at the new skis.

Ed Robicheau, who worked at Killington (1976–2007) as a ski school instructor, supervisor and manager of the learning programs, and later manager of the Discovery Center, recalled trying out the Elans with fellow instructor Ken MacDonald when Bill Irwin and Matjaz Sarabon, a former Slovenia World Cup racer turned Elan production manager, brought the blue test skis to Killington in April 1993.

MacDonald, a PSIA-certified instructor, recalled a 203- or 204-cm ski for the first introductory test runs but added that a year later, they were shorter , at 163- and 183-cm lengths. “We had maybe five sets of them to use as a kind of underground learning tool,” he recalled.

Robicheau noted there were some follow-up clinics during the 1993–94 season with Irwin. Some “experimental use” of the 163-cm and 183-cm SCX started in the ski school, and a “specialty clinic option” that involved learning on the new skis was offered for 1994–95.

Both Robicheau and MacDonald recalled offering a guided demo on the new skis and the incorporation of the Elan SCX parabolic skis into ski school for the 1995–96 season. Prior to 1996, Killington took a cautionary approach, they said, with Robicheau noting that Killington instructors were “checking out the ski’s potential before Killington invested in them. It took another manufacturer [Rossingnol] coming out with a shaped ski before Killington really saw it as more than a fad,” he stated.

How the war was won

“Women particularly liked them. They went from ‘grin and bear it’ to ‘it’s fun to go skiing.’ Men were more skeptical at first, especially those older skiers who skied with their feet together,” MacDonald added, noting the wider stance required by the new skis.

The reason for this skepticism was understandable — super sidecuts were hard to get used to for straight running and experienced skiers had problems departing from the tight two-legged stance; a new technique was needed as Irwin had foreseen.

The parabolics were nothing less than revolutionary and entailed a new way to ski, to say nothing of the expense of purchasing new equipment.

However, beginners found the new skis easier to turn, and, being shorter than conventional ski lengths, they were also easier to lug around, store, and transport inside a car.

Elan offered a 143 cm SCX during the 1995–96 season for learners, but even shorter beginner skis would be offered just three years later as Otten desired a graduated length method similar to what he had seen at Killington in the early 1970s.

After Otten purchased Killington’s parent corporation S-K-I Ltd. in summer 1996, Killington invested in 2,500 pairs of shaped skis from Elan and Rossignol for use in the Perfect Turn Learn-to-Ski clinics, its rental fleet and to sell in its ski shops.

Killington also offered a free guided demo program so an experienced skier who wanted to try the new skis could do so under the guidance of a person trained in their use. The idea was to properly introduce the skier to tipping the ski on edge and letting it do the work for them so they could have more fun.

In addition to an instruction manual written for Otten’s ski areas by one of his educators, Irwin wrote a shaped ski instruction manual that he continued to update for instructors around the country, noting that the carve was just the first step and greater turn shape control is the objective in lessons. And that’s why aspiring experts take lessons. And how most of us came to be on shaped skis.

As for first-timers, Killington worked with Elan in 2012 to create a special beginner ski that has once again revolutionized learning to ski. It is used in Killington’s Elan Adult and Youth Discovery programs. Using terrain based learning in conjunction with the new beginner skis, Killington increased the number of first-timers who return for more days on snow to 98 percent (national rate was 17 percent) and won the NSAA Conversion Challenge for 2015. The successful program has been shared nationally and other ski areas are beginning to offer similar learning programs. And yes, they’re on shaped skis and having fun.

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