Skiblades – Short and Sweet

Professional Ski Instructor of America
Reprints From The Professional Skier “Skiblades – Short and Sweet” – by Allen St. John

Did You Hear The One About The D-Teamer With No Skis?

No, it’s not really a joke. It’s a pretty accurate account of what happened at last year’s Team Training at Copper Mountain, Colorado. America’s elite instructors left their skis in the rack, stashed their poles, and went out on skiboards: twin-tip skis (i.e., shovels at both ends) of 100 centimeters or less with non- releasable bindings or also called Skiblades or Snowblades.

It was supposed to be little more than a get-acquainted session with a new product that seemed set to make a ‘Splash. But the D-Teamers decided the skiboards were too much fun, and they just didn’t want to take them off.

“Everyone was laughing so hard, but they were learning too,” reports team “member Mermer Blakeslee. “Skiboards demand an open form of teaching. You can’t stand around and talk. All the Demo Team people are real doers – everyone just took off and had a great time learning. And when they needed help they asked for it.”

In that way, PSIAs elite was just reflecting public opinion. Skiboards have ‘become one of the hottest categories in the ski business. Even Britain’s Prince Charles and his sons William and Harry have taken a liking to skiboarding, having been introduced to the sport last season at the Whistler-Blackcomb Resort in Canada, So enamored were they of skiboards that they ended up taking a pair back to Buckingham Palace with them.

Don’t look for the trend to subside, either. Although once the domain of small upstart companies, skiboards made it into the Salomon and Dynastar lineups last fall. Several other major alpine manufacturers-including Hart, Elan, and Atomic-are entering the fray this season by bringing their skiboards to market, and K2 is making a skiboard for the Japanese market, a new toy that may or may not be sold in the United States.

The appeal of the skiboard is pretty simple. With its remarkable maneuverability, the skiboard shines in moguls, glades, and even terrain parks, making it the perfect tool for today’s ski resort-cum-winter playground.

Far from a fad, the skiboard is an innovation that promises to change the whole mountain landscape, including the ski school. More and more ski schools are incorporating them into lessons, or even teaching skiboarding as a discipline unto itself. And best of all, skiboards are loads of fun. just ask the D-Teamers.

But first, a history lesson. Like longboard skiing, the skiboard traces its roots back to Europe, where it was borne of necessity as basic transportation. Alpine mountain guides, needing to traverse snowfields and avalanche chutes in the late spring and summer, would hacksaw a pair of skis down to 70 centimeters or so, attach a pair of strap-on bindings that would work with hiking or mountaineering boots, and stuff these homemade snow toys—called “figls”-in their packs.

“We used to ski down snowfields so we didn’t have to walk them,” says Guenther Jochl, general manager of KD Sports, U.S. importer of Kneissl skis. A few manufacturers began selling refined versions of figl skis, but they remained largely a specialized tool.

That began to change in 1990 when Kneissl introduced its Bigfoot. With funky graphics and a shovel shaped like five toes, it looked like a toy instead of a tool. Unlike the figls, the Bigfoot was designed for on-piste use and had a deepdish sidecut. This feature not only made it easier to turn and therefore more fun, it’ also earned it at least a small footnote in ski history. With a sidecut radius of less than 6 meters, there’s some justification for calling the Bigfoot the first shaped ski. More important, its radical shape had a significant impact on the development of Kneissl’s Ergo, which is generally considered the first full-length mass market shaped ski.

Oblivious to how Bigfoots would ultimately change the world of snow sliding equipment, people just went out and had fun on them. Skiers began jumping, spinning, and inventing new tricks for them. World Cup racers began to use them as balance training tools, and this only increased their appeal in racing-mad Europe. They also proved to be surprisingly versatile-with their large, um, footprint, they were surprisingly capable in soft snow and even in not-so-deep powder. They could hold an edge on ice and rip down the tightest zipperlines in the bumps. In the early ’90s there were more Bigfoots sold in Europe-around 100,000-than snowboards. In Europe there are even Bigfoot clubs and Bigfoot competitive events.

In the United States the Bigfoot remained a fringe item at best. However, a few small garage-based companies, like MicroSki, Line, Klimax, and Canon, introduced longer, wider, beefier versions of the Bigfoot, which attracted a small but dedicated following, mostly among aggressive in-line skaters who saw skiboards as a natural fourth-season extension of their sport.

But that all changed when Salomon and Dynastar, working independently, decided that skiboards would be the next big thing. The name “skiboards” was adopted as the consensus choice for the new category, reflecting the hope that it would bridge the gap between skiing and snowboarding. And the fact is, the short sliding devices do resemble tiny snowboards.

Last fall, both companies hit the market with products that were similar yet distinctive. Sporting conservative graphics, the Salomon Snowblade is aimed at a traditional alpine skier audience. ‘With its narrow profile, substantial sidecut, and a length that’s 17 centimeters longer than a Bigfoot, the Snowblade is the most ski-like of the skiboards. Dynastar’s Twin, on the other hand, features a wider profile that provides a more stable base for landings, making it better suited for use in halfpipes and terrain parks. Both designs employ user-adjustable nonreleasing bindings (all the better to share your toy with friends) as well as a twin-tip design that is tailor-made for skiing backwards.

The unofficial launch of the skiboard revolution came when the sport debuted in last winter’s ESPN 2 Winter X-Games. Competitors, including former aerial freestyle Olympian Trace Worthington, were literally inventing new tricks on every ran. Some moves, like the McTwist (a flip with a twist), borrowed a little from snowboarding, others, like rail grinds (sideways slides down a terrain park railing), were influenced by aggressive in-line skating, but many were simply improvised. This frenzy of on-snow improvisation didn’t go unnoticed throughout the industry. As mentioned, Hart, Elan, and Atomic have tossed their hats into the skiboard ring and K2 is poised to join them.

Salomon has added a second Snow,blade model to its line and has even introduced its Edition One skiboard boot, joining Line in this sure-to-grow market niche. Until this year, most skiboarders had been using softer flexing ski boots or even hardshell snowboard boots; overly stiff boots tend to overpower the tiny skis, especially at low speeds.

While it’s clear that they’re here to stay, there’s one question that remains to be addressed about the skiboard: What is it exactly? Is it a teaching tool? Is it just a very short ski? is a sport unto itself? All of the above? None of the above? It depends on whom you ask.

“We fought the battle of ‘Is it a toy or is it a ski?'” says Jochl, who thinks that the biggest market is skiers looking to add one more weapon to their arsenal–or toy to their toybox. “I think the main thrust is that it’s just something different to do.”

“It’s an alternative gliding activity,” counters Al Marino, product manager at Salomon. “It’s not skiing, it’s not snowboarding, it’s something else.”

“The average person can take these and go have a great time. It’s the facilitation of sliding for the masses,” says Dynastar alpine product manager Tait Wardlaw. “It’s going to be a significant learning tool. You’ll see people get on this and they’ll graduate to a 120 or a 140.”

While the variety of interpretations reflects the newness of the category and its wide potential, it’s also a cause for concern among some ski industry insiders. “People are confused and it’s partially our fault-is it an end or is it a means to an end?” wonders K2 product manager Norman Mayall. That’s a question that ski schools will wrestle with this season and for seasons to come.

Last year, a number of ski schools, fueled largely by the enthusiasm that came from the Demo Team training session and trickled down to the regions, began experimenting with skiboards as teaching tools, with more no doubt to follow. Both the Booth Creek and Intrawest resorts are stocking skiboards in their rental shops, and a few areas-notably Stratton in Vermont and Jimmy Peak in Massachusetts-have tried teaching beginner lessons on them, with the idea of starting students short and moving them onto conventional-length skis.

The vastly positive feedback-mostly in the form of silly grins-suggested that skiboards may be less intimidating to many beginners, and apparently a very effective way to teach some people to slide. Peter Palmer, an examiner in the East, started an athletic never-ever on a skiboard and by the end of the day had him linking turns on solid intermediate terrain. Some reports indicate that this kind of progress is the rule rather than the exception. “I’ll take a 35-year-old woman [beginner skier] and I’ll have her doing blue runs within an hour and a half,” says Michael Hughes, the founder of the National Skiboard Coalition, who teaches skiboard lessons at Snowshoe in West Virginia.

However, most instructors quickly discovered that for all their advantages, skiboards aren’t ideally suited for use by most never-evers. According to Bill Irwin of Elan, who was involved in some of last season’s testing, their clip-on bindings can be difficult for many beginners to use. And with their short length, skiboards can be twitchy on steeper terrain because they require more fully developed fore and aft balance skills than most beginning skiers possess. The result has been the evolution of a short teaching ski that bridges the gap between skiboards and conventional shaped skis (see “A Short Course on Short Teaching Skis” ).

As a teaching aid, skiboards; could have their most significant impact among accomplished skiers. “The potential for the tool is phenomenal,” says Irwin. With their deep sidecuts, skiboards allow skiers to experience a true carved turn at low speeds. With their short turning radius, they make upper-lower body separation a breeze and can help even the most bump-phobic skier tackle the moguls with confidence.

By their nature, skiboards are self-diagnostic. In the backseat? You’ll be on your butt before too long. Indecisive in your edging? Say hello to the dreaded figl wiggle, when the ski begins to oscillate as if it had a mind of its own. Too far forward in soft snow? Get ready for a faceplant. (Skiboard veterans have come to call this “getting Bigfooted” after the tendency of the very short ski to cause this type of fall.) This sensitivity to skier input is the reason why the skiboards, have become such a popular training tool among racers.

“They’re quite exacting,” says Dave Merriam, Demo Teams coach. “They have a tendency to ask for basic movement. If you’re not in balance, they let you know. If you’re not moving effectively from edge to edge, they wobble. The volume is really turned up.”

But this is not to say that a skiboard is a panacea. “It’s easy to think that a skiboard would magically teach people things,” says the Demo Team’s Blakeslee. “But people can ski them bent over, they can ski on the back, they can make all the same mistakes they make on skis.”

Instructors may stand to benefit most from some time on skiboards, not only because of the mechanical adjustments they’ll make, but the mental ones as well. “I used them for examiner training just because I hoped they would lighten up the attitude,” says Blakeslee. “When you’re on something new, there’s all that fear of failure, and the feel of learning in front of your peers and in front of an authority figure. So the examiners explored the emotional aspects of teaching too.”

It would be significant enough if skiboards become a versatile learning tool and a popular change-up for skiers looking to take a break from their long boards. But the surprise is that more and more people are settling on skiboards as their primary sliding tool.

“What we’ve found is that some people don’t want to go ahead and graduate I to 130s or 150s,” says Tun Petrick, chief operating officer of Booth Creek Properties. “They say, ‘I’m having a lot of fun on these, why would I want to change?’ If people end up spending their entire fife on skiboards, is that so bad?”

Skiboards are likely to prove especially popular at mid-size mountains, where their turn-happy nature makes small runs ski bigger and busy trails often make high speeds impractical. “When it’s crowded on the slope, you can turn it quicker,” says Jochl. “You don’t have to go as fast to have fun. You can do a helicopter or other tricks without worrying about getting hurt.”

Not surprisingly, skiboards seem to have special appeal for younger sliders looking for a different toy than their parents or big brothers and sisters use. “At our areas, which are near metropolitan areas, we actually started to see packs of kids out on them,” Petrick reports. “They don’t look like skiers, they don’t look like snowboarders. They’re more like skateboarders. They’re looking for hits, doing 360s, going through the trees.”

To reach out to these converts, a snowboard-style teaching approach may be appropriate. Upper-level lessons might start in the pipe, and may focus as much on landing jumps as improving turns. “I think that the upper-level [skiboard] lesson becomes an hour of tricks and cool things We can do on them,” says Petrick.

But the new product’s biggest impact may not have been felt yet. Until now, virtually all skiboards have been distributed through ski and snowboard shops, so it’s only those already converted to the concept of snow sliding who have heard the message. One of the sport’s biggest challenges has been in reaching out to warm-weather athletes who spend their winters in the gym or with their thumb on the remote control. And some suggest that, targeted properly, the skiboard may: be the industry’s secret weapon.

“If you narrow your focus to just the aggressive kids, you’re going to alienate everyone and it’s going to be like snowboarding and it’s going to take years to overcome,” says the National Skiboard Coalition’s Hughes. “We need to tap ‘into the other crossover, the soccer moms on the bike path with their in-line skates.”

“Early on the in-line skate numbers impressed us,” recalls Salomon’s Marino. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, the in-line skate market is roughly seven times larger than the ski and snowboard markets combined. If skiboards can attract even a small percentage of these skaters to the slopes, they could spur growth in the number of ski area visits.

At the same time, it’s likely that these wintersport newbies, who’ve never even heard of Stein Eriksen, will not only keep ski areas afloat financially, they’ll invigorate the environment with fresh movement patterns. “To kids on Snowblades, the old left-right-left-right thing seems kind of beside the point,” says Ed Pitoniak, vice president of operations Intrawest and former editor of SKI magazine. “They’re going to be bringing the movement patterns they learned in BMX riding, in-line skating, and gymnastics-the quasi-acrobatic stuff. I don’t know what it’s going to be like in five years. Something tells me it’s going to be pretty wild.”

A contributing editor at SKIING magazine, Allen St. John has written about skiboarding for The New York Times, SKI, Skiing Trade News, and Conde Nast Women’s Sports and Fitness. He has been a PSIA member for eight years.

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