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Dealer's Choice — Cross-country ski wrap at SIA

It was a classic post-show, beers-in-hand bull session. Five cross-country ski retailers winding down while talking over what they'd seen over the preceding three days at SIA's Ski Show. The conversation was lively enough but lacked animation. The missing energy, neatly summed up by one of the retailers, was the fact that, "there's nothing here that I'm saying to myself that I can't live without." That's not to say that cross-country at SIA was without interesting new product. It's just that none of it was breakthrough in nature or compelling enough to make retailers drool in anticipation of putting the product in their stores.

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It was a classic post-show, beers-in-hand bull session. Five cross-country ski retailers winding down while talking over what they’d seen over the preceding three days at SIA’s Snowsports Show. The conversation was lively enough but lacked animation. The missing energy, neatly summed up by one of the retailers, was the fact that, “there’s nothing here that I’m saying to myself that I can’t live without.”

That’s not to say that cross-country at SIA was without interesting new product. It’s just that none of it was breakthrough in nature or compelling enough to make retailers drool in anticipation of putting the product in their stores.

Pressed to give a headline story for the show, most agreed that Salomon’s entry into skis and the ski touring market was the biggest news.

Not that all retailers agreed on how Salomon’s skis would sell and how the company’s concept of packaging the skis along with boots, poles and bindings sat with them or would go over with their customers. Takes on the product and packaging ranged from, “great product and an idea that’ll make merchandising and selling cross-country easier” to “it’ll never work” with all sorts of variations on those two themes.

Whatever their stance on the ski packages, retailers were impressed that Salomon veered from its normal “top down” (racing product first with trickle down into more general use categories later) product intro path. Face it, the Escape 5 and Snowscape 7 and 9 skis have solid rack appeal and the Salomon brand name behind them.

Its ski intro also inspired Salomon to produce a tight clothing collection consisting of base layer tops and tights, a vest and jackets. The vest, for example, features a Windstopper front with a four-way stretch back.

Another show headline is Fischer’s new top-end performance boots. The six-model Centrix line features boots with round lasts and built-in anatomical footbeds that center the foot after every skate or classic movement. The boot’s construction includes an integrated toe box and heel counter, molded insole, technique-specific midsole, integrated power wedge, injected frame sole construction and technique-specific anatomically shaped soles. But how well it will work on-snow is yet to be determined.

Retailers with a strong racing business are anxious to try Centrix before declaring the low-cut, but reportedly as supportive as high-cut, skate boots the must-have boots for skaters in 2005. The classic boots were more easily accepted by retailers even without testing.

Both the Centrix classic and skate boots got thumbs up for initial fit from retailers who were sample (42) size and could try them on. But the proof will be, as always, in the on-snow tests.

Fischer wasn’t the only company with new and interesting boots. Atomic, Alpina, Rossignol, Karhu and Erik Sports also had plenty to talk about.

From a single boot model two years ago to a wall of boot models at SIA ’04, Atomic let it be known that it’s in the boot game. Its new NNN-II (companion bindings feature Atomic graphics) line starts with the new Racing Skate and Racing Classic models and extends down through a price-point skate and classic models. Pricing is aggressive. For example, the Racing Skate is $149 wholesale with a $285 MSRP, and hefty discounts are available.

Alpina’s new SP Series boots are specifically designed to meet the needs of exercise skiers. The four models (SP 15, 25, 35 and 45) come with plastic ankle cuffs that get progressively higher with each model number increase, speed lacing, anatomical footbeds and power strap closures. All models are available in either men’s- or women’s-specific lasts.

Atomic offers the FX and FL-L (ladies) boots for fitness skiers. Both are mid-cut with torsional stabilizers, instep lacing and full lace covers.

At Rossignol, the boot emphasis is on the new X-ium WC Skate model with carbon-fiber cuff and heel counter. Other features on the boot include an internal PU heel counter, split lacing that allows tightening the laces down near the toes independently from tightening them up around the top of the arch, thermo-molded fit, and a micro-adjustable, ratcheted ankle strap.

There’s also a new X-ium classic model and Rossignol claims both the classic and skate boots are the lightest on the market by some 20 grams. Both also come in either full or low foot volume lasts.

Also new for racing, Salomon’s Skiathlon mid-cut pursuit event boot looks like a winner for skiers wanting a does-it-all boot with a softer flexing ankle cuff for skating and a more flexible sole at the ball of the foot for classic skiing. For those with high-volume feet, Salomon has added the Racing Skate 9 and Racing Classic 9 models.

Karhu is all about touring with its new Venture SNS-Profil boot. It is, as the Karhuvians say, “a boot for the person who needs hiking boot support.” That means rugged hiking boot-like sole, reinforced ankles and an internal Gore-Tex bootie. Ventures will be available in two men’s colors and two women’s colors for $139 retail.

Fischer is going aggressively after the SNS-BC business with their new burley BCX 6 boot and the lighter-weight BCX 4 boot. The new BCX 675 is targeted for 3-pin skiers.

When it comes to price, Erik Sports is the price player. After years of distributing the Norwegian-made Alfa boot line, Erik now distributes a new line of NNN-II and NNN-BC boots made to its specifications in China. All 14 boots in the line all aimed at entry level and intermediate skiers and price-point conscious shop buyers.

Fitness by any other name
Concern was expressed by several cross-country ski vendors that the terms fitness skiing and exercise skiing don’t accurately capture the activity they see the users of new mid-length skis getting involved in. “Exercise and fitness tend to connote high performance skiing,” offered one company executive, “and we’d like something more relaxed, more along the lines of wellness skiing, getting out in nature skiing.”

Until the new name comes along, let’s stick with fitness skiing. Atomic’s new FX (Fitness Cross) four ski line includes the 49-44-48 FX 10 skate model (in sizes 172,178,184 and 190) for crust cruising and skating in groomed snowmobile tracks and three waxless skis for traditional kick and glide skiing.

Fischer adds the new Challenger Skate for entry-level skaters to its Nordic Cruising line. It also changes the line by adding a new “D” shape ski frame that reduces overall ski weight by 40 grams while improving ski flex and swing weight.

Other new Nordic Cruising features include a sidecut profile (51-44-53-44-47) for the Cruiser model, an XL (184) size for the Orbiter, Voyager and Jupiter models, new narrower shovel geometry on the Voyager and Jupiter models, and a tail protector on all rental models.

Madshus adds the new economical ($150 suggested retail) Cardio 22 skate ski into its Cardio eXercise Series ski line.

On the race side, Rossignol is all smiles about its new X-ium classic ski. The ski has a 41-44-44 profile and is designed so that it takes only 60 percent of a skier’s body weight to compress a camber pocket. That said, glide is unimpaired. A CAP-like control edge is designed to offer better edge control and turning.

There are three X-ium classic models: C-1 with low camber for hard wax conditions, C-2 for packed snow warm hard wax conditions, and C-3 for glazed track klister conditions.

Noteworthy to shops that offer a wide array of race gear is Karhu’s recommitment to its Finnish-made racing ski line. The line consists of the high-end Volcan skate and classic skis, the high performance Avelan skate and classic skis aimed at the citizen racing crowd, and the Impulse junior skate and classic models.

More in keeping with Karhu’s recent sales push is the new 67-56-58 Pegasus CAP backcountry touring ski for $249. The ski has an interesting construction, which Karhu says combines all the benefits of a wet lay up in an injection-molded ski.

Also showing promise for shops strong in backcountry touring sales is the new Madshus Light model. The skis (in 165,175, 185 and 195 sizes) are indeed ultra light because of their drilled wood cores.

Rossignol comes to the backcountry touring party with three new skis: BC 90, BC 70 and BC 65. The 90 (90-70-80) comes in a waxable or waxless version. The other two models come only with waxless bases: the BC 70 with a 70-60-65 sidecut profile and the BC 65 with a 65-53-60 profile. All have rounded tips and subtle matted topsheet cosmetics.

Since dropping the Asnes line this year, Erik remains in the backcountry touring game with skis of its own design and manufacture including the new Whitetail metal-edged, 68-60-65 model and the Explorer with the same sidecut but without edges.

A binding situation
Rottefella’s new NN-BC Magnum was the SIA show’s cross-country binding headliner. Magnum has a 67 mm wide steering plate making it easier to control and turn wider backcountry touring skis. It also offers skiers more stability when riding a flat ski. Manually operated Magnum bindings have a larger lever making it easier to open and shut them with gloved hands.

Itty bitsy baskets
The term “get small” takes on a new meaning when you look at the new racing pole baskets. They are minimalist at best and obviously won’t work well if used on anything but superbly prepared hard tracks.

After getting over the small basket visual hurdle, it’s easier to concentrate on the key new pole features and pole line upgrades. Leki is taking its patented Trigger concept from its alpine pole line and putting it into all its performance cross-country poles from the top-end $289 HM (high molecular carbon) Trigger model all the way down to a $65 track touring model. Trigger allows a skier to disengage the strap from the pole’s grip with a pull on a tab on the grip and re-engage the strap by inserting a tab on the strap into a hole in the grip.

Toko shifts its story for 2005 from grips to a complete reworking of its pole line. All its performance series poles now feature brilliant exterior finishes with sublimated graphics. That’s quite a change from rough exteriors festooned with decals of the past.

At Exel, its new Raptor and Raptor Max racing poles not only have dinky baskets but also sport new easy to get in and out of straps that are carried down through most of the performance and touring poles in the line.

Waxing up
SIA was tool time for most companies selling cross-country waxes and waxing products. For example, Swix offers an all-new base brush program featuring brushes with smaller bristles, more refined bristles and new bristle materials.

Holmenkol’s brush push is on its new soft steel bristle model for cold snow base prep. In waxes, its hot item is the Nordic Glider spray-on glide waxes that can be used on the trail by ski tourers or by competitors as a base glide wax under racing glide waxes. There’s a Nordic Glider Plus (0 to 8 C) and a Nordic Glider Minus (-8 to 15 C).

Toko’s latest classic wax addition is the White which covers the 9 to 19 F degree temperature range.

Apparel and Accessories
Last year, Briko had just a few pieces of its cross-country apparel line on display. This year, it showed the entire line including Windstopper jackets and pants (with a removable suspender system), stretch fabric jackets with zip-off arms in men’s and women’s cuts, thermal tights, jerseys and race suits.

Swix adds six new aerobic activity jackets, all of which are made with a new proprietary microfiber. Its popular knit hat line expands yet again with more colors and designs including a complete U.S. Ski Team line.

Sporthill’s Swift fabric went over so well last year in adult tops and bottoms that it’s being used in a top and tight for kids next season. Also made with Swift but with a MicroNylon front overlay, the Wind Shield Jacket and Wind Shield Vest are for extreme cold-weather skiing.

Sporthill’s new Symmetry Jacket is a lightweight wind-, rain- and snow-resistant jacket made from100-percent Createx polyester microfiber fabric. And for 3SP fabric fans, there’s the new ATV top with brushed inner collar, 12-inch front zipper, slight drop tail and invisible front zip pocket.

Sans pockets but designed for those who like a beefier base layer, Craft’s new Active Wool underwear features a 100-percent Merino wool outer layer and a 70/30 wool/polyester inner layer. Active Wool comes in crew and zip T-neck tops and long underwear bottoms.

New in socks, DeFeet’s long road to perfecting the Alpine sock it announced two years ago comes to fruition with finished product. The calf-high Ski-D socks are padded at the shin with low bulk fabric and at the toe and heel with terry looped Merino wool. Its patented Air-E-Ator fabric is used on the back of the legs and instep. Suggested retail will be $16.

For ski tourers, DeFeet’s new Merino wool and Air-E-Ator ankle-high Blaze socks have extra padding on the toes, heels and at the top of the foot above the arch.

In gloves, Toko’s Champion WS soft shell gloves with Windstopper for $60 retail were a show standout. They come in men’s- and women’s-specific sizing.

Sizing up the show and everything seen there, a Midwest retailer ended the post-show casual roundtable with, “maybe there’s nothing too wildly exciting for next season, but what’s new is very solid, very saleable.” Enough said.