Wednesday, January 29, 2014

SIN and Redemption

During our years as the retailer at Jackson Ski Touring our aversion to Rottefella's NNN system might have been a sore point. Since it was virtually impossible to get constructive criticism out of the JSTF management I can never be sure. But since our position on NNN was a running theme while we were there, these new developments might have some passing interest for occasional and accidental readers of this blog.

When Rottefella's minions announced the NIS binding a couple of years ago it seemed like an egregious grab for market share by forcing customers to choose the inferior NNN system over the sturdier Salomon systems. But, given time to think about it I realize that the SIN plate has accidentally cured all my objections to the NNN system.

Back in about 1991, when the Salomon Profil system came out, it addressed a lot of inadequacies of Salomon's previous SNS system. At the same time it corrected the flaws in Rottefella's NNN and NNN II systems, notably the unnecessary ability to adjust the length of the binding plate to the boot size and the cheesy construction of the bindings themselves. NNN bindings were more complicated to mount, leading to more possible assembly flaws, and they broke more frequently. The adjustable-length plates notoriously came apart where the two sections joined. In early versions, the rear part of the plate frequently sheared right off the ski.

Looking at these problems and finding ourselves selling a particular model of Salomon touring boot much more than any NNN boot, we decided to quit carrying NNN and beef up our stock of Salomon. We could sell with confidence. We could justify our decision on functional grounds. No one told us we couldn't sell NNN. We chose not to.

Function does not necessarily determine whether a product or its parent company can survive in the marketplace. Rottefella licenses NNN to many companies. NNN gets sold in stores where the clerks and the customers don't know any better. The sales people may know other things, but for various reasons they simply believe what they're told about Nordic product.

Meanwhile, the Omnitrak waxless base was killed off by K2 when they bought Karhu and destroyed the company. So the stage was set for this strange time when Rottefella's marketing ploy, the NIS plate, actually turns out to make their product -- if not outright good -- at least good enough.

Point one: adjustable length requires trickier drilling. With the SIN plate, there is no drilling. The binding sections slide onto the plate which is already permanently bonded to the ski. Of course time will tell if that permanent bond really lasts. SIN plate separation could be pretty nasty on a fast, twisty downhill. But nothing has gone wrong yet...that I know of.

Point two: cheesy construction causes bindings to break. SIN bindings have to be pretty robust because of the design of the plate. It's almost idiot proof, which also works well when the skis are sold at stores where no one knows or cares much about cross-country skiing.

The demise of the Omnitrak base means that there's no reason not to settle for a SIN plate ski with whatever waxless pattern they've managed to mold or chisel onto it. The best in the business is gone. The competition for distant second place is crowded with probably adequate mediocrity.

Many of the boots for NNN are reported to be quite comfortable. So that's good. I don't know if any of them have an inner lacing system comparable to the one Salomon has been using on their better boots for at least 20 years, but Salomon can't even be counted on not to mess that up eventually. The Escape/Siam 7 boots this year have what looks like the nice inner boot lacing system, but when you feel around you discover that it's not as separate as it used to be. They're getting perilously close to making those models just another standard boot with an annoying cover over the laces.

Salomon also helped make the choice more debatable with their wide application of the Pilot binding to what had been a stable and functional line of boots and bindings. Pilot started as a skating binding, where its advantages were obvious. I could easily describe and demonstrate how the binding made skate skiing better. This is emphatically not true of the racing classic Pilot binding they introduced and have already abandoned. And the Pilot touring bindings, while they may offer some advantage with the generally wider compact touring skis, sometimes don't work perfectly smoothly for some skiers. I'm not sure how I feel about them, which is a definitely step down from how confidently I could endorse the Profil system in its heyday. At this point if someone wants an NNN boot and a SIN plate ski I can't say they're making a mistake.

The NIS plate does inject complication and annoyance into the world of cross-country skiing in other ways. If a person chooses a Salomon binding and a SIN plate ski, the plate has to be masked with a special shimming plate to cover its little ridges. Otherwise the mechanism of the Salomon binding, particularly the step-in versions of Pilot, will catch on the SIN plate and jam. Rottefella may chuckle diabolically over this, but at the moment their own NNN-BC binding would need a similar adapter because there is no SIN version of NNN-BC.

Alpina supposedly offers a screw-on SIN plate for flat-top skis. How long will it be before an NNN affiliate has to offer an adapter shim to mask the SIN plate as well?

Even after decades of consumer confusion and a certain amount of complaint, the cross-country ski industry moves ever further from standardization rather than closer to it. Looking on the bright side, at least you can hunt around for the best or least worst solution for your particular needs. If the industry settled on a norm, there's a better than even chance it would be crap and we'd all be stuck with it.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Where fun goes to die.

A field observer visited Jackson Ski Touring recently and reported that the ski shop "looks perfect, like the ski shop James Bond walks into in a movie."

He said the shop staff of two wore snappy red vests. The shop was lavishly stocked and spotless, "as if it had just opened for the first time."

Creepy. Sad. Scary, if you imagine what working there must be like. I started to feel claustrophobic,like I'd been buried alive. And that was just from hearing about it.

As a customer I get suspicious when a store looks too perfect. Cleanliness like that is a sign of mental illness. Even when we had a guy with OCD working for us there it wasn't that perfect. I have to wonder how the pressure to keep up such an appearance and be unfailingly cheerful and subservient must warp or crush something inside the employees at Jackson Ski Touring and its showplace shop. Hardly surprising that they seem to advertise for a whole new staff for each ski season.

Some in the JSTF hierarchy may have pretensions of liberalism but they take full advantage of a depressed and desperate labor market. Jackson itself is full of people who take a Gilded Age view of the working class.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

It's that time again

According to the classifieds in the Conway Sun, the retailer at Jackson Ski Touring is advertising for a full staff for the coming winter. "Racing experience a plus."

I had this sudden image of a southern plantation owner who would dump all his old slaves and get new ones every year the way some people trade their cars. It's a very Jackson thing to do.

No surprise that apparently no one wants to come back for more after a winter in that happy little valley. I can only imagine how someone with racing ambitions will enjoy instawaxing gashed-up touring skis instead of skiing like a rock star...or even skiing much at all. A better fit would be a washed-up racer who still wants to talk about it. Whoever takes the position will have to stay up to date on the latest trends to sound convincing. A lot of customers in the racing realm, at least at Jackson, spend more time wrangling about gear than they do actually skiing fast. If they don't hear the right stuff from that idiot in the shop they won't buy so much as a scraper.

Actually, since Jackson Ski Touring styles itself more as Jackson Ski Racing, they're hoping the spores just come spend money and ask for little in return, so the Foundation staff and retail grunts can concentrate on selling the racing crowd expensive waxes and base grinds that peel years of life off their pricey skis. You wanna be fast? It's gonna cost ya.

The trick to handling the racer types is to let them know you know enough to do the most rudimentary tasks without messing them up, but still let the customers feel like they're smarter than you are. And of course they're faster. You can only play the Expert card on someone who has already voluntarily admitted they don't know and want to learn from you. You will basically never hear that from a racer.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fit Night at Jackson Ski Touring

Hey, December 7 is Fit Night at the retail store at Jackson Ski Touring. Expert fitters from Swix and Fischer will be there to fit you to equipment.

Gee. When I was there, you could get fitted to skis any day we were open, by people whose loyalty was to you, the customer, not a specific manufacturer. Everyone on staff knew how to suit a ski and ski equipment to the needs of the specific customer and we took pride in doing so. The only exception might have been the gangly, aging cyclist who worked for us one season, whose last retail experience had been at EMS in the 1970s. Turned out he didn't even know the sidecut on a Fischer Cruiser. Ah well. He moved on. An ill wind brought him and an ill wind took him away.

The difference is between serving the customer and servicing the customer like the bull services the cow.

There's a lot of razzle dazzle in Big Time Nordic. Bonfires, promotions, smoke and mirrors...plenty of smoke unless they've gotten that fireplace reconstructed. You have to feel you're someplace special, someplace greater than you. Someplace someone would bother to homologate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Before you take a job at Jackson Ski Touring

Remember: they don't care if you are intelligent and knowledgeable, they just want you to be obedient and malleable.

You ski free the way the caddies got to use the facilities in "Caddyshack". In fact there's quite a bit about the employer-employee relationship at Jackson Ski Touring that reminds you of Bushwood.

At the time I was there, at least one member of the board of directors would always come in with glistening mucus dangling from his nose. It gives new meaning to the term rich snot. Winter brings out the drippers. These are the people who always have a hanger, who leave a trail of droplets across the service counter, the floor, your lunch, or wherever else they happen to roam. They're the ones whose sleeves and gloves are always shiny and wet and who seem to have missed school on the day handkerchiefs and facial tissue were presented as polite ways to stem this tide of nauseating nasal flow. It's just an added burden that one of their chief representatives is also in a position of some power over you.

Know your place and stay in it. You are a servant. More and more of the original old guard are dying off, so almost no one really thinks you're lavishly paid at five dollars a day, but the management still wishes it was true.

There's a definite pecking order among the staff at JSTF. They rank on each other constantly in the normal run of things, talking about who is the most lazy and useless. Then, once the management lets it be known that someone is on the way out, the survivors demonstrate their loyalty by taking their parting shots. It's only human and quite hard for our social species to resist. Still, it's ugly to watch and even uglier when you're on the receiving end.

If it doesn't snow, you have no job. If it snows a little you may be able to shovel enough of it into the trail to stay employed. Good luck with that.

The best news is that by working at Jackson Ski Touring you will qualify for our support group for PJSD (Post Jackson Stress Disorder). It's really just a drinking group where people are free to share their stories about their grand experiences in The Big Time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

JSTF: From Taliban to Oral Roberts

Upping the ante on destructive superstition, the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation has now taken Olympian Charlie Kellogg's skis hostage and will execute them if enough people don't donate to the poor, beleaguered touring center.

It's like when Oral Roberts said God was going to take him out if his followers didn't fork over a cool million. Why someone who urgently desires heaven would tell his followers to dig deep in their pocketbooks to keep him in this vale of suffering raises questions the average superstitious believer never seems to ask. Logical thought is a sin.

In another sense, Jackson Ski Touring's lighthearted rallying call to vandalism is more like a simple hostage grab by religious zealots. They don't even have to believe what they claim to believe. They've simply taken something or someone, hoping enough people value the threatened object to produce a decent payday.

If they need something to throw on the fire, how about marriage licenses people are no longer using?

Burn, Baby, Burn.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Jackson Ski Touring and the Taliban

Jackson Ski Touring has been sending out emails announcing that they will burn Olympian Charlie Kellogg's skis in a bonfire to appease the snow gods and bring on a great ski season. This is a small example of the kind of thinking that led the Taliban to destroy historic Buddha figures carved into cliffs in their country. In either case, performing an act of destruction is supposed to cause powerful imaginary beings to shower the faithful with approval.

Mr. Kellogg's skis are hardly in a class with ancient, monumental sculptures, but they're still irreplaceable historical artifacts that have been taken hostage by superstitious vandals.

You want to put on a good show for the snow gods? Have Thom and the entire board of Jackson Ski Touring run naked around the base lodge and the village on the weekend of the annual ski sale. Make the assembled membership watch. THAT'S a sacrifice.

You want to burn something? Burn everybody's clothes while they're running around.