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.

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