Elan’s foldable skis, the innovation that could revolutionize winter sports

Posted Jan 13, 2022, 2:20 PMUpdated on Jan 14, 2022 at 1:11 am

From west to east, on a 180° panorama, a cloud covers the immense Lake Geneva in the distance. Below, the cold and the shade. Above, the dazzling light sparkles on the abundant snow that has fallen in recent days on the peaks surrounding the resort of Avoriaz. It is early December and the ski world is feverishly preparing for the new season, still hanging on to the impact that the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 will have. A few handfuls of privileged people take advantage of this rare moment when the village and the ski lifts are running at low speed. No one really pays attention to the tall silhouette, decked out in black and orange, hurtling down the slopes in a fluid, polished style.

However, Victor Lourdel is not an anonymous skier… One step away from qualifying last year for the World Tour, the competition bringing together the twenty best freeriders on the planet, he is testing equipment that is unique in the world. Under his feet, a pair of revolutionary skis that bend as easily as a boot snaps into a binding. Once stored, its longest version (172 cm) curls up to 93 cm and fits into a very easily transportable bag. In the hermetic universe of sliding, this innovation is a technical feat, the Holy Grail often heralded before finally becoming reality.

Two latches to lift, and presto…

And the athlete is full of praise: “Honestly, I didn’t expect that. You don’t realize at all that you have skis on your feet that bend in half », says Victor Lourdel. To the curious who approach, he offers an unstoppable demonstration: he lifts two small latches, then operates a rotation of the plate which carries the bindings to make it tilt towards the rear part, and here is the folded ski. A maneuver that no manufacturer had ever managed to do despite several attempts.

Demonstration of the Voyager d'Elan skis in Avoriaz.  When folded, a 172cm pair is only 93cm.

Demonstration of the Voyager d’Elan skis in Avoriaz. When folded, a 172cm pair is only 93cm.© Felix Ledru for “Les Echos Weekend”

Behind this object designed for travelers, hides the Slovenian brand Elan. Less known to the general public than the majors in the sector such as Rossignol, Atomic or Völkl, it has carved out a great reputation for itself through innovations for seventy-six years and its creation in the village of Begunje, in the region of Upper Carniola. Its founder, Rudi Finžgar, is a young carpenter and intrepid ski jumper. Rather than following in his father’s footsteps in the workshop, he cut, sanded and designed pairs of skis which quickly earned him a good reputation. He was barely 20 years old when World War II set Europe ablaze, and the German army wanted to enlist him.

The asset of the Slovenian resistance fighters

He chooses to desert to join Cerkno, in the free zone, where the partisans prepare the fight against the Nazis. Their ability to move nimbly in the Alps directly impacts their strength of resistance and they adopt the creations of their ingenious comrade. At the end of the conflict, Rudi created the Elan ski equipment manufacturing cooperative with the certainty, according to accounts from the time, that his company would one day shine throughout the world. Already in the 1950s, he exported his equipment to the United States, convinced that this territory would offer him a much larger market.

Victor Lourdel, ranked fourth on the European Freeride World Qualifier circuit in 2021, on Voyager skis from Elan.

Victor Lourdel, ranked fourth on the European Freeride World Qualifier circuit in 2021, on Voyager skis from Elan.© Felix Ledru for “Les Echos Weekend”

Even today, the factory blends into the unchanging backdrop of Begunje, where it all started. The founder’s shadow still hovers there. with its values. “During the war, he had found the time to organize a race. Which reminds us that, regardless of the context, it is essential to find moments to relax, to prove to ourselves that we are still human beings. A message that resonates today with the pandemic”, explains Leon Korošec, vice-president of Elan Group.

A prototype designed for the army

As a nod to this heritage, it was with the Slovenian armed forces ten years ago that the idea of ​​the folding ski and its first prototype were born. « The initial observation started from the observation of the troops, who had difficulty moving with traditional skis, but I cannot tell you who exactly is responsible for this », admits Leon Korošec who claims six patents filed for this innovation. It will take four years of design work before arriving at the Ibex Tactix, a ski touring model that equips elite mountain troops. Gradually, the concept is attracting the interest of foreign powers, including the United States and Germany, which are still testing it. The Italian army has already taken the plunge and certified it as suitable for use by its troops.

Left: ski touring outing.  Right: Victor Lourdel freeriding in Avoriaz.

Left: ski touring outing. Right: Victor Lourdel freeriding in Avoriaz.© Felix Ledru for “Les Echos Weekend”

But the Ibex Tactix is ​​a bit heavy and unsuitable for recreational use. It will take five more years for Elan to transpose the new technique to its Amphibio piste ski model and thus open up a whole new market segment. « It’s a word-of-mouth product, and we’re aiming for 500 pairs sold in 2022., details Johann Personnaz, CEO of Sunset Sport, the distributor of Elan in France. The typical user is a person who is a ski enthusiast and has become a hirer for logistical reasons, for lack, in particular, of owning a second home. «  A strong purchasing power is also a sine qua non. The pair of folding skis comes close to 1,300 euros, against 700 for its “rigid” equivalent.

If the expected volume will not weigh so heavily on the future turnover of Elan Group, which also builds small sailboats – 70 million euros in 2020 and 85 million planned for 2021 -, the message addressed to the mountain community wants to be strong. In France, the brand has gone from twelfth to seventh place in market share since 2014. It wants to establish itself as a benchmark in all ski disciplines, excluding speed and cross-country. Freeride, skicross, track, hiking… above all, it wants to continue its innovative approach which in particular enabled it to initiate the revolution of parabolic skis in 1995, making turns easier thanks to their arched shape.

From there to imagine a development of the folding technology to the whole of the range? “We are taking it step by step and it is too early to say in which direction we will go, tempers Leon Korošec. For some references, this would make sense, but this ski must already find its audience. «  Elan doesn’t usually overcommunicate. We should therefore hardly expect major advertising campaigns to support the launch of a disruptive product. Same discretion on its reasoned approach to production.

Production concentrated in the Alps

When French and European industry turned to Asia fifteen years ago to lower manufacturing costs, the company chose not to budge, and to remain rooted in its alpine stronghold. “We are the only ones to do everything in the Alps and 99% of our suppliers are European”, explains the boss of Elan.

A choice of which the various ambassadors of the brand are well aware, such as the Swede Ingemar Stenmark, legendary holder of the record of 86 World Cup victories, the Frenchman Maël Ollivier, freerider and winner of a stage on the World Tour, or the Franco-German Léa Bouard, specialist in mogul skiing. All committed with their community to the preservation of their playgrounds, suspended at more than 2,000 meters above sea level, they are passionate about this discreet but always innovative brand.

Four Elan ski ambassadors

Maël Ollivier, the rising star

After joining the World Tour last year, bringing together the twenty best freeriders in the world and winning a first victory, the French skier intends to interfere on the final podium.

Léa Bouard, the muse

After participating in the 2018 Olympic Games in mogul skiing, the Franco-German turned to freeriding. She also designed with Elan a pair dedicated to women, the Ripstick 94.

Glen Plake, the American rock star

A legend of American skiing, this jack-of-all-trades has won competitions in many different disciplines. Above all, he is one of the pioneers of freeride and is recognizable by his mohawk hairstyle.

Terence Tchiknavorian, Olympic hope

A ski cross specialist, the athlete from Vaucluse is back in force a few weeks before the Winter Olympics in Beijing. A serious fall during the last edition had cut his ascent.

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