After 29 years of tuning skis for recreational skiers and Olympic heroes, Win Park was convinced he could beat any robotic machine. He took two pairs of identical skis, shipped one off to the folks who make the Montana Snow Cruiser Max, and then took three hours to put all the skill he'd acquired through the years into tuning the second pair of skis.
When the first pair of skis was returned to him, he took both pairs out for test runs on snow. The next thing he did was throw a little tantrum.
"I had a pride tantrum," Park said. "The machine beat me."
Several months later, the machine is in Park's new shop, where it's hard at work.
Park and Barry "Bear" Bryant are the owner/managers and veteran ski tuners at Edgewerks, a new ski tuning shop in Gondola Square. Emblematic of the trend of ski shops investing heavily in new stone-grinding and edge-sharpening machines, they purchased a machine that can promise customers their skis will be tuned as well as or better than they were when they were new.
Edgewerks owner Peter Duke has leased almost $250,000 in equipment from Swiss manufacturer Montana. The equipment uses digital technology and robotics to make skis as good as they can be.
Edgewerks isn't the only local shop installing new hardware on the shop floor.
Christy Sports SportStalker location in Gondola Square has a new machine from Austrian company Wintersteiger. It cost just shy of $100,000. Gart Sports, expected to open later this month, reportedly has the same machine. And the new Ski and Bike Kare shop at Fifth Street and Lincoln Avenue had an impressive new Montana machine dropped by crane through a hole in the roof of the building this fall.
The justification for the expensive new machines is
the ability to tune more skis, faster and with fewer employee hours, but also to do a better job. The computer-guided machines are able to produce more precise, more consistent work.
Steve Keller, repair shop and hard goods supervisor at the SportStalker, said skiers and riders have thought in the past they knew what they were getting, but because of far less consistent technology, they really weren't getting the tune they thought they were.
Keller said his staff's new Wintersteiger doesn't make mistakes when it comes to the precise combination of base bevel and edge bevel it's commanded to execute.
Basically, a slight outward bevel on the base, near the metal edge of the ski or board, makes it easier to initiate a turn. And a slight inward bevel on the edge makes the ski carve the snow like a knife.
Chances are, intermediate skiers and riders who truly aren't carving don't want the 2-degree bevel on their edges that a Winter Sports Club racer might want.
"I'm not going to give them an aggressive tune," Park said. "I'm going to give them a ski that works."
Duke agreed that a good tune is about helping boarders and skiers feel good about themselves.
"We're trying to match their skill level, so they have more fun," Duke said. "Your fun meter is relative to your ski's condition."
Despite all the robotic technology afforded by some of the new ski tuners, the machines still require an experienced person to study the clues and determine what type of tune is best for each skier or rider. Often, their equipment is the biggest giveaway.
The new machines also offer nearly infinite capabilities to the shops as they use stone grinding equipment to pattern the base of skis and snowboards. The pattern breaks the friction between the ski and board bottoms in dry snow crystals, and breaks the suction between the bottoms and water in wet snow. Both effects cause the skis to glide more efficiently over the snow.
Ski shops in Steamboat are taking different approaches to the way they blend new technology with hands-on ski tuning.
At Ski and Bike Kare, the shop has a new Montana stone grinder. However, Tim Magill and Freddie Hahn still insist on hand-finishing their clients' edges with the help of a tool that helps them ensure the correct bevel. They like it that way.
Hahn has been tuning since 1974, and he appreciates the consistency offered by the new stone grinder. He marvels that as the stone wheel that flattens the bottom of the skis wears down, a computer in the machine automatically adjusts for the narrowing diameter, keeping the revolutions per minute constant.
Stone grinding, first, is all about returning the base of a ski to a perfect state of flatness.
"That's the whole trick in tuning skis," Park said, "is getting a flat base. That's really why stone grinding first came into existence."
A base that has worn to concavity is difficult to properly tune.
The Montana Cruiser Max that Edgewerks uses is a marvel because it can combine many ski tuning steps into one operation. In less than 5 minutes, it stone grinds the base of a snowboard and bevels the outer edges of the base. Next, it sharpens and bevels the edges and finally uses a ceramic stone to polish the edges.
The leased machine is valued at $190,000 Duke said. He also acquired a Montana P-Tex Master priced at $30,000. The machine quietly does base repairs as they never have been done before, sliding out a smooth coat of expensive sintered base material that quickly returns boards to a state of newness.
Duke is best known in Steamboat as the founder of internationally known outdoor clothing company SmartWool. But when he left that company a couple of years ago, he got back to his roots.
"My real love is skiing," he said. "I've been skiing since I was 3, and I directed the ski schools at Killington and Heavenly. And I was on the PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) national team.
When he was at the helm of SmartWool, Duke had a funny way of explaining how he was a fish out of water, or more appropriately, a skier out of snow:
Duke's landlord in Gondola Square is the American Skiing Company, and his contract helps to ensure his investment in his new shop will stabilize. The Steamboat Ski Area has agreed to send the business from its rental and demo fleets to Edgewerks.
Gary Dickerson, repair shop manager at Ski Haus, said ski shops have to balance their investment in technology with their volume of business and their ability to do good work. His shop's rental fleet is between 300 and 500 skis, and some of the big shops on the mountain may have thousands of skis in their fleet, he said. They have a need to handle more volume, Dickerson said.
Ski Haus has a Wintersteiger Micro 81 stone grinder that enables it to offer customers a wide variety of base structures. And they have a ceramic trim disc that allows his technicians to polish ski edges back to factory specifications.
"We take a hands-on approach to meeting individual customers' needs," Dickerson said.
Chuck O'Connell, area manager for Christy Sports and the SportStalker, acknowledged that the investment in new ski-tuning equipment is justified by his store's beachfront location and its large rental fleet.
Demo skis, which are used to sell new skis to customers, will get nightly attention to make sure they are skiing their best.
"With this machine, we have the ability to improve our rental line," Keller said.
O'Connell said veteran ski tuners are important to the business.
"The competition among ski shops is more vibrant than ever, but the technology is only part of it," O'Connell said. "We have ski school instructors who have been followers of Dutch Schultz at our Ski Time Square shop for many years."
Keller is jazzed that the computer hard drive in his new tuning machine allows him to do some special things. He can download the formula for a special ski tune from the Volkl factory race room, for example. Then, employees can give a copy disc to customers, so that if they visit the Christy Sports shop at Snowbird, Utah, they can hand over the disc and get skis tuned the same way.
Park is convinced that his shop can produce, from tip to tail, the most consistently tuned ski and snowboards in town.
His crew uses a handheld laser to verify the bevel on skis when they first come into the shop. And he knows the formula used to achieve the cross lateral base structure so popular in the World Cup. It gets better -- for Nordic skate skiers, Park has access to the base structure being applied to skis used by the U.S. Nordic Combined Team. But don't tell anyone.
The stakes are getting steadily higher in the new world of ski tuning.