A VIP odyssey to the Volkl factory and a product worthy of its ‘heritage ski’ hoopla
December 30, 2017
Live in Ski Town USA, and at some point you might as well get a glimpse of how the products behind the moniker are made. For that, and a sneak peak at a new model the company is banking its ski press on, iconic, 100-year-old ski manufacturer Volkl invited a cadre of international ski journalists to its factory in Straubing, Germany, this fall to see how its new Mantra M5 is made and, more importantly, skis.
Touching down in the ski-terrain hotbed of Iceland before landing in Munich, we — a ragtag group of editors from such magazines as Ski, Freeskier, Ski Canada, RealSkiers, Gear Junkie, BlisterGearReview and more — were quickly whisked away to the quaint Bavarian town of Straubing for the first order of business: schnitzel and beer. When it came time to leave, being tired and jet-lagged were no excuses not to socialize over more suds and sausages with the wave of European editors storming through the restaurant's door at 11 p.m.
Introductions made over shots of schnapps and arm-swinging songs, we finally lumbered to bed before the next day's factory tour.
Traveling from Austrian glaciers to the off-season slopes of New Zealand, Volkl went through 10 different incarnations of the new mantra M5 ski on snow and in the lab — assessing everything from absorption and dampening to rocker, flex and width — to come up with the final model.
First released in 2005, the Mantra is Volkl's most popular all-mountain ski, dwarfing all other models in sales. The new M5 marks its fifth generation, with several key improvements over its predecessors, including a softer flex in the middle; a narrower "all-conditions" width underfoot at 96 mm (specs: 134/96/117); carbon tips and tails, decreased swing weight; and new tip and tail rocker, blending to 2 mm of camber underfoot. Designers also tightened the turn radius from 23.6 m to 19.8 m, and moved the ski's widest spot 15 mm down from where the tip starts to rise.
It also changed its lynchpin Titanal material lay-up, which combines strength, power and dampening. Augmenting moderate taper, sidewall construction and a multi-layer wood core, the M5 has, like before, the customary full Titanal layer on the bottom, but instead of a similar layer on top it employs three separate "frame" pieces of varying thickness overlapping one another. The move reduces weight by 50 grams per ski to 2,020 grams.
"We want material where it's needed, but not where it's not," says R&D manager Domini Grunert.
The result of all this is a ski catering to all conditions and consumer groups.
"Consumers want easy access and a ski for all environments, so we made it more forgiving," says marketing director Arnd Hemmersbach. "It's one of the most important skis of our entire collection, and will be a true heritage ski for us."
In the factory
The company's own 100-year-long heritage was on full display at its factory in Straubing, where Grunert made introductions in front of a long wall showcasing 10 decades of the company's skis, from wooden planks with cable bindings to today's World Cup racing wares. It was clear to all that we were in one of the sport's most heralded hallways.
From there, we signed disclosure waivers, donned headphones and entered the factory's hallowed interior, guide Grunert explaining different processes along the way.
Volkl makes skis year-round, and November found manufacturing to be in full swing. Processes and work stations include foam-injection and epoxy molding, sidewall-glueing; top and bottom sheet placement; fiberglass and Titanal layering; and more. Different skis employ different processes, some skis combining foam-injection molding with a pre-structured top sheet with others layering wood composites, fiberglass, binding plates and more.
As far as the Mantra, the tour provided witness to the ski's unique top sheet Frame Construction. After laying in the customary bottom sheet of Titanal, technicians pieced three shapes together for top layer, each of varying thickness. It employs Titanal on the edges, tip and tail, as well as mid-section. The technique maximizes dampening and absorption, while reducing weight. After all the layers are stacked, the ski spends 25 minutes in the press before cooling for 10 minutes. When it comes out, a translucent top sheet provides a window into the technology inside.
"We wanted to make our technologies visible, letting consumers see the outline of the Titanal frame," says Grunert, adding that reducing graphics helps drive the ski's aesthetics.
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After going through the grinder, polisher and edge-beveler machines, skis get a final quality check, testing everything from weight and flex to rocker and camber, before getting a silver sticker signifying completion. Every worker marks his or her ski personally for additional quality control purposes.
How it fares
The proof, of course, is in the on- and off-piste pudding. To see how it skied, we headed to
Solden, Austria — yes, the bus had a built-in latte maker and a fridge with beers inside the dashboard — where we dined and overnighted at a posh hotel, took in a presentation and film by Volkl athlete and two-time women's World Freeride Champ Nadine Wallner, played that hammer-a-nail-into-a-stump game until 3 a.m. at a Harley bar, and otherwise rested up for our test day on the slopes.
For that, we headed to the resort's topmost glaciers, just two weeks after the World Cup, testing the hot-off-the-press ski on groomers and, when the tuners weren't looking, early-season, out-of-bounds powder.
It lived up to its "heritage ski" hoopla. On-piste, it held an edge no matter how hard we tried to skid it, whether arcing GS turns or tighter slalom carves (its 96 mm underfoot platform kept it quick for dodging errant, veering-this-way-and-that Euros). We felt the power transmission and torsional stability of the Titanal, as well as its toughness when Euros stepped on top of our skis in line.
The skis also stayed quiet at high speeds, especially when trying to keep up with the freeskiing, air-it-out-anywhere likes of Wallner and yellow-suited designer and ski instructor Jonas Braunmiller. Last one to the bottom? Just look for the giant banana and his horde of minions somewhere in line.
Elbow through the crowd successfully (far from the "you first, no you first" etiquette of Steamboat), the only chatter about the skis was our collective raves about it in the gondola. While the perfect tunes helped, it's also clear they have a winning model in the Mantra. The perfect tunes lasted, at least, until we ventured off-piste into the untracked when the marketing execs weren't looking (sorry about that baseweld, Arnd). All in the name of testing, there the skis also exceled, the wide shovel floating like the lone clouds wisping in the alps' cobalt skies.
Veteran outdoors writer Eugene Buchanan is the Steamboat Today magazines editor and author of a newly released book, "Tales from a Mountain Town: Musings from 25 years of Living in the Colorado Rockies."