A ski pole is just just a shaft, some cork and a basket. Or not. Top racing poles is based on years of research and development, testing, engineering and design.
There has been an incredible development in the racing pole segment, but the best poles still deliver in on four basic categories: light weight for optimal travel, a strong and stiff shaft for optimal power transfer, a comfortable strap to avoid blisters and hand pain, and a cork handle to keep hands warmer and allow for a natural hand position.
Madshus released the first poles on the World Cup about five years ago, with a 100 percent UHM carbon construction and an entirely new way to think about straps and handles. (Story continues below)
Product development is a science, and revolves around market analysis and research to determine what the target audience is after, finding functional solutions for design and graphics, and most importantly materials. The prototypes then undergo extensive testing. Testing in a lab, testing in the ski tunnel, testing roller skis, testing at the World Cup and testing with the general public.
“We have an open ended dialog with our racers, and we work with them to set the needs of the World Cup athletes,” says Jon Fewster, who is the designer and global product manager for Madshus poles and ski boots.
Weight, quality and suppliers
Fewster explains that poles in the top-racing category are particularly challenging due to the requirements for both low weight and high quality. The poles need to be tough, but they also need to be light, stiff and precise in the travel and efficient at transferring the power from the athlete to the snow.
For starters, producing top-level ski poles demands keen attention to the material selection and layup.
“The selection of materials is both a question of what you put in to produce a pole that is stiff enough and strong enough, and what you leave out to reduce the weight,” Fewster says, explaining that the right materials are not always easy to get a hold of.
“Determining the right quality of carbon is hard enough, but getting your hands on it is also a challenge. There are limits on exporting carbon from the USA, which reduces the global supply, especially on high modulus carbon, which is the kind we use in our poles,” Fewster says.
“The higher modulus it is, the harder it is to secure a stable supplier,” Fewster says.
But challenges are a part of the product development and engineering process, and this season, Madshus is launching a pole that is 6 percent stiffer and lighter than any other top-racing pole on the market.
Straps and grips
Although racers often return with a lot of opinions on straps, and offer feedback that sometimes send the project all the way back to the drawing table, demanding athletes are crucial to engineering and development. Without this feedback and the ongoing dialogue with the athletes, it would be a lot harder to build great equipment.
“Straps are a challenge for fit and function, and they are surprisingly often overlooked. When they don’t work, the athletes suffer,” Fewster says.
Some straps can be hard to get into, hard to adjust, uncomfortable, or slip while in use and athletes have to adjust them while skiing.
“Our athletes are always pushing for more! There is always something that can be improved. But their feedback makes us want to meet and exceed their needs,” Fewster says. (Story continues below)
With pole shafts, weight and stiffness are the determining factors. With grips, it’s a combination of handles and straps. Over the past five years, Fewster has worked intensely with designing an entirely new concept for handles and straps.
“We build our straps like orthotics for your hands: 3D-molded and moldable, so they conform to your unique hands,” he explains.
The new straps are softer and feature more volume on the lower part of the hand, creating a more comfortable strap that is also easier to adjust and easier to get into.
Madshus handles have cork on the whole surface, which make them warmer to grip, and are narrower between the fingers to improve aim and angle. Better aim increases the power transfer and each pole plant is more efficient. The poles also have new baskets that allow for more precise pole plants. The 2011-12 poles feature new graphics as well, so you look sharp on the course.