Photos: Ane Jens
Snowboarding can hurt, and more and more of us are choosing to take the sting out of those icy falls with helmets, impact shorts and more. Yet there are still many riders out there who prefer a beanie to a skid lid. We spoke to Pro-Tec’s head honcho about the challenges of making safety-first kit seem cool.
What’s your job title?
Category Director for Vans Equipment, which includes Pro-Tec (snow, skate, bike, water) and Vans snowboard boots
Where is the company HQ?
What makes it special?
It’s a new facility that we moved into earlier this year, which enabled us to basically build it the way we wanted. The new location is about 105 thousand square feet (or 9750 square meters) with a very open environment, high ceilings and concrete floors that cater to skateboards as the preferred choice of transportation around the office. We also built a mega mini ramp 80 feet long by 30 feet across with a combination of 4 and 5 foot walls, a 6 foot vertical extension and various other transitions and rail features on the decks.
How many people work there?
Vans and Pro-Tec are located in the same building and there are about 300 people total, with around 12 people dedicated specifically to Pro-Tec.
What are the perks?
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as reading a letter from someone who was saved from serious injury or death as a result of wearing one of our helmets. That quickly puts things into perspective of what it’s all about. Or seeing the end result of the finished product and then going out and riding. It’s easy to come to work when you love what you’re doing.
How do you test helmets and protection? Do you have to crash into stuff??!
We get back a lot of beat down gear from our pro riders and product testers that we take information from to improve the product. We also have an in-house testing lab with a 10 metre drop tower that enables us to replicate the types of impact a helmet will experience from normal to extreme conditions. Different sports have different certification requirements, and different regions of the world have different standards, so we have to design helmets taking all of these factors into consideration. We use the same type of equipment the official certification labs use, which allows us to test product and then fine-tune it accordingly.
How do you make something bulky and functional look appealing and fashionable?
With protective gear it’s not that easy. It’s taking something that most people perceive that they have to wear and transforming that into something they want to wear. Fortunately helmets have come a long way aesthetically. In-mould construction has helped make helmets lighter weight and lower profile. The use of all-over graphics and material covers has also helped to offer a more appealing aesthetic. Helmets nowadays can tell you as much about a rider’s personal style as the rest of their set up.
What’s the future of snowboard protection? Are there any holy grails out there?
As riders continue to push the limits of snowboarding and consequences increase, protective gear will need to evolve to meet those demands. Protection will be more of a necessity and less of an option. Ultimately you want protection that doesn’t feel like it’s there; low profile, lightweight and ergonomic while still maintaining the maximum level of protection possible.
Why are skaters more reluctant to wear protection than snowboarders? Is it just cos pads aren’t cool and skaters can’t hide them?
Image has a lot to do with it. Of course with vert skating it’s unusual to see someone skating without protection, while street skating is obviously a different story. Snowboarding is a little more mainstream than skating and has a larger and more demographically diverse range of core participants. These days you’ll see parents and their kids snowboarding together. You don’t find too many families skating down the street together.
Are people being stupid if they choose not to wear helmets? Do you agree with resorts and artificial slopes making it illegal to ride without them?
In theory action sports are about individuality and creative expression, and riders should be free to make their own decision on whether or not to wear a helmet. In reality, with how much the sports have progressed, these activities can be seriously dangerous. The scale of features in snowboard parks these days is no joke. Insurance is expensive for parks and resorts and no one likes to see anyone getting seriously injured. I personally don’t feel that wearing a helmet detracts from the riding experience and if everyone was wearing one then no one would think twice about it. As an example I know plenty of people who would never consider riding their mountain bikes down a trail without wearing a helmet, but don’t wear one when they’re cruising through the trees on their snowboard at a much faster speed and with greater potential for serious injury.
Are headphone helmets a contradiction? Don’t they make people less aware of what’s going on around them and more likely to crash into others?
I’m not sure I would necessarily agree that listening to music while riding makes you more likely to crash into others. There has been little evidence to support that theory at this point. If people want to listen to music they’ll do it with or without a helmet. What’s the better scenario, someone crashing with a helmet while listening to music or crashing with just their headphones on?
We’ve heard rumours that some brands encourage their riders to ditch their helmets for video parts and comps, since it makes them more recognizable. Have you heard of this?
Actually I’ve heard the opposite, since the helmet is regarded as one of the most prime pieces of logo real estate for sponsors. It’s no coincidence that energy drink companies are paying athletes hefty salaries to cover their entire helmet with an all-over brand graphic or logo. During an event, or when a rider is interviewed after a run, it’s one of the most visible pieces of equipment.
What do all the guys in your office do to let your hair down?
There are a few local watering holes around the office that we’ll hit up every now and then to blow off some steam but you’re more likely to find the crew skating the mini ramp, hitting the beach for a morning surf before work (Huntington Beach Pier is about 15 minutes from the Pro-Tec office) or heading up to the local mountains after a storm to get some fresh tracks.
What stands you apart from the rest of the industry?
The biggest thing for Pro-Tec is its heritage. Much like Vans shoes Pro-Tec was adopted by skaters from the very beginning. It’s the original protective gear brand for action sports, and pioneered what is now recognized as the classic skate helmet silhouette. That history is something that can never be replicated.