Is the Vermont brand’s latest line of boards, boots and bindings the antidote to 2020?
(Above: Stale Sandbech / PC: Gimbal God)
In the world of snowboard gear over the years, we’ve witnessed many a boiled frog. Essentially, a plucky upstart company sets out its stall with an easy-to-digest product line, but over time, things get incrementally more complicated in the strive for the last word in innovation. One minute it’s the supposedly game-changing application of a new space-age material, then before you know it you’re drowning in incomprehensible diagrams, questionable interpretations of the laws of physics, and what you suspect are just lies.
No-one has time for that, least of all when the ongoing ‘rona situation necessitates that crucial brain-space be reserved for, among other things, the current status of a scotch egg. So it was with a degree of relief that Rome’s latest product line came into view; leaner and mercifully de-jargoned, but still featuring plenty worth getting excited about. We bent the ears of their key people to learn more about how they got to this point.
“Recent changes at the brand presented an opportunity to hit the reset button”
“What drove this shake-up was the reality of how confusing our product line had become,” admits Matt Stillman, Marketing Manager. Fortunately, recent changes at the brand presented an opportunity to hit the reset button. In 2018, Rome became part of the Amsterdam-based Low Pressure Studios family, joining Bataleon, Lobster and Switchback. While the headquarters would remain in Vermont, the home of the brand since its inception in 2001, the deal nevertheless marked something of a new start for Matt and his team. “We had the unique opportunity to go back to the drawing board, take a critical look at who we are a brand, what was working, what wasn’t, calibrate where we needed to trim and where we needed to grow.”
“This year’s collection is really special, because of how many times we got prototypes on snow before approving and bringing them to market”
With the production of Rome boards shifting to the SWS Factory in Dubai, which was already doing the honours for LPS’ existing brands, a full reappraisal of that particular category was a no-brainer. However, they didn’t stop there, deciding to refresh the boots and bindings at the same time. The result of this stock-take appears to have been to seek out better results using fewer materials, and clearer ways to explain it using fewer words; to be on the side of the customer who knows what they want, but doesn’t have the time for ‘brand-spiel’; to apply an easy-to-follow tier system (yes, such things do exist) designed to point riders of all abilities and budgets in the right direction. In a nutshell, ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’.
To be clear, ‘simple’ isn’t the same thing as ‘basic’. There’s still a lot going on in any piece of snowboard gear worth its salt, and it needs to be able to deliver every time. The only way to be sure that any new product is fit for purpose is to test, test and test again; and the bigger the overhaul, the more on-snow analysis required. “This year’s collection is really special, because of how many times we got prototypes on snow before approving and bringing them to market,” says Matt. By his count, a single summer session masterminded by Antoine Postaire, Board Product Manager for the entire LPS stable, featured no fewer than 18 prototypes.
As well as ironing out the various tech tiers, Antoine was also charged with improving the ‘HotRod’ – a long-serving feature of Rome boards, where a carbon rod is built into the core to give it some extra pop. Pretty soon, he had the outline of a plan. “Flat carbon stringers have been used in snowboard construction for ages, but the effect is not close to what a carbon rod can provide,” he explains. “However, if you profile it, if you give it a shape, its bending stiffness can be three or four times higher with the same amount of carbon.”
“The only way to be sure that any new product is fit for purpose is to test, test and test again”
Again, testing was the only way to land upon the right design, and multiple versions were produced that experimented with the layout, thickness and location of the added carbon. At the end of the process, a design in the shape of the greek letter Omega, straddling the existing carbon rod and complimenting its ollie-enhancing oomph, won the day.
Granted, at this point it might feel like we’re straying from the simple, but there’s more to the Omega’s story. Previously manufactured with a combination of basalt, bamboo, glass, and of course carbon, the HotRods have now been stripped back to only two options; bamboo or carbon. The Omega inserts provide the variation in pop that the wider range of materials once delivered. As well as tidying up the supply chain, the Omegas have also given a shot in the arm to flat-based boards like the Rome Gang Plank, which previously featured just the solitary bamboo rod.
While Antoine was bending carbon to his will, over on the bindings side, Product Manager Justin Frappier was embracing the no-frills approach while working on the new ‘AuxTech’ toe straps. “When it comes to manufacturing, the need to innovate through design often means trying to limit oneself to a single material – kind of an exercise in minimalism,” he explains. “That’s part of where AuxTech came from. I really wanted to make the best possible toe strap with a single material.”
The stuff in question has ‘auxetic’ characteristics; in layman’s terms, while most things get thinner when you stretch them (elastic bands, for example), auxetic materials actually expand and get thicker – so as you crank your straps, the pressure is more evenly distributed over the toe of your boot. Minimalism is also the watchword elsewhere in the binding line, as is evident in the updated FullWrap chassis – still built from a single piece of metal, but now lighter than ever.
Of course, coming up with ideas and testing them to exhaustion is only part of the process, and will amount to little more than a pile of busted prototypes and wasted effort if you haven’t asked the crucial question: what do snowboarders actually want? Speaking to both customers and retailers played a huge part in the overhaul of this year’s boot line, says Matt. Based on that feedback, the men’s range of models has been pared back to just four: the charge-ready Guide, the all-mountain Libertine, the park-focused Bodega and the progression-friendly Stomp. Each is available boasting either a BOA lace configuration, a classic fat lace, or a hybrid system that combines the two.
“Speaking to both customers and retailers played a huge part in the overhaul of this year’s boot line”
“It stemmed from the idea of trying to give shops and riders the freedom of choice”, says Matt. “The Bodega BOA is a great example of that philosophy. It’s a softer boot that you probably wouldn’t expect to be available in a BOA option, but there are riders who want a soft flexing boot with the simplify and snug hold of a double BOA. Our main goal with the boot line structure was really to make it super easy to find your dream boot.”
While there are currently no lace or hybrid versions of the women’s models available, that’s a decision that has also come from speaking to the end users, as Justin explains. “We certainly have considered adding the Hybrid BOA lace style for the women’s models. At this point we’re just waiting to see if riders and shops are looking for that from Rome.”
While the customer is technically always right, only a ship of fools would spend all their time focus-grouping everything to death when you’ve got a walking, talking, Norse-hammer-throwing well of snowboarding knowledge on the payroll. After a decade with Rome, Stale Sandbech is the lodestar of the brand’s north-Euro-heavy pro team. Matt again: “We’ve always been a brand centred around passion for snowboarding, and Stale’s love of riding mixed with his positive outlook is Rome to a T.”
He was roped in early in the process for this year’s line, primarily to steer the design of a (mostly) new three-board quiver. First up there’s his long-serving Mod – stiff, poppy (now even more so thanks to the Omega inserts) and powerful. Then there’s the brace of new entries, the Stale Crewzer and the Stale Fish. The former, explains the man himself, “goes any day – but a slushy spring day in Absolut Park with my RK1 boys would be what it is exactly made for.” As for the Stale Fish, the directional outline and setback camber profile confirm what the name suggests; this is built for the powder. The topsheets of all three bear the mantra, ‘Never Grow Up’, appropriately enough for the Peter Pan of snowboarding. “Every time I strap in to my snowboard, that’s when I fully become that kid again, just living in the moment trying to have the most fun.”
Given his ride-everything approach, it was important for Stale that nothing with his name on it was too specialist. “I’m so happy about this quiver; it gives you something for all conditions, but at the same time, all the boards work riding the whole mountain.” Perhaps the Mod is in a grey area there, as it’s notoriously a bit of a beast, but if that’s too much board for you then the Party Mod, a mellower-flexing version, is now available. Navigating your way around the rest of the 2020/21 board line is just as easy; the Ravine Select is a souped-up Ravine, and the Service Dog takes the shape and profile of the Stale Fish and applies specs more suited to the progressing, budget-conscious rider.
“Stale’s love of riding mixed with his positive outlook is Rome to a T”
After so much R&D, launching the finished products in the full flow of COVID-19 surely must have been hard to swallow. However, Matt and the crew are keeping things in perspective. “We consider ourselves to be fortunate in a lot of ways regarding the timing of [the pandemic]. We were able to roll this new line out last year, still do in-person shows and on-hill demos, so the initial reaction was super positive and rather normal compared to what we’re working with currently.”
It’s a fair point; an uninterrupted development process is a luxury that brands who had timed their overhauls for the winter of 2020 didn’t have. But however much you accentuate the positive, you can’t altogether eliminate the negative; the ongoing challenges for the retail sector are very real. Rome’s approach is to trust their partners to bring the stoke whenever the opportunity arises, while also acknowledging the need to do more online. Their website, for example, was fully redesigned over the summer with an emphasis on keeping things easy to understand for when there’s no shop assistant to help out.
Hopefully things will start getting back to normal in time for the Rome crew’s latest shake-up to get a fair shake – by being honest about what was going wrong, and turning down the noise in order to make things right, it’s the least they deserve.
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