How splitboards became popular in Europe. An interview with Simon Graf by Splitboards4Europe
Their name is their motto: “Splitboards4 Europe”. To supply the whole of Europe with splitboards. So that everyone can enjoy the white stuff even better. Since 2000 a number of people around Simon Graf plays amongst the field leaders in the European splitboard business. They are specialists for every aspect of splitboarding. To find out how it all started and how the journey will go on, let’s talk to Simon in an interview.
1. Simon, let’s begin with a simple question: when did you start snowboarding? In 1988, when I was 15 years old. Back then you had to call the ski resort and ask, if they allow snowboards.
2. Oh yes, I remember these days well. And when did you get involved with snowboard-touring? Back in 1995. I built some snowshoes and did my first backcountry-trip.
3. …you built snowshoes? Yes, snowshoes… we did not have anything different that time. But soon I learned snowshoes are just an “ascent support”, not a real piece of touring equipment.
4. …and then one day you discovered splitboards? Right! Only a few years later I got my first splitboard from Voilé-Europe. This company was founded by my later business-partner Gregor Common. The board was a Voilé “Split Decision”, fully equipped with Voilé parts – because there was nothing different available that time. Since then the Voilé parts have changed only marginaly.
5. Gregor and you eventually became business-partners. What’s the story of Splitboards4Europe? We soon figured out, the only chance to bring splitboards to a wider market is to bring them to places where our potential customers are: in the mountains. Snowboarders were quite doubtful about splitboards. Nobody believed it to be a working system. In our first season I took a motorhome and travelled to many ski resorts to show all the gear and offered tests. But it was poorly accepted. So we had to change our strategy. In our opinion selling touring equipment needs more than just selling gear. We also needed to inform people about all the other things around touring, as i.e. alpine risks. Our all-inclusive Beginner-Camps were born. First they took place in glacier ski resorts, and since 2006 at my little home, the Huettle, in the middle of the Montafon mountains in Vorarlberg/Austria. (www.huettle.at)
6. The two of you laid the foundation for splitboarding in Europe? We tried to make it popular. Today we know the first splitboards appeared in Europe in the late 80s. But the market was not ripe for the sport. I guess, companies did not really believe in splitboarding and did not dedicate enough marketing resources to make it viable. On the other side we were the very first company that offered a complete test-pool, and were the first distributor of Voilé products in Europe. Voilé was the first company really who produced and sold splitboards on a grand scale. They started this business approximately in the mid 90s. Our beginnings were even more exciting. But it was worth all the time and energy we invested. And to show the people how a splitboard works. Everyone was stoked when they left for home, and they told their friends about it. From this we now had a solid marketing base and many others took notice. And wanted to take their profit. Too bad, even some copycats.
7. …copycats? Perhaps you could tell us a bit more … Many retailers put some splitboards in their shop, but no one there has any clue about it, i.e. which edge to prefer on the inside in ascent mode, or other similar things. Yes, some even want to copy our concept of distribution or our camps. But good luck, we are the “original”, and the market will come around.
8. Maybe the current hype about splitboarding in Europe is a reason for that. One can get the impression splitboards did not really work a few years ago. That’s right. But overall they worked well, it’s just that the market has come around. Today there is such a wide variety of splitboards, which confuses splitboard newcomers. So many different shapes, bindings, even a few new systems are currently available. Someone has to keep an overview, we play that role. With our website we try to guide people through all the confusion.
9. The question needs to be asked: what does a splitboard newcomer need for the start? Well, of course you need a splitboard. Take one with a nice all-around shape, maybe a Prior, Arbor, or Venture. Put a Voilé kit on it, a pair of sliders with your old used freestyle bindings, and some skins. These are the essentials. Add some hiking poles. Now we are at about € 900. Every snowboarder already has functional outdoor clothing, add a small backpack. But don’t forget avy equipment: transceiver, shovel, and avy probe are a must if you enter the backcountry!
10. You mentioned bindings. Any softboot- or freestyle binding is ok, you say. But there are even specific splitboard bindings. What do you think about them? They bring a wider range of products in a reasonable way. A Spark or a Voilé Light Rail is a great product. They reduce weight of the whole setup. But they have their price.
11. And other systems that appear on the market? There are always some new products, and we are happy about all of them. We are also happy about the fact we don’t have to represent only one brand, as we did in our beginnings. Out of the wide range of splitboards we can choose the brands and models that convinced us on the mountain. And this will never change. I.e. the Voilé system: it’s been on the market for more than 10 years, and it’s still working perfect. From small Bavarian hills up to the Mont Blanc. This is what the others are up against.
12. You say “we”. Who is behind Splitboards4Europe? “We“ are Volker Scholz and me. 2 years ago Volker of 4mountains.ch and I with Splitboards-Europe started a cooperation under the name Splitboards4Europe. Volker is a long time splitboarder, and was our distribution partner in Switzerland, during the days of Voilé-Europe.
13. Why did you start this cooperation? Because of the high demands to ourselves: to offer splitboarders the best gear available. We aren’t fulltime sports dealers, who sell swimsuits in summer and some boards in winter. Behind our work is lots of idealism, we can’t live from this business alone. Nevertheless our highest priority is to try out all of the products we offer. Splitboards, bindings, skins and whatever… you can’t manage this as a one-man-show.
14. Sure this isn’t easy to manage with all the new upcoming products. But it seems as though it works… …it does. And to continue our work, we offer Europe’s biggest test-pool with boards and bindings by the most popular brands. We also support the German Alpenverein (Deutscher Alpenverein, DAV) in Munich with test equipment. And we have the best testimonials we can ever get: from people who join our Beginner-Camps.
15. You already mentioned the Beginner-Camps. Tell me more about them… Nearly every weekend during the season about 10 interested people meet at the Huettle. Friday evening the beginners get a splitboard, and learn how to mount bindings, adjust angles and everything else. Saturday we go freeriding in one of the local resorts, they can feel how a splitboard rides in all conditions. On a groomed run or off-piste. Actually everyone has a smile in his face when the day ends. We also give a short introduction in avalanche awareness, before we do a backcountry trip on Sunday. Both parties get something back: the snowboarders gain insight splitboarding. And we can see if the material holds up. The real hardcore tests we do on weekdays, on the local mountain or sometimes on a 4000 m peak in the Alps.
16. Regarding the quality level of splitboards: are there still bad quality splitboards on the market? Since about 2010 we have the impression, too many manufacturers require a splitboard in the line-up. Volker and I, we are sometimes irritated about that. They don’t spend much energy for R&D, some just cut a solid board in half. In our opinion a splitboard is one of the most complex products for the mountain sports. Only a few manufacturers can produce the halves so exactly to have them fit perfectly one to the other. And of course, there are unexciting shapes. But we think: if you’ve spent all your energy climbing to have only one run a day the run must at least be on a perfect board. A splitboard should provide fun all winter long, in every condition. In a resort the same way as on a powder run.
17. You sound quite enthused at the moment. What is the fascination with touring? There is the exhausting ascent, and maybe one run in the end.Hard to explain. It’s a mix of all of it. The silence out there, the snow, the nature, the company of friends. I stopped counting the number of trips in a season. But touring is still a dream for me. It’s always a good feeling, I feel satisfied when I reach the top of a mountain. And I feel like a kid when I look forward to the run. Doesn’t matter how many problems I had when I started. When I am back in the valley the problems are still there, but they don’t carry the same weight as before. After a day in the backcountry I am happy and relaxed. That’s all.
18. Sounds good! Let’s venture a view at the future. What do you think the next years will offer? I am sure, there always will be people or companies who will try to establish a new system. Maybe someday we’ll see something new take over the market, but for today in 2012 I can’t see it. And some companies will leave the splitboard business again, because production is too expensive, and the market does not really need such a big line-up.
19. Final short question: What are your wishes for splitboarding? 12 years with splitboards in Europe are behind us now. And we are the most successful splitboard distributor. On top of that the only one who is selling splitboards exclusively. It would be a dream to continue the same way for another 12 years: using our know-how to help people out there have a great day of touring. Because there is one thing you should be always focused on: the main thing is to give something to the people, to let them participate from your experience. Then you get a payback someday, this makes you happier than even money: photos from splitboarders having a big smile in their face.
Simon, thank you. Have a great winter!