November 02, 2023
Programs at Teacup continue to grow in popularity with more people new to the sport or interested in improving their skill and comfort on snow.
A frequent topic of conversation among the coaches is how often we observe students using gear that will compromise and, in some cases, prohibit learning skiing skills. During last year’s adult Ski School, we found that students of otherwise similar abilities were held back by their gear and it wasn’t always about being “bad” gear but inappropriate gear.
In one situation, a new skier in the Youth Learn to Ski Program showed up with used gear that didn’t work because the boots were NNN-BC (a type of binding used for skis of wider width), and the bindings were adult-sized NNN skate bindings. As a result she couldn’t even participate that day.
There were also students who were using downhill ski poles, and skate skiers using touring boots. While these types of equipment still enable you to get outside and ski they created a major limit to learning and truly enjoying the movement.
With ski season approaching there will be used gear on eBay and Craigslist, and gear swaps abundant. It can be tempting to purchase equipment without knowing much about sport-specific gear. As you gear up for the upcoming season, we hope these articles educate and in turn create and better experience enhanced by equipment that supports your abilities.
At our own Mt Hood Nordic Ski Swaps! there will be true expert advice available; however, it is best to be educated beforehand.
The upcoming articles are formatted as a history lesson for those who like to delve into the subject, but you can skip to the end to simply read the takeaway points that can inform and prepare you for purchasing appropriate ski gear. We look forward to seeing you on the trails!
Rottefella is a company name that most Nordic skiers are familiar with but may not know that the English translation is “Rat Trap”, so named because the first iterations of a new and wildly successful Nordic ski binding in 1927 were likened by the inventor of a rat trap.
Jump from 1927 to 1973. When I bought my first Nordic ski gear, the most widely available bindings were Rottefella “3-pin” bindings. Although that seemed simple enough, one had to be cautious to be sure that one’s boots matched the specific 3-pin binding because there were three different widths available.
The extended sole of my new boots measured 75mm in width across the pinhole line, so the bindings had to also be 75mm, not 71mm or 79mm, the other two options. Not long after there was an industry agreement that all boots should be 75mm and now the term “3-pin” and “75mm” is interchangeable. But it is a mistake to think all 75mm boots and bindings are compatible.
3 pin binding on some WOOD skis!
The growth of Nordic skiing in North America spurred the desire to explore more rugged mountainous terrain, and in response 75mm boots became stouter to provide control. Boots became higher and stiffer for ankle support and the soles became thicker than the older 12mm and increased to 15 or 18mm to add edging power. This created a need for 75mm bindings that had higher bail pivot points to accommodate. You knew immediately if your bindings weren’t correct for these new Backcountry (BC) or Telemark boots because one couldn’t even get the boot toe into the older bindings! Not so true of the reverse, since a more standard 75mm touring boot can easily go into a binding with a higher bail height and this can lead to misfortune. Away one could ski far from the trailhead until one day the inadequate clamping pressure of a thin sole and high binding bail allowed the boot to pull out, and in the process shred the boot pinholes. A long postholing walk to the trailhead resulted. This situation continues to this day with 75mm boots and bindings, which can still be a good choice for skiing in steep and deep snow.
Starting in the mid 1970’s alternatives to 75mm bindings started to develop. There were numerous performance improvements that were possible. To start with, right and left bindings were inconvenient and unnecessary. The firm clamping of the toe restricted athletic movement. Once above a walking pace the wide binding width created more work from the drag. And the boot pinholes were susceptible wear or damage that produced a sloppy fit and loss of control.Evolution of gear: 75mm to 50mmBuilding on their heritage, Rottefella in the early 1970’s delivered their “50/7” system which greatly improved mobility. The system is considered heritage because it still used three pins in the binding but at 50mm wide it was incompatible with the 75mm three pin, and the sole was now narrowly defined as 7mm thick to take advantage of the new nylon boot soles. The distinguishing feature was the much longer extension of the sole beyond the boot toe. This greatly improved mobility by allowing the foot to lift more freely above the ski. Competition to Rottefella quickly followed from Adidas with their 38mm system. At the 1976 Olympics only 50/7 and Adidas 38 were in use. Less than a year later athletic Nordic skiers worldwide made the switch away from 75mm to be able to ski like the pros.
3 Pin NNN-BC NNN
See the mobility differences between 1) 3pin and modern NNN systems and 2) NNN-BC and a standard NNN set up. NNN-BC allows for great control off track but the standard NNN allows for more dynamic and athletic movements needed for modern technique on groomed track.
The Growth of Incompatible Gear: SNS, NNN, NNN-BC, and moreHowever, resistance to the new systems came from the non-racing skiers. Doing away with a right and left binding was attractive, as was the improved mobility. But the nylon soles for racing, while they provided an excellent balance of forward flex and downhill stability, were slick and scary to walk in. To address this, Rottefella delivered the more touring oriented 50/12 system. The thicker rubber or thermoplastic sole was cheaper, warmer, and better for walking.
What followed was an explosion of choices. All incompatible.
Here’s a list of boot/binding systems since the 1970’s that are now discontinued -Adidas 38, Adidas SDS, Look Contact (by Trak), Dynafit (the same Dynafit responsible for the dominant binding type in AT skiing), Salomon SNS, Salomon Profil, Salomon SNS-BC (aka XA-ADV), Salomon Pilot, Salomon Propulse.
Late in the 1980’s Rottefella delivered the early NNN system, but many skiers used the Salomon SNS system. Salomon then came out with their SNS Profil system, which used a nearly identical concept to NNN for the boot/binding interface. The advantages of NNN or Profil over their predecessors was the nearly unrestricted forward flex, a very tight boot/binding connection that was nearly impervious to wear, and no more boot sole extensions that made walking funky. These systems were so very similar it was understandable that buyers thought them to be compatible, but they are not.
The similar concept of NNN and Profil worked so well that these two systems finally eclipsed all but 75mm. Because 75mm binding still had a bigger platform that, when combined with an appropriate boot, provided more control in deep snow and steeper terrain, Rottefella created the NNN-BC. This binding is in essence an NNN binding on steroids (but not compatible with standard NNN), which offered the advantages of the integrated systems but added control and stability that was approaching that of stout 3-pin offerings. Salomon copied the concept of the NNN-BC with their visually similar but (of course) incompatible SNS-BC (aka XA-ADV), although that system disappeared from the marketplace years ago.
For years the two competing systems were Rottefella NNN vs Salomon Profil, but then Salomon came out with the two-bar Pilot system. Seen as a technological improvement, Pilot quickly became popular…except that it proved to be good for skate skiing but not classic. As a result, the response was for Salomon to deliver their Propulse system. Yikes! Profil, Pilot, and Propulse boots and bindings could work together in some combinations but not others!
When 2017 arrived, Salomon decided to expand their market potential and make boots compatible with NNN. This new binding system, called Prolink, shattered expectations. Within two years there was only one World Cup skier using Salomon Pilot (and only on her skate skis). And that didn’t last long. The adoption of Prolink was so rapid that it took Salomon by surprise, and they had to plan for the phase out of their Pilot, Profil, and Propulse system.
The strengths and weaknesses of all these competing systems are fun to argue about but also create a challenge for buying gear and especially if buying used gear. This is no small problem! Just recently I had to inform a family that the gear they got for their child would not work as the boots were NNN-BC and the bindings were NNN. There was an additional issue in that the youth touring skis had adult NNN Skate bindings on them!
We are in an era not seen since the days before the Rottefella 50/7 and Adidas 38. For deep snow and steep off-track terrain, 75mm/3-pin or NNN-BC are still top choices, but for all other skiers we have the delightful situation that new boots and bindings can have different names, but they all use the NNN platform and are compatible! NNN from Rottefella, Turnamic from Rossignol and Fischer, Prolink from Salomon. In a sense we are in a period of binding war détente, and this makes buying new gear a far easier task…but not true for buying used gear.
A picture speaks a thousand words...
I hope you enjoyed the history lesson, and if you know the famous quote from Santayana about history – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” - you can be better informed on buying gear, especially used.
But the game isn’t over yet, and détente may be ending for some types of gear. Recall the problems with 75mm? Those issues can be worth accepting to gain the advantages in control and stability in rugged backcountry conditions. Rottefella has provided us with a new option for backcountry touring, the Xplore system, and the arguments about 75mm vs Xplore vs NNN-BC have begun. Mark Twain, anyone? “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme”.
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