Fast and curious: Once an oddity, speed suits have become an essential piece of racing equipmentSuperheroes recognized the benefits of aerodynamic speed suits long before super athletes. While Superman was aerodynamically leaping tall buildings in a single bound in the 1950s, U.S. Ski Team athletes were still taping their flapping ski pants. Over the next decade, speeds on the international circuit might not have increased to that of a speeding bullet, but they advanced to the point where aerodynamics became more critical as margins separating racers shrank. Finally, in the mid-1960s, need and technology coalesced, and the one-piece speed suit was born. Since that time, speed suits have gone from rare to ubiquitous, and are now the
apparel of choice for racers of all ages, in all disciplines. At first glance, the modern speed suit – a collection of stretchy threads sewn into a skin-tight, body-hugging shape with a zipper to pull things snug – seems like a simple garment. It’s not. First of all, a speed suit has to conform to a body whether it’s fully extended or bent over in a tuck position. Then there’s the balance between warmth and weight to consider. All those hi-tech demands require space-age materials, and the list of ingredients is longer than those needed to make Cajun jambalaya. Dave Jacobs, founder and president of Spyder, the world’s top manufacturer of competitive ski apparel, rattles off a list that includes Spylon, Gore-Tex, Entrant V, Thinsulate and X-Static. X-what? X-Static is Spyder’s new silver bullet – literally.
“X-Static is a silver fiber technology,” explains Laura Wisner, Spyder’s senior marketing manager. “Flakes of silver are woven into the fabric, which gives it microbial properties [that reduce germs and odor], the ability to disperse warmth, and it’s anti-static. The X-Static silver fiber is triple-bonded with an ultra-fine polyester knit.” In a true marketing coup, Spyder has gained the exclusive rights to use X-Static in ski apparel.
Jacobs got his first look at the forerunner of modern downhill suits in 1967, a time when Jacobs hadn’t a clue of what the future would hold. Jacobs, a world-class downhiller from Canada in the 1950s, was coaching the Canadian national team at the time and vividly remembers seeing Karl Schranz, the Austrian superstar of the mid- to late-1960s and a noted natty dresser, in a shiny, black one-piece downhill suit. “It was at one of the major downhills, and it created quite a stir,” recalls Jacobs.
Racing garb in the late 1950s and ’60s was becoming more streamlined, but Schranz’s suit represented a quantum leap. Names like Reinhaller, Roffe and Fusalp were supplying teams with stretch pants that had stretch seams sewn into the sides and tight-fitting nylon jackets with stretch panels under the arms, but once the speed-suited genie was out of the bottle, there was no turning back.
By the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, the one-piece speed suit adorned nearly all the racers, including the U.S. team. “We had the choice of wearing a Head downhill suit or the flashy silver suit,” says Karen Budge Eaton, a member of the 1968 team and current Spyder sales rep. “The Head suit was like wearing old stretch pants, but the silver suit was really tight-fitting. The fabric was thin and didn’t really stretch that much. Bending over was really interesting.”
“Yeah, and the girls looked great in them,” quips her husband Gordie, ex-international racer and a U.S. coach at the time.
With the debut of the silver suits, styles instantly went from conservative to outlandish. “We had the ‘Easy Rider’ look in 1972, with all those stars and stripes,” recalls Karen Eaton. And there was no retreat.
Within a few years, speed suits had taken another leap forward with the introduction of rubber materials, but that phase was short-lived. “They were more aerodynamic, but raised a few problems,” Jacobs says. The first was that the suits didn’t breathe, and when racers finished their runs, they were inevitably drenched in sweat. And another, more severe, issue emerged. “When racers fell, they took off like they were sitting on a trash bag,” notes Jacobs. The friction from such a fall caused the fabric to melt and then burn the skin, which resulted in the FIS air porosity rule of the late 1970s. Speed skiers (the type who free-fall down near vertical inclines, seeking speed records), still wear rubber suits, but in alpine racing, suits now have to be air permeable. “It started that suits had to pass 50 milliliters of air pressure, and that was later reduced to 30, which is the current standard,” says Jacobs.
The FIS tests for air permeability using a heavy, square box called a plombing machine. Tom Winters, chairman of the U.S. technical delegates working group, jokingly has dubbed the machine “Monica.” Says Winters, “It’s nothing but a big sucking machine. We set it up before the races, and racers can submit their new suits for testing.” All suits require proof of porosity, and when the suits are cleared, a “plomb” (a metal, numbered disc) is affixed to the suit behind the ankle. Some new suits, right out of the box, will not pass the plomb test. In those cases, Winters says, racers put them on and “stretch the s– out of them.” Winters also notes that “others are as porous as flannel nightgowns.”
The FIS has also mandated that the materials worn under the suit must meet the same porosity standard as the suits. This generally isn’t a problem, except for when the rule is carried to the extreme, as American speed skier Daron Rahlves discovered at the 2002 Beaver Creek World Cup downhill. After the final training run, one of the foreign teams protested Rahlves’ use of a neoprene sleeve that he uses to protect his knee. The protest was upheld, but despite
starting after the top 30 seeded racers, Rahlves suppressed his anger and still managed a third place. “It was a stupid ruling, but I didn’t let it bother me,” says Rahlves.
It was following the FIS air porosity ruling that a new player, Dave Jacobs, quite accidentally joined the major manufacturers, dominated at the time by Descente. “In 1978, I set out to start a little mail-order business – padded sweaters, ski tuning gear – that kind of thing,” says Jacobs. Jacobs had just outfitted his 14-year-old son, Billy, with navy blue padded pants with yellow foam pads. The pads were sewn onto the pants using a peculiar web-like stitching. When Billy informed his dad that everyone was calling them spider pants, the idea was born.
At first, the business operated out of the kitchen, but after two years and sales in the six figures, it was time to expand. “I was trying to run a little business from home and all of a sudden it became everything I didn’t want it to be,” jokes Jacobs. Jacobs adopted the Spyder name from the Ferrari Spyder, and the black widow spider logo came as a result of his abhorrence of spiders. “I figured I hate spiders so much, people would look at the
clothing and never forget it,” explains Jacobs on the Spyder web site.
Spyder currently employs more than 60 in management, research and development, and sales, and has factories in eight countries. U.S. alpine athletes have been web-wearers since 1989. As of last year, the Canadians are too, and Spyder recently scored a major coup in signing the Austrian team for 2004-05. “This is really exciting,” says Jacobs. “Hannes Trinkl even joked that maybe he would stay on the Austrian team another year.”
Not all racers on the circuit resemble Spiderman. The market offers other strong speed suit designs, from companies such as Louis Garneau, Descente, Asics, Phoenix, Carbon, Beyond X and Schneider (see page 26). But Spyder definitely has the inside track through its international racing exposure. “The expense [in sponsorship dollars] is hard to justify in terms of sales, but we represent the high end. We’re walking the walk,” says Jacobs.
In other words, even though speed suits constitute a miniscule porti
on of sales for skiwear suppliers, the marketing clout gained by outfitting top athletes like Rahlves and Bode Miller is priceless. After all, speed suits are a fixture at all levels of racing – all the better if the world’s fastest skiers are wearing your brand.
The skinny on fit
Daron Rahlves, America’s premier speed skier, knows a thing or two about suiting up for speed. “With the FIS rules on air permeability, there’s not much you can do to get a faster suit,” says Rahlves. “Just get one that’s comfortable and not too tight. I switched to a larger suit, because if the fabric is expanded too much, the suit will be slower.”
Much of Rahlves’ expertise comes from logging miles of runs at speeds over 60 miles per hour on the race hill, as well as in wind tunnels. “We go to a wind tunnel in Buffalo, where we work on materials and aerodynamics. Any flap causes turbulence, too tight causes friction,” says Rahlves, who goes through about six suits each year. The wind tunnel also reveals other pertinent information. “In a low tuck, there’s not much difference between a downhill suit and a padded GS suit, except for when you stand up,” says Rahlves. “The difference between a new suit and an old one is subtle, but if you save a tenth, it helps.”
The wind tunnel also helped answer the age old question about what to wear, or not to wear, under the suit. “There are a few Canadians who used to ski naked under the suit. They get a good laugh, but it’s not any faster, and it’s uncomfortable because the suit sticks to your skin,” says Rahlves. “I generally just use a long-sleeved T-shirt.”
Rahlves stresses the need for comfort, but racers still have the option of imitating former French racer, Luc Alphand. “Luc used to stick his suit in the freezer before each race to make it tighter,” says Rahlves with a shudder.
The saga of the silver suit
The sleek, silver suit brought speed, style and exposure, in the broadest sense, to the U.S. Ski Team when it was introduced at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France. The suit was the creation of Vermonter and 1950s ski team member Doug Burton, who migrated to ultra-chic Aspen, Colorado, by the 1960s. Looking for a means to give his suit exposure, he found the perfect choice – 1960s glamour girl and fellow Vermonter Suzy Chaffee. Says Chaffee from her current home in Aspen, “Doug thought the U.S. Team looked too much like the Salvation Army. He had a great sense of style and designed the silver suit.” Chaffee, the No. 1 U.S. downhiller at the time, first wore the suit in a Vail downhill in 1967. “It was fast all right, so fast that I crashed and dislocated my hip.” But that misfortune turned out to have a silver lining.
Things just started snowballing. Chaffee and the suit caught the eye of the editors of Glamour Magazine, who invited her to France for a photo shoot. There, she earned enough money to attend Innsbruck University and, after rehab, finance another World Cup campaign in 1968. “I used it [the suit] for the Olympics, and I’d have to say fashion saved my butt,” recalls Chaffee. “The coaches missed the wax in the downhill, and I was five seconds out by the first turn, but a fashion statement was made.”
Chaffee rode the exposure provided by the silver suit into a career of activism. And she’s only half kidding when she says that she credits the silver suit for empowering her to become co-founder of the World Sports Foundation, one of the first women on the U.S. Olympic Committee, representative on the Youth Sports and Recreation Program, and current founder and advocate for the Native Voices Foundation.
The suit enjoyed a much shorter shelf life than Chaffee. “After the Olympics, I put a smudge on it. The cleaners must have put it through at least five times, because they cleaned the stain, but wrecked the suit.”
Schneider, built to suit
Altenmarkt, Austria, might be best known as the home of Atomic skis, but tucked away in a corner of town is the small, family-run, ski apparel manufacturer Schneider. Racers looking for a quality speed suit will not find Schneider at any U.S. ski shops, but its signature checked patterns are becoming more common on the race hill through the modern miracle of Internet sales. The sole distributor of Schneider is the hyper-energetic Franz Fuchsberger, ex-Vail ski instructor, multiple Powder Eight champion, masters ski racer and fanatical promoter of the sport.
“A few years back, I was wondering what I what would be doing after instructing,” says Fuchsberger. “I happened to bring back 10 suits for our Vail town racing team, and they were gone in a second, and the idea shot into my head.” By talking to retailers and competitors, Fuchsberger found there was a demand. “Lots of retailers wanted it, but then I would have to go to work and hire a sales staff, and that would raise prices.” So Fuchsberger did what many enterprising small businessmen are doing – he went
digital. Now he collects individual orders through his web site, SchneiderRacingUSA.com, where he carries a full stock of suits in all sizes and colors. The increasingly popular custom team suits and uniforms have to be ordered by May 1 to ensure a delivery date of October. “We offer one-stop online shopping, and we can do it for nearly half of the retail price. With no overhead or middleman, we can sell $600 suits for only $395,” boasts Fuchsberger, who has expanded his line to include matching jackets and warm-ups.
Despite booming sales, Fuchsberger is determined to maintain his lifestyle. “This has happened faster than I expected, but I still want my office to be on the ski hill with just a cell phone,” laughs Fuchsberger.
Wyred to win
Dave Jacobs, the founder of Spyder skiwear, was approached by two young men working for the Titan missile project in Denver, Colorado, in 1994. Being an open-minded sort, Jacobs invited them to his Boulder offices. “They showed me a cardboard tube with downhill suit fabric sewn over it and on one side they had sewn a strip of cord running the length of the tube,” says Jacobs. “And then they said, ‘Let’s go for a ride.’ They had me stick the tube out the window at 60 miles per hour or so, and I could barely hold it against the air drag, but when I rotated it so the cord was facing the wind, the drag and vibrations just disappeared.”
Flabbergasted by the experience, Jacobs added the wire cord, called a “trip wire,” to a conventional suit and took it to the General Motors wind tunnel in Detroit for testing. Jacobs called Dr. Holden, an aerodynamic engineer who specializes in hypersonic testing, to conduct the testing. Holden immediately told Jacobs, “You’re wasting your time.” A short time later Holden called back saying, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” The trip wire reduced drag by 20 percent at speeds under 70 mph.
Jacobs initially tried to keep the trip wire, which he named “Speedwyre,” a secret while the patent was pending, and outfitted U.S. speed skiers, Picabo Street, Hilary Lindh and Tommy Moe for a real-life competitive test run. The results were as immediate as the ensuing cacophony of protests. Street won the world championship downhill in 1996 at Sierra Nevada, Spain, and Lindh came in third. Then, in the 1997 world championships at Sestriere, Italy, Lindh was “wyred” for gold once again. Unfortunately for Spyder and the U.S. Team, the FIS declared the Speedwyre suit illegal just before the 1998 Nagano Olympics.