A skateboard innovator makes fast tracks to Vermont
It’s a classic American tale. A young dude has a dream, turns it into a design project for his college degree, builds a few working prototypes at his parents’ place, and soon finds himself with the biggest buzz in the ski industry. If Jason Levinthal and his company, Line Skis, were any hotter right now, the snow wouldn’t stand a chance.
What sets Line Skis apart — besides the kind of ‘tude you might expect from a 26-year-old CEO — is that they do not make conventional skis. The product line has two segments — four models of skiboards and two of twin-tip skis — but it’s the skiboards that are getting the most attention. At just under three feet in length, they look almost like toys. Almost.
“You know, short skis have always been around — I didn’t invent them,” Levinthal explains. “What I did was take current ski and snowboard technology and adapt it to a short ski, so now you get the best assets of an in-line skate, a snowboard and a ski.”
Levinthal waxes enthusiastic about the qualities of skiboards: the independent leg control, the carving sensation, the maneuver ability. “Those were the three sports I loved,” he says, “so I made these short skis with tips on each end, about half the length and twice the width of a traditional ski. I found I could do more on these than I could on my snowboard or my skis combined.”
The genesis of the Line skiboard was Levinthal’s degree project at the University of Buffalo, where he was a student in Product Design. His initial idea was to transfer the sensation of in-line skating to skiing. Working out of his parents’ garage, he was only able to make one pair a day. Levinthal continued to research the technical aspects of modern ski construction, such as wood lay-up, fiberglass and epoxy specifications, and the “Rockwell” hardness of steel-edge material. Unable to afford expensive tools, he designed and built much of his own machinery.
Levinthal’s first sales of the prototype skiboard were primarily to friends and family. The product attracted some interest at the national ski industry show in 1995, but the designer’s big break came the following year, when he and high school buddy Mike Nick entered the ESPN X-Games with the new invention. Much to their surprise, Levinthal won the bronze and Nick the gold in the Slope-Style event. After that exposure, skiboard sales jumped from a handful to a thousand pairs in one year. Today, despite the fact that most of the big-name ski companies are coming out with “me-too” products, Line Skis is still positioned as the hardcore original.
The young entrepreneur began working in his hometown of Albany, moving to progressively larger warehouse spaces. With sales and production more than doubling annually, Levinthal realized it was time to take the next step in his business — and move to a more ski-friendly area. After rejecting Colorado, he chose Vermont for its proximity to Canada and the East Coast. Besides, Levinthal adds, “It’s just a cool place, really. This is where the other ski companies are, and now I know why.”
Within the next few weeks, Line Skis will open its new corporate headquarters in the recently renovated building at 208 Flynn Avenue in Burlington. The front room is currently dominated by a trampoline, soon to be replaced by an indoor half-pipe for in-line skaters and skateboarders. A factory showroom with the latest products, and offices for marketing and customer service, fill the remainder of the space.
Line’s products are manufactured in Canada, where wood for the cores is plentiful and the American dollar goes further. Levinthal and his investors have plunked down a quarter-million dollars for the factory, which will produce both skiboards and twin-tip skis.
The move to bigger quarters in Vermont will allow Line to grow even more, with upgraded computer systems and new personnel.
“We know that the future of skiing is not going to be around in 10 years unless the kids out there decide to ride skis instead of snowboards,” Levinthal says. “As a whole, skiboarding and skiing is all coming together. Someday you’re not going to see much of a difference as far as style of riding and the tricks.”
As a matter of fact, industry numbers tend to support Levinthal‘s argument. In 1987, 1.2 million pairs of adult Alpine skis were sold in the U.S. market. This year, that number is expected to be between 600,000 and 700,000, depending on your source.
Levinthal sees three distinct markets for skiboards. “There’s the hardcore in-line skaters that now have something to do on the snow; there’s the beginners, because the learning curve is ridiculously short — the first day they can be making turns and be in control going down the hill.” And, he adds, “there’s the people who have been skiing for years and years and they don’t want to learn a whole new sport like snowboarding, but they want to do something new and exciting, so they get on these and they already know how to do it.” Levinthal asserts that many of the latter camp end up siding with skiboarding.
The low cost of the equipment doesn’t hurt. A pair of skiboards with bindings goes for $250 to $350, whereas high-end, full-length skis with bindings can run from $700 to $1000.
Because of their length, skiboards are currently exempt from international standards for releasable bindings. The longer the ski, the greater the “lever arm” and, therefore, the greater the amount of twisting torque applied to the leg. Too much twist and the dreaded “spiral fracture of the tibia” occurs, followed by a multitude of autographs on white plaster. Short skis means less torque, and theoretically less opportunity for injury. Another benefit, touts Levinthal, is that “because they’re so short, you don’t get the knee strain you would get on longer skis.”
The International Standards Organization has established a working committee to look at skiboard bindings, but for now these consist of a non-releasable, set-and-forget adjustment to the boot. This is simpler and keeps the cost down. Though Line sells a specific boot for the sport, any ski boots will work as long as they’re not stiff racing models.
According to Chris Jensen, a salesman at The Downhill Edge, this will be the Burlington shop’s third year of selling skiboards. Jensen reports significant sales growth in each of the past years; skiboards represent 8 to 10 percent of the volume of regular ski sales, with most buyers in the 10- to 20-year-old range. The Downhill Edge added Line Skis after selling the Salomon and Dynastar brands.
“They’re a local company now, and we think they’re going to be easy to deal with,” Jensen explains. “Plus, we wanted to give our customers more of a choice in a growing market.”
The skiboard buzz has not gone unnoticed. Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine have written articles on the sport. Levinthal himself was named one of the top 50 entrepreneurs in the October issue of Point of View magazine.
But Line Skis is about more than product. As with snowboarding, skiboarding too is about attitude, as exemplified by the guy who started the skiboard scene. As Levinthal says, “After I graduated, people were going to grad school and asking me what I was going to do. I was like, ‘Dude, I’m done with school, and I want to start a ski company.’ ‘Cause I knew it was my heart and soul and I wasn’t going to settle for failure.”
Levinthal’s joy in discovering new ways to have fun is contagious. When you go to the slopes this winter, just look for the people with the funny-looking skis, and check your grin against theirs.