Wed, Nov 27 2013 10:24 pm | Comments
Tom Sims’ last prototype: The E-Board Collaboration with Louis “LOFO” FournierPart of the Snow Craft Pioneers series. Stay tuned for the next episode of Snow Craft Pioneers: The legacy of Tom Sims dropping Saturday.By Jesse Huffman
Back in 1976, Tom Sims got a call from a teenage Louis Fournier, looking to mail order one of Sims’ name-brand skateboards. That package would only be the first that would pass from California to Quebec. Two years later, when early snowboard companies started offering their first creations, Fournier took to making his own boards. With the exchange rate heavily in American favor, it wasn’t affordable for Fournier to buy the American-made decks.
Producing his own boards under the “LOFO” label, Fournier became an innovation leader north of the border, creating one of the first full wood cores with inserts. At the 1985 US Nationals, the Quebec rider’s modern board construction and prototype folding highback caught the notice of the skateboarding idol turned snowboarding scion.
“Tom rode my blue ‘LOFO’ board and was absolutely stoked of the edge hold, ease, and carving ability,” Fournier recalls. “He said; ‘I want this. Do you want to make my gear for me? Of course I said yes, to a request from Tom Sims, the most influential skateboard guy in the boardsport industry!”
Sims funded the development of the folding highback design, integrating ideas from several snowboarders, especially Jeff Grell, and brought to market a huge performance advance that has become a staple, essentially unchanged since. Fournier and Sims’ collaborations took off from there. Fournier was already producing what he says is the first vertically laminated 3D full-core boards, and the prototypes ended up under the feet of Sims pros—up until then the height of technology was horizontally laminated plys of wood in a skateboard press. Setting up manufacturing for Sims, which had recently been licensed to Vision Sport, Fournier developed and produced the first wave of Sims’ Blade series in 1986, boards ridden by icons including Craig Kelly, Terry Kidwell, Shaun Palmer, and Sims himself.
“Tom had this talent to tell what would become a hype or a new buzz; a world trend,” says Fournier. “As an example the folding highback—which he was stoked on the minute he saw it, even if all snowboarders I had shown it to, they all said it was dumb, too big, too stiff, ugly, and so on. It was the same thing with the seven-ply skateboard construction that Tom brought to the skate scene in 1976.”
The snowboard industry at the time was in a technology race, as the uptick in rider interest and performance demands pushed manufacturers toward the next game-changing product upgrade. Tom Sims was many things during this era— a pioneer, a competitor and rider himself, and above all an innovator. He tinkered and customized constantly, and his company put out key advances like the first pro model, Terry Kidwell’s freestyle board designed to allow riders to go backwards.
The Sims brand launched with serious momentum, but then languished as licensing deals went sour, riders jumped ship and competitors with a capital advantage muscled in on precious market share. Sims continued to produce boards, even as the brand was bought and sold, and the consumer perception of “Pure Juice” started to fade. Back in Quebec, Fournier continued producing, and perfecting, snowboard manufacture and design. There he set up the SurfPolitix manufacturing facility, and later his own smaller shop, working with brands including Forum, Atlantis, Sims, Arbor and Airwalk over the years.
The Canadian dollar, once devalued to the point that buying an American snowboard was cost prohibitive, surpassed and eventually evened out with the US dollar. The loss of this financial bonus, combined with the lure of overseas’ cost margins, was just too much and the factories that Fournier once worked in were mothballed. By 2010 snowboard manufacturing in Quebec had mostly shuttered. But Fournier wasn’t done inventing and innovating.East Coast Innovation
As any East Coast rider knows, the rattle and chatter of icy runs, let alone powder, will tire your legs out. Around 1994 Fournier began to prototype a solution, something simple but elegant that harkened back to the days of knock-kneed and skin-tight neon clad racers: canting. Fournier proposed that standing on a normal board puts unneeded sheer forces on ankle and knee joints. Integrating a 2.5-degree wedge under each foot to ergonomically align a rider’s legs, his E-Board technology would eliminate that stress— equaling reduced fatigue and longer days on the hill.
“Tom is the godfather of boardsports since end of the ’70s, for his personal involvement as a rider, and later as a businessman making skateboards, then snowboards,” says Fournier. “He always had the balls to change things or to fight for an innovation. What brand had the most industry firsts, a brand which deserved to launch such an innovation? Sims.”A New Partnership
Fournier sent the first E-Board prototype to Tom Sims in 2008, and the response was ecstatic: “Louis, you have just created the missing link, the first ever boardsport-merger for snowboarding, it has nothing to do with reheated ski crap.” Sims shipped the prototype off to Sims Snowboards brand manager Marc Vitelli to develop Fournier’s shape and technology into a line of Sims snowboards.
In July of 2010, Fournier received what would be his last package from Sims’ California address. In it was a board design, hand drawn on a taped-together pair of P-tex sheets from the 1980s. On the phone, Sims explained: “Louis, this is a shape I’d love for all around cruising and pow. Can you make this board with the flexible wedge system of your design?”
“I was on it the minute I had hung up the phone,” says Fournier. “He wanted the skateboard feeling, the power of carving with soft boots without pain, which is why it is called an ergonomic board.” It would turn out to be the most “technical” snowboard design challenge of Fournier’s life.
Taping all his resources, Fournier’s build included 3CAD design and simulation, CNC aluminum mold, helicopter-grade materials including a carbon/aluminum knit and carbon nano epoxy, and even a biometrically correct stance width and geometry. Fournier hand-made Sims’ Wide 167 Chaos Custom AWC, shaving off a pound in weight compared to a similarly wide board, with full custom flex, and the E-Board system.
Emails flew back and forth across the coast and countries throughout the rest of 2012. Fournier updated Sims on every step of the process; his former idol turned design collaborator and muse happily urged things along.
“Louis, I can just smell the resins from here in Santa Barbara,” wrote Sims. “And I am sure I will hear your sandpapering too, very soon. I look forward to our future working together to change the snowboard world again.”Tom Sim’s Last Ride
Fournier got the finished deck in the mail just before Christmas 2010. The impassioned email correspondence continued: “Louis, I just received the board, and it is beautiful beyond belief, and super functional looking just like a dream machine. I cannot wait to go riding. I will mount my bindings today.”
Sims finally got to test the board on January 15, 2011. He noted the conditions: “groomed perfection with sunny skies and 28 degrees F.”
“Louis, just got off the mountain,” wrote Sims. “I took my old Chaos and the new 3D both up to the top of Gunsmoke at June Mtn, the best test slope on planet earth. I took two runs on my old chaos and it was smokin’ as usual. Then I switched boards at the top and took my first run on the new board. WOW. I never have had such awesome heel carves in my life. I linked one sick turn after another. The 3D canting worked super too, as I rode with a 21 and 5/8 inch stance. Everything was incredible, including the lightweight construction. I will give you more details when I get a chance.”
Supporting innovation where he saw it, Sims encouraged the license with Fournier’s Concept-X manufacturing to produce Sims boards through 2016— made in Quebec with North American materials. The Sims X-Wedge with E-Board Technology went public the fall of 2012, ridden by Seth Hill and heralded by a magazine board award, and tested and approved by Tom Sims himself.
“Tom was so proud of this work,” says Fournier. “He was personally involved like in the early days of the industry when he was in control, when he had an influence, when he had Barfoot as a shaper. He knew that this industry needed the involvement of early days shapers, like myself and others.”
Fournier kept in touch with Sims, including a brief phone conversation on September 9, 2012 about board colors and flex patterns for the E-Board. Sims passed away on September 12, 2012 from cardiac arrest. Fournier realized the Wide 167 Chaos Custom AWC he custom built was Sims’ last prototype, and his last ride.
“I am proud that I made the last board for the most influential boardsport rider on the planet,” says Fournier. “The list of innovation associated with the Sims brand does not lie, regardless if it was his design or the work of others. He kept going until his last breath, until his last day.”