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Finding a crowd-free Tahoe | Matt Sterbenz and the creation of 4FRNT ski

Nicholas Miley
Special to the Tribune
Provided to the TribuneCody Barnhill and Eric Hjorleisson build a pair of Renegade skis in 4FRNT's whiteroom in Salt Lake City.
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Earlier this week I had the opportunity to speak with Matt Sterbenz, founder of 4FRNT skis, about his company, the athletes that define it and its humble beginnings in Tahoe.

While our conversation covered many aspects of the company’s history, direction and philosophy, one theme rang clear throughout the whole conversation: 4FRNT is attempting to funnel the needs and desires of skiers into their product by giving athletes ownership in the company and letting them do their own designing. In this way, 4FRNT aims to embrace the culture of skiing, while making positive and impactful contributions to its evolution. 4FRNT has its eyes on the slope and builds skis based on what skiers see and experience.

Like many people who have made Tahoe home, Sterbenz wasn’t brought up here. Born and raised in Illinois, he cut his teeth in the downhill world on the snow-blown bumps of the midwest. Skiing resorts with too little vert to satisfy the needs of a young man looking for speed and air, he quickly learned that moguls were the best way to get more bang for his buck. However, it wasn’t until he visited his friends who had ventured out to California that his eyes were opened to the possibilities that only big mountain terrain features provide.

Back in the 1990s, snowboarding was overrunning the Alpine world. In many ways skiing had become stagnant and unappealing to an energetic youth who saw ski resorts as the ultimate playground. In large part this was due to narrow focus and industry domination of European ski companies obsessed with downhill racing. Here in America, kids wanted to free-ride and race skis weren’t providing the technical advantages needed to push the sport to new heights. In contrast, snowboarding was breaking new ground, both on the steeps and in the air.

It was in this climate change and conflict that Sterbenz came onto the Tahoe scene. Working whatever jobs kept him on the slopes the most, Sterbenz was ripping up the runs at Squaw Valley and beyond. His skills eventually gained him a sponsorship from Fischer. However, he felt that the Austrian company was lagging behind the demands in the emerging free ride market. Asking for twin-tipped, near-center mounted skis, he felt like the mainstream companies were dragging their heals.

Regardless of the reluctance of some manufactures to produce innovative skis based on new demands, talented young skiers were pushing themselves to do new tricks in the air, while sliding down hill in loose, self-expressive new styles. Yet the feeling remained that free riding didn’t have a place in the rigid world of traditional skiing and the competitions built around it.

By the late 1990s, skiers started to look around for new options. It was at this time that skiing redefined itself. In many ways, California was leading this revolution. Gleaning novel insight from the snowboard industry, skiers started to look at their boards with new eyes. It was within this climate that Sterbenz started to break away from traditional ski design and create new ski models based on what his experience told him the needs were for this new generation of rippers.

At first Sterbenz saw himself as a ski design think tank of sorts, wherein he would sell his novel ideas to other manufactures to build and market. However, this idea ran him smack-dab into the old world skiing paradigm. It became clear that he would have to cast out on his own and claim a share of the new school skiing market. In 2002 4FRNT skis were born.

The road to the successful ski company it is today is more of story than I have space here to tell. However, what matters most is the idea that Sterbenz has brought to fruition. Pros skiing for the company would be part owners in that company. By these means, 4FRNT athletes would use their person and their image to sell their line. Each pro rider would create a signature product that would pass fluidly from the athlete’s mind, onto paper, into the press, onto the slope for tests and eventually into the shops for the consumer to buy and use.

Sturbenz explained that with athlete-ownership of the company, the success or failure of a ski is ultimately in the hands of the pro who brought it into existence. Participation in the process is paramount. And as a result, 4FRNT has never had a ski flop when it went to market.

Sterbenz describes this process as putting the pro back in the sport. It is not good enough any longer to just be a ripping skier.

“You have got to walk the walk and talk the talk,” he said. By this standard, skiers wanting to make it in this highly competitive industry must not only ski well, but transfer that skill into new ski designs, and ultimately the promotion of their new product. A tall order, no doubt.

However, 4FRNT has attracted some of the best skiers in the industry as a result of their flat management structure and willingness to let the skier make the decisions about their product. It should be mentioned that local legend CR Johnson was a member of the 4FRNT team before his untimely death last year. His skis remain in the line today and are great tool to handle the heavy and huge conditions that maritime mountain ranges, particularly the Sierra Nevada, dish out in ample servings.

Regarding his pro model, CR Johnson said: “I worked with an engineer for two months to develop the breakthrough: half normal camber and sidecut, half reverse camber and sidecut shape. This ski has revolutionized the sport of skiing for me by opening up a whole world of ways a ski can preform.”

And that gets right to the heart of it: 4FRNT makes skiers for people who live to ski and ski to live.

– Nicholas Miley is a freelance writer living in South Lake Tahoe. He spends his free time exploring the Sierra Nevada and writing about his experiences. He can be reached at crowdfreetahoe@gmail.com. Read more at http://www.tahoepulp.wordpress.com.


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