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One year

On this day 365 days ago… Take me back to Annecy, just little M and me, and life will be pretty much perfect.

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The making of a perfect running shoe

This article was first published on Tuesday, Sept 17, 2013 in the South China Morning Post. It was written following my month-long stay in Annecy, where I took the chance to visit the Salomon headquarters at Metz-Tassy which was just a 10-minute bike ride from where I lived on Avenue de Geneve.

By Jeanette Wang

A French outdoor gear maker’s laboratory offers a glimpse of the hi-tech power behind its running shoes

It’s not exactly rocket science, but making a running shoe comes close. Just ask Gregory Vollet from Salomon, the French company that is a world leader in the booming sport of trail running.

“We make more patents than [US space agency] Nasa every year and it costs us €1.5 million [HK$15.5 million] each year to protect all our patents,” says Vollet, manager of Salomon’s international running team, during my recent visit to the company’s headquarters and birthplace in Annecy, southern France.

Examples of these patents include Endofit, an internal sleeve designed to hug the foot in the right places, and Quicklace, a strong lace for tightening with one pull.

With runners worldwide spending billions of dollars on running footwear each year, it’s no surprise that manufacturers are racing to come up with new technologies and designs.

After six years of research and development, for example, Adidas recently launched the Springblade, a shoe that would look at home in Star Trek. In place of flat soles and foam cushioning, there are 16 blades on each pair, said to “harness and release more energy to help propel you forward with every stride”.

Meanwhile, Nike this month launched the Free Hyperfeel, a svelte shoe that “mimics the intricate workings of the human foot”. Using pressure-mapping technology and high-speed film to analyse the foot in motion, Nike researchers studied the optimal areas of the foot for cushioning and traction.

In the competitive world of athletic footwear, it’s innovate or suffer. Salomon, founded in 1947 as a maker of winter ski bindings, knows it well.

The winter of 1991 had no snow, Vollet explains, leaving the company with a massive stock of cross-country ski boots and no demand. One employee suggested removing the cross-country outsole and replacing it with a hiking sole to suit the weather conditions. It turned out to be a stroke of genius.

“Compared to the hiking shoes at that time, it was very light, very stable, warm and waterproof,” says Vollet. “It was a real success.”

More importantly, it kick-started Salomon’s entry into the outdoor footwear market. In 2006, it made mountain sports and trail running its focus. Two years ago, for the first time, sales of its summer products overtook winter items, driven by the growth in trail running.

“Trail running is becoming our biggest business now,” Vollet says, estimating a trail running market share of about 30 per cent.

The sport is exploding worldwide. Next year, Salomon plans to organise its first race series on the mainland.

Shoes, the only necessary equipment for the sport, are big business. Creating a good pair involves rigorous R&D. On average, Salomon’s top-of-the-line S-Lab range of shoes takes almost two years from the drawing board to the shelves, with more than 50 prototypes and hundreds of days of testing.

Proven technology from the S-Lab range will then trickle down to the lower-priced lines.

Creating a shoe starts with an idea, Vollet explains. The designer makes a drawing and shows it to a working group, who decide whether to continue. If the decision is to go ahead, different prototypes are made and given to athletes to test.

The athletes provide feedback, and the results are used to create new prototypes that incorporate their suggestions. The shoes are retested, and the cycle continues until the product is perfected.

“It takes about 10 months from idea to validation of prototype, and another 10 months to produce them in big quantities in China,” says Vollet.

He gives me a tour of the sprawling Design Centre in Annecy, which houses more than 600 Salomon staff. It’s so secret, I’m not allowed to snap any photographs of the office or factory – or even get close to the design department. But we stop at the testing department, which road-tests shoes from all brands – each pair for 40 days.

“We send shoes to testers in every continent because durability is not the same on different terrains,” says Vollet.

Next, we head down to a floor full of heavy machinery. In one room, shoes are being pounded, baked, drenched, washed and tumbled, and exposed to extreme UV light. Vollet calls this the “torture chamber” that tests the durability of shoe materials and colours.

In another, much bigger, room – like an elves’ workshop – people are sewing, tracing, cutting, fitting, gluing and moulding. Here, they create not only prototypes for testing, but also custom-fitted equipment for their international running team.

A seamstress is carefully crafting a pair of seamless winter running gloves which will be used by Salomon’s elite athletes in an upcoming race. Vollet says, eventually, these gloves will be made available to the mass market.

The S-Lab Sense, Salomon’s flagship racing shoe, was born in the same way.

After failing to win the 2010 Western States Endurance Run in the US, Kilian Jornet, one of the world’s best trail runners, decided he needed to change his equipment – starting with his shoes – to better suit the 100-mile (161-kilometre) race’s challenging terrain. Jornet had suffered badly from cramps, dehydration and blisters over the final 30 kilometres of the event.

“Kilian knew precisely what he wanted,” says Vollet. “A shoe that was lightweight, breathable, hydrophobic and suited to forefoot running.”

The design team went to work. The upper, which was minimalistic yet offered good protection, was designed quickly. Creating the sole was challenging: almost 40 types of prototypes were made, says designer Patrick Leick.

Going against the market trend of zero-drop shoes – a level heel-toe height that is said to promote a more natural and efficient running style – the Sense had a 4mm drop.

“We did a lot of biomechanical studies and determined that the best drop for natural forefoot runners is 4mm,” says Vollet.

“Zero-drop shoes are in fashion, and I think it’s a big mistake because these shoes are not for everybody. It could be dangerous for someone used to running in shoes with a 12mm drop and suddenly change to 4mm or even zero, because it will strain the calf and the Achilles tendon.”

In May 2011, the shoes were 90 per cent complete and Jornet wore them to win the 100-kilometre North Face 100 Australia in record time of nine hours, 19 minutes.

A few tweaks later, Jornet laced up again and won the 2011 Western States.

In May last year, the shoe hit the stores and the demand, including in Hong Kong, was overwhelming.

With trail running taking up only 7 per cent of the global running market, Vollet says Salomon’s goal is now to capture more of the road running market by “bringing mountain values to the city”.

These values, he says, include freedom, discovery, accessibility, humility and respect for nature. So, Salomon has created a line of city trail shoes, designed with less aggressive soles that are suited to both concrete and easy trails.

It has also transformed some high-performance models, such as the Sense and Speedcross, into fashionable streetwear by using materials such as leather and suede.

A phone app is also scheduled to be launched next month, showing off-the-beaten-track city running routes.

“In cities, people usually run on very boring streets,” says Vollet.

“The idea of the app is to take runners somewhere more fun.”

jeanette.wang@scmp.com

Sailing on

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I can’t control the wind, but I can adjust the sail.

Proverbs 13:12 “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”

Annecy: Day 20

A picnic, a picnic, the Smurfs are on their way, to go and have a picnic this bright and breezy day…!

Always think of that line and picnics with my family when I was young cos my dad used to sing it and we listened to the Smurfs casette tape together…

Think of him and the rest of my loved ones every time I picnic here in Annecy.

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Annecy: Day 17

Reunited with my bike last week, I took it out last Friday evening for its first spin in Annecy since the Etape trip. With my knowledge of cycling routes limited to the roads I covered during the Etape, I decided to play it safe and revisit Le Semnoz – the Hors Categorie climb at the end of the Etape du Tour (and stage 20 of this year’s Tour de France). Ouch.

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This time, however, I did it with a backpack, which held a wind jacket, a picnic dinner, my Fuji x100s, and a bike chain lock. The latter object ended up being totally useless as plans to visit a night market at Duingt fell through, because I was so cold all I wanted was to get home home and jump in a warm shower.

Anyway, so the backpack contributed about 2-3kg, which when going up a 15km climb of about 9-10 per cent average is a silly thing to carry. But alas, I wanted to eat and I wanted to take some proper photos. I also wanted to be prepared for the cold, which on hindsight I totally wasn’t prepared for.

After working hard to get to the top of Le Semnoz, I was sweating despite the relatively chilly evening. I soaked in the scenery that I totally missed during the Etape and starting snapping away. But within a few minutes, the cold and wind on the mountain top got the better of me. I started having trouble even pressing the shutter button.

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I had the wind jacket but I might as well have been naked. It was freezing, and bombing down the side of a 1,700 metre high mountain didn’t help. The descent was tougher than the climb because I was so cold my body wasn’t operating properly. I couldn’t feel my fingers, my toes, my legs, and was shivering pretty badly. Please God, get me home.

So Duingt plans were shelved, as well as that for the picnic dinner. Descending by Col de Leschaux, I arrived at Sevrier by lac d’Annecy and spun as fast as I could back home. By this time, around 8.30pm, I was cold, tired and hungry. (I’d also run for two hours in the morning.)

Home was a welcome sight. After warming up with a shower, I stuffed my face silly with a huge salad.

My second ride in Annecy, which took place yesterday, would be much tamer and warmer.

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Col de la Forclaz, a 1,150 metre high mountain pass, was the plan for Monday evening’s ride. I had seen photos of it, all from the same spot – which of course I had to take a photo from too.

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The climb was much shorter but it felt steeper than Le Semnoz in the last couple of Ks – or maybe my legs were just tired from the massive 36-hour whirlwind weekend in Paris (which I’ll post next). The route up was also much busier than that for Le Semnoz. There was a constant stream of cars, which isn’t too pleasant when you’re struggling to turn the pedals.

Nonetheless, my mind was (mostly) distracted by the amazing scenery.

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I love trail running, but cycling definitely has its merits, especially when you want to get to these mountain passes. It’d take many more hours – and much more energy – by foot. That said, when it starts hurting on the bike, I tend to love running more as there’s the option of walking. Yes, you could walk your bike, but that’s just weak…

I’m glad I decided to take my Pinarello with me to Annecy. My goal is to do a different climb each ride in these last two weeks of my stay here. With the generally stunning weather and numerous mountains surrounding the lake, that wouldn’t be too difficult…

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