Combine the operational simplicity of a downhill sled with the 21st-century engineering of a snowboard and the lightweight durability of a modern snowshoe, and what do you get? A sled that handles like a Ferrari and moves with nearly as much speed.
Enter the Hammerhead Sled, the newest addition to the world of Vermont-made, gravity-powered winter toys. Lean, sleek and highly maneuverable, the Hammerhead is the next generation in downhill sleds, built for the adult speed demon who long ago outgrew the rickety runners of the Rosebud-era wooden sled and the directional unpredictability of the flying saucer. Like a Flexible Flyer on steroids - or a low-carb diet - the Hammerhead isn't just carving itself a niche in the winter rec market. It's also redefining the family sled outing for the X-Games generation.
The Hammerhead is the brainchild of Steve Luhr, 47, of Shelburne, founder and president of CherryMax Sleds. In 2002, Luhr was "acquired" out of a job in the marketing department of a medical-equipment-testing company. Faced with the double whammy of the unemployment line and a midlife crisis, he decided that, rather than buying himself a sports car, he'd build one himself - or the sledding equivalent, anyway.
"I knew a sled for adults didn't exist," says Luhr. "We graduate from a saucer and have nowhere to go. It's like going from a tricycle to not having a bicycle at all."
Luhr is seated in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in South Burlington, where the curvaceous yellow and black sled displayed on the table in front of him attracts plenty of stares from passersby. It's an unusual place to showcase a rugged piece of ultra-modern winter gear. Then again, the company Luhr founded is an ultra-modern firm that may represent the future direction of Vermont's recreational equipment industry.
CherryMax Sleds is a "virtual" company; that is, it has no physical plant or corporate headquarters, just an online presence and three full-time employees who work from their Vermont homes, keeping in touch with one another via email, fax and cellphones. Like its sleds, CherryMax is a "lean and mean" outfit that can change directions on the fly, without getting bogged down by the costly overhead of a large, full-time workforce and a major manufacturing facility.
Luhr knew very little about engineering when he set out to build the Hammerhead Sled in 2002. But he did know a thing or two about how to create a company organizationally. So, rather than reinventing the wheel - or the ski, as it were - he tapped into the existing pool of Green Mountain winter-gear experts. He hired an engineer from Burton Snowboards to design the sled's front and rear skis. He farmed out the engineering and design work on the ergonomic webbed seat to an expert from Tubbs Snowshoes. He solicited financial tips from the CFO of Rossignol Skis. The sled parts are manufactured all over the globe, but assembled by a company in St. Albans. Yet another Vermont firm, in Georgia, distributes the sleds to retailers across the country.
"The world is flat," Luhr says. "We can talk to China and get a prototype back within a week without even flying over there. Today, there's no disadvantage to us being in Vermont rather than, say, Chicago."
Fortunately for Luhr, the world isn't too flat. His finished product really took off - on the slopes and in the stores. With nothing more than a prototype to show retailers, Luhr presented the Hammerhead to national gear supplier Eastern Moun- tain Sports, which featured it prominently in their 2004 winter catalogue. With customers clamoring for the sleds, Cherry- Max barely managed to produce 300 of them for that year's holiday season. In 2005, the company sold about 10 times that number, and the sled quickly became a bestseller for EMS. Although Luhr doesn't think CherryMax will continue growing at quite that pace this year, he does expect sales to easily surpass last year's, with about 10 percent of purchases being made online. This year, Luhr says, the company will likely break even financially, a major milestone for a 4-year-old startup.
Part of the Hammerhead's appeal is its flexibility. At just under 10 pounds, the aluminum-framed sled is lightweight enough for a kid to pull it up a neighborhood hill, but durable and comfortable enough to handle rougher backcountry terrain. Shock absorbers cushion the bumps and curved handlebars allow for hairpin turns. The Hammerhead doesn't have a brake, but its tight steering radius lets the rider make a "hockey stop" by skidding to one side.
Hammerhead enthusiasts have been riding them in places such as Mount Philo, the Stowe Notch Road and Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington, according to Luhr. One visitor to their website reports riding it down a glacier in Iceland.
"The scariest thing I've heard is people going 50 miles per hour down Lincoln Gap," says Luhr. "We certainly don't condone that."
The Hammerhead doesn't come cheap - it retails for about $289 in stores such as Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, EMS in South Burlington, and Umiak Outdoor Outfitters in Stowe. The company also offers plenty of gadgets and gizmos for pimping your ride: headlights, taillights, rear-view mirrors, wide powder skis for deep-snow conditions and a safety leash that attaches to the rider's ankles.
Of all the ancillary products CherryMax sells, the safety leash may prove to be the most important. Ski resorts around the country are always looking for new ways to boost their bottom lines, and many ski areas already offer lift access to recreational devices such as BMX bikes, snow scooters, ski bikes and inner tubes.
The appeal for ski areas is obvious. Sleds could be another way for cash-strapped resorts to extend their winter season, by opening earlier and closing later. Adult sledding could also attract people who don't ski or snowboard, or have given up those sports due to age or injuries. So far, none of Vermont's major ski areas has given the Hammerhead the green light, but it may be just a matter of time before sledders begin knocking on lift-ticket windows and asking to ride up alongside the skiers and boarders.
Not surprisingly, the Hammerhead has earned several industry awards and attracted plenty of press attention - the sled has been featured in publications as diverse as Business Week, Metropolitan Home and Penthouse. Luhr notes that other models are already in the works, including one for larger adults, and a less-expensive model. Which goes to show there's a vast potential market out there for an adult-oriented sled.
Now all we need is the white stuff.