Bluebird Day Gear
DIY Engineers Core Solutions for Freeheelers
“I’ve got nothing near me, but there’s a white ribbon of death thanks to some snowmaking,” said Jeff Cox, founder of Bluebird Day Gear. Snow conditions were looking pretty grim back in Vermont when I spoke to Cox in early December, but you’ll never find a hint of negativity emanating from him. It’s that optimistic sense mated to a DIY work ethic that has taken Cox in search of practical solutions to the problems facing every core telemark skier out there. “I’m a tinkerer by nature,” Cox says. “If I thought there were a better way, I would have wanted to solve the problems in my mind, even if I never built anything.”
Cox started telemarking while in college by using his father’s old leather boots and skinny skis. After “bruising the hell” out of his hips by falling down all day, Cox shared a lift ride with a stranger who offered up some sage advice when suggesting Cox try out some newer telemark gear. Cox heeded the prophetic wisdom of the chairlift and found the sport to be a lot more doable with the assistance of some plastic boots and some Rainey Superloop bindings. T2s and Superloops are hardly space aged, and it got Cox wondering what else was possible if such gains could be reached with relatively rudimentary gear.
It all started with the leashes, those damn leashes. “I could see there was innovation left to be done in everything, but the leashes got me first. You’d get out of the car all warm, and then every day you’d have to take your gloves off to put on the damn leashes. And it seemed like both times a year I’d lose a ski I’d be stuck with half a leash on my boot and half a leash on my ski.” Cox knew he could do better, but you have to start small. Leashes, he figured, were small enough.
“You have to go through a lot of crappy ideas to get to a good one,” Cox explained. “Getting from the design in my head to what we have now is a huge process.” Cox didn’t start with chewing gum and duct tape, but he wasn’t too far off. “I started prototyping with wood and then plastic. I still have a cutting board at home that I made leash shaped cutouts with. Whenever I use it I’m reminded about how fun it was to make those first prototypes.” As the process moved along Cox was able to utilize some of his contacts he’d made throughout his engineering career to ensure he was working with the right vendors, but he still builds most of the assembly tooling in house to keep things close. “With a lot of engineering, you never get to touch anything. I’m really passionate about telemark skiing, and I wanted to make this stuff with my own hands,” he says.
The product has come a long way since the days of plastic cutouts, and Bluebird Day Gear now makes the most user friendly, durable leashes in the industry — and you can keep your gloves on while you’re using them. Things got started with the leashes, but they certainly didn’t end there. Cox listened to what people were looking for when he got down to work designing and producing other products for freeheel skiers. Shop owners informed him that the Voile 3-pin reinforcement plates hadn’t been made in years and were tough to track down, so he agreed to begin producing the Smile Plates at Bluebird. He asked what else freeheelers wanted, and the answers surprised him. “One shop in Colorado said people were coming in and buying five heel levers at a time before going on hut trips. There was a lot of demand from telemark skiers, and the internet forums and Instagram were full of pictures of broken levers.”
The heel levers are the most complex items Bluebird Day Gear has produced to date. The profile for the levers gets extruded and comes to Cox in four-foot sections. Then Cox puts the heel levers through 26 machining operations, per pair, in his own garage before they’re sent across the river to New Hampshire to be de-burred and anodized. But the final product is a bombproof heel lever that freeheelers know won’t fail them deep in the backcountry or at the top of the tram.
Cox sees independent innovation as essential in the telemark industry, and he points to the success of companies like 22 Designs, Meidjo and Bishop as examples of smaller businesses pushing the envelope of design. More big things are in store for Bluebird Day Gear, including a low cost kids’ freeheel binding that is in the development process. “ I’ve got notebook paper inches thick with ideas,” Cox says. “It’s a long way from an idea to production, but there’s a lot of excitement about what’s possible.”
Learn more about BBD at www.bluebirddaygear.com .