It’s unlikely that Atomic management foresaw just how much its boot brand would come to depend on a modest line of recreational boots it launched twelve years ago. Called Hawx, its unique feature was vent-like creases on both sides of the forefoot, perceived as a fit benefit but actually designed to improve energy transmission to the sole. The original Hawx came in only a single, 100mm last in a limited number of flexes for men and women. Atomic chose the aggressive commercial tactic of underpricing the Hawx line relative to market leaders; the Hawx 80, for example, retailed at $299, an irresistible cost/value relationship.
Once it had a toehold in the market, Atomic began to pile on the improvements. It enhanced the Hawx liners, changed the shell structure, added a narrow and a wide last and made the shells (and liners) heat-moldable just as this feature was gaining wide market acceptance. Of all the smart moves Atomic made to evolve Hawx into a brand unto itself, the wisest was to not just make narrower and wider Hawx originals (now called Prime), but to make the wide Magna a truly exceptional wide boot, with the widest aperture in a conventional shell, and likewise create a narrow boot, Ultra, that feels as close-fitting as a compression sock.
While we wouldn’t recommend it as a commercial strategy, a shop could limit its boot inventory to a full complement of Hawx. As long as its bootfitters took full advantage of all the fit and performance features found across the line, very few customers would leave its care unhappy or unshod.
The ubiquitous adjective applied to nearly every non-race boot in today’s market is “lightweight,” a trend Atomic spearheaded when it introduced Hawx Ultra two years ago. (Note to bootfitters: the upper cuff on the Ultra 130 S isn’t Grilamid anymore, but stretchable PU.) For 2020, all the lightweight Hawx models return in a slew of new color options and all are equipped with GripWalk soles.
One rung above the Hawx collection lies Redster Club Sport, a 96mm-last chip off the Redster race block. We didn’t get a chance to ski the revised Redster Club Sport quartet, a pity, as it’s as precise a recreational race boot as you can find.
The biggest news in Atomic boots is the unexpected return of rear-entry boots to a mainstream boot-maker’s collection. The new Savor series targets the occasional skier who Realskiers classifies as a Tourist. Tourists prioritize convenience, comfort and safety over technical considerations. Given that the Savor models have no internal cables to retain the foot, it’s wide (102mm) last is best reserved for equally wide feet. Atomic deserves credit for recognizing the potential of the rear-entry design, although this incarnation, by aiming low, falls far short of the design’s performance possibilities.
No other boot brand has done more with the 3-piece, external-tongue shell design than Dalbello. Dalbello didn’t just copy the Raichle design they adopted; they improved on it. They optimized its performance properties by playing up its strengths: a stout spine and sidewall construction extending from the lower shell; correct pivot location, a key element in this design’s successful execution; and a ribbed external tongue to manage flex and forward energy transmission.
From a performance standpoint, the brilliance of the 3-piece “cabrio” design is the way it blends lightning lateral reaction with a progressive flex that’s well suited to handling the shocks of off-piste skiing at speed. If this doesn’t sound like your kind of skiing, fear not: Dalbello makes several very different flavors using the 3-piece shell as the foundation, from super cushy ladies’ slippers to rugged Alpine Touring iterations, in fits that range from tugboat wide to daringly close-fitting.
Dalbello would have a complete collection if they stopped there, but they also have an end-to-end line-up of four-buckle overlap shells for all-mountain skiing, a race boot series and a catalog of kids’ boots that sell like candy. The overall line accommodates so many foot shapes in so many different shell structures, it’s meaningless to say, “I like how Dalbellos fit.” With Dalbello, you have to be very specific about which shell and liner combo intrigues you, as they span a wide range of fit environments and performance attributes
Three stories dominate the headlines leading into the 2019/20 season: a new Panterra series, the near universal adoption of GripWalk soles and the debut of Lupo Air. The new Panterras don’t look anything like the prior generation, despite sharing the same wide last and 3-piece shell structure. The 2020 Panterras are slimmer, sleeker and much lighter, but still have 50-degrees range of motion when in hike mode. All 2020 Panterra come with GripWalk soles, as does 90% of Dalbello’s 2020 collection, including many kids’ models.
The new Lupo Air strips the touring boot to bare bones, and what bones it has are made of “Grilamid Air,” a new ultralight formulation. Of course it has GripWalk, tricked out in Vibram, along with a new cable closure system and walk/ski mechanism.
Last year Dalbello debuted two new 2-piece overlap shells, DS in a medium (100mm) last and DS MX in a wide (102mm) shell, completing a collection that began with the original 98mm DRS family. The fully customizable shell and liner also feature a simple (ergo, possibly useful) cant adjustment and adjustable ramp angle. The medium last is generous and leans to the comfort end of the fit spectrum. Most of the 2020 DS and DS MX models come with GripWalk soles installed.
Two new DS models not only come with GripWalk soles installed on their narrow chassis, they also use Grilamid for both the cuff and shell. This makes the DS Asolo Factory GW and DS Asolo Factory W GS crazy light (1750g) and simpler to walk in than shoes.
Dalbello’s take on heat molding is that it’s a fallback position when its boots aren’t comfortable right off the shelf, but it never hurts to cook shells and liners a tad to accelerate break-in and ensure a blissful first day. The MyFit package of heatable shells and liners are found across the high end of Dalbello’s 2-piece, four buckle boots and its signature 3-piece, 3-buckle cabrio models.
Dalbello’s core constituency of 3-piece fanatics will be relieved to hear its full menu of cabrio models returns intact. The market for traditional, 4-buckle overlaps is already abundantly served, but for skiers who crave a 3-piece shell’s unique performance and fit properties, only Dalbello offers the most diverse selection of what ye seek.
Fischer had a long and illustrious history as a ski maker before they decided to jump into the boot pool, despite said pool already being awash with brands. The focus of their debut models was an abducted (toes-out) stance, a clever idea it slightly overcooked, leaving some test pilots feeling like they were traveling in a downhill herringbone.
Undeterred by the difficulties of getting traction in an over-served market, Fischer pressed on, tinkering with their stance and story until several years ago they went all-in on a fancy new system for custom molding the shell, Vacuum Fit. Vacuum technology had been part of Fischer’s manufacturing expertise for many years, so transferring this concept to ski boots may have been an easier step for Fischer to imagine than for other, tradition-bound brands.
Vacuum Fit was such a hit with specialty shops it enabled Fischer to steal the limelight from industry leader Salomon, even though Salomon was first to market with a shell-molding technology of their own called Custom Fit. The big deal about Vacuum Fit was that it didn’t just expand the shell (although it could); it could also bring it closer to the forefoot. Even the one-in-a-thousand shops with a history of boiling boots to modify them never had the means of reducing shell volume all around the forefoot like Vacuum Fit.
Like many first-of-their-kind innovations, Vacuum Fit didn’t get everything right immediately. The biggest limitation was it didn’t have much effect on the critical rear foot, but a second-generation Vacuum station corrected this oversight. Today, the Fischer Vacuum is a Full Fit process, and still the only heat molding technology that facilitates reducing shell volume. Last season Fischer augmented its point-of-sale technology with a podium that takes a 3D scan of the foot and lower leg, the better to match the skier to the optimal Fischer boot model. The same scanning tech is now available in a smartphone app so skiers can scan themselves.
After a season of relatively little model turnover, 2020 is a banner year for new boot models chez Fischer. RC4 Podium GT is a new series of race clones that slips into the Fischer line just below its trio of real-deal (92mm last) RC4 Podium monoblock race boots. The narrow-lasted (96mm +/- 3mm) Podium GT series includes Vacuum Full Fit shells and lace-up liners in a 3-model series at 140, 130 and 110 flex indices. Returning to the line are two The Curv models (97mm last) that are similarly outfitted with Vacuum Full Fit shells and lace-up liners.
Also back to serve the medium-size market are the RC Pro VFF models in 130 and 110 flexes. GripWalk soles are standard issue on both the RC Pro 130 and 110.
The big news at Fischer this year isn’t about customization as much as it’s about a brilliant new backcountry boot, Ranger Free, now in 3 men’s and two women’s flexes. When the first Ranger Free appeared at the Masterfit Boot Test last year, it was the belle of the ball, blowing testers away with its agility and snow feel. This ultralight (1540g), hike-mode model comes in a narrow (99mm) last and 3 different flexes, all equipped with Dynafit-approved tech inserts. Fischer is capitalizing on the warm reception given the Rangers by extending the clan with Ranger One, a medium-last (101mm) model likewise equipped for hiking. A little heavier (1790g) than the Ranger Free, the Ranger One lower shells can be Vacuum molded to alter shell volume by +/-3mm.
What makes Fischer’s strong move into the backcountry domain so significant is how well Ranger Free and Ranger One perform when you’re flying downhill. They’re precise, reactive and most all, more close fitting than the RC4 Vacuum boots that occupy the center of Fischer’s line. After skiing in the RC4 Curv 130, the Ranger Free 130 feels like it was made for another sport. Which it was – namely, Alpine Touring – only it skis so damn well it’s a pity to limit its life to endless slogging uphill.
The Ranger Free is far from the first AT-compatible boot with real-deal ski-ability, nor is it the only one of its ilk to debut last year, but it does represent a new twist in the helix that blends the Alpine and AT genomes. All the security of an Alpine shell is there, with snow feel that has to be skied to be appreciated.
Everyone close to the center of the ski gear universe knows that Grip Walk soles will be the de facto norm before you can blink twice. It’s looking like better traction won’t be the only technology to migrate from touring back into the resort. Lightweight shell designs like Ranger Free might soon be ubiquitous, too.
Full Tilt has a habit of re-purposing existing components to create new models. It applied this method to cock up the Drop Kick out of a Classic shell and spiral liner, and went to the same playbook two years ago year with the B&E Pro, mixing a Descendant 6 shell and Pro liner. The Tom Wallisch Pro uses the same shell as the First Chair 6, with treaded walking soles.
So when last season Full Tilt decided to take its act to the backcountry, it anointed the Evolution shell (also used for Descendant and Plush models) as its choice to retrofit with a “walk mode” borrowed from buddy brand Dalbello (where it’s boots are now made) and tech inserts sanctioned by Dynafit. The rubber on the cleverly named Ascendant’s sole comes from Michelin, where they know a thing or two about traction. This year both the Ascendant and similarly equipped Descendant 8 are both tricked out with GripWalk soles.
Continuing the tradition of mix-and-match model creation, for 2020 Full Tilt collection mates a Pro liner (spiral wrap) with the Drop Kick shell and voilà, you have the Drop Kick Pro. The Drop Kick S is another new twist on the Original shell, with a shorter and softer cuff. The new Classic Pro swaps its old Classic liner for a fresh Pro model and bumps the tongue flex from a 6 (90) to an 8 (100).
Because of its 3-piece shell design, any Full Tilt can be turned into a hiking boot via the same route pioneered by the Ascendant and replicated on the Descendant 8. The spine of all FT models rests on a shelf carved into the lower shell; the latch is simply a block that rests on the ledge in ski position and is pulled off its perch to create roughly 40 degrees ROM for hiking. We wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a First Chair with “Walk Mech” in the near future.
To the nostalgic with a Proustian urge to revisit the past, Full Tilt represents Raichle resurrected; to today’s high-flying Pipe & Park population, they’re dope. Kids who cavort and contort in the halfpipe or on rails feel about their Full Tilts the way Charleton Heston felt about his rifle, although it’s actually pretty easy to slide out of any of their 3-piece shell models whether your feet are dead or alive. The external tongue rocks completely out of the way, and the open-throat shell likewise poses no obstacle for exit or entry.
The irony of what was once Raichle’s World Cup race boot now serving a generation that intentionally aims backward down the hill – while lining up for a launch pad – is immaterial to the daredevils who have embraced Full Tilt as their preferred footwear. Landing big airs in switch position asks a boot certain questions to which Full Tilts know the answer: have an elastic range no 4-buckle boot can match – ergo less likely to trigger an inadvertent heel release in switch position – supple at the top of its movement and consistently resilient thereafter.
The biggest influence on a Full Tilt’s behavior and a key differentiator among their models is the flex resistance of the external tongue, indicated by a flex number that works on a logical 10-point scale, with 10 being the stiffest. (FT estimates its “10” tongue equates roughly to a 120 flex on a 2-piece shell.) Should the standard issue be too firm or flimsy, any model can be retrofitted with a softer or stiffer tongue. What won’t change much is the fixed volume in the forefoot area, so be sure the Full Tilt you fancy is a good match for your foot’s widest point.
As Raichle did before them, Full Tilt has infiltrated Intuition™ heat-moldable liners throughout their line. The Pro and Performer use Intuition’s distinctive, multi-density wrap liner; the Classic is a more traditional, tongued liner with its own recipe of soft and firm foams.
Aside from their exceptional range of forward flexibility, another prized attribute of Full Tilt shoes is their weight, or rather, the lack thereof. Their lightest models feel like they don’t weigh more than a baguette, a feature you value if you have to spin your feet three times around your head before you land.
You have to give Full Tilt credit for focus: every boot in their line is built on the same principle and aimed at essentially the same audience. Some are wider, some are stiffer, some are lighter, some can suck up a little more shock; but all use the same fundamental architecture with a shared bundle of benefits. If you take to the air a lot, you’re bound to land one day in a pair of Full Tilts.
Over most of Head’s storied history as a ski brand, lighter weight hasn’t exactly been top of mind. They’ve been better known for building battleships as opposed to skiffs. Two pivotal shifts, one global and one local, have made lightweight design a priority, if not the priority, at Head today. The global trend is to make all consumer goods lighter, across all categories, a phenomenon we refer to as Lighter is Better, or LIB. The local event was Head’s license to use Graphene, first manifest in its ski line with the debut of the women’s Joy series several years ago.
Graphene, which is carbon in a one-atom thick matrix, was bound to find its way into Head boots, as indeed it has with Nexo Lyt, the most thoroughly transformed of the new generation of lighter weight shells. By “transformed,” I mean not just dependent on material change to deliver improved behavior, or even to expect lighter mass to be of sufficient benefit by itself, but using lighter materials as an opportunity to change how a seemingly conventional boot (i.e., 4-buckle overlap, standard 4o/14o stance angles) reads and interacts with the snow.
If the new wave of lightweight shells is to bridge the gap between novelty and necessity, it will be because of designs like Nexo Lyt, which now comes in a full range of shell lasts. The Graphene-infused Smart Frame shell is sculpted so it can absorb shock (to some degree) and generate rebound (to a greater degree). The sensation of snow feel is as intimate as wearing a moccasin. The quickness to the edge is fencer fast.
The 100mm (medium) last of the original Nexo Lyt is close fitting out of the box, which is essential to its quickness and accuracy. If the fit around the heel and ankle should relax over time, a viscous fluid, called Liquid Fit, can be injected into an internal pouch that circumnavigates this area. Head doesn’t promote Liquid Fit as a point of sale necessity but a fit-refreshing technology. Able to be extracted as well as injected, Liquid Fit is a nifty fit option that will prove beneficial to all skier abilities.
If any other shell or liner modifications (“mods” in bootfitter patois) are required, all the Lyt shells are easily heat-moldable. Another option is the substitution of rockered, Grip Walk soles, which you’ll be thankful for the next time you face a long parking lot traverse.
Now that Head is comfortably LIB-centric, it has brought its collective imagination to bear on two categories where lightness has always counted, backcountry and women’s boots. Even though BC boots belong to a genre I rarely visit, curiosity compelled me to essay the Kore 1 last spring. Despite its extraordinarily featherweight design and relatively soft flex (in a 130), it remained supportive when I drove into it. Its quickness to the edge rivals that of any recreational Alpine boot.
Head’s women’s boot collection definitely benefits from the trans-gender (old-fashioned meaning) focus on lighter weight. For 2020, women have a choice of Nexo Lyt RS (98mm), Nexo Lyt (100mm) and Edge Lyt (102mm) shells in an assortment of flexes. All come equipped with Form Fit moldable shells, adjustable cuff aperture and Liquid Fit liners that are of particular value to women with low-volume feet who don’t want to absorb the shock of an injected inner boot’s price tag.
When K2 waltzed into the boot market seven years ago, part of the story heralding its arrival was that its team required only 18 months to create a better boot line. There was a whiff of hubris to the claim, as if the marketing juggernaut was predestined to seize a sizeable share of the arguably already over-served boot market.
K2 soon learned that no matter how attractive a marketing package it presented – the launch was accompanied by a whimsical ad campaign, a pledge of no Internet sales, and an appealing product story about its new shells and not-quite-as new liners – if you consistently lose the point-of-sale cage match against a competitor’s product, your success is going to be more limited than your expectations. In other words, what really matters happens in the first ten seconds of skier/boot contact.
K2 proved it got the message when it debuted its BFC collection of 4-buckle models that put an unabashed premium on first fit impressions. Its flexible shell and cushy liner allowed for “hands-free” entry and exit, without the writhing and acrobatics associated with high performance boots. The BFC’s won the instant-comfort face-off and sales ensued.
The lessons learned about positive first impressions carried over into the development of K2’s next performance series, Recon, and its feminized companion, née Luv, since rechristened as Anthem. While Recon and Anthem were in development, two other market forces commanded K2’s attention: the global trend to lighter weight, and the ski-market-specific demand for heat customization of both liner and shell at the time of sale.
The key to the Recon/Anthem “resort” series and the new Mindbender Alpine/BC hybrids lies in the Powerlite shell’s material and how it’s molded. Four different densities of TPU (all PU used in ski boots is thermoplastic, but never mind) form shell walls of varying thicknesses, opting for thinner/lighter wherever possible. At only 1650g in a 26.5 Recon 130, the Powerlite construction is in the welterweight class of backcountry boots but it also works for the all-terrain, in-resort skier.
As it’s made from TPU, the Powerlite shell is eminently heat-moldable except in its most rigid zones in the spine and sole. The Ultralon liners are meant to be molded, but don’t need to be in order to impart an initial sensation of “ahhh” instead of “ow”.
K2 teamed with Thermic to create the heated Recon 120 Heat, the Anthem 100 MV Heat, BFC 100 Heat and BFC W 90 Heat. For folks with chronically cold feet, having the heat option integrated into the boot design improves ease of operation and eliminates the pain of installation.
The new Mindbenders are the anticipated extension of the Recon concept into the white-hot backcountry genre. The Powerlite chassis assures that the Mindbenders will be as light as chiffon, and a new hike mode delivers 50 degrees range of motion for climbing. All the MB’s – 3 for men, 2 for women – come with GripWalk soles pre-installed. The Mindbender 130 and 120 use a low-volume last (98mm), while the MB 100 uses a generous, medium (100mm) last.
Lange has traveled a long way as a brand without ever leaving home. The motherland for Lange lies between the boundaries indicated by the start and finish of a World Cup race. The plastic boot that truly revolutionized modern Alpine design, Lange long ago established the template not just for its own future lines, but for the entire market. To put it more plainly, it’s the most imitated boot ever.
Lange’s commitment to the classic, 4-buckle overlap shell is evident up, down and across its 2020 product line. Every model is built on essentially the same foundation, whether for a race or recreational application, for men or for women and regardless of last volume (i.e., narrow, medium or wide). Lange has dropped two lines of hike-mode (HM) boots since the 2016/17 season, leaving only the XT Free and Free W, which are transparently Lange’s best-ever HM boots and just as clearly two of the finest hybrid AT/Alpine boots extant.
No brand with a history as long as Lange’s has an unblemished record, and on the rare occasions when it strayed from its roots it made some serious faux pas, such as an hilariously bad rear-entry that it tossed together to demonstrate its disdain for the whole idea. But even when distracted by trend chasing, Lange never stopped making – and insisting on the unparalleled performance of – its classic race design. It doesn’t take a forensic scientist to discern the similarities between any Lange RS of yore and its current incarnation.
But that doesn’t mean Lange hasn’t tinkered with its flagship. Two years ago it changed how it molded its shells and cuffs, using two different durometers of PU and/or PE co-injected via 5 ports. This creates a sandwich construction called Dual Core that allows the plastic to be softer and more pliable in zones where elasticity is desirable (as in over the instep), and still stiff as a brick through the spine and sole.
This may sound like technical trivia, but lifelong Lange fans remember just how brutal it can be to try to pry off (note the “try”) a well-chilled Lange. Dual Core makes it possible to both put on and take off a pair of Lange RS 130’s without using the Jaws of Life. I know some of you still don’t believe me, so I’ll repeat it: all Lange Alpine boots are now as easy to don and doff as any other 4-buckle, overlap shell.
Last year’s nouveauté, Dual Core Light, injects ultralight Grilamid® and polyolefin instead of PU/PE into a plastic sandwich. Dual Core Light was created to make the XT Free boots more competitive in the weight-sensitive AT market, but two resort models, Superleggera (100mm last) and Superleggera LV (97mm last), available in both men’s (120 flex) and women’s (110), put an Alpine sole on a Dual Core Light frame so in-resort skiers can catch the Lighter is Better wave.
The big news at Lange – literally and figuratively – is a new line of wide-bodies that replace the SX series. The new LX design is the latest example of a trend towards building real performance into high-volume models, traditionally the unhappy home of mush buckets. The LX series has the same hierarchy of flexes found in boots made for the medium-sized masses, matched to a corresponding pecking order of thermoformable, 3D liners.
The scientific measurement instrument known as my foot detected a different, more generous fit environment in the 2020 RX series, the backbone of the Lange line. The standard RX last is still listed as 100mm (with a 97mm LV alternative), but as seems to be the case across the Medium market, it’s a “soft” 100mm. Medium feet that crave more fit tension can always step into a low-volume RX LV model.
Lange is to be commended for having the most coherent, consistent line of Alpine boots on the market, even if the alphabet soup of model names can be confusing at first. The challenge for Lange has always been how to be innovative (or at least appear to), without screwing up what it does best. Solving this ever-present riddle now falls to someone in whom we have the highest confidence, Thor Verdonk, tapped last year to lead Lange after many years of exemplary service for Lange and Rossignol in the U.S.
It’s hard to imagine Lange moving away from its foundational, 2-piece, 4-buckle shells, which due to their seniority seem as integral to the ski environment as snow. We remain confident that if anyone can put a fresh face on the grand dame of the boot world, it’s Thor.
No other leather boot maker profited more from the transition to injected plastic shells than Nordica. During most of the 1970’s and 80’s, Nordica’s unit share of the world market was so dominant the only competition was for second place. It responded to the surge in sales generated by Salomon’s wildly popular rear-entries by concocting a blizzard of convenient-entry alternatives populating every price point. By the close of the 80’s, almost all of Nordica’s line was made up of RE’s of one ilk or another.
When Nordica was sold to cotton sweater maker Benetton, it marked the beginning of the brand’s slide off its pedestal. Benetton drove the brand downward before selling it back at an eyebrow-arching loss to the Vaccari family who had owned it before Benetton’s disastrous stewardship. The rise back to relevance hasn’t been unperturbed, but by rebuilding its core line segment by segment, Nordica has returned to the first rank of boot makers. Its resurgence matters not just to the Tecnica Group that currently owns the brand, but to the ski trade at large. The ski industry fares better as a whole when its marquee brands excel.
Nordica’s renaissance in the recreational boot market began four years ago with the introduction of a new boot with an old name, Speedmachine. The new Speedmachines were (and remain) classic, 4-buckle overlaps with a generous, medium volume (100mm) shell and saleable features such as moldable shells and cork-covered liners. Most importantly, the out-of-the-box fit was luscious, rendering modifications mostly moot. Speedmachine spawned the wide-lasted (102mm) Sportmachine two years ago and in 2019 the final shoe in the series dropped with the debut of Promachine.
While it’s fair to say Sportmachine is a wider version of Speedmachine, Promachine is more than just a narrower one. Speedmachine is aimed squarely at the middle of the market; Promachine intends to attract a better class of skier. (It’s an elitist sport, what can I say?) All the comfort and customization features are retained in the Promachine, but the 98mm-lasted liner is more accurate and the shell delivers steering power on a par with 130-flex race boots. Race boots don’t have Grip Walk soles, however, which are standard on the Promachine 130 and available for Speedmachine and Sportmachine models. For all-terrain, recreational skiers, Grip Walk just makes more sense.
All three Machine lines include a full complement of women’s models with women-specific cuffs and liners. All women’s models (and most of the men’s) use Primaloft® insulation to keep tootsies warm and dry.
Two years ago Nordica returned from a several season sabbatical from making a hike-mode (HM) boot when it unveiled the results of its research, Strider. Strider models deliver outstanding downhill performance in a four-buckle boot with all the requisite HM elements: skeletal buckles, a huge 46o ROM in hike mode and Grilamid® for the minimal mass hauling one’s butt uphill requires. The heavily treaded sole was developed in collaboration with Michelin, so you know it has some serious traction.
But it isn’t the Striders’ uphill features that grab your attention, but the accurate fit of its 100mm last and most of all, the ski-ability. The Strider models are top-notch shoes for their ascent properties, but you’re reading about them here because they are in the first rank for downhill performance.
Anyone who races knows that Nordica doesn’t need to inflate its resume to establish its credibility in this domain. Great racers of a bygone generation hoarded secret stashes of the venerable Grand Prix, and if Nordica ever stops making their Dobermann line of undiluted race boots, they’re also likely to be black market booty the instant they’re officially retired. With the arrival of Promachine, Dobermann spin-offs like GPX are now redundant, but Dobermann World Cup boots (93mm last) aren’t going anywhere and neither are the Dobermann GP’s, citizen versions in a more user-friendly 98mm last and DIN standard soles that don’t have to be ground.
Having rejuvenated its core collection over the last four years, Nordica didn’t mess with its success in 2020. There’s a new murdered-out Speedmachine Elite, the third 130-flex model to join this key, 100mm-last collection. The über-wide (104mm) Cruse series that occupies the bottom rungs on the price ladder have a new, more anatomic shape and an adjustable boot board to take up excess instep volume. Otherwise, Nordica’s stellar 2019 collection returns largely intact.
With the arrival last season of the Alltrack Elite LT and Pro LT – for Lightweight Touring – Rossi completed its Speed (standard 2-piece shells) and Track (similar shells, but with a hike mode) collections by adding a new shell design made for the touring market.
The LT series isn’t built like the rest of the Rossi line. Rossi has been paring away excess material since the advent of its Alltrack series and it waffle-grid shell. The Alltrack LT shell advances the art of shell wall minimization, plus it’s made from Grilamid to keep the weight down to a svelte 1660g for both the 98mm Alltrack Elite LT and the 100mm Alltrack Pro 120 LT. By dropping the pivot point 6mm and opening up the spine, the upper cuff achieves 50 degrees of ROM in hike mode.
The Alltrack LT’s represent a new branch of hybrids based on backcountry requirements but outfitted with Grip Walk soles so they can be used with (most) Alpine bindings. For 2020, Rossi has added the Alltrack Pro 130 GW to its collection of crossover BC/Alpine boots. It comes ready for anything, as its GripWalk soles are outfitted with Dynafit-certified tech inserts.
Rossi’s Alpine line-up touches all the bases – narrow, medium, wide and extra-wide models for men and women, spanning all recreational flexes from 70 to 130, either with or without a hike mode (HM) – without leaving its home base of classic, 4-buckle, 2-piece, overlap shells. Both the Speed (no HM) and Track (with HM) extended families return in 2020 intact.
One noteworthy characteristic of all Rossi boots but the new Alltrack LT’s is a sizing shift that creates more toe room – roughly a half-size-worth – than you’ll find in most other models of the same size. If, say, a 26.5 feels a tad too short in Brand X, you might find a comparable Rossi in the same size to be a perfect fit.
I was one of the many midwives who attended at the birth of the Salomon boot in 1979. I translated Salomon’s encyclopedic Boot Bible into English and later condensed parts of it into one of the first boot fitting manuals. I trained the North American field force, holding them hostage at the Parker House in Boston for weeks on end until they were ready to storm the marketplace.
I mention this not merely due to my bottomless narcissism and sepia-toned nostalgia, but because I don’t want to disguise my history with the brand.
When I was a product manager at Salomon with responsibility for the North American zone, it was a very different ski marketplace and Salomon was a completely different company. It took Salomon several generations of non-rear-entry designs to eradicate the stigma associated with its convenient-entry roots. While Salomon continues to experiment with shell structures – witness QST Pro and S/Lab construction – its bread-and-butter boots are all variations on a 4-buckle overlap theme.
Once Salomon accepted that its credibility depended on adopting the market’s de facto standard design, it re-fired the engines of innovation, a process that eventually led to Custom Fit. Originally just a heat-deformable panel on either side of the forefoot, Custom Fit evolved to encompass every aspect of the boot but the sole and spine. The process of molding the entire boot to the customer was slick, efficient and man, did it sell boots. At one time in our recent history, Salomon had the top 7 selling boots in the U.S. That’s ridiculous, and unsustainable. The next year, it only had the top five.
No one gets to own the world forever, but if Tecnica or Head or Nordica wants to be number one they’ll have to wrest the crown from Salomon as it isn’t about to surrender it voluntarily. Last year, the narrow-lasted X-Max collection was retired in favor of S/Max, with a familiar last but very new shell and cuff. The new shells are super lightweight and so close fitting they feel like they’ve been painted on. The flagship S/Max Carbon is eerily lightweight yet digs trenches and rebounds like it was made of equal parts titanium and TNT.
The S/Max isn’t just a tweaked X-Max. It’s different. (The S/Race (92mm last) was also new last year, but let’s stay on point.) The mono-injected frame delivers the snow feel of the best race boots, and the closeness of the light shell makes it feel even less like a foreign object and more like a second skin.
For 2020, Salomon has applied the S/Max makeover machine to its bread-and-butter, 100mm Pro series. S/Pro is a complete redesign, with a new last, new plastic and new shell/cuff structure. By mixing the elastomer that makes shell customization possible into the PU pellet, the new material more evenly distributes the two components. The net effect is the total heating time is down to two minutes, with the same, near miraculous results.
But material and customization facility are only part of the story. The power in the new design comes from an asymmetric stirrup of super-stiff material that runs up into the cuff and wraps underneath the heel. Every shell size has its own specific left and right Coreframes, so all components mesh perfectly. The 100mm last has been raised 2mm over the instep; if more room is required, the entire cuff is Custom Shell, i.e., expandable by up to 5mm around the ankle. The S/Pro liner has been redesigned to move all seams away from critical fit zones. Lightweight and super sensitive, the 2020 S/Pro series is intended to secure Salomon’s grip on the top of the sales heap.
Not all brands – or veteran bootfitters – are fans of heat-molding shells. (BTW, everybody’s liners are heat-moldable, without exception.) Yet it’s hard for this observer and practitioner to see how the conscientious application of this technology is anything but beneficial. It won’t solve all boot-fit and/or stance problems, nor will it solve world hunger, but it sure solves any routine fit issues.
Salomon isn’t a core backcountry boot brand like Scarpa or Black Diamond so it has no inherent cachet with the BC crowd, but Salomon doesn’t enter a category to be average and does the necessary research to break fast from the gate. It was only a few seasons ago that Salomon got serious about backcountry with MTN Lab; now its S/Lab X-Alp and S/Lab MTN models are industry benchmarks.
Salomon’s bona fides as a BC boot supplier were boosted last year by the advent of the S/Lab Shift MNC binding. The Shift can be swiftly reconfigured to accept either Alpine or Alpine Touring norm soles. Yes, they weigh more than a basic pin binding, but if your skiing life is a little bit backcountry and little bit rock the resort, the Shift is the binding you’ve been pining to pin uphill with.
Seven years ago, Tecnica was at a point in its evolution where it had to change. The brand still had market mojo, but the line was due for an upgrade. Once a brand decides it needs new molds, all ideas are on the table until eliminated in the R&D cage match that is product development. The usual approach is to find some nugget that was previously shelved, make some prototypes and pass them around to cognoscenti for their comments.
Tecnica took a different tack. It assembled the cognoscenti, but instead of displaying an array of half-baked possibilities, its marketing team displayed only curiosity: what should the next performance boot look like? What features should it have? How can we make it easier for bootfitters to modify it?
The result was the Mach1 series, boots made for high performance recreational skiing and the technicians who fit them. If there’s one feature that defines the new Tecnica, it’s Custom Adaptive Shape (C.A.S.), the primordial link between ski, shell, liner and skier that determines the success of any ski experience. C.A.S. isn’t just an anatomical shape, but a fit methodology and a means of modifying the liner and/or shell without impinging on its structural integrity.
In a market besotted by heat molding, Tecnica has by and large stuck to its own customization methods for a very simple, yet compelling reason: their boots ski brilliantly just as they are. The fit process may not involve an oven, but the results are hard to ignore: the Mach 1 and Cochise are undeniably among the best boots in their respective categories.
For 2020, Tecnica has concocted a means of distorting the carbon fiber in the upper cuff of a new C.A.S. design made specifically for women. By bringing adaptability to the one feature that defines a women’s boot, cuff height. Tecnica is able to raise the rear spoiler height and increase its forward lean on its top Mach1 W models. This brilliant, contrarian move instantly elevates Tecnica’s entries in the women’s high performance market.
Headlining the latest women’s collection is a model that is not only women-specific, it’s country-specific. Ever since instituting Project 165 – the R&D initiative that brought top bootfitters into the process – and W2W, a similar, grassroots program integrating women into the loop, Tecnica has become a more market-focused brand. The new, 120-flex Mach1 LV Pro W is emblematic of the brand’s ability to adapt specific solutions to different markets’ needs.
The hike-mode Cochise series isn’t resting on its laurels, continuing to refine what is already one of the best in-resort/backcountry hybrids on the market. Another category leader that returns with a smattering of enhancements is the mainstream Mach Sport collection, now in three different lasts.
Now that we’ve at least paid lip service to the rest of Tecnica’s tour de force collection, here’s the headline for the experts among you: the flagship Mach1 LV 130 has been tweaked so it fits better and has superior snow feel to its already excellent predecessor, and there’s a brand new hero boot to consider, the Firebird R 140.
The Firebird R series fits in between the race department Firebird WC series and the Mach1 LV. In a word, it’s immaculate. The Firebird R 140 has all the goodies you get with a true race boot, without the discomforts. It has a solid sole (that you don’t have to grind to fit in a binding), lace-up liner, 96mm last, polyester shell and cuff and, of course, that 140 flex index. Even if you’re a really good skier, this may sound like more boot than you need. Trust me, it’s not.
While my personal predilections ought not be accepted as Gospel, I found the Firebird R 140 to possess the best bundle of properties for the performance skier of any boot we rated at the Masterfit Boot Test last spring, and the Mach1 LV 130 was not far behind.