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.