The State of the Ski Market, Part II: The Pluses and Problems of Standards

By: Jackson Hogen

Published: September 17, 2019

In Part I of my 2020 State of the Ski Market Revelation, I describe how the influence of ski width, deep sidecuts, rockered baselines and tapered tips and tails have dumbed down skis to the point where skills development is treated as optional. The crowning achievement of the modern ski is that it has allowed the absence of technique to become a technique.

This week’s sermon begins with a brief dissertation on a different way of dumbing down gear, one that makes it harder for the hapless, often ill-informed consumer to make a disastrous choice. Regardless of the quality of counsel the skier-to-be receives, the equipment he or she acquires will still operate correctly. Even the clueless will be somewhat shielded from poor decisions.

This sort of “dumbing down” is made possible by standardization. Before you slip into a coma at the mention of standards, I ask you to please hang in there for a few more sentences.

Let us peel back the veil of time to the early 1970’s. It was the wild, wild West of ski-boot-binding incompatibility. (The issue of incompatibility predates the ‘70’s, but that particular decade offered more options to scramble together.) There were lots and lots of bindings, some of which were made expressly to circumvent the whole issue of boot compatibility, as the market was chock-a-block with various boot sole materials and configurations.

The standardized dimensions for an Alpine ski boot sole per ISO 5355. In conjunction with binding standards, 5355 virtually eliminated boot/binding incompatibility.

The international effort to create an Alpine boot sole standard (ISO 5355) and corresponding binding specifications put an end to the era of wholesale mix-and-matching. Once the standards were adopted, a skier could pick any boot and it would work with any binding. Aside from putting a children’s norm boot in an adult binding, there was really no way to screw up the release function of the ski-boot-binding system.

The point behind this detour into the role of standards is that we’re currently in an era when the absence of standards has put a certain percentage of the skier population in jeopardy. Alpine boot and binding standards still exist, and there’s a separate ISO (International Standards Organization) standard (ISO 9523) for Alpine Touring soles that are fully treaded.

But since those standards were drafted, the makers of Alpine boots realized that what a lot of skiers wanted was a great walking sole that would work in an Alpine binding. And so boots were made that didn’t meet either norm; some bindings would work with them, but others would not. The new standards that would describe this new type of boot sole and the bindings that would work with it are still in committee, although a working consensus has emerged.

Meanwhile, we’re back to where we were (sort of) in the early ‘70’s: there are lots of binding options and lots of boot options and the consequences of assembling the wrong components can be gruesome. The evidence of incompatibility among products and confusion among consumers has raised enough red flags in the scientific community that it’s likely to be a hot topic for current research efforts.

What Happens When Standards Are Silent

If you want to see more examples of what happens when there are no standards to guide design, take a gander at Alpine ski boots. While the Alpine boot’s binding interface is strictly defined, there are no standards for boot flex or a boot’s stated last geometry.

An example of boot/binding incompatibility prior to the adoption of standards.

There are two primordial factors dictating model and size selection: forward flex and volume, indicated by forefoot width. Both a flex index number and a reference as to the boot’s width in millimeters are printed on virtually every boot made. It’s useful to know both numbers; they would be even more useful if they were accurate.

In the absence for any standard for boot flex, the stated index for a given model is more a reflection of its status within its model’s flex range than the cuff and spine’s resistance to forward movement. The de facto standard is that any boot that occupies the top slot in a given family is assigned a flex of 130, no matter if it’s a true race boot, a patently softer race clone, a backcountry boot, a two-piece overlap, a 3-piece shell or any sort of hybrid.

The reason every top-of-its-family model receives a 130-flex designation is as clear as the dollar signs that adorn the boot wall: the higher the flex index, the higher the price. This is about the only ironclad rule governing the boot universe.

I’d love to say the only hidden peril in boot shopping is that the flex indicated and the flex felt by the prospective skier may not closely correlate. But the terms “narrow,” “medium” and “wide” are also a bit fuzzy. Here’s how it shakes out.

Narrow, surprise of surprises, actually means narrow. Boot makers expect better skiers to gravitate to these tighter shell lasts, so there’s less fudging. Giving him or her a roomier fit is actually unappealing to this skier.

It wasn’t so long ago that wide boots that were also supportive boots were also very rare boots. Not so now. Boots classified as wide are commonplace nowadays and all are decidedly higher volume than anything that calls itself medium.

Mystery lovers among you have already divined the problem: the medium-lasted boot is the battleground on which the market share war is won or lost. No one wants to lose a boot vs. boot “fit-off” at the point of sale; any hint of impingement on one’s tootsies compared to the nearest rival will lead to rejection. This phenomenon means every manufacturer errs on the side of generosity, raising the instep a smidgeon here, opening up the forefoot a tad there.

In an ironic twist, for many years the market has focused on medium-lasted shells in the meat of the recreational market. Racers automatically got a narrower shell and wide boots that could support a strong skier were practically nonexistent. Now that all boot companies make all their key models in narrow, medium and wide iterations, it’s the narrow and wide populations that are being served the most-likely-to-be-accurate fit.

Because part of the boot marketing battle is building a more comfortable, accurate last, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see any standards covering sizing and the fit environment. All that can be realistically hoped for is a uniform volume measurement in cc’s, but don’t hold your breath. The creation of a standardized flex index is equally unlikely, as it would upset the keystone rationale underlying the pricing structure.

The imposition of standards isn’t always the most desirable way to solve what is essentially a communications issue. Standards are always double-edge swords: the uniformity they encourage also puts a straightjacket on future design solutions. Erstwhile Salomon product manager (and Desperate Measures co-creator) Dave Bertoni recalls a Salomon toe design that would release asymmetrically but was never made because the binding design standard required symmetrical release values. A good idea died on the drawing board.

A current example of boot/binding incompatibility. 

Injury statistics suggest that the imposition of standards for boots and bindings led to exponentially fewer binding-related injuries while stifling the development of very few designs. On the whole, standards development has worked in the skier’s favor. We could use a couple more ASAP to clear up grey areas created by the crossbreeding of Alpine and AT designs.

[Note: Jackson once served as General Secretary for ASTM F-27, Committee on Skiing Safety.]

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