February-March 2003


  The next
soft boots
for expert skiing?

The shaped ski, or super-sidecut revolution is now a fait accompli, a done deal. Deep-sidecut skis were once a novelty, then a cause for excitement and enthusiasm, and now, finally, something ubiquitous and normal. The everyday shape of everyone’s skis: shapely hour-glass curved boards that carve amazing arcs — nearly perfect turns that we have quickly grown accustomed to. But get ready, the next revolution is about to begin — and this time we are talking about boots.

Boots it seems have been very resistant to innovation. The majority of world cup racers today are skiing on a boot that is virtually identical to a 1981 Lange model (under a variety of brand names, in a variety of colors). It’s true that in that same period recreational skiers lived through a vogue for rear-entry boots, and then saw the buckles migrate back around to the front of the foot. But it’s also true that for most skiers, the way ski boots feel, and above all the way they ski, has hardly changed, for as long as we can remember.

In my own teaching and coaching work, I have become more and more convinced of the importance of boot alignment — adjusting the ski boot’s angles to the angles of your feet, ankles and legs. It makes a huge difference, allowing skiers to balance easily on one ski or the other, letting them feel and control their edges with new precision. I’ve learned that if someone can stand like an expert skier, there’s a good chance they can move like one. But one part of the balance equation has been particularly stubborn, particularly hard to improve and change for most skiers — even for skiers who have benefited from modern boot alignment. The problem is fore-and-aft balance and the particular way that problem haunts so many skiers is through stiff inflexible ankles.

Stiff ankles. Does that sound familiar? Can you really stand in your ski boots and flex your legs down and forward, flexing at the ankles as well as bending at the knees and hips? Truth is, over half the skiers on the slopes can’t. Certainly by comparison with street shoes our ski boots are very stiff indeed at the ankles, especially so when the top buckle of a four-buckle boot is buckled tightly. When the average skier tries to flex forward at the ankles, they find their boots push back. This isn’t at all comfortable, maybe it even hurts. So many skiers simply stop trying to flex at the ankles, finding support from the back of their boots, and confining all their vertical motion to flexing and extending only at the knee and hip joints. Well, you probably can guess what this means. If you sink by bending at the knees but not the ankles, then your hips will drop backward and your weight will fall back. And you will probably have to break forward at the waist to stay in balance, more or less in balance at any rate.

And it gets worse. Have you ever felt yourself finishing your turn with your weight on your heels? A lot of skiers do? Especially on steeper slopes. And this in turn leads to a skidded turn finish that doesn’t really offer effective speed control. Such skiers often wind up skidding faster and faster, from turn to turn, on steeper slopes. It may not even be your fault, because when you turn your skis down the hill on a steep slope, they will accelerate and begin to “run out from under you,” leaving you sitting back. And if your ankles are stiff, this only exaggerates the problem. Indeed to control your skis, and to keep up with your skis as they accelerate into the fall line, you need to flex forward. — and for this ankle bend is indispensable.

Closeup of the
Rossignol Soft boot
@ Linde Waidhofer

Enter the soft boot. Last season, Rossignol introduced its first soft boot. A traditional plastic ski boot in many ways, with the plastic cut away in the front, tongue area and replaced by a softer synthetic leather material. Easy to get on and off, these boots also permit skiers a greater range of vertical motion, flexing then extending, without losing their balance backward, without dropping their hips backward. It’s a revelation. Rossignol’s first soft boots were greeted with raised eyebrows. What’s this? a gimmick? Something for beginners? Not at all. This year a number of other boot manufacturers have followed Rossignol’s lead, and next year, my ski industry friends tell me, every major boot manufacturer will offer soft boots in their line. These boots give superb lateral support for edging and carving, they simply don’t fight back when you press your shins forward against the tongue. And this increased flexibility often results in better turns, from the ability to stay balanced in a greater range of situations and positions.

I’ve been skiing on a pair of these Rossignol soft boots since the beginning of the season, and for me they have been a revelation. Nowhere more so than in the bumps where increased ease of ankle flex allows me to adjust my balance faster to adapt to fast-changing terrain. Several top ski shops in the Aspen area where I teach my annual Breakthrough on Skis courses report that already one out of four boots they sell are these new soft boots. And these numbers are going to increase. Thankfully.

By the way, I am not advocating that anyone ski around with a permanent deep bend at the ankles. A neutral stance is our often elusive goal, But the ability to get that ankle bend, and use it, when the terrain or the turn pushes you into a lower position, is positively priceless. Stay tuned. I strongly suspect that soft boots are the start of the next revolution in ski equipment.

 February-March 2003
Photo at top of page
@ Linde Waidhofer
All contents of this web site
© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.