September 23, 2014

Helpful Fictions

 These numbers mean something... but not enough to enable you to find
the right boot online. 

Helpful Fictions


In one of our first blog posts of last season, we wrote about two useful numbers you should know about any boot you're thinking of buying: its flex index and forefoot width (in mm's).   Please bear in mind, however, that "useful" isn't a synonym for "accurate."


All one has to do to expose the fallacy of flex indices is to don a series of boots that all purport to possess a flex of "130."  They are as different as snowflakes.  Any pretense at across-brand coherence went out the window when, several years ago, Lange quadrupled their sales when they called their green RX shell a 130, just like the "true 130" embodied in their archetypical RS 130.


The analogy to women's dress sizes couldn't be more apposite: look, guys, I fit a size 6! Lange sales shot through the roof, and any hope of salvaging a coherent flex scale henceforward was shot in the head.


Today, the flex index is a convenient way to position each model in a family of boots.  The top model, regardless of actual stiffness, will be anointed a 130, the next stiffest boot will be decorated as a "120," and so on down the line.


All one really knows about the stiffness of a boot marked as a "100" is that it is stiffer than the exact same shell marked "90," but not as stiff as a clone designated as a "110."  Considering that we've known that 100 is more than 90 and less than 110 for some time now, this information is helpful only to a point, the point at which math tips over into marketing.   


At least flex indices have the decency not to parade around as hard, meaningful numbers, such as millimeters.  But manufacturers unblushingly refer to shells as having a 98mm last or 100mm last as if these numbers had the same fidelity as those that landed a man on the moon.  Let's just say that if boot marketers had organized the first manned moon launch, Neil Armstrong and crew would be stellar debris.


The most obvious flaw in referring to a boot as having a "100mm last" is that it can't possibly have the same forefoot width in say, a size 28.5 that it has in a 25.5.  (Among major brands, only Head takes pains to list forefoot width by size, also providing a relevant total volume measurement which would be even more useful if it were broadly adopted as a reference.) 


As there isn't a standard means of measuring the forefoot width, other than to cite the widest point in a given shell, how any particular 98, 100 or 102 is going to fit on you is still a crap shoot.  While the shells are all presumably measured straight across the widest point, the corresponding part of your foot is an arch that lies at an angle.  The presumption that one can match a foot to a boot simply by knowing the so-called "last width" doesn't hold up to close scrutiny.


If you were wondering why on earth it might be advantageous to fudge a forefoot measurement, consider this: only one boot wins the fit-off contest that is the normal path of a boot sale.  The boot that usually triumphs is the boot that raises the fewest objections and elicits the most "ahs!" 


That this might not be the best boot for said customer almost goes without saying, as the path through the thicket of the snugger boot sale requires a guide with both knowledge and communication skills.  Point being, a boot that says it's "medium" that is actually "wide" is playing the women's dress size game again: "I can't believe a boot this tight fits so comfortably!"  That's because it isn't tight, duh.


Let's step back. I shouldn't be hyperventilating over possibly deceptive forefoot width statistics because forefoot width is, at best, a tertiary concern for the skilled boot fitter.  The biggest problem with forefoot width as the metric used to define boot volume is that it takes the focus off the real issue, which is stabilizing the rear foot and optimizing ankle range of motion (ROM).


The point is so important it bears repeating:  correctly cradling the rear- to mid-foot and confining the lower leg to allow an optimal ankle ROM are the first objectives of any boot-fit meant for performance skiing.  Alignment and stance angles are vital, as well, but aren't worth considering before addressing job one.  Then we'll take a peek at the metatarsal ridge and see how we can allow it the space it needs to function.


Moving from the abstract to the particular, what this means when you next go boot shopping are these primordial points:

  1. You're not picking a boot; you're picking a boot fitter.  
  2. Focus on the fit in the ankle and heel. This is the fundamental matching area. Everything else can be tweaked.
  3. Support your foot at its foundation. If you're not using a properly cast custom insole, chances are you're not skiing your best. 

If you examine the behavior of skiers at the highest level of the sport, you'll note that no piece of equipment is as vital and irreplaceable as a competition boot.  Every single athlete at this level has had his or her boots customized.  Your needs are not their needs, true enough, but you can apply a proportionate amount of care to getting this critical piece of equipment dialed.  You can't do it alone.


And you certainly can't do it on the Internet. If you learn anything from our site, learn this.  You're not buying a mukluk, a flip-flop or a Louboutin:  you're buying the most complex piece of footwear you will ever own.  Your choice will, in large part, set boundaries on both your comfort and competence.  Spend an hour with a trained boot fitter and you won't spend the next 100 skier days wishing you had. 

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Jackson Hogen