The return of the three-piece boot
November 20, 2011
Gone are the days of ripping around the mountain on narrow, 198-centmeter GS boards. While we’ve seen drastic changes in ski technology, shape and appearance in the last 15 years, boots have not experienced a similar overhaul across the market.For at least three major boot companies – Nordica, Dalbello and Full Tilt – the wave of the future is in three-piece (three-buckle) boot construction, as opposed to the two-piece (four-buckle) design that most skiers are currently sporting. The benefits of three-piece construction are many, manufacturers say. In a nutshell, the three piece boots work better with modern skis. To get a bit more technical, the three-piece boot offers improved lateral stability, torsional rigidity, a progressive flex and better heel support. The most easily recognizable attribute of the three-piece boot is the three-buckle feature. One buckle spans across the arch; another spans across the shin, like most boots. Three-piece boots, however, have a third, “45-degree” buckle that warps around the ankle. Proponents of the three-piece boot credit the 45-degree buckle for locking the heel into the back part of the boot. Some go as far as to argue that four-buckle boots essentially offer two-buckle effectiveness because the buckles work as a pair – upper and lower. The third buckle on the three-piece design provides pressure from an additional angle.However, to understand what separates the three-piece, you’ve got to dig a little deeper into its construction. Four-buckle boots are made of two pieces of plastic – a shell and a cuff, while three-buckle boots are built with an additional tongue piece. When the three pieces are buckled together, they form a single unit, proponents say.
Fatter skis underfoot (as well as modern maneuvers) demand more support laterally (side-to-side) than traditionally shaped skis. The two-piece boot system was designed to maximize pressure in the tip of the ski because that was the only way to get long, straight skis to turn, back in the ’80s and ’90s. Today, with the aid of sidecut and rocker/early-rise technology, the ski can be turned more by tipping it up on edge – hence the lateral support – and twisting or turning the boot – hence the torsional rigidity (resistance against twisting). “What’s now needed out of a boot is that lateral support with the parabolic skis,” said Sam Beck, ski product coordinator for Nordica. “On the other side of the spectrum with the fat skis, you’re looking for something with torsional rigidity, so there’s no loss in the transfer of power (from the skier to the ski). People are looking for something that is torsionally rigid but doesn’t affect the fore-aft (front-to-back) flex of the boot.”Experts say another benefit is the boot’s progressive flex, thanks to the unique tongue component, which is additional to the three-piece design. “One of the biggest advantages (of the three-piece boot) is the progressive flex,” said Dano Bruno, who works in R&D and athlete service for Dalbello. “What happens with a four-buckle boot, when you pressure the front of the boot, it has a starting point and a stopping point of where that progression of flex occurs. When you’re dealing with a three-piece boot … it allows for a progressive flex all the way through the range of motion of the ankle.”Athletes agree.”Progressive flex works so much better on unpredictable terrain,” said professional halfpipe skier and Dalbello athlete Taylor Seaton. “The four-buckle boots might be fine if you’re racing or doing predictable, smooth terrain. But with the progressive flex, when you hit the bump, it really allows you to stay forward and keep your balance.”
While Full Tilt (owned by K2) acquired the Raichle mold and currently lays claim to being the original purveyor of the three-piece design, there is serious evidence to the contrary. By Full Tilt’s own historical account, the first three-piece prototype – the design for which the company says came from NASA for walking on the moon – was developed in 1979. In the winter of 1980-81, Raichle brought that boot to the market, and it enjoyed years of fanfare among consumers and Olympic athletes alike. Most notability, Bill Johnson won a gold medal in the Downhill at the 1984 Winter Olympics, while skiing in the Raichle three-piece boot.Due primarily to changes in company ownership, the Raichle boot was first altered and then disappeared from the market in the 1990s. It remerged under the Kniessl brand in 1999 but didn’t do as well as anticipated with the new name. Fans of the product, most notably extreme skier Seth Morrison, would obsessively collect boot parts in an effort to maintain their old Raichles. The boots became somewhat of a lost treasure for loyal skiers who would scoop them up in thrift stores and hoard them away for future use. Roughly 25 years after it’s original introduction, Full Tilt released a nearly identical version of the Raichle and has since enjoyed solid success commercially, especially among park and pipe skiers.But there’s one flaw in Full Tilt’s account.Nordica provided the Summit Daily News with brochure material from 1977-78 with what clearly appears to be a three-piece boot. Not that it really matters at this point, but the original three piece-boot was called the Tempest (later models were called the Competition I, II and III). It was released by the Italian boot maker three years before the Raichle hit the market. (See corresponding photo.)But who’s keeping score? Nordica officials said it’s not worth the energy to correct the misconception propagated, in part, by Full Tilt.
After dropping off the market for a while, there is little arguing that Dalbello was the company that brought the three-piece boot back into fashion.Bruno originally got involved with Dalbello when the company began reintroducing the three-piece concept, circa 2004. Bruno was (and currently is) the ski and boot technician for Tanner Hall, who was dominating the park and pipe scene at that time. Thinking Hall would be a strong promoter of the revamped boot, which was based on the Raichle design, Dalbello reached out to Bruno. “They showed me a prototype. I put it on and flexed it, and I knew right away, conceptually, it would be something that would work,” Bruno said. “I called Tanner. I said, ‘Yo, I think I found maybe the new boot for you to ride in. We’ve got to get it and test it.”Hall was also consulting with iconic freeskier Glen Plake (the dude with the mohawk).”Tanner said, ‘What are you talking about?’ So I told him, and at that same time he had just met with Glen, who had also shown him the boot. Plake was really the driving force with Dalbello to bring the boot back,” Bruno said.Hall was the first athlete to roll out with a three-piece boot in X Games competition. While the radical change was met with skepticism throughout the industry, Hall went on to rack up gold medals in the park and pipe. It wasn’t long before three-piece boots remerged among the rest of the X Games athletes and the youth of the sport. “Dalbello was able to redesign some things – change the hinge points, change the tongue, change the buckle,” Bruno said. “Everybody would come up and go, ‘Oh, that’s the old Raichle. I loved that boot. I skied in it.’ And (Dalbello) gained a lot of energy in that alone.”In 2010, Nordica reintroduced the three-piece concept to its line with the Ace of Spades park and pipe boot. This season, the three-piece construction has spread through roughly 30 percent of the Nordica’s product offerings – most notably, the all-mountain, three-piece Fire Arrow, which was featured on the cover of SKI magazine’s annual “Buyers Guide” this year.
One complaint leveled against the three-piece design is submitted by those with high arches, who say the pressure across the ankle can be painful. However, most find the boots to be more comfortable than the two-piece concept, and proponents are hesitant to say there are any drawbacks at all. Beck, for one, said three-piece boots could become the standard again. He doesn’t rule out the design might even be reapplied to racing someday. “As far as a negative, I don’t think there’s necessarily a negative to the three-piece boot; it’s just a different style boot,” Beck said. “I can’t say that it would be a bad thing for a race boot. Someday, we may have a three-piece race boot. It’s not currently in the works, but you never know.”Bruno, perhaps one of the design’s strongest advocates, doesn’t think four-buckle boots will ever go away, but three-piece models will continue to grow in popularity. “It’s hard to say how far it will spread because of the patent issue,” Bruno said. “All these companies have patents on their design. Everybody is always trying to figure out how to get around that patent. Whoever has the engineers to get around those patents, you’ll see them coming out with (three-piece) boots.”
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