By Bob Locicero
Posted January 8th, 2011
Many skiers will tell you the best part of skiing is taking their boots off at day’s end. It’s a shame: it doesn’t have to be that way. Why live with pain if you don’t have to? Finding comfortable ski boots that work properly isn’t easy. Boots must fit tightly to efficiently transfer muscle movement to the skis, but tight-fitting boots can hurt. Ski boots are designed to fit a generic foot that no one has. The result is a compromise, fitting comfortably in some places, while pinching, pressuring, and hurting in others. “Boots that are too big are the biggest problem we see,” says PJ Dewey, master boot fitter and owner of Race Stock Sports in Waterbury. “People try on boots and pick the one that doesn’t hurt when sitting around the shop. The liner packs out and they end up with boots that are too big,” he explains. Dewey knows boots. He was a boot technician for Lange Racing on the World Cup ski tour before starting Race Stock Sports in 1993. Race Stock now specializes in crafting boots for ski racers and advanced recreational skiers. A stock ski boot is a starting point, not a finished product. An expert boot fitter, such as Dewey, begins by finding a boot that is close to the skier’s needs and then changes the boot to fit. Dewey says pressure, not pain, defines a good fit.
Dewey begins by finding a shell that fits and has a flex that matches the skier’s weight. To find the correct length, he has the skier step into a “cut-away”—a shell cut down to just above the sole—and slide his or her foot forward to touch the front end. The size is right if no more than two fingers can be placed between the heel and shell.The flex of a ski boot shell is determined by the thickness and composition of its plastic. Manufacturers assign a number that indicates the stiffness relative to the other boots in their line. The numbers are only meaningful within a line and cannot be used to compare boots from different manufacturers. Shell flex is important because it determines how much effort is required to bend it while skiing. Temperature affects flex, and manufacturers design for different median temperatures. For Vermont skiers, Dewey selects boots that perform well at 20 degrees Fahrenheit. After determining the correct length, shell shape, and flex, the skier’s preferences for brand, style, and cost narrow the boot selection to one or two models. The selected pair becomes the starting point for customization.
The foot collides with the shell when the boot is too tight. In boots that are too big, the foot slides, slamming into the shell. The body protects itself by building up the collision area with calcium, resulting in a bone spur. “I mark the hard parts of the foot where clearly there is going to be collision,” says Dewey. The inside and outside of the ankle, the top of the instep, the bone on the outside of the foot, the “sixth toe,” big toe, and pinky toe are common spots for collisions. He then stretches the shell—called “punching the boot”—to create space. To punch the boot, Dewey slowly heats the shell to 350 degrees using heat guns. A pneumatic ram, inserted into the shell, pushes a form into the target area, stretching the plastic. Dewey has two dozen custom cherry wood and aluminum forms, each designed to solve a specific problem. “Most guys are impatient. They just want to just get it done,” Dewey says. “Heating too quickly can melt or burn the boot,” he notes.
Foot Bed Fundamentals
While the pneumatic ram stretches the shell, Dewey customizes the foot bed. “Any foot bed is better than the stock foot bed,” Dewey says. The stock foot bed does not support the foot properly and is discarded. Ideally, the customer will have a custom foot bed made. Custom foot beds last up to 10 years and Dewey encourages skiers to get them. “I have athletes who like their foot beds so much the move them around to their other shoes,” Dewey notes. “Whether it’s a cut-to-fit one or a custom one, the most important thing is the technician knows how to work with it.”
After shaping the shell, Dewey checks the knee and ankle alignment. Legs can be bowed, skewed, or angled in. Past injuries sometimes leave one leg longer than the other. Frequently he discovers problems skiers did not know they had. “We’re measuring in millimeters. They usually haven’t been through something this precise before,” he explains. The skiers take their skiing stance in the alignment tool while wearing their new boots. Dewey checks alignment by placing a gauge on the knee. A rod runs from the knee to the toe, showing the angle. He places shims under the boot to correct the angle, or cant, of the leg. Dewey uses the angle measured to change the sole of the boot, correcting the skier’s cant. He removes a section of the sole, stacking washers on the inside or outside of the gap to create the correct angle. He fills the gap with epoxy and then routes the binding tabs to level, making sure to keep them within DIN standards. The entire process typically takes two-and-a-half hours. Satisfied customers sign the walls at Race Stock and return with each new set of boots. Once you realize what an expert fitter can do, taking your boots off will no longer be the best part of your ski day. Bob LoCicero is a skiing, mountain biking and hiking enthusiast. He lives and works in Huntington. He can be reached at Bob@motorcycle-vermont.com.