Boot lacing relies on snug comfort


— The directors at Boa Technology Inc. really know how to conduct a board meeting.

"We have far more board meetings on powder days than we do on hardpack days," company founder Gary Hammerslag said. That's because when the busy executives at Boa have a "board meeting," snowboards are mandatory equipment.

Boa is in the business of marketing an ingenious new system of lacing for snowboard boots that is designed to ensure a better fit and higher performance. In fact, if riders want them to, the new boots with the Boa system can fit as snugly as a boa constrictor. Both K2 and Vans are debuting new snowboard boots incorporating the Boa system at trade shows this winter in time to have them on retail shelves around the country this fall.

Snowboarding design and technology is driving the entire snowriding industry. But there's one area in which snowboarding lags behind the traditional designs of alpine skiing. The lacing systems on snowboard boots aren't much further along than alpine ski boots were in 1966. Hammerslag and Boa's director of engineering, Richard Florence, are positioning their company to change all that.

Alpine ski boots emerged from the dark ages with the advent of buckles. But a string of buckles that makes sense on a rigid alpine boot wouldn't work on a snowboard boot. They would only create painful pressure points and interfere with some wraparound binding systems, Florence said.

Hammerslag and Florence have spent much of the past two years testing and refining prototypes of their system attached to boots they purchased off the shelf. They have also involved local riders in rigorous testing on snow.

The Boa partners wanted aggressive riders to try them out and see if they could break them, Florence said.

Sean Bailey, manager of the snowboard shop Powder Pursuits in Steamboat Springs, says he was skeptical at first when he saw early prototypes of the Boa system a year ago. When he saw the "reel" that is the heart of the system, located on the tongue of the boot, he predicted it would tighten boots near the top, but leave them sloppy at the bottom. It wasn't until he rode on the Boa system this winter that he was converted.

The BOA lacing system replaces traditional shoelaces with a very fine, yet very strong stainless steel wire. It measures .031 inches in diameter, and yet it has a breakload of 120 pounds. The wire also is manufactured to cause very little friction as it is tightened. The wire is threaded through "lace guides" positioned along the side of a snowboard boot, not unlike a shoelace. However, the real genius of the system can be seen in how the wire is tightened. Instead of the wearer tugging on laces, he or she simply turns a small crank or "reel" not much bigger in diameter than a quarter. It is attached to the tongue of the boot. The boots quickly snugs down for a secure, comfortable fit, and there are no lace ends to get caught up in clothing and boot bindings. The wire is coiled inside the reel as it is tightened. The inner workings of the reel are based on a "planetary gear" with one gear in the center, known as the sun, surrounded by three other gears the planets. Together, they create a high gear ratio that allows a few quick strokes with the heel of the hand to tighten a pair of boots. The reels are manufactured in mainland China. BOA purchased the machine tooling for a manufacturing plant in the Shen-Zhen economic zone not far from Hong Kong. Hammerslag said he feels good about the conditions for workers in the plant. They are provided with dorms, clothing and food by their employer, he said.

"I was incredibly surprised," Bailey said. "You get the pressure evenly distributed. I don't know if this is the best way to say this, but it kind of just wraps your foot. It really holds your heel down."

Fleming would say Bailey's reaction is exactly what the company is seeking.

"The key is, it all closes evenly," he said. "There are no hot spots."

Hammerslag hit upon the idea for the Boa lacing system after moving back to Steamboat from Southern California in 1994 and resuming his "on-snow career." He had spent 20 years in the medical products industry, designing products and bringing them to market. His most successful medical device was a product used by heart surgeons in balloon angioplasty. Essentially, it is a highly specialized wire that surgeons insert into a patient's femoral artery near the inside of his or her thigh, and maneuver through the circulatory system all the way to the arteries surrounding the heart. Once there, they inflate a small balloon to help free blood vessels of plaque buildup.

Hammerslag and his father eventually sold the company that made the angioplasty devices.

After returning to Steamboat, where he previously lived in the early '80s, Hammerslag was doing a lot of snowboarding at the same time his own children were getting into ice skating. He noticed that he had a difficult time tightening his boot laces as tight as he wanted them. And his son and daughter were having a tougher time tightening their skates so that their ankles wouldn't wobble. Hammerslag put his mind to a solution, and while some would say he came up with a new invention, he shuns the term "inventor."

"I have a lot of experience bringing new products to market," Hammerslag said. "Coming up with an idea is the easy part. Taking a product and turning it into a business that can make money, is the hard part."

When Florence came on board, he brought along manufacturing and design expertise. He was formerly the automation engineer for Maui Pineapple, executing design and control for the company's sophisticated canning equipment.

When Hammerslag came up with the concept for his new snowboard boot lacing system, he initially pictured himself manufacturing the entire boot, then thought better of it.

"I did a business plan and when I was done, I said, 'Man this looks hard!'" The outdoor equipment field is crowded, it can be hard to get noticed and profit margins are often small, Hammerslag observed.

He built a prototype, but he didn't become convinced his idea could succeed until he found out that his lacing system was more than just an improvement in convenience. It actually made the boot fit the rider's foot better.

"That was the key. I began to think, 'Maybe there's a business here,'" Hammerslag said.

Instead of manufacturing and selling snowboard boots, Hammerslag and Florence are now focused on being a supplier to a number of manufacturers. The business model is not unlike that of Gore-Tex, which licenses its waterproof, breathable fabrics to a large number of manufacturers of outdoor wear; or Shimano, which makes components used by many bicycle manufacturers. Like those companies, Boa Technology will try to create its own brand with hang tags and point-of-purchase displays.

Next winter, consumers will be able to choose from among three models for both men and women being sold to retailers by Vans. The California company known for casual shoes and skateboard wear is a major player in the snowboard boot industry and sponsors major competitions.

Another significant company in the winter sports industry, K2, is releasing one model of a women's boot incorporating the Boa lacing system next winter.


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