Has the die been cast for the future of binding design?
This much we know: Some people will never, never switch to hard-shell bindings. The reasons are many, including, "They look funny," "I'd kill myself in a pair of those things," and "Why fix what ain't broken?" The list goes on and on, kind of like it did when computers first started to integrate the workplace, and the old guard was reluctant to make a change.
But another thing is becoming rapidly apparent - people who believe in the hard-shell system may never go back to riding rubber. Jennifer Leachman made the switch and came away with an impressive win in the Moomba Masters in March. Andy Mapple has been putting a pair through the paces. And pro wakeboarders are starting to jump on the train with their own version of rigid boots. So what is it about the admittedly torturous-looking footwear that is making them a viable option for water skiing's stars?
"With hard-shells, you can have a pair of bindings that offer a perfect fit, just like custom shoes," Leachman says. "They also offer a more efficient transfer of energy to the ski. It's 100 percent lateral, whereas with rubber they absorb some of that movement."
Good points. But can only the slalom elite feel that difference, or do recreational skiers have a hope of benefiting from the added "touch" of stiff bindings?
"They've taken me through 38-off," says Ken Wolfe, a competitive skier and designer of Wolfe System bindings. "And I've seen weekend skiers go out their second or third time in the hard-shells and ski a personal best. There's just no other feeling like them - the edge control and leverage you get on the ski has to help you run better."
Wolfe began designing the systems a few years ago using an old pair of Spirit Rollerblade boots, and a heavily Velcro'd binding plate on the ski. He felt the snug fit and comfortable feel of the skate boot might transfer to water, so he made a few adjustments and started to crank out pairs for his ski buddies. Since then, he's been taking orders from satisfied friends and relatives who believe that hard-shell boots are the future of the sport.
"I've sold a bunch of systems to people, and not one of them has been unhappy. I really think that eventually all slalom bindings will be built this way. They just accentuate the performance characteristics of a ski so much."
But what about the disadvantages: Surely there have to be a few? Crashing in a pair seems like an obvious downfall, but Wolfe suggests hard-shells are even safer than rubber. Since the binding plate totally releases from the ski (on the Velcro model), Wolfe contends there is less chance of twisting knees and ankles during a wipeout. But the binding plate also has some sharp edges, and if you "scorpion" yourself with it on, there might be a nasty head gash to deal with. It all depends on how hard you wipe out. And Leachman says there should be some more flex at the ball of the foot, and a totally adjustable front and back of the boot to make them more water ski-specific.
Wakeboarders have their own version of the hard-shell system in CWB's Vert boot. The pair we tested was light and really easy to move around in the air, and fit snugly enough so that edging was a breeze. They are, however, a royal pain to get into and out of, especially if you're in the water. Other testers agreed, but felt the lightness of the system is enough of an advantage to offset dealing with the lock-down straps.
Ultimately, the hard-shell binding issue will weigh out as a "different strokes for different folks" proposition.