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PowderPeople | Bootfitter Marc Achm├╝ller

A conversation about the right way to buy ski boots, the ski boot of the future and the advantages of specialized retailers.

by Lea Hartl ÔÇó 10/02/2016
The Marc Achm├╝ller shoe laboratory is a traditional business in its fourth generation. Master shoemaker Achm├╝ller took over the business in Steinach am Brenner from his uncle and master Herbert Auer in 2011. Before that, grandfather Hermann and great-grandfather Josef Auer ran the business. Achm├╝ller makes all kinds of custom-made shoes, but his main business is ski boots all year round, which he specialized in fitting during his apprenticeship. We talked to Marc Achm├╝ller about his trade and learned a thing or two about ski boots.

PG: Hello Marc, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Let's start at the beginning: What should people look out for when buying new ski boots?

MA: The most common problem is that people buy boots that are far too big. Only if I have the right size will everything else be right, for example the ankle position.

PG: How can you be sure that the size is right?

MA: You have to try the shoes on, of course, and depending on how much experience you have with them, you have to go to a specialist store where the people really know their stuff. As a typical consumer, I buy a ski boot maybe every 3 to 5 years. So every few years I have an opportunity to find out about ski boots. A good salesperson keeps himself constantly informed, he has completely different experience. A proper specialist store also has a certain pre-selection of good products in its range. I could have a lot more boots in the store, but I only want the ones that really work and that I can sell with a clear conscience. I also make a living from sales, that's for sure, but I make a better living if I can sell something honestly.

PG: If I notice now that my boot is too big and the heel is slipping, there's not much you can do, is there?

MA: You can't make the shell smaller. People buy ski boots like low shoes. They think they need a finger's width of air in front of the toes, which means the ski boot is actually already too big. I stand very differently in a ski boot than in a normal boot. You don't roll off, that's not possible. With ski boots, people don't have the routine and the feeling that you get from other shoes - it either fits me or it doesn't fit. If I then go into a store where the salesperson perhaps doesn't know his way around or doesn't have time, and I buy a boot that I feel fits like my sneakers, then it's usually much too big.

PG: What do you think of foamed inner boots?

MA: If it's done well, a lot. The foaming itself is actually just shaking the foam, the most important thing is the preparatory work. The shell and the footbed must be done properly. If the shoe is too wide, you can fix it quite well with foaming. Foaming a boot that is too narrow doesn't help at all.

PG: I have the feeling that the 27-27.5 shell size is a bit too small for my ski boots, but 28-28.5 is too big as the next largest shell. What should I do?

MA: The larger shell is too big for you, that doesn't work. There are different specifications for shoe sizes. A low shoe in size 38, for example, is a French stitch size, so the difference between the whole sizes is 6.6 mm. Then there are the UK sizes, 4, 4.5, 5, and so on. There is 8.4 mm between the sizes. Ski boots are only produced in Mondopoint, so the difference between the sizes is a full centimeter. So the 28 shell is one centimeter longer than the 27 shell. It's almost like if you're normally a size 41 and then suddenly buy a 43, which is much too big.

PG: So always take the smaller size if you're between shell sizes and then have the boot fitted?

MA: Rather the smaller one, yes. Of course, it also depends on how wide the foot is, how slim the heel is and how the levers are. The lower shells are made in centimeter increments, but the cuffs are often the same over two or three sizes. It can happen that you buy a size 25 shoe, where the lower shell is 25 and the cuff is 24-25.5. If you take a size larger, the lower shell is 26, but the cuff is already 26-27.5. That's quite a big difference, the cuff is much wider at the top and goes up higher. This is often a problem, especially with children, and suddenly nothing fits from one size to the next. You have to try it out.

PG: So now I have a boot and I realize that it pinches. The sports store in the ski resort advertises boot fitting and a fit guarantee. Do you also offer such guarantees?

MA: If someone writes something about a fit guarantee, it should be treated with caution. I've been doing this for 20 years now, I have all the training you can have in this field. The foot is one of the most complex structures in the human body. In addition, personal perception is often very different. I would never dare to give a guarantee. That is dubious. It's like the chef guaranteeing that the food will taste good. In large sports stores with a guarantee, it's often some kind of quick service.

PG: What can you do that they can't?

MA: What counts when fitting ski boots is experience. I don't know everything by a long shot and I'll never know everything, but with every customer, my experience grows and I can work better. You can see the machinery here. The sports stores have maybe one oven, if that. I've tried out a lot and built many machines myself, just the way I want them. They're part of my trade secret!

The whole thing is a learning process and I've broken a lot of shoes at my own expense until I've figured out what works and what doesn't. But I can now say that I get on well with all the usual shell materials and can shape them, for example by stretching, milling and thermoplastic molding. Of course, you can also do a lot to the inner shoes, right up to the complete custom-made inner shoe.

PG: So you should definitely go to a specialist store?

MA: Definitely. There are certainly people everywhere who make an effort, who certainly have a certain wealth of experience, but it's all quite difficult. I also have to be able to assess the customer. Only the customer has the personal feeling in the boot! A ski boot has to transmit forces and therefore it has to fit snugly. There are people who simply can't stand it. You can't guarantee that nothing will ever pinch and you can't always expect that. You also have to get used to your ski boots at the beginning of the season. If you don't wear sturdy boots all year round and stand in brand new ski boots for 10 hours at the start of the season, it can't be pleasant. Common sense should tell you that

PG: What materials are there for boots and how do they differ?

MA: For high-quality alpine boots, there is mainly polyurethane and for the real World Cup racing boots, polyether. For lighter and cheaper shoes, i.e. children's shoes and some women's models, it is usually polyolefin, which is a cheaper plastic. A lot of Pebax is used for touring shoes, sometimes Grilamid. Cheap touring boots are made of polyurethane, but that's actually too heavy and too soft for that, it's just a matter of the boot having a certain price. It can all be shaped to a certain extent, but as I said, you have to be familiar with it, not everyone can do that.

PG: So you never have problems fitting any material?

MA: Material combinations are sometimes difficult. Depending on where the transition is and where you have to widen, it can burst open. Then nothing works.

PG: Racing shoes are always made from one material. What are the advantages of combining several materials? Doesn't that weaken the shoe?

MA: Combinations of two or three materials are very expensive for the industry to develop. The advantage is that I can create a lighter shoe that is still stable. This one, for example, (shows a sporty alpine boot) has three materials. The lower shell is very hard, the top is a little softer and the middle, where you open the boot, is even softer so that you can get in and out easily. That's a very good technical solution. It's more difficult to shape and of course the material never harmonizes perfectly. That's why the racing shoes are only made of one material. It's important that one part of the boot doesn't suddenly feel different at a different temperature.

PG: How do you like carbon as a ski boot material?

MA: Carbon is very light and temperature-resistant. Temperature is a major problem for all ski boot manufacturers. When it's warm, the plastic is too soft and when it's cold, it's too stiff. This is the big advantage of carbon, but carbon is not moldable and extremely expensive. Carbon is used in the cuff area, not underneath, precisely because it cannot be molded. It can also break, of course, and then it's broken. It's like bicycles, in the worst case an aluminium frame has a dent, the carbon frame can be thrown away.

PG: What would you recommend to people who are looking for a downhill-oriented touring boot?

MA: You have to be aware that you have to sacrifice stability if you pay too much attention to weight. There are now many good touring boots, but you'll never come close to the stability of a high-quality alpine boot. However, it's also the case that only those who are used to a hard alpine boot will realize how many compromises you have to make if you want a walking mechanism.

PG: So it will always be a compromise?

MA: There will never be a boot that can do both 100%. It's like when I drive a racing car that has a hard set-up and is great on the racetrack. In everyday traffic I then have problems, it rumbles when I drive over the manhole cover and I can't get over the edge of the sidewalk. There's no such thing as the shoe that really combines everything. The question is where I can best do without. I can make a shoe lighter by using a lighter synthetic material or by making it thinner-walled. If it is thinner-walled, it is of course less stable. Pebax or Grilamid are relatively stable, even if they are thin, but the material is then more expensive again.

PG: There are now many freeride touring boots with flex specifications that can keep up with those of racing boots. Nevertheless, there's no comparison in terms of riding feel. What's the deal with that?

MA: That's another issue. A good skier is used to having a boot with a flex of 130. Then at some point it will say 130 everywhere because that's what customers expect. Here we have an all-round boot with a 130 flex, a 130 racing boot and a touring boot, which also say that. These are fundamentally different shoes. There is no standard.

PG: So you can write whatever you want on it?

MA: Basically, yes. There is also no testing device. What should such a specification be valid for? Is it a 130 at 0 degrees, or at 15 degrees, or at -30 degrees? The lever also makes a big difference. If people have the same shoe size, but one has a 10cm shorter lower leg, then the shoe rides completely differently.

PG: Have there been any developments in recent years that you have particularly liked?

MA: There are always shoes that I like. A lot has happened in the freeride sector in particular. I built a walking mechanism into a racing shoe 10 years ago and put rubber soles on it. In the meantime, the industry has jumped on the trend and there are always interesting developments. The idea with the movable cuffs is exciting, we'll have to see how it works once it's been on the market for a while. The fit has also improved a lot in the last 10-15 years. They used to be ovals where you could hardly see where left and right were.

PG: What innovations are you still waiting for? What does the ski boot of the future look like for you?

MA: It has to be a boot that everyone can get into easily - you can hardly get into a racing boot when it's cold! The shoe has to offer enough freedom of movement to be able to walk a bit in it, have a non-slip sole and of course be stable. But these are all things that are actually mutually exclusive. The way I see it at the moment, a stable shoe has to be screwed to the lower shell, there is no other option. There is of course no freedom of movement. Maybe there will be something at some point that we haven't even thought of yet. Maybe someone will come up with an idea - hopefully it will be me

PG: Sometimes you get the feeling that companies suddenly start building completely different boots from one year to the next, how come? Very few are really good. With some companies, you really notice when a good developer leaves and this is immediately reflected in the products.

One of the main problems for many companies is the plastic itself. The hardness of plastic is specified in Shore and for the ski boot industry this has to be very precise because you notice small differences immediately. However, the amount of plastic bought for ski boots is extremely small. The car industry, for example, buys much more and they don't care whether a dashboard has three Shore more or less. Ski boot manufacturers are small customers, but have very high standards. They tend to be difficult customers, of course, and sometimes they receive goods that are not what they wanted.

Even small things like color additives make a big difference. One company once changed the color of their racing shoes from one season to the next. This alone made the shoes so different that some of the World Cup riders didn't want to use them. In some cases, boots were then repainted for the races so that they looked like the current model.

PG: What is the lifespan of a ski boot like this?

MA: Hard to say. The manufacturers state that the boot should be replaced after 5-6 years. The basic product is petroleum, like car tires, which should also be replaced after 5-6 years, regardless of how much they have been used. The plastic loses its properties after a certain time because the plasticizers it contains volatilize. Mountain boots should be replaced in the same way, the soles don't get any better. If you walk in 20-year-old shoes, it can be really dangerous.

PG: And in terms of use?

MA: A solid racing shoe naturally lasts longer than a lightweight touring shoe. As soon as I have to make something lighter, I have to save somewhere, then it can't last any longer. I've also often seen that bindings eat into the back of the heel, especially on lighter shoes, so you have to attach extra metal plates.

PG: In addition to customization and custom work, you make a living from sales. Do you feel competitive pressure from the many online stores?

MA: Unfortunately, what happens more and more often is that someone comes into the store, asks for detailed advice and tries on shoes. And then at the end they think they'll quickly take a photo so that they can buy the right shoe online. That's difficult, I've even had arguments with people about that. The Internet is not a problem, I also like looking at things on the Internet. The problem is the theft of advice. You can't be angry with someone if they get something cheaper somewhere, but if they come to me for free advice beforehand and I bring in my expertise and spend an hour trying on shoes with them, then at some point the relationship no longer works.

I know a Swiss colleague who says from the outset that if someone comes in and knows exactly what they want and you just have to hand them the box, then they get a 20% discount. If someone buys something from me and I don't have to do any work at all, then of course I can also offer a great price. But if he wants a detailed consultation, then the working time has to be compensated somehow, I can't afford a hobby business.

PG: Will something have to change in the system?

MA: I think in future it will be quite normal to charge a fee for consultation. If someone then buys something, you can charge them for it. Someone just has to have the courage to do it and in 5 years it will be a matter of course. It's only a few people who go to such extremes and make targeted use of retail expertise before looking for the cheapest offer on the internet, but they do it almost professionally and at some point everyone suffers the consequences. But when the market changes, the industry has to find a way to adapt.

PG: Thank you very much for the interview!

Final note: Certain members of the PG editorial team have pretty crooked feet and used to have to cool their inflamed overlegs in half-frozen puddles in the parking lot after skiing before they managed to put on sneakers for the drive home. The shoe lab got this problem under control and our overlegs are forever grateful to Marc.

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This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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