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10 Questions With Ski Boot Designer Matt Manser

The master boot designer pauses from work in Atomic's Austrian HQ. Atomic photo.

Matt Manser views life the same way he views boot design; that is, "a process of building and tinkering, assembling an existence and watching it evolve." Clearly, he seems to be doing something right, as he's tinkered his way into one of the coolest jobs in the industry. 

Functioning as Atomic's Product Manager of Ski Boots, he has the difficult task of creating tomorrow's ski boots, today. But Manser is undaunted by the challenge — after all, he's spent most of his adult life helping skiers elevate their game — and at Atomic, the artificer is bringing that know-how to the masses.

TGR was lucky enough to pick the boot guru's brain about his life, his job, and the current (and future) state of ski boot design.      

1. How did you get started working with ski boots?

I actually started out as a shop rat. I was looking for a part-time job to help pay rent during grad school and was lucky enough to learn about boot-fitting & making footbeds from a very well-known boot-fitter. I really enjoyed the problem solving aspect of it all. Working as a boot-fitter encouraged me to view ski boots through the lens of “fit solutions” and understand what works and what doesn’t. After all, if a boot doesn’t fit, no one is going to want it.

2. What are the most common foot types? 

Everyone has a “normal” foot, right? But in all honesty, I am seeing more and more low-volume feet with very flexible arches. Whether this is genetic or caused by wearing soft footwear (like crocs & flip flops), I’m not sure, but it seems to be everywhere I look. Of course there are lots of medium and high volume feet, but if you look at how ski boot lasts are evolving, you see lower instep heights and lots of space in the navicular area, which is greatly due to this. But don’t worry, if you do have a medium or high volume foot, we won’t forget about you.

Matt chillin' with Ski The East bros Chris James and Geoff MacDonald. Matt Manser photo.

3. How do you figure out the right flex for someone if everyone pretends they're a pro skier who wants a 130-flex world cup race boot?  

I’ve always told people that your ski boot needs to be an extension of your leg and selected based on your biomechanics & body type, and less dependent on how much you think you send it. For example, a 250-pound beginner is going to need a stiffer/higher end boot than a 100-pound expert. Too stiff of a boot won’t allow you to balance and power the boot properly, and too soft of a boot causes you to work harder for every turn.

Your ski boot needs to be an extension of your leg and selected based on your biomechanics & body type, and less dependent on how much you think you send it. 

You don’t want the lower shell bellowing out like crazy (too soft) and you also don’t want to not be able to move the cuff (too stiff). Generally speaking, the right stiffness is one that allows you to flex forward so your knee can reach the same plane as your toes. It’s simple physics at the end of the day, and in my experience, when you take the time and break it down for people, the vast majority will end up in the right flex for their needs. Many people (definitely not all) are realizing that your ski boot is the most important part of your equipment and they want to take the time to not screw it up.

4. On that note, a lot of companies are gutting women’s lines; does Atomic have plans to make smaller men’s sizes or up the flex for women? 

I like to think that we have a very solid women’s collection: all of our alpine models are available with legit features for women: unique cuff shapes on all sizes which are lower and more tulip shaped (with matching liner contours), all size 22s are true 22s (not 23s with a short liner), and flexes up to 100 and 110 that are purposefully designed to be easily increased to 110 and 120, respectively. We have tried offering out-of-the-box 120 and stiffer women’s models in the past, but we sadly end up cancelling them because of insufficient retailer demand. If we get more requests for stiffer women’s boots, we for sure wouldn’t hesitate to do it. In terms of smaller men’s sizing, we offer the Hawx Ultra 130 &120 and Ultra XTD 130 & 120 down to 24.5 and our Redster 150 & 130 race boots start at 22.

5. What’s the most common complaint you hear? 

“I don’t like the color” has to be at the top of the list. Color selection is by far the most annoying part of my job. We don’t create separate collections for North America or Europe or Asia, so it is beyond impossible to please everyone everywhere. 

Just 10 minutes from the Atomic office, Austria's Zauchensee serves as the ski company's testing ground. Matt Manser photo.

6. How does designing product in the Alps compare to working/designing in North America? 

Skiing in the Alps is equivalent to baseball in America — it’s one of the most common sports that almost everyone seems to do. Therefore there is tremendous consumer pressure to have everything work perfectly and easily from day one. Since skiing in North America is more of an enthusiast sport, skiers back home tend to put up with boots that are harder to put on, or colors not matching perfectly, or need a few days to break in, etc. None of that seems to fly in Europe. But at the enthusiast/expert level, it seems that everyone favors robust functionality and simplicity over complexity. I like to think these points are reflected in our current range of boots, especially with what we have coming down the pipeline.

7. When designing boots, what guides your craft? 

Coming from the boot-fitting side of things, offering the right fit, right geometry, and right ways to customize the ski boot to your individual needs is very important to me. I really want to make sure those aspects can be easily addressed in every boot. That’s why we have things like Memory Fit that allows the shell and cuff to fully mold to your feet and legs, adjustable forward lean angles, adjustable forward flex, and easy solutions for sole canting.

It still blows my mind that I make ski boots for a living. 

I’m also a complete bike nerd, so I find a lot of innovation from the cycling industry. For example, when we were developing Backland, I was searching for a way to integrate some sort of bearing into the cuff pivot that would allow the cuff to move more smoothly while touring. But bearings are heavy & bulky so that didn’t work. Then I remembered my bike pedals used bushings instead of bearings for the same reasons and we quickly got them integrated into the cuff pivots.

The boot master at home in his workshop. Atomic photo.

8. What are some notable changes you’ve seen over the last 10-15 years? 

A lot of R&D time and energy is spent on evolving the fit of ski boots, and this is probably the most notable change between a boot from 2002 and 2017. Present day boots fit and feel so much better than even ten years ago, it really is impressive how far things have come. I think this will always be the driving force behind boots, but you will also see more attention to walk modes, soles that walk better/easier, and boots that are lighter weight without sacrificing skiing performance. In addition to fit, these points will be at the forefront of ski boot evolution.

9. We've been hearing a lot about bad snow years in the Alps. What’s the story?

Yeah it’s been kind of a bummer over here the last few years, especially when I check out Benchettler’s Instagram and see him struggling to find his house after all of the snow Mammoth has gotten. Austria hasn’t had it as bad as other parts, and snow is still falling at higher elevations… but I think we will be dusting off the mountain bikes pretty soon over here.

10. What’s the best part about your job? 

I love the fact that I have a hand in making products that people are passionate about. It’s incredibly rewarding to see guys like Sage & Chris ripping insane lines in a boot that I helped create. Likewise it’s equally awesome hearing from my friends how much they love their boots. My team here genuinely lives and breathes ski boots and you can see it in their obsessive attention to detail. Every day I come to the office and we figure out how we can take it to the next level. I feel like that’s a pretty unique spot to be in and I wouldn’t easily trade that for something else. It still blows my mind that I make ski boots for a living.

About The Author

stash member Sam Morse

TGR Editor-at-Large. author of The Ski Town Fairytale and creative behind The Bumion. Lover of steep-and-deep lines, long trails—and hot springs waiting in the distance.

He is absolutely amazing, true passion.

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