Let’s imagine that cycling experiences a decade-long boom in popularity, fueled by media coverage, high profile personalities, and flashy new technology. Then just as suddenly, cycling is no longer cool. I mean, really not cool. The butt of jokes, an association that is an instant buzz kill in the singles bar. Now imagine you are a big time player in the cycling equipment industry, and you dominate the market but your sales are plummeting. What are you gonna do? Well, you either cry yourself to sleep after selling off your assets, or you transfer your expertise to some more robust market, even if it’s crowded with competition.
How plausible is this scenario? Ask Alex Bont. Who is Alex Bont, you ask?
Alex Bont is the CEO (and son of the founder) of Australia’s Bont Skates. In the early 1970s, two decades before short track ice speedskating was an Olympic medal sport, his father started building skate boots using fiberglass for support where traditionally only stiff leather had been. The improved support and responsiveness of the boot was a godsend for the rough and tumble short track races, and the senior Bont carved out a respected reputation in a rather obscure sport.
Flash forward a decade or so later when the public fell in love with heavy plastic boots with polyurethane wheels in a line underneath, unlike regular rollerskates (now retroactively christened “quad-skates”). People could not get enough of “Rollerblades”, and it was only to be expected that soon there would be speed competitions. In search of more suitable performance equipment, athletes turned to ice speedskating technology from Nederland, that bastion of longtrack ice speedskating, as well as Austrailia’s Bont. And the market grew and grew, from Europe to South America as well as Asia. In America in particular, the tail end of the last great roller rink era provided the market with a number of consumers. Outdoor road races abounded, as well as banked track (Europe and South America) and (in the USA) indoor roller rinks.
By the mid-1990s Bont Skates had established itself as the premier inline race boot manufacturer. Even if short track speedskating was finally an Olympic medal sport, the majority of Bont’s sales were inline related. And as high-end inline skates are much like high-end bicycles, sold in modular pieces, Bont expanded into the frame (roller chassis), bearing, and wheel markets. For the last 10-15 years, wheel size has been the overwhelming design influence for skates, as racers went from five wheel skates with 76mm, then 80 and 84mm, before going with four by 100 and even four by 110mm wheel chassis. Bont cleverly took advantage of their resources to introduce boot/frame combinations that were integrated together to take best advantage of the big four wheel configurations, thereby distinguishing themselves from the market’s also-rans.
Then the inline market contracted. Ironically, just as inline’s star athletes became famous by making the technically difficult transition to ice speedskating (Apolo Ohno, Chad Hedrick, etc), inline skating itself began to recede into the obscure. Now company leader, Alex Bont needed to diversify, and this is where you come in, my fellow cycling consumers.
Whatever the cause…carbon fibre, the Lance Effect, the lack of music videos on MTV…cycling is a strong market, growing again after the worldwide economic downturn. At the high-end of the market, consumers are spending sick money. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that pie?
Sure, there are plenty of cycling shoe manufacturers, but none enter the market with 35 years of design and engineering comparable to Bont. High-end cycling shoes share more than a few traits with the speedskate boots. They need to be stiff, light, and transfer force efficiently. Companies such as Lust and Rocket-7 had already garnered attention for spectacular designs borrowing speedskate technology, but Bont is the industry’s 600 lb gorilla, with vastly greater manufacturing and engineering capacity.
The fundamental difference between a Bont cycling shoe and the vast majority of cycling shoes on the market is the integration of the sole and upper. Traditional cycling shoes are constructed the same as a pair of Chuck Taylor hightops: an upper is stitched together and then attached (by stitches and/or glue) to the sole (base). True, a high-end Sidi will have a well formed, stiff heel cup, technical materials, and adjustable straps, but the sole and upper are two different things that are combined somewhere down the production process. Though there are some skate boots made in a somewhat similar fashion, Bont has always made their boots by building the boot from the inside out, layering materials on a foot shaped form (called a last). The sole is made by laminating carbon and/or fiberglass over the boot’s inner liner, so that the sole curves up over the edges of the foot for support. The heel cup is actually one with the sole, and the sole’s support smoothly blends into the upper. The shoe becomes a single piece, seamlessly connecting you to the pedal.
Of course, this structure would be very unforgiving if the shoe didn’t match the shape of your foot. In fact, since a skate boot requires a lot more support than a cycling shoe, having the support in the wrong place for the anatomy of your foot is excruciating and damages skating technique. So Bont has spent years perfecting thermal sensitive technology in the resins used in their boots. By heating the shoe/boot in an oven, the rigid support becomes surprisingly pliable. One then straps the still-warm boot on, allowing the footwear to cool into the shape of the individual’s foot. This isn’t just a company jumping on the bandwagon; Bont has been a pioneer in using this technology in footwear for decades.
The end result is that a Bont cycling shoe is light (225-250gr per shoe), incredibly rigid, and has an extremely slim stack height (moving the foot closer to the pedal spindle for better efficiency). Alex Bont feels that the shoes could be even lighter but that current technology would limit the longevity of the shoe, a somewhat conservative philiosphy that shows that the company is looking to firmly establish a reputation for performance AND quality. The shoes are not cheap, but labour-intensive items made of high-tech materials (like Toray carbon fibre) just aren’t bargain items. Bont offers 3 distinct levels of product in 3 categories (road, mtb, and triathlon), as well as 2 specialty track and time trial offerings. And if that isn’t enough, the deluxe trip is to have a pair of shoes made custom from molds of your feet or laser scans. Delivery times for custom shoes hover around 6 weeks.
In competition, the shoes have won multiple Olympic golds on the feet of a certain nation’s powerhouse track team, and Bont just joined the ranks of innovative manufacturers contributing to the Cervelo Test Team. Numerous Pro Tour riders on other teams have been using their shoes as well.
I would guess that the next two years will be critical for Bont’s business plan; they’ll need to garner a lot of attention to grow their market share. Alex Bont flat out stated that the company would not have ventured into the cycling market if the inline market had endured, but there is nothing in Bont’s approach that seems timid. At $200 and up, these shoes are targeted at the premium end for sure, but I think it’s very possible that Bont could make it big.
As for me, I’m a little afraid to try Bont’s cycling shoes. I own no less than 7 pair of Sidi shoes and have lived about a third of my wakeful adult life while shod by the Italian cobbler. What if I like Bonts more than my Sidis? I can’t afford to switch them all over, and I don’t do things halfway. But I’ll tell you what Bont I might get: their top-of-the-line Vaypor inline boot with proprietary 3point-mount frame and 110mm wheels. It’ll replace my 10 year old custom Bont skates. Though Sidi cycling shoes work for me on the bike, every stock skate boot has been a nightmare of 4” long bisters, toenail loss, and/or temporary nerve damage. There are few things as gratifying as custom shoewear, let me tell you. What will I do with them? Well, my plan is to skate on them on bike trails….you’re probably not gonna like my activities because I’ll be skating wide, wide strokes with headphones on. You cyclists won’t be able to communicate that you want to pass me on my left, but I won’t have to hear that inline speedskating is dead.
And it’ll never die since skating is just like cycling in that they have both experienced a number of booms and busts dating back to the mid-19th century . They resurge when spurred by technical innovation, star personalities, and/or pop culture, and then fade out a bit in between. Sometimes they seem to skip a generation…sort of like bell-bottoms…or lycanthropy.