Carbon footprint

Some time ago I spoke with a skater that was – it’s a rare thing! – very skeptical about carbon-fiber based aggressive skates. He said he do not see the point – that carbon fiber is only a marketing gimmick, carbon shells are prone to cracking, and generally, there are hi-tech polymers that can easily replace that material. That gave me an idea to write this article. Because more I thought about this issue, more convinced I was that carbon is by no means a gimmick, and do have some very important characteristics, that were foundation to some good things that happened recently in rollerblading industry.

Yes, carbon-based boots are made with technology borrowed from ice speedskating and inline speedskating boots. Yes, this tech was originally designed for completely different purpose: creating stiff, responsive skates, that transfer as much energy as possible. I am not a big fan of one-piece boots, not to mention softboots, but I won’t deny that Deshi idea to introduce carbon tech in to aggressive skating was spot on, and really did help skates to evolve.

Greatest benefit of carbon shells is lower cost of making them, compared to plastic shells. Technology of production is pretty “light” compared to plastic moulds, and in fact it is possible to make your very own carbon shells in a garage, using right tools. While material used per shell cost more than in case of plastic ones, and production process require more manual work (which increases cost too), large initial cost of investing in moulds necessary to pour plastic in liquid state is removed. Carbon makes short production runs and making skates in low quantity profitable.

Of course, even with plastic shells it is possible to skip cost of developing a mould, and simply using one of many open license shells (Nimh/SSM did go that way). But using carbon fiber and/or other fiber materials give opportunity to design whole skate from scratch.

Because initial investment isn’t so expensive, companies can make true to size shells right from the start – one shell size for one skate size. Every skater knows that having tighter fit gives better responsiveness of the skate, providing more control.

When you look at plastic hardshell skates, you’ll see sad reality – one shell is used for two or more sizes. Fall in between shell sizes, and either you must mod smaller shells to downsize, or ride skates that are too big. For example, I wear size EU43, and Razors SL in my size are loose fit “boats” because they are made for sizes 43-45. The same goes for Seba FR shell. For years Xsjado were made only in two sizes: for many people it was either huge platforms, or small skeleton with toes sticking out.

But in case of carbon skates, making true to size skates is easier, and such skates are simply superior, if you consider their fit, to hardshells for many people. If company does it right way, of course!

Next thing worth mentioning, is possibility to make adjustments to skates project on the fly. Due to nature of production process, and fact it is still profitable to make skates in smaller batches, when certain issue is discovered, for example: area of shell that is prone to cracking, or too low cut cuff, it is very easy to make adjustments, change shell material composition, or shape. Thanks to it, company can quickly fine-tune their skate using feedback from customers, because while pre-release tests allow to get rid of most mistakes, they never have a chance to cover all possible problems with final product.

Because carbon fiber mat can be connected with other fibers, like glass, Kevlar, Nylon and basalt fiber, directly (where they form single weave – and it’s worth to note that weaving method affects properties of mat too) or indirectly (where they are different layers of the shell) using wide range of resins, it is possible to produce skate shells of desired support, durability and weight. This give manufacturer far easier way to tinker with shell composition to find desired “sweet spot” for all characteristic than in case of plastic shells.

Eliminating need of outsourcing production of whole skates, or their parts to proverbial “China” (because as labor costs in China rise, companies switch to other Asian countries) is also huge advantage. That means more control over quality and production process, and also safety – you do not risk that your project or technology will leak. Look at Asian online skateshops – they are flooded with poor quality clones of skates, from TRS Lightning copies, to relatively modern Seba FR1 ones.

This technology allows smaller manufacturers produce skates in their homeland, from raw materials, and fight with bigger players by creating products of superior quality than mass-market ones. There are numerous small speedskating boots manufacturers on the market and difference is clearly visible – anyone who held Simmons & Schankel or Luigino boot can clearly see that they are made with much more care, than for example, Bonts. That’s because whole production process is under constant supervision of brand founders, and they actually work in their manufactures, using their experience. They are not behind-the-desk CEOs that rarely visit production line.

Currently on aggressive market we have only one company that follows this business model – Adapt. They even abandoned concept of making plastic parts in Asia, and use CNC machining to produce soulplates and grindwheels. But more are to follow – at the moment we know about Kore Skates from New York. While I am not very enthusiastic about Kore skates brand, because insight they gave us so far was at best amateurish, and we still do not know if their skates are actually carbon based (they can be made all-leather, like figurine ice skates boots, as manufacturer they work with is making those) it would be hard to deny that they at least try to do something more than to follow model:

1)      Find factory in China

2)      Choose one of old moulds

3)      Wrap it in skin

4)      Make boat soulplate

5)      Put in generic liner

6)      Sell it as premium product

And I do believe, remembering that aggressive market is not that big, there is a space for small  manufacturers making premium products of limited availability. It will hurt sales of larger companies skates, but only of their most expensive models.

And maybe competition from micro-sized brands will actually be reality check for bigger players? When whole Adapt Vegan skate cost 295 Euros +VAT, it makes you think why Remz HR 1.2 cost 299,95 Euros, current Razors SL model 299,95 Euros, Valo Light 300 Euros, and Carbon III setups even more, making their price closer Adapt Harmanus One (including VAT!). While I’m kind of more forgiving in case of Carbon III (these are skates of the same type, offering similar options), I still think sooner or later their price will have to be be adjusted. I can’t help but feeling that Remz, Razors, and Valo skates are simply overpriced.

The fact “carbon” (or rather – laminate with high percentage of carbon) is thermoplastic material gives skaters opportunity to heat-mold their skates and get a semi-custom fit. That option is very popular among speedskaters, as boots used by them are very low cut, stiff, very scarcely padded and any major intolerances between them and anatomy can literally maim skaters foot. Aggressive boots are more forgiving, with better padding, and more flexible construction – but ability to eliminate any pressure points, and to make skaters fit better is huge advantage nonetheless.

Ironically, the thing that is used as a marketing tool by everyone who make carbon fiber skates, namely – weight – matters least. Because weight is saved in largest percent by construction of whole skate, not by material the shell is made of! Softboots that are of similar project, and do not have even single carbon fiber in their construction, are still very light. Both K2 Fatty and Varsity are very light skates, in fact lighter than Valo Light and close (Varsity) or even lighter (Fatty) than CIII.

USD Carbon Frees aren’t noticeably heavier than Carbon II and Carbon III, too. If you’ll cut Valo Classic shell to resemble one from the Lights, you’ll get a skate of similar weight.

Another advantage carbon fiber shells have over plastic ones, is fact they maintain rigidity much longer. That is also important – decrease in support is less noticeable and have more to do with wear of  other elements of skate.

Carbon Free?

This skate is good example how original concept of Deshi Carbon evolved. Powerslide had funds to make true to size plastic shells, as they are relatively big company. After initial failure of USD Imperials (still don’t know why people hated them…) they took the shells, tweaked them, and put carbon skin and cuff on. Voila – skate that is cheaper to make (they already spend money on moulds) because use cheaper material for base, but produce very similar feeling to original.

Carbon Free are more flexible than Carbons, but still are great skates and I think by using right polymer (and as ski industry taught us – there are right polymers. Not to mention material technology is advancing pretty fast actually) they can make skate of virtually identical properties to carbon-based counterparts.

I doubt smaller companies akin to Adapt will follow this path. For their limited production runs, sticking to carbon fiber seems like much better option.

Alternative Carbons (also called IV)

I know many skaters think this model was stupid idea to begin with, but in my opinion it is great way to expand whole concept of Carbon skates further. Look at these skates as a lighter, more modern alternative to traditional hardshells. These are softboots made with modern technology – liner is replaceable, yes, but most advantages of Deshi Carbon are preserved – light construction, support, shell sizing, ability to heat-mold them. It is good to have a choice – and now people who do not like one-piece boot concept for some reason can skate a boot that offers most of older counterparts advantages!

Valo way?

So eventually Valo too, made their Light model, out of carbon and glass fiber. Some people say these shells are more of a glass fiber ones, with final carbon layer touch, but I won’t judge quality of them here. Thing is, even if Valo Light shells execution were flawless, and their quality was best among carbon based skates, their whole concept would still be flawed. Why?

Valo failed to include largest advantage of carbon shells, which is individual shell sizing. Like in case of plastic Valo shells, one shell size is used for number of skate sizes, with different liner lengths. And basically, while different shape allowed number of people to downsize, for others there is still a bit of free space left in the skate. Good thing they at least choose to make new shell sizing in-between old ones, so if you are Valo fan, you can choose which type of skate fits you better. But still, it isn’t the same as true fit sizing.

Only thing that’s left from list of advantages that carbon boots give to skater is saved weight.  Thing is, they could make plastic shell of exactly the same shape, using plastic (with addition of glass fiber to increase rigidity), and get the same results! And you have to remember the skates aren’t THAT lighter, as they use the same cuffs, soulplates, liner and skins as classic Valos.

Another thing is whole construction of the skate – carbon shells are much stiffer than plastic ones, and transfer energy much better. It’s good to have shock absorbers in them. But raised heel that is forced by old soulplate design basically prevents you from using one. Not that they couldn’t at least put slim shockpad in there.

While I’m far from saying that whole concept of Valo Light is a hoax, I do think it is a blind corner of carbon skate design. Simply, advantages of carbon material aren’t used fully here. And you have to remember, that they charge premium price for a product that is far easier to make than competitors carbon skates! In case of USD Carbon II, III and even IV there is A LOT of more manual work to be done. You have to glue skin to shell, sew inner lining, and all that stuff. It is done by hand. Valo makes raw shells with cuff bolted on. Yes, skins have to be sewed and liners too. But whole production process is more akin to creating traditional hardshell skates, than to speedskating boots.

The future?

I think eventually more companies will create their own carbon skates. That’s great material to work with for smaller manufacturers, giving ability to cut off completely from necessity to pour plastic parts in Asia. While Adapt opted for integrated cuff, nothing stays in the way to create cuffs from laminates!

Seba already made carbon cuff for their slaloms skates, and while it is too stiff to use in aggressive (feel free to try, it should fit on USD Carbons up from II), it proved it is possible. All is needed to create more flexible, better suited for aggressive, cuff is different composition of fibers.

Skates made using carbon and other fibers probably will never completely replace plastic hardshells, but what is important they create more options for both skaters and skate manufacturers. No, we won’t suddenly see 100 boot brands coming out of nowhere – to make good carbon skate from ground up, a lot of knowledge and craftsmanship is required. It isn’t as simple as making skateboard, where all you need is to cut plywood, bend it with steam, drill 8 holes, and add finish touch. That’s why we won’t see instant revolution in rollerblading industry – but it would be a lie to say carbon fiber introduction haven’t changed anything. It definitely have its place in blading, helps gear – and sport evolve, and is not only a “marketing gimmick”.

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