Origins: How heart disease and a refusal to ski created Boa Closure Systems
Boa shoe closures were little more than curious oddities when they first found their way on to cycling footwear in 2003. More than a decade later, they’re arguably the system to have for high-end footwear – such as Giro’s new Factor Techlace – and the reel-and-cable device is also branching out beyond shoes, like in Silca’s clever new tool roll.
Boa may practically be a household name today (provided your house is filled with cyclists), but as is so often the case, it hardly started out that way.
Annoyance is the mother of invention
Boa was the brainchild of Gary Hammerslag, who together with his father, developed a coronary guide wire system for angioplasty balloon catheters. After eventually selling that company, Hammerslag relocated with his family from southern California to more picturesque Steamboat Springs, Colorado, tending to his younger kids and looking for his next big idea – and frustrated at the primitive lacing systems used on their hockey skates and snowboard boots.
Surely, he thought, there was a better way.
“I was actively looking for a new business, and it was too late to get a job!” he told CyclingTips. “I was a skier, but my kids were 8 and 10, and they didn’t want to learn to ski. But snowboarding was still kind of new, and they said they wanted to snowboard. So I said, ‘Well shit, let’s do it — and I’ll learn with you!’ So I went out and bought three snowboards and three sets of boots. They also started playing ice hockey at that time.
“I was surrounded by these heavy sport boots and realizing that shoelace closures didn’t work well for a variety of reasons,” he continued. “Just out of interest, I analyzed shoelaces and why they were used, why they don’t put buckles on snowboard boots and hockey skates. The basic idea came to me fairly quickly of using shoelaces that don’t rely on friction at the eyelets.
“I already knew how strong and flexible you could get thin wires, and how you could use low friction to tighten the whole boot, all at once. The reel came after that, because when you pull wires, you can’t tie them in a knot — you need a mechanism to pull the low-friction system tight. I was already working on another coronary catheter, and some of those principles were similar to what I was doing with coronary guide wires.”
As a career inventor, Hammerslag already knew a number of machinists and designers that could assist him with the development work. He had prototypes of his reel-and-cable device made in 1997, and then put them on his own snowboard boots just to prove the concept.
“I kept refining it, and reached a point in 1998. I had to choose which product to continue with: the coronary catheter, or what became the Boa system.”
Boa gains a foothold
We all already know now which direction Hammerslag chose, and it also didn’t take long for him to envision the system’s potential.
“A lot of other footwear has inadequate closure,” he said. “The disadvantages of shoelaces extends into other types of footwear. I was also a recreational cyclist — just casual rides, not on a competitive level — and I could see bike shoes also needing good closure. I thought our system would be better there, too.”
Interestingly, Hammerslag’s original business idea was to start a complete shoe company centered around the Boa system. However, he realized early on that building a Boa-equipped shoe company from the ground up would be a monumentally challenging undertaking. After all, he’d be competing against brands that had been in the game for decades, along with all the technical, manufacturing, and logistical advantages such a head start provides.
So later that year, Hammerslag made the fateful decision to shift gears, positioning Boa not as a complete shoe company but as more of an OEM supplier.
“Originally my idea was to start a business making snowboard boots to start, and then go into other areas of footwear. But I had a hard time making the numbers work, and began to appreciate how difficult those businesses are. So the business model concept that I eventually ended up with is more similar to SRAM and Shimano, and before that, Campagnolo, and that was selling components: to sell just the reels, on an OEM basis, and become an expert just in closure, with the dials, and the laces, and the lace guides. That was a pivotal decision.”
And a smart one, as history would soon prove.
Snowboard brands K2 and Vans were the first snowboard boot brands to partner with Boa in 2001. DC — along with a number of other big brands, such as Burton — followed soon after. A partnership with Pearl Izumi launched Boa into the cycling world with the Viper Boa shoes in 2003.
A chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and Boa on every shoe
Boa certainly has no issues with name recognition these days, what with an estimated 16 million reels currently populating the globe since the company first began production, over 250 brand partners, and more than 200 employees spread across six offices worldwide. In fact, it’s more common for cycling shoe brands to offer Boa-equipped models than not, and many companies equip their flagship models with Boa exclusively.
Boa has also expanded well beyond snowsports and cycling, with a prominent position in golf, a wide range of shoe and non-shoe applications in the outdoor industry, and even products in the medical and construction/utility industries.
“Once consumers got a hold of them, the response has almost always been really good,” Hammerslag said. “That’s what has kept us in business, as well as fueled our growth. Once consumers like it, then it becomes easy, because retailers see it selling out the door, the sales are seen by the brands, and it continues to grow.
“Over the last four or five years, we’ve had a lot of growth in cycling as more and more people have used [Boa], and as it’s been embraced more and more by pro cyclists.”
Giro and Silca join the Boa family
Boa’s list of cycling brand partners has now grown by two, with the recent addition of both Giro and Silca.
Giro will feature Boa on two new road shoes — the Factor Techlace and Sentrie Techlace (along with the Factress Techlace and Raes Techlace women’s analogues). According to Giro, the aim of all of the new Techlace models was to replicate the fit and feel of the company’s ultra-popular Empire lace-up models — a category the company pioneered in 2013 — but with easier on-the-fly adjustability, and much faster ingress and egress.
All use a similar layout, with Boa dials serving as the main closure around the front of the ankle for a firm hold, micro-adjustability (just 1mm of cable length change per click of the dial), and a single-motion release function.
Giro’s decision to incorporate Boa into its shoes for the first time stemmed from its experience with helmet retention systems. Whereas earlier retention systems required users to push the two halves together to tighten the helmet on to their heads (and then push two buttons to loosen), more recent models switched to a dial layout that was much easier to use.
“People understand and want dials for adjustability,” said Giro senior product marketing manager Simon Fisher, “so that’s why we turned to Boa.”
Meanwhile, the mid- and forefoot areas of Giro’s new shoes are secured with a novel strap/lace hybrid design called Techlace. Here, laces are fed through multiple eyelets just like on the Empire, but the lace segments are shorter — and instead of tying the ends together, the laces are anchored into short straps that are then secured with hook-and-loop patches to the upper.
In concept, Techlace bears some similarities to Mavic’s ErgoStrap design, but while the latter is essentially a more flexible interpretation of conventional hook-and-loop straps, the former more closely mimics traditional laces in how it secures around the foot.
Giro’s new Techlace concept may come across a bit hokey at first — and to be honest, that was my first thought as well before actually trying it — but two test rides during Giro’s launch event in the Swiss Alps (comprising 177km and roughly 3,000m of climbing in total) provided plenty of support for Giro’s claims.
Overall fit and feel were indeed very similar to the Empire SLX, but with none of the hassles of a traditional lace-up upper — in other words, essentially a quick-release Empire with just a bit more weight (420g vs. 350g per pair, claimed, size 42.5), far more convenience, and arguably even more tunability since the three zones are now truly independently adjustable.
Initial impressions are very good, but stay tuned for a more in-depth review to come. Worldwide availability is slated for October.
Silca’s tool roll, on the other hand, is certainly a more surprising application for Boa.
This new tool roll features an overall design that’s very similar to the company’s current model, including the trick “Y-Axis” strap that uniquely holds everything more tightly together, and sets Silca’s example apart from other tool rolls. It’s also slightly larger, and now fits inner tubes up to 700x45c in size. But whereas the current model uses a simple woven nylon strap and a ladder lock to secure it to the saddle rails, the new one uses a Boa cable system — the first time Boa has been used in such a way, at least to my knowledge.
“Boa allows a greater total range of fitment, better adjustability, and a more powerful attachment to ensure the bag remains tight to the seat rolls,” said Silca owner Josh Poertner, “and all with no loose strap to manage.”
Other features include a waxed canvas body (just as Silca uses on its other tool roll), computer quilted 3M reflective thread, and a red ripstop nylon liner for better visibility and wear resistance. Pricing and availability for the new tool roll is still to be confirmed.
“This one is really exciting for us,” said Poertner. “This is the first product in a line of bags and soft accessories.”