Leatt launched a shoe range to the world this week, expanding their range further beyond the neck braces they became synonymous with.
Pete sat down for a chat with Leatt’s Scott Macfarlane to take about how their shoe range came into being.
Photos by Mountain Bike Connection Winter/Luigi Sestili.
What are the key elements that you started with for the shoe range?
Leatt have had their eye on this market for some time. For us it was the next logical “step” (sorry…). We as engineers looked at the offerings in the market and with most of the team riding all disciplines of MTB we thought we could offer something that looked at the biomechanical and technical aspect of the foot to pedal connection better than what we saw.
We wanted to look at what works, listened to our pro athletes, independent testers, our own internal experiences and monitored a lot of forums to see what the customer wants from a shoe, rather than produce another “me too” product that blindly follows without understanding why.
How many people are involved in bringing the idea from concept to prototype?
Quite a lot, some of them unwittingly, we have eyes and ears everywhere.
As we said we took the experiences of our pro athletes, our own development team were heavily involved. We visited many events, viewing, listening, nothing like trail head comments, or comments from the riders we all ride with to get to the real truth and engaging with internal and external testers.
Then from the initial prototypes, a lot of internal testing was undertaken with the team and the lab, to get to a level where we could release it to the pro riders for their comments and feedback.
From there we built more samples for external test riders who did some longevity riding, we tested from the deserts of Moab with our USA based riders, through the mud and rain of the UK, to the glaciers of the Alps with riders based in Europe.
Then finally there was an early release to all the global salesmen, this was a mini production run that nearly 100 people get the shoes from all over the world to tested them and also give feedback.
This is also when some of the market got to see the shoes and also give us comments and feedback.
All this was fed back into the development right up to the day production started.
And what’s involved in that process?
To identify the main criteria after all the market research and feedback had been collated, we prioritised the challenges we faced and how to answer them in a methodical and quantified process.
Level 1 priority for Leatt was the sole, “build from the pedal up”. Whether it be Clipless or Flat, both presented challenges.
Flats are considered “easier” but actually the sole has to work almost as good as a clipless pedal by just sticking to some aluminium (probably with mud or dust on it) with the aid of some pins.
How do we achieve that? Glue-like compound (with its inherent issues with bonding and longevity) or something different? We decided on a waffle type design because this also add mechanical grip to the pins on the sidewalls, its also what a lot of customers were also asking for.
Clipless have to engage in positive way in all conditions, have an extended range of adjustment especially for MTB. This was something that was not in the market, something everyone in the market complained about. Something we learned as part of the process was not to be too rigid, we are not road riders… So the cleat box must offer some type of “flex” to efficiently transfer power, but also isolate unwanted trail “noise” from the foot, ankles and knees.
The soles have to be durable, soft sole grip, but soft soles wear out fast. From our experiences in motorsport, additives can be added to really increase the grip, but this can also greatly affect the bonding strength. This is made worse with metal pins sticking in them even with the latest platform clip pedals.
How do we stop it tearing up and de-laminate? How do we test this and quantify what we will make will work ?
Has that process changed?
Not really in process. This is how Leatt approaches any project, from Neck Braces to Helmets, both MTB, MX and other sports we are involved with.
Research – Innovate – Test (Test, Test, Test)
In terms of knowledge we have acquired on what to test and why. A huge amount and thanks to all those who have been involved.
Where did the inspiration for the shoe range come from?
Everywhere. Again with Leatt and especially the LAB being involved in many sports, not just the ones we are directly know for. We can draw from many market influences, and with our development team literally spread globally (last count 10 countries as well as LEATT HQ in Cape Town) we have many different environments and experiences to draw from.
For example, how to stiffen the sole for better power transfer and shock dissipation. We decided on a “Shank Platform”. This came from our development work with the MX boot development team as its quite common on MX and Motorcycle, they use it for a slightly different purpose, but when we studied it we realised with some adaptation this is what we needed.
What did you know you did and didn’t want to do with these shoes?
Assume anything that was being offered was automatically right. Not in an arrogant way, but question everything.
What are your priorities when designing the range?
Simply put: Grip – Fit – Durability.
How to you narrow it down to your four models?
We did a lot of market research to identify our customer, where Leatt is now in the MTB market. The initial phase is to keep the range concise and focused to our current core markets and as the range and market acceptance grows expand our range to other markets and offerings. We already have a list as long as our arms for the next stage.
Did you have a material in your head before you started?
For the sole, no.
It’s easy to go to a factory and accept what they say is correct without data or testing to prove this.
This is not the Leatt mentality. Our 1st priority was to study what the best soles available were made of, were they applicable to our market, how do we apply that technology to our needs. We looked in all unexpected places, even in the oil rig boot (they have some of the worst climates to deal with grip in) and rock climbing markets.
Even the method of manufacturing the sole, injection is the easiest and convenient way of making a sole but is it right for this application ? Actually, it was not.
Even the laces, why do people want straps, because the laces in use are too soft and stretch too much, this in turn allows the shoe to get too loose on the foot. How do we stop this? After a lot of evaluation, a special webbing lace was custom made for Leatt that stops the stretch, keeps the shoe locked on the foot better over a wider area, so the shoe can be more comfortable and will not change fit when being ridden.
Want that technology for your current shoe? We offer the shoe laces as after market replacements, again something none of the current market does, but we felt was important.
How many prototypes did you have before getting to the production shoes?
Over 2 years and many many variants, 100s. From testing sole design, sole compounds, upper constructions, protection areas and types, lasts (the fit mould) we went through at least 8 different custom fits (Lasts) alone.
Can you talk us through the prototype stage?
In addition to what we have already said, we found out quickly the cleat box on clipless soles didn’t work with the latest “platform” clipless soles. Why? Because the soles are flat and most of the cleat boxes are curved, it comes from XC where the sole is much more curved, so while the platform would also connect at the edges, in the centre it would almost be 1cm too tall.
We developed our own, which in turn also led us to develop our own cleat nut, again because everyone was using a curved nut plate and the Leatt is custom flat to fit “invisibly” inside the shank.
So you can see we looked at every aspect, even the lining and midsole materials… right from the beginning.
Beyond the development of prototypes, what form did your testing take?
This is the heart of Leatt.
The Lab had a repetitive stress rig for MX boots, that we utilised for longevity and sole bonding testing. Then we also set the sole bonding strength to an internal standard much higher than the market standard which is regularly tested at the factory.
We chemically test each batch of soles, against the internal standard. Lace strength was tensile, and rot tested.
Drying times… all shoes get wet in the right conditions, so we custom developed our own lining material so it dried our faster. All the uppers were tested especially in the case of the 5.0 shoe was tested for breathability, durability and waterproofness in the same way we test our Jackets ratings.
The list is quite endless.
How important are your athletes to your testing process, and did they have any influence on the bike packing range?
Hugely, again we listen to them a lot, we call it the Leatt family for a reason, its not marketing spin.
How hard is it to get away from trying to compare sole grip to FiveTen?
In the initial phase we acknowledge that the market has a perception on what works, we have approached the whole project especially the sole from a different angle, some already get the technology and thinking behind the shoes, and as more customers buy the shoes we hope that more people get what we have done and why. What we didn’t want to do is alienate with the visuals, still have a shoe that you could wear away from the bike, but has the technology to perform.
Designing and developing, it’s what we live for, having testers report back to you that what you are doing is different but works and seeing what the marketing team do with the product you have lived and breathed for nearly 2 years of your life.
No big disasters, so far but some surprises, peoples’ feet vary a lot.