Monday, December 3, 2012

Alt-Berg Motorcycle boots review

We rode up to beautiful Yorkshire today, into the historic town of Richmond. There is a Richmond in Tasmania too by the way and that is also a beautiful historic place. The reason we went to Richmond was to visit the small family firm of Alt-Berg, a traditional shoemaker. Alt-Berg is known worldwide for their top quality hiking boots, but it's perhaps less well known that they also make a range of motorcycle boots. We had never heard of them and actually found them by pure chance. 

Alt-Berg was founded 25 years ago by Mike Sheehan, who still works in the factory today as a senior bootmaker. Mike was by no means new to the trade though. He made his first shoe-last, the foundation upon which each shoe is made, over 40 years ago. Mike explained that he was fortunate enough to have worked with William Shepherd. William was 62 years old when Mike started working with him and made his first boots in the 1920s. Shoes have been made in Richmond for over 90 years, a long tradition. 

The start wasn't easy. “In the early days of Alt-Berg, things were very bleak, and we had some days when we had no money, no orders, and the machines kept breaking down… I didn’t know if we could last another week… But I was taught – by a good man, who had survived the dark days of the 30’s depression – and he would say… ‘when times are bad, just concentrate on making good boots… there’ll always be someone who wants a pair of good boots…’ and that’s what we did, and that’s what we still do…”

Son Joe has since joined the company, working alongside his father on the technical aspects as well as managing sales and marketing. Daughter Tara has joined as well, a true family firm. Alt-Berg specialises in high quality boots, made by a team of dedicated craftsmen and women. 
We were met by one of them, Paul, who told us more about boots in 5 minutes than I had learned about them the 50 years before. First our feet were carefully measured. Not just the length but also the width and circumference. Apart from being able to make each boot in sizes 7-14, including half sizes, they also make them in 5 different widths. 

Bootmaking is a traditional craft. To be able to make a good boot you have to know a lot about feet and what the boot is going to be used for. Rather than making flash looking boots, Mike and Joe put a lot of thought into practical design. Add to that craftsmanship and dedication and you'll end up with boots that not only fit your feet perfectly but also work for what you want to do with them. The initial outlay will be higher than cheap shoes-r-us models of course but not only are your feet worth it, Alt-Berg boots will last a lot longer too. Alt-Berg will also re-sole their boots if needed. Standby your product so to speak. While we were there a pair of battered but obviously much loved old hiking boots were in for a re-sole.

Alt-Berg normally makes boots to order, as their boots are custom made for your particular feet. Unfortunately we didn't have the time to wait for them to be made. Luckily Joe had carefully selected a couple of boots for each of us from a small stock. They fit perfectly!

Having used them for a while now, we are impressed. The attention to detail shows everywhere you look. From the biggest strongest oversized zippers I have ever seen, to adjustment methods for feet and shin. Safety wise they are the best boots we've ever had. Mike and Joe have not just looked at motorcycle boots, they have looked at what happens when a motorcyclists crashes. 'How can we protect motorcyclists feet from crushing, protect them from damage to shin and ankle and still be able to walk on them' The result is safety features I haven't seen in any motorcycle boot before.

Alt-Berg is a family firm. About 22 people work in the small Yorkshire factory, which is only separated from the showroom by a glass wall. These people have nothing to hide and while we were trying boots for size, new ones were being made behind us. So why does a bootmaker, known for its walking boots, starts in a niche market like motorcycle boots? Mike, founder and senior bootmaker, rides a motorcycle. Being a true perfectionist means he obviously couldn't find good motorcycle boots and thus started making his own! The factory runs 100% on green energy and, as we were told at the local petrol station, the Sheehan family is well liked in Richmond!

Evaluation after 23,000 km of use: These boots deliver what they promise! Below is an extract from our post 'All our gear after two years on the road'

I think the picture above says it all as Mike had no damage to his ankle in this fall, while his foot is clearly trapped under the bike. There are many motorcycle boots on the market. Some good, some pretty bad. But when I read about a boot-maker in Yorkshire who is a keen motorcyclist and couldn't find a good boot and thus invested in tooling to make his own, I was intrigued. Having been there and met the people that make these boots and listened to why they started making their own, I was impressed. Impressed because there wasn't any 'sales talk' but instead lots of information about feet! These people have so much knowledge about the human foot that of course they know how to make boots! No wonder their hiking boots are selling so well. Their drive to make good boots means they also studied what happens in a crash with motorcyclist' feet and rather than just inserting fancy bits of plastic protectors here and there, they made proper protection that works. Mike has already tested it when his foot became trapped under the pannier when he fell, the dreaded situation for every motorcyclist and often used as a false argument not to use hard panniers. The Alt-Berg boot protected him perfectly. Despite the offered protection we can walk in them too as they are made by a proper boot maker. The zippers used are sturdy, as is the whole boot. A proper quality product.
As I write this we've had them for 23,000km, used them every day and all day for 7 months and simply love them! They are comfortable, both on and off the bike, and have proven to be waterproof in the worst possible downpours. We've always had overboots as we never had boots before that were waterproof, but these are. Even after 7 days of miserable weather and also on 400km days of rain, rain and more rain. But it's not just the weather-resistance we love about them. It's the comfort, even at the end of long days we can simply stand up and walk away. No soreness, no clamped-in feet or anything like that. We really love these boots!

Previous motorcycle boots:
Over the years I've been through a succession of motorcycle boots. Most of them failed petty soon after I bought them. Maybe I should add that boots with loose stitches, cracking leather despite frequent maintenance and soles come loose within two years, failed too soon in my book. They are expensive after all. Of all the boots I had before my present Alt-Berg, there is only one worth mentioning: Rossi. They aren't a match for the Alt-berg, but a good second choice.

Rossi 811 Vision Boots
We left on this trip with Rossi motorcycle boots. The 811 Vision, proudly made in Australia. Rossi have a good reputation in Australia for high quality hiking boots. That reputation shows as they were one of the best 'walking' motorbike boots we had before the even better Alt-Berg. As you all know Australia is known for it's hostile climate, ranging from very hot and dry to cold and monstrous downpours and flooding, so it won't surprise you that Australian boots should be able to handle a lot. We used ours for 4 years. A good motorcycle boot gives you maximum protection while at the same time give you freedom of movement. It takes a very experienced shoemaker to make good motorcycle boots. When Jeanette fell in New Zealand over railway tracks on the wet West Coast most notorious bridge, the bike landed on her leg. The Rossi boots protected her. When I hit a bulldust covered pothole in Monument Valley, smashing my foot against a rock so hard that my toe-nail came off, and subsequently throwing my leg at speed against the aluminium pannier at 90 degrees on the shin... I broke nothing but the toe-nail. The boots look battered, and they are. They have taken one hell of a beating. They have been bombarded with rocks on the 3500 km of dirt we have done so far and really start to show some serious signs of wear now. They need replacing. One thing they are definitely not: waterproof! Which is why we went looking for something else.

As we never had boots which are 100% waterproof after riding in the pouring rain for 20hrs, we used overboots as well. Overboots are like rain jackets for boots. The good ones are easy to fit and fit well. The rubber ones are extremely hard to fit and even harder to get out of. Fabric ones are ok but steer clear of the ones with moulded half shoe soles in them. To be honest, they are horrible things... dangerous even as they get trapped by all kinds of things. The Alt-Berg boots made them redundant.