A few decades ago, Byron Gracie, a Whistler skier, was hand-stitching pigskin ski boot liners in his garage. The key to a better turn, he believed, was the often-overlooked liner. When performance depended on the translation of energy from foot to snow, every layer of material in between could amplify or muddle the message.
If that seems obvious, it's because you live in a world forever changed by Intuition Sports, the most well-known maker of aftermarket ski boot liners. For many skiers today, having a nice boot liner is a given. Thank Gracie, who joined forces with two friends, Rob Watt and Herb Lang, to debut, 25 years ago, the product of his tinkerings: Intuition’s first premium heat-moldable custom-fit liner. It wasn't sexy, but it was a revolution. A glorious one for skiers with battered feet who wanted an edge. Since the dawn of plastic injection molding, funds had poured into development of the technology behind stiff shells. But everybody took the insides for granted.
"We came along at a stage where the outer shells had developed quite a bit, but the liners were pretty much the same as they'd been 10 years before," says Watt, Intuition's “semi-retired” longtime president. "Byron, one of the wild and crazy people at Whistler who wanted to do incredibly steep descents and go down little runs between rocky banks, spent a long time trying to make better inner boots… He was just trying to improve his own performance."
Watt is more entrepreneur than skier—he has sold waterbeds, smoked salmon, and cedar furniture—and he recognized the disruptive power of a ski boot liner that worked. So did Lang, a Whistler skier and friend. In 1992, the group embarked on a mission to make a superior liner. Starting with the basics, they vetted every material possible. They needed therma-formability, meaning the ability to be molded by heat, as well as tensile strength, or resistance to pressure. Also important: rigid yet elastic, comfortable yet tough. Foam had potential, but their vision was "quite a demanding application" of the material, says Watt.
In 1993, they found workable EVA foams made by Ultralon, a small New Zealand-based foam manufacturer. It held up to their tests. And though the trio’s early stage "clown liners" were "extremely primitive looking,” they were well-received, Watt said. The group improved their design, patented their now-recognizable single-layer overlap pattern, and, in 1993, took it to market as the Intuition liner. The same year, they inked a big contract to supply Raichle with liners.
"It was the first time that anyone, that we knew of, had tried to sell a replacement liner," Watt said.
Watt was forming a fast friendship with Ultralon’s general manager, and after he noted some limitations with off-the-shelf material, the GM shipped 14 different experimental samples to the Intuition home office in Vancouver.
"We made liners from each, and eliminated several almost immediately: They shrank too much when heated, or couldn't get the glue to hold," says Watt. "After all of the research and all of the testing with ski patrol, we had a clear winner.” The new liner provided a more solid feeling by enabling a better grip on your foot. “No discomfort, no hard points, no pressure spots,” he says.
The standout was a blended compound, and, in 1994, Ultralon agreed to manufacture it exclusively for Intuition.
“This will be your foam," Watt remembers Ultralon's GM saying.
In 1994, Gracie left the company. He was more skier than entrepreneur, and he’d made his better liner. A few years later, Lang also departed for snowier pursuits, leaving Watt at the helm. Watt oversaw production at a small factory in Vancouver until 1998, when a massive order from Thirtytwo snowboard boots prompted relocation to a 2,000-person factory in China. Watt developed close relationships with American developers there, taking advantage of each production run to tweak his wares. Intuition liners developed a solid reputation that continues today.
Since Intuition’s arrival in the 1990s, ski boot manufacturers have had to develop their liners to stay competitive. Most brands have worked to improve performance and comfort of their liners. You can’t forget about the boot’s insides, anymore.
"Everybody copied, soon after Intuition came to market," says Crystal Maguire, whom Watt appointed as president in December 2016. "There were a lot of copycats, but we had proprietary use of the Intuition foam. Anyone could copy the style but they'd use cheap foam."
There have since been other innovations in the industry: Aspen’s Zipfit markets a self-molding cork composite model. The material was designed to continually adjust between the foot and the shell. It provides a very tight and responsive fit, says Maguire, though Intuition is designed to be lighter and warmer.
Until the late 2000s, the liner business was going gravy for Intuition. Then Watt noticed the quality of the foam slipping. He flew to the factory in New Zealand in a "big panic." The foam was everything.
"We didn't believe we could survive without making it ourselves and controlling our own quality," says Watt.
So he bought a 900-ton press and found another factory about two hours from their existing site in China. Ultralon had shared the original formula with Watt, and five years ago, Intuition committed to supplying its own foam.
Since then, says Watt, "there have been efforts to improve the foam, but none that have produced the better material. We know that this is, more or less, a sweet spot, and not something we can build on indefinitely.”
“We've done our best," he says.
The company now produces up to 400,000 pairs of liners per season, and provides liners for several boot brands. The liners have come standard in Scarpa boots since 2006, Intuition’s longest-standing partner in the ski industry. You’ll also find Intuitions in ski boots from Full Tilt, Roxa, and Daleboot.
"The possibility to mold the [Intuition] liner many times, and the possibility to reach really great comfort, and, of course, to increase the performance of the boot… this is the main reason why we decided, 10 years ago, to include this product in our boots," says Massimo Pellizer, Scarpa’s product manager.
With the foam recipe secure and the factory system dialed, Intuition will focus on fine-tuning its existing models in the coming years. Maguire is also exploring other markets for its versatile foam, including medical and veterinary applications.
“Maybe that’s the application that, perhaps, someday, will put foam on the map,” says Watt. “We have to focus on our own little business here in Vancouver, but now, we see more and more possibilities.”