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The Legendary Plastic Man


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The ideal modern turn is elegantly simple. The skier tilts his skis on edge and carves a pure ellipse on the snow. It’s an image that should be engraved on the tombstone of Robert Brookings Lange, who died June 15 in Boulder, Colo. A charismatic, indefatigable inventor, Lange created the plastic boot that made the carved turn possible. During his 74-year life, he made and lost a fortune on paper. But his name will live on, as famously as Head or Killy or Kandahar.

Lange was into plastics before Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Not only did he invent the first non-leather boot. His original design¿a hinging upper cuff overlapping a lower shell¿is basically the same boot that millions of us are wearing 40 years later.

Lange knew that the core of ski technique is the intimate linkage of legs to skis, and that the key to the linkage is the boot. It sits like a gearbox between the engine and the wheels. Until Lange’s invention, skiing’s gearbox was miserably inefficient. Boots were low. Leather was never stiff enough. The everyday skier relied on his ankles to turn, torturously angulating his upper body to get the skis on edge. Skiers lacked a boot high and stiff enough laterally so the lower leg could press against the side of the boot to edge the ski while allowing the knee to flex forward.

Lange’s experiments to create such a boot¿from 1950 to 1965¿roughly coincided with Howard Head’s development of the metal ski. Successive failures did nothing to discourage either man. Ninety percent of inventing, Head insisted, is “sheer dogged persistence.”

Obsessed and driven, Lange worked weekends, holidays and nights at his home in Dubuque, Iowa. “I don’t know how many ovens and washing machine tumblers Bob ruined making prototypes,” says his widow, Vidie. When Lange wasn’t selling insurance, he supported his family by turning out plastic hula-hoops, doorknobs and miniature Corvair cars.

“In 1957,” he recalled 30 years later, “I skied in my very first plastic boot. The conditions were icy. After I’d made only two turns, I knew I had a boot better than anything ever made before.”

Testers, however, found the early Langes less than perfect. The boots cracked in the cold until Lange found a new DuPont plastic¿urethane¿that didn’t self-destruct when a skier went from a warm base lodge into the cold.

In 1966, Lange’s little Dubuque factory put out 10,000 pairs of polyurethane boots. Like the Head Standard ski that preceded it, though, the Lange Standard boot was unable to meet the most important criterion of the time: It couldn’t win a ski race. Dave Jacobs, who years later would create Spyder skiwear, was coaching the Canadian National Ski Team at the time. “I got this letter from a guy in Dubuque,” Jacobs recalls. “He described a plastic ski boot that he’d like the team to try. We skied in them, and I wrote Lange a letter mentioning at least 15 changes needed to make the boot work properly.” When the Canadians showed up two months later at Oregon’s Mt. Hood, Lange was there with five pairs of custom-made boots.

“It was amazing what he had accomplished in such a short time,” Jacobs says. “The boots were the most unbelievable racing machines I’d ever seen in a lifetime of competing and coaching.” Entranced by the charismatic Lange, Jacobs agreed to go work for him.

When the World Alpine Ski Championships took place several weeks later in Portillo, Chile, a dozen North American racers skied well in Langes. Curious racers and coaches from different countries crowded around to examine the boot. By the time of the Grenoble Olympics in 1968, European racers were ready to jettison their own national boot brands in order to ski in the superior performing U.S.-made plastic boot. Five Olympic gold medals were won in Langes in Grenoble.

While Lange had unlocked the secret to winning races, he still didn’t have a winning boot for the masses. The hard plastic interior was painfully uncomfortabble. He found the solution in a putty-like synthetic flow material that conformed to a person’s foot, cushioning skin and bone while acting as a shock absorber. The flow’s patent was held by chemist Alden Hanson, whose sons, Denny and Chris, joined Lange.

Immediately “Lange-flo” proved successful in racing boots, so R.B., as he was called, ordered its installation, without testing, in the colored vinyl liners of all the company’s 1970 boots. A disastrous chemical reaction took place. A couple of months after shipping, the liners cracked and the flo oozed out like toothpaste. Angry shops sent as many as 25,000 failed pairs back to the Lange factory.

Removing and replacing the faulty glued-in liners cost $1 million and more. The company’s recently issued public shares, once trading at more than $20, plummeted. Lange’s personal stake¿perhaps as much as $15 million¿dwindled to almost nothing. At the same time, he and his two brothers, who were employed at Lange, watched helplessly as a $1.5 million real estate investment at Aspen Wildcat went south. The bank refused to renew Lange Company’s $2 million line of credit. The Garcia Company, a ski and fishing-tackle distributor, took over. Lange left not long afterward.

Almost 25 years¿half his life¿had passed in developing his beloved ski boot. He would never share in its financial success.

Actually, Lange’s company might have survived if he hadn’t overextended it. Impetuous, he tried to develop a binding, a plastic-headed golf putter, a carbon-fiber bike frame, a plastic hockey boot and an injection-molded tennis racket. He had recently built a factory to make Dynamic skis. His ideas and actions sped ahead faster than the money. When the boot liners burst, Lange’s company did too.

At the time of the failure, Lange factories were churning out 60,000 pairs. Soon, competing boot makers switched to plastic. A million skiers were wearing plastic boots. . . and they were skiing better than they ever had before. The plastic boot had done for recreational skiing what the oversized titanium club head would do for golf. His original design, though threatened in the Eighties by the unsuccessful rear-entry boot, remains supreme today. He was also the first to make a boot sole the same width as the ski. He perfected the infinitely adjustable buckle, adjustable canting and a high-back spoiler.

R.B. also prefected the ski party. If après-ski hadn’t existed, he would have invented it too. You see, the inventor in Lange never died. Years after he lost his company, I ran into him in Vail, where he fitted my legs with hinged braces that allowed me to ski in hiking boots.”Bob’s major trait was ‘I can,'” says Denny Hanson. “He persevered and persevered and persevered. He was unbelievably exuberant and creative.”

In My View columnist Fry has skied around the world, including the Alps, China, the Andes, Africa’s Atlas Mountains, the White and Green mountains, Sierra, Laurentians, and the Rockies. Read his previous columns in the In My View archives.