Steve Atlas, Contributing Editor

Where some of the world's best boots get made

Chances are you know or have heard of TCX boots in some way, shape or form. But there’s probably a bit more to their story than you realize. Jumping back some six years now (yes, they’ve been around that long), TCX was originally brought into the motorcycle world as Oxstar.

This was the initial namesake upon which the Novation Group entered the market as an independent, high-performance motorcycle footwear brand in 2006. However, things got off to a somewhat rocky start for the newest of the Italian boot brands. Due to the use of ‘star’ in the name Oxstar, fellow motorcycle footwear brand Alpinestars sent a host of lawyers to the Italian competition’s doorstep to inform them that further use of said name was unacceptable. After a bit of feuding and some litigation, the Italian courts agreed with Alpinestars, and Oxstar as a brand ceased to be. They needed something new, from which TCX arose. This comes from their patented Torsion Control System (T.C.S.), the main focus to their high-end boot technology (much more on this later).

TCX is a division of parent company the Novation Group, who are also the makers of several non-motorcycle boot brands, including Kayland and Jolly. More recently, the Novation Group and TCX now produce the fully-custom Nike-branded motocross boots you see worn by James Stewart and Ryan Dungey. (You didn’t think Nike actually made motorcycle boots, did you?) And while they are quite cool, we are not allowed to reveal any further details. The next question you are likely thinking is, will they ever be available for sale to us mere mortals? Sorry, but despite a massive interest from the general public, as of now there are no plans whatsoever to put them into production. As of now they are to remain merely a marketing exercise by Nike.

Back to the TCX name and its patented Torsion Control System. In the eyes of the Novation Group, this is what sets TCX boots apart from the competition. It’s used, in a variety of forms, on both their high-performance off-road and on-road boot lines. Designed to allow lateral and longitudinal movement of the ankle within its physical limits, the T.C.S. prevents excessive torsion to the ankle and lower-leg area to reduce the risk of fracture to the joint as much as possible while still providing ample riding flexibility. The two-part system is made from triple-injection-molded polyurethane, linking the upper ankle structure to the lower heel area, and is designed to be as lightweight and flexible as possible.

Various forms of this system are found on the S-Race and new R-S2 road racing boots, as well as the Pro 2.1 and Comp 2 motocross boots. These represent the pinnacle of technology from TCX in both the on-road and off-road markets. On both boots the basic system concept remains virtually the same, the main difference being the sheer size of the unit and its torsional rigidity, as a much larger and stiffer system is required for off-road applications.

To get a closer look at how TCX boots are made, as well as what else makes up the Novation Group, the Italian footwear maker kindly invited us over to its Montebelluna, Italy, headquarters to get a firsthand idea of what they are all about. Located in a part of Italy well known for motorcycle gear production (Alpinestars, Sidi, Gaerne and Spidi are all located within 15 miles of Novation), the production lines mix high-tech CAD and computer cutting processes with some very handmade elements to produce an advanced boot that is custom-tailored enough to obtain the complex fit TCX is after.

Based on the boot model, the production process ranges anywhere from 15 to 25 steps. For our tour we saw the Pro 2.1 motocross boot being made, which requires roughly 20 different processes from start to finish. Some of the more complex pieces are produced off site and sent to Novation as production-ready parts; included in these are items such as their patented Torsion Control System, which is delivered to Novation ready to be hand-stitched onto the boots. In fact, nearly the entire boot is hand-stitched on their production line in Italy, making for a piece of footwear that one could very easily classify as handmade.

The production and design process starts with what is called the "last," which is a proprietary mold of what TCX has, through years of R&D, determined to be the ideal foot shape for each given size. From this, a series of hand-drawn outlines are produced, which are then scanned and replicated into a CAD-type computer program. This computer program then provides a series of cutting paths and outlines that can be transferred to a massive leather cutting machine, which basically consists of a giant arm which trims the raw material (mostly leather) into a series two-dimensional shapes. These are then hand-stitched together to produce the basic three-dimensional shape of the boot.

Next up on the production line is the addition of the majority of the pre-produced plastic parts; this consists of the heel-cup, toe-guard, and shin-plates, along with the Torsional Control System on the higher-end models. All are hand sewn to the leather base, some double- and even triple-stitched depending on how much wear each area typically sustains. Further cupping of the leather in the heel and toe areas must now be formed by hand, a process that isn’t for the squeamish or weak, as the machines are quite powerful.

Mating the pre-produced sole to the boot is up next, another process that requires more than a little elbow grease. With the Pro 2.1 moto boot we were watching, this combines elements of both high-temp and high-pressure glue as well as stitching; the exact details of this process TCX kept proprietary (one can’t give away all the trade secrets, now).

Excess material is now trimmed from several areas of the boot, though the majority comes from around the base of the sole. With the motocross boots, a steel toe is then riveted to the tip of the boot for additional crash protection (or in case of a bar fight). The road race boots use an entirely different sole system, as feel and dexterity are of much more importance then outright protection. Keeping weight to a minimum is also paramount. This is a process that we didn’t see during our visit, though the majority of the rest of the boot’s production remains quite similar to that of the motocross boot, so much so that they can be made on the same production line at the same time. This is because enough of the boot is handmade that the variations between the two can simply be altered by the person doing the production while still utilizing the same machines.

One more process remains for the boots that carry the Gore-Tex logo and are said to be waterproof. These must be submitted to a series of tests to determine how water resistant they are, aimed to make sure they live up to the standards required by the Gore-Tex brand in order to be able to use their name and logos. A final hand inspection is then carried out on each and every boot to make sure there are no production flaws, after which they are packaged and shipped to distributers worldwide, awaiting the call to protect the feet of today’s motorcyclists.

As an added bonus for our trip, we were also given a quick look at the part of the Novation Group that specializes in top-of-the-line composite carbon fiber parts. They produce items such as the factory Aprilia carbon fiber fairings for the RSV4R, as well as a host of composite parts for some of Porsche’s and Ferrari’s high-end automobiles, among many other trick, lightweight items for various high-performance applications — everything from bicycle frames to cell phone covers to complete racing bodywork sets.

Also, when not busy playing a couple rounds of golf at our resort or riding some fantastic two-stroke off-road bikes through the picturesque mountains of Northern Italy, we got a sneak peek at the upcoming 2011-2012 lineup of boots from TCX. Highlighted among these was an all-new, high-end R-S2 road racing boot, which features an air-pump bladder system to help aid in further customizing rider fitment (think old school Reebok pump shoes). A host of other entry-level-models were displayed to ask the dealers on hand for feedback and opinions, but the exact availability in the United States had yet to be announced.

One of the other cool products that really stuck out was a sneaker-type shoe/boot, which very closely resembled a Converse Chuck Taylor shoe, but with some reinforced areas and a much thicker material used throughout, designed to better hold up to the rigors of day-to-day riding. Here’s hoping those make it into production for the U.S. market, as they looked to be a stylish yet versatile product. I know I’d wear them.

With our stomachs full of amazing Italian food, blisters on our hands (no, not from riding off-road, but from golfing!) and a whole new respect for how some of today’s top motorcycle boots are made, it was unfortunately time to hop a Lufthansa flight back to Southern California. While always a great place to come home to, it seems one can never spend enough time in that glorious boot-shaped country.

And after seeing just how much passion and care is put into each pair of handmade TCX boots, combined with the emphasis they put on integrating that hands-on care with leading-edge technology, it comes as no surprise to me that, while they could have gone with just about anyone, it was TCX and the Novation Group that Nike selected when it came time to choose a manufacturer of custom boots for the likes of Ryan Dungey and James Stewart. TCX boots are plainly that well made.