Back in February of 2015 I got an e-mail from a skate engineer at K2 that they were working on new "lifestyle" and "aggressive" skates (or big wheel and grinderblade skates to use my own terms.) This message was particularly exciting to me as it contained the words "stiffer boots", "new UFS frames" and "new base" (all things that needed to be improved.) Having a contact point with an engineer was always a goal I had when doing video work for K2 way back in 2010. At first I thought I was being e-mail trolled by somebody who knows I'm a huge K2/skate tech dork... But the new skates turned out to be a real thing and I was happy to test some new boots (what was I going to say... NO?) Here's everything you need to know about my experiences with the skates.
First a quick rundown on the old aggressive/grinderblade boot.
The Varsity (2010 - 2015)
The Varsity will always be a skate that was underrated for price and performance. It was light, comfortable and slid fast. The material and shape of the soul plate was my personal favourite for grinderblading.
There was the red Varsity from back in 2010 that will always be remembered as ugly and controversial (although in retrospect I actually like the look of those skates in edits... Well maybe Todd's were a bit uglier cause he left more ugly bits on.) Anyway... Although the red ones skated great the liner got soggy and they lacked support. But seriously... They actually skated quite well.
The looks and materials were improved on the black version with design input from Mr. Zamora himself (that's his leg and shoes in the photo) This skate looked great (apart from too much chunky white plastic at the front of the soul plate) and skated better than the red Varsity with an improved, more breathable liner and stiffer outer materials. This skate still flew under the radar because it wasn't really marketed and didn't have a super cool street team attached to it. The skate remains underrated for its price, performance and looks.
There were still a bunch of things that needed to be improved on the Varsity:
- You would never catch me skating the old stock frames (although believe me I tried:) starts at 27 seconds https://vimeo.com/72118327
- You could do them up as tight as possible and they still felt like they lacked support in the liner/lacing area.
- The stock wheels felt like they were made out of bubblegum (this is a problem with a lot of stock wheels.)
- Biggest issue: The Varsity soul plate was sitting on top of the old soul plate which added a lot of ride height. It would cause the odd missed grind and a weird energy transfer feel because of all the plastic attached with two bolts. It wasn't horrible or unskateable... It was just a step back on what made older K2s great.
Now onto the new boots...
Unnatural upper test boots (Late March 2015)
These first set of boots were a test for the new upper/liner (as the new frames and base weren't ready yet.) These were the Unnatural boots/uppers with a modified varsity plate fastened to the skate with four strong bolts (the engineer cared enough to improve my Varsity experience!) Trying these on: I loved to feel design elements taken from the classic Soul Slide boot as well as the King 55. High liner with lacers all the way up, booster strap above the buckles and a very stiff material in the boot.
At first I was shocked at how stiff the boots were (especially for forward flex.) After playing with some different tightening combinations I realized just how much you could customize the feel/flex and how important break in time would be. That top strap and high laces really give a lot of extra support (it's going to shock people when the skates are new and fresh.) The upper reminded me of my King 55s before break in. I hadn't skated stiff boots in a long time I forgot how responsive they are and how much easier it is to hold a grind without your ankle twisting around. I used to be a low cuff guy but these were starting to change my mind. The extra bolts fastening the Varsity plate to the boot made the skate much more responsive and fast. Made me very excited to try the new base knowing there would be less soul plate flexing beneath my foot.
Things that needed to be changed for next model were:
- Liner in the back needed more of a "U" cut to allow a bit more toe point and mobility.
- Lace throat needed to be widened.
- Extra lace loop needed to be added near the bottom for better fit.
- There was a bit of a pressure point from the backslide plate going too high up. That extra material needed to be chopped.
Overall I was thrown off at the stiffness (many people will be) but ended up getting hooked on the way they performed and responded(especially for grinds) I was now a stiff boot, high liner believer. Couldn't wait to try this upper with the new base and frame.
Next batch of boots: Unnatural and Front Street (May - August 2015)
A couple months later I'll never forget getting these pics texted to me while I was at work.
The new base and frame were ready to try and they looked beautiful. Todd got a pair of the Unnaturals and I got a pair of the Front Street to try (with an updated "U" cut in the back.)
If you want to know how the Front Street is different from the Unnatural:
- Front Street has a toe cap.
- Front Street doesn't have teflon inserts (plates still slide very fast.)
- Front Street isn't as stiff of a boot. More of an updated Fatty Pro feel.
- Front Street comes with 56mm wheels.
- Front Street costs less.
Think of the Front Street as the updated Fatty Pro. Less break in time than the Unnatural with smaller wheels and no cool teflon (I love the look of teflon in photos and footage.)
Here is me doing pose slides on the Front Street.
The Front Street is a bit fugly for my taste but if you get rid of the maroon and teal they actually look much less fugly. I don't know what the design team was thinking with this one? But nothing a sharpie or straight black straps can't fix.
This was Todd's first go with the new boots, frames and he got to try the new base with teflon souls (luuuuuucky.) He killed it in his first session on the skates. They seemed to be working extremely well for him and his grinderblading. The base and frame were super slick and slid perfect like the old Varsity plates. Nice hard material and very close to the foot. Very responsive base. Loved that we could rocker 60s in the new frame instead of getting different sized wheels for the outside (allows for cool pivot/shuffle moves.) Again, the stiffness of the skates held grinds in place and responded to quick movements as you can see here:
There were a couple more changes needed to be made on this round:
- Frame groove worked fantastic but was a bit too deep (as you can see in that box edit.) It didn't affect performance but the frames would be better with a shallower groove. At this point the frame was also not symmetrical and there was discussion to change that too.
- There were a couple pressure points that needed to be smoothed out where the instep strap was. This was a prototype issue.
- Lace throat still needed to be widened.
- Extra metal lace loop still needed to be added near the front (4 loops instead of 3)
- Straps needed to be shortened (You can really see this on my skates in ZONE.)
- Plastic needed to be cut down on the backslide plate (for less pressure on the side of the foot and a more streamlined look.)
- Buckle and buckle receptor were too fragile and unreplaceable.
I ended up getting a pair of Unnaturals like Todd's first pair and Todd ended up getting a newer pair of Unnaturals with an updated buckle/receptor and smoothed out liner near the instep strap. These were the boots that we used through a lot of the Summer and the boots that you saw in various video projects/edits.
One of the biggest epiphany's on Todd's early experimenting is that they worked incredibly well with the Wizard frames.
With such a stiff boot and a responsive base that's close to the foot... You have the support to run 90mm - 110mm wheels AND you can do tricks without worrying about your ankles. I was skeptical at first (as I was hooked on my Wizard setup...) But the more I watched Todd skate them the more I wanted to try them with Wizards. It took a few sessions... but the more centred frame alignment, flat heel and super supportive upper started to click. If you can't afford a full Wizard setup this boot works great as an alternative for 90-110mm big wheel skating. You can also throw down soul tricks on the base too!
Updated boots, experiments and sizing (Sept - Nov 2015)
Todd stayed on his boots from April through the Summer/Fall (and is still skating the same set into the Winter!) and I went on a journey of different boots, sizes and experiments.
All the points listed above have been fixed:
- Buckle system updated and replaceable.
- Lace throat widened/ Fourth lace hole added near front for better fit.
- Straps shortened (love hearing the engineer got annoyed by flappy straps in videos!)
- Streamlined plastic on the backslide plate.
- Shallower groove on the frame.
- Frame now symmetrical (they also made it so you could skate bolt protection side OR metal exposed for park/coping skating.)
There were a few failed boot experiments to note:
First there was the attempt at putting a "flex zone" in the skate like Seba and USD do. The engineer insisted they tried this already and it didn't work but I needed to try it for myself. Pretty awesome they cared enough to let me try it.
However it made the skate feel sloppier and disjointed/unpredictable... Engineer was right. I missed the feel of breaking in the stiff boots (breaking them in feels like a having a new pair of Red Wing boots... There's a spot your ankle needs to flex that breaks in over time with little creases.)
Next was a request to make the tongue higher like the 250cc and it came out way too high and looked weird. Was worth a test.
I also tried gutting one of the "flex zone" boots to fit an intuition liner in it. The experiment worked but the liner was a bit too tight in the heel area for it to work. Bit too much volume in the lacing area too. The yet-to-be-released intuition liners might work better with this experiment. Gutting the skate also revealed a layer of high density/shock absorbing stuff that I think might be a layer of Ultralon?
Needs to be noted that I have tried 9.5, 9 and 8.5 sizes in this boot. Currently my sweet spot is an 8.5 and I'm loving them as it's a smaller base and a nice tight fit (I'm a 9 in most skates.) HOWEVER I use yellow Superfeet which are very low volume. The insole that comes with the skate is very thick (traditional K2 insole, shock absorbing layer and a heel wedge/shock absorber.) So I would recommend to go with your traditional size... possibly a half size down. If you're feeling really bold and skate a lower volume footbed you could maybe go a full size down (if you like to live dangerously.) But the stock footbed is pretty badass and thick. In short: Go with your traditional size. Maaaaaybe a half size down.
Current boots, tech stuff and future thoughts (Dec 2015)
Current boots have all the changes listed above (minus the failed experiments) and are ready for other skate nerds to get their hands on. If you were a fan of the 250cc or King 55... imagine they had a lower cost baby that's UFS with modern, rockerable flat frames. If you never skated a 250cc or King 55 boot this is your chance to feel a bit of that K2 magic.
Here's a list of things to consider if you're getting a pair:
- Stiffer upper and flat heel will take a few sessions to get used to if you've been skating high heels on lower cut or floppy skates (footbed has a heel rise/shock absorber though which might help.)
- The rockerable spacers require more attention when setting up your skates. You can't just throw the spacers in and go. I can see how the simplicity of 8mm hardware would help the average skater. Having rocker options is amazing for experimenting though (Might not be for everyone.)
- There is currently only one size of frame at 258mm (same length as GC BIGs) but if you like something shorter you can always rocker them. However 258mm is definitely too short for the big foot people.
- Stock wheels aren't perfect if you're a wheel snob like me. But they're improved from other years.
- If you skate a fuckload of ledges all day every day remember these souls aren't replaceable. This might not be the skate for you.
- If want to do negative grinds all day on fat rails with a giant negative grind space... This is not the skate for you... and we probably couldn't be friends.
- Remember to try a bunch of different lacing, strap and tightening options to find what works for your style. That top strap does way more than you would think.
What about those Big wheel/Lifestyle skates?:
For big wheel K2 setups I have only used the Varsity with big wheel frames and no soulplates or the Il Capo (K2s previous big wheel offering) usually as a "filming at work" setup as it's light, comfy, easy to get on and off and the "shoe in a skate" look always gets questions and compliments. I never used the Varsity or Il Capo for doing big wheel tricks as they lacked the support and responsiveness I was getting in my Seba FR/Intuition setup. I remember one time the Il Capo completely buckled over sideways from sloppy support and I almost smashed my camera into the ground. They weren't bad skates you just couldn't "push" them like we were doing with the Sebas for BIG WHEELS 1 & 2.
The big wheel line is now updated with the Midtown and Uptown skates. I skated the Uptown boot with Midtown frames a lot in the Summer. It's mucho improved.
The Uptown inner boot/liner is a complete redesign and feels nothing like the Il Capo. It has that stiff, responsive feel that makes the Unnatural so great. You can do the skate up tight which makes it much quicker and in tune with your foot. I used it a lot for hockey and rec skating. Best part about the Midtown and Uptown is that they're UFS and come with rockerable 80mm frames(aluminum for Uptown and composite for Midtown.)
This is an excellent addition which makes the skates super versatile and fun. Almost like and "all around" skate for the average skater or a good introduction to a big wheel skate for an aggressive skater (especially with the UFS option.)
You can go flat, subtle rocker, super rockered, natural-ish rocker etc... There's a lot to experiment with. I started to love the natural-ish rocker (back wheel down and out toward the back, 3rd wheel all the way down, 2nd wheel down and out toward the front and front wheel all the way up.) I wish K2 offered these frames for bigger wheels. Experimentation moves so fast these days in skating.
I tried the Wizards on the Uptown boots but found them to be too low cut for 100mm wheels. Unnatural works better with wheels 90-110mm because of the high support. Uptown is a perfect height for 80mm AND for those who want the same height as the older K2 aggressive models.
I haven't tried the Midtown boots but I LOVE the look of the grey ones and can't wait to see if people do crazy mods to them for grinderblading. Midtown is not as stiff as the uptown, has all velcro straps and comes with rockerable composite frames (instead of aluminum.) There's so many options for setups with all the new boots. Lot's to experiment with out there now.
- The skates are infinitely better than the Varsity and Il Capo... Getting back to the K2 we all know and love (and the Varsity were already underrated for their price point.)
- The skates are shockingly stiff at first but don't jump to conclusions while rolling around in your kitchen for 5 minutes. Break them in.
- Very versatile boot. Great for grinderblading, big wheelin' and even wizarding.
- Excellent price.
PS - Nobody told me to write this. I'm just a huge dork.