WORDS: Mike Horn
PHOTOS: JP Van Swae
“I didn’t ride those bindings. They rode me.” So said more than one tester during this year’s on-snow review of freeride bindings. Some better serve aggressive riding, while others suit kicked back soul-surfer types. You’ve got options. From Bent Metal’s sturdy new lineup to Switchback’s fully interchangeable system, freeriders have never had more on the menu. Here are several of our recommendations.
Bent Metal Transfer – $290
There's a lot to like about Bent Metal's re-entry into the binding market. For example: Who else would build their baseplates with the same layering as a snowboard, right down to the Jamie Lynn artwork on the mini topsheet? Bent Metal's Flex Control Drive Plates (the mini snowboards between your boots and the board) are made at the Mervin factory and come in three different composites and flex levels: calcium bi-ax (medium soft), aluminum/boron (medium), and carbon fiber (firm). We tested the Transfer bindings with the aluminum/boron drive plate. Testers said the Transfer earned a top spot in the all-mountain category for its responsiveness, comfort, versatility, and style.
The upper highback wraps the upper boot for added support and response; overall the highback has a mid-level flex and isn't as stiff as it looks. To adjust forward lean, spin a cube-shaped block of urethane to four different heights. The urethane has the dual benefit of durability and dampening vibration. The drive plates feature excellent dampening ability as well. Testers railed turns through chop and refrozen snow, praising the binding's precise, smooth heel-to-toe response even in the nastiest conditions. The ankle and toe straps contribute to that response, too. Wide and supportive, the ankle strap is strong and secure and contoured just right over a number of different testers' boots. Likewise, the toe strap is more supportive than many of the flossy versions out there these days. The aluminum buckles have great action and seem built to last. For all its durable features, you'd expect the Transfer to be heavyweight, but it rode surprisingly light underfoot.
NOW O-Drive – $499
The weight-to-response ratio in the O-Drive bindings is tough to beat. They ride as light as any bindings on the market, but the responsiveness provided by the tall, wraparound carbon highback is second to none. The asymmetrical shape corresponds with riders' leg angles and is pre-rotated five degrees to better align with the snowboard's edges. Testers couldn't get enough time in Trenchtown, saying the O-Drive allowed them to trench heelside turns like a cleaver cutting into room-temperature butter. That powerful bite equaled raging edge control, and it seemingly got better as speed increased. Testers found that a little bit of forward lean goes a long way. They also noted that having a hex screw to secure the forward-lean post made on-mountain adjustments tough without a tool on hand.
The ankle straps are sleek and strong, and can be flipped on the fly from a freestyle setting to a freeride setting. Not that these are considered freestyle bindings—not with that highback. The toe strap is meaty and covers the boot toe in a strong wrap that stays secure rather than creeping up over the boot. Skate Tech remains a key component of NOW bindings. In simple terms, major components of the system mimic both the function and description of skateboard trucks. The Hanger (essentially the chassis) transfers energy input from the straps to the bushings and onto the edges of your board. The idea here is that NOW bindings transfer more power to the board with less work. Testers bought into it, saying the performance spoke for itself. Even if they couldn't "feel" the pivoting action, the superior edge control was obvious.
Union T. Rice – $320
Do you suffer from foot pain and mountain anxiety because your bindings don't support you when and where you really need them? Do you want your bindings to be burly enough to survive the next snowpocalypse? Testers didn't call the T. Rice bindings overbuilt by any means, but they raved over the bombproof hybrid forged carbon/nylon highback and stealth-yet-powerful ankle straps. They said that with such stout highbacks, the bindings performed best when you're in the driver's seat versus the backseat—as in, it takes an aggressive rider to make the most of these.
Union's ExoFrame ankle strap is designed to provide independent suspension by separating the ankle mount strap and the strap itself. As a result, riders get a well-cushioned ankle strap and exceptional response without sacrificing comfort or control. Testers said the design eliminated pressure points and maximized freedom of movement, though not to the point of feeling sloppy. One tester did ponder if the ankle strap seemed a little soft when compared to the hybrid carbon highback. Magnesium buckles are signature Union components, and they were rated as standouts by testers, who pointed out how flimsy some plastic versions can be. Magnesium has four times the strength of aluminum with only half the weight.
Another feature to note are T. Rice's canted gas pedals. Simply put, the front of the binding's footbed, or the "gas pedal," is angled slight inward (toward the opposite leg). It's beneficial to riders with wide stances because it adds leverage for extra ollie power and allows the ankle and knee joints to be aligned. It felt perfectly natural in a 22.5-inch-wide stance as well.
K2 Lien AT – $290
Testers saw room for improvement in last year's Lien AT, and K2 stepped it up for the 2017 edition. They were pleasantly surprised by how stiff and supportive the highback was—and according to K2, it's 25 percent lighter than last year's model. Testers said the weight savings didn't compromise power or responsiveness. In another weight-shaving measure, the new chassis is bored out, too. The intuitive, natural flex was decidedly more playful than some other power-hungry chassis. The footbed is on the leaner side but supportive.
The ankle straps aren't overbuilt but still provide plenty of support and comfort. Testers loved the action on the buckles, and cited the quick-release as the best in the test. There was concern about some play in the quick-release levers that may have been due to the internal spring wearing out or loosening. The toe straps are sleek and minimalist, although testers said the material was a little slick for maximum boot hold, especially in cold temps where some snow freezes to the toe of the boot. Tool-less adjustments all around made on-the-fly changes to strap lengths and highback angles a breeze. Testers did lament the lack of a traditional forward-lean-adjustment latch.
Switchback Session – $260
At first glance, the Switchback Session looks like just another snowboard binding. They're not flashy, though the ghost graphic on the footpad, transparent highback, and other subtle locations adds a cool design vibe. What makes the Session—and all Switchback bindings—unique is that the parts are all interchangeable. Riders can mix and match baseplates, footpads, straps, and highbacks from Switchback's stock to their exact preference. You can have multiple kits for different snow conditions and terrain. The Switchback system approach also makes it easy to switch out binding parts as they wear out over time, so you can theoretically have the same bindings forever.
We tested the freeride-focused Sessions with the Eames Straps and FL Highbacks. Testers found the highbacks fairly stiff and highly responsive, and the cupped shape provided a nice wrap around riders' boots. The only thing they didn't like about the highback was the lack of a forward-lean latch or other fixable system versus relying on the angle of the highback to set forward lean. The Eames Straps are the more responsive of Switchback's two offerings, and strap length/fit is adjustable without the use of tools. The toe strap is burly with a cupping strap that does a nice job of wrapping the boot toe and staying put. Underfoot, the footpads are adjustable heel-to-toe to accommodate different boot soles, and a small amount of canting helps to accommodate riders with wide, ducked-out stances. For others, the canting adds leverage and relieves pressure on the knees and ankles.