WORDS: Chris Brunstetter
PHOTOS: JP Van Swae
Binding companies are recognizing more the diversity in riders and their respective riding styles, addressing the differences with technologies for each. Weight has dropped, comfort risen, and regardless of whether you ride competition-level park or loose, skate-style runs, there's a binding tailored for you. After sending them through the aforementioned scenarios and beyond, these freestylers stood out as the best for 2017.
Bent Metal Logic – $240
If there's one thing that is undeniable about the engineers at Bent Metal, it's that they think outside the box. The Logic has some really cool innovations that make for a binding that is both flexible and responsive, and feels great in just about all conditions. The most apparent innovation is the Flex Control Drive Plate baseplate and footbed layering system, constructed with the same material matrix as a snowboard, so testers felt a similar, familiar underfoot flex from their bindings. The Logic's drive plate flex is soft and playful yet responsive. Power is transferred from the toe and heel edge without feeling any dead spots or losing energy transfer.
Testers were fans of the highback's forward-lean adjustment, which utilizes a urethane cube that can be turned to any degree for a completely customized lean angle. The highback itself has lots of lateral flex, but when it came time to crank down the leverage on heelside turns, it was right there to support deep digging. The buckles are as snappy as a new skate deck, and the tool-less adjustment of the straps was easy to use, even with gloves on. Both the ankle and toe straps were comfortable and testers felt no pinch points, although more ankle strap cushion wouldn't hurt. The Logic provided a comfortable ride all day long. The idea that there's always a better way to do something in the binding world is proven in Bent Metal's new binding lineup. It's lab rat meets park rat in the best possible way.
Union Force – $230
A freestyle workhorse, the Union Force knows what its job entails and performs it masterfully. The robust straps and ratchets were test standouts; the fused ankle strap has a natural flex with enough cushion for great comfort without adding unnecessary weight, and the new Ultra Grip Toe Strap is minimalistic yet offers great boot coverage with no slip. The magnesium ratchets are sturdy, snappy, and smooth, which testers said simplified getting in and out of the bindings.
The highback rides high and has mid/stiff flex but was said to be "loose enough to seriously press butters, then keep them pressed." Forward lean is adjusted with a locking lever and ladder flange. Strategically placed baseplate bushings offer dampening without affecting board feel or slowing power transfer to the edges. The flex of Union's Stage 4 baseplate makes the Force really playful, and though it's stiffer than previous versions, it left room to unleash a wide variety of tricks. During the test, the Force consistently performed as good or better than bindings that cost more, a testament to Union's refinement of this model over the past 12 years.
The Force was called "a good bet for the average rail rider" and "supportive enough for jumps in the 20-to-60-foot range." All the kinks have been worked out, and if the price tag raises any quality concerns, rest assured this could be the best freestyle binding on the market for the price. Plus, a lifetime warranty on the baseplate shows that Union is happy to stand by their craftsmanship. Riders looking for a great binding that is all killer and no filler should consider the Force.
Switchback Heater – $200
Fans of playful minimalism rejoice! The Switchback Heater is one of the most beautifully simplistic, yet fun and built-to-last bindings available. This modular binding killed rails and tweaked grabs ass-backward while being the least feature-packed product of the test. The engineers behind the Heater impressed testers with such a simple, well-constructed design. It's easy to imagine the designers racking their brains to figure out a way to make a binding sturdy and functional without adding hardware, but they did just that. All adjustable parts of the Heater can be moved without a screwdriver. The cush straps made a strong impression on testers, comfortable and easy to adjust with a simple locking latch.
The toe cap was a little stiff and had a few issues staying put over some of the wider-toed boots they were tested with, but not enough to be a major deterrent. Ratchets were another high point, reliable when fastened and quick to release when rushing to load chair lifts. The highback is quite flexible but still gives decent responsiveness through turns; lack of any forward-lean adjustment might frustrate those riders looking for more versatility, though. Padding underfoot reaches all the way through the baseplate to make contact with the board, a sparse but effective dampening system that still offers good board feel.
Hats off to Switchback for making a fun, forgiving, playful binding that is simple to understand and operate, and can be appreciated by both beginners and seasoned vets alike.
Nitro Zero – $220
The Zero powered through just about everything by offering mid/stiff flexibility with a ride testers called "extremely responsive" and "fully connected." Immediately noticeable were the high-end finishes like the anodized aluminum heel cup and wrapped ankle straps. The baseplate caught attention and according to one, "gave feet and knees the VIP treatment," thanks to the large air cushion in the heel and built-in three degrees of foam canting. It was also one of the stiffer trays tested, which allowed it to leave the park and tear up steeper terrain.
Molded ankle straps have thick padding and are wrapped in synthetic leather, which gave them a very plush look and comfortable ride. However, the "combo" toe straps didn't impress testers as anything more than other toe-cap straps, and some felt it pinch at points. Mini-disc mounting provides a super connected feeling to the board. One tester described it as "a natural feel underfoot with no dead zones," meaning every square centimeter of the binding seemed to have a purpose. On the hill, the Zero had zero issues, handling park jumps and natural terrain equally well. The highback was also on the stiffer side, which gave testers lightning-quick responsiveness and further added to the binding's strength and capabilities in uneven terrain outside the park. Forward lean was easily adjusted with a locking lever for those who wanted even more response.
Nitro's focus on their binding program is really apparent with all the features of this binding, and for the riders who spend as much time outside of the park as in it, the Zero was a hero.