Black leather boots are a staple in my wardrobe. Being lazy and all, I don’t like changing my boots unnecessarily, so I’m particularly fond of boots that can be worn comfortably all day, on and off the bike. And because I’m hard on boots—scuffing them when lumbering my 200+ pounds down the sidewalk or dragging them in tight, fast corners—only those that are well-made get a passing grade.
Having celebrated its sesquicentennial anniversary in 2007, Red Wing has been making boots for 153 years. When Red Wing cobblers began selling their wares in 1857, there were no cars or motorcycles, just horses, buggies and steam locomotives. I bought my first pair of Red Wing work boots for $5 at a garage sale in college, and they were remarkably comfortable despite their bulky steel toe and dried-out, paint-splattered leather. And I’ve been wearing a pair of Red Wing 988 pull-on motorcycle boots regularly since 2006, which are now on their second Vibram sole. They are well broken in and fit me like an old pair of jeans.
The problem with some pull-on boots is that there is nothing to secure them to your foot in the event of a get-off. Velcro straps, zippers, buckles or laces that can be cinched down reduce the likelihood that a boot will come off when you are doing the ragdoll (the buckles on the 988s are more decorative that purposeful). Red Wing offers four styles of motorcycle boots: the men’s 988 pull-ons, the women’s 1668 and 1671 with zippers and the men’s 971 with laces tested here.
Styled like work boots, the 971s have a 6-inch upper made of full-grain, waterproof leather. The leather is well-oiled, which gives it a slightly tacky feel though it can be polished. Red Wing makes its boots primarily by hand, with quality inspections at each stage of the process: leather selection, cutting, stitching, lasting (forming and shaping), bottoming (attaching the sole), finishing and final inspection. And it uses Goodyear welt construction. While this term brought to mind the painful result of being lashed with a rubber strap, it is in fact—according to Wikipedia—an old-school, time-consuming cobbler’s method named after its inventor, the son of Charles Goodyear, the guy who discovered the process of vulcanization. Basically, a welt is a strip of leather, plastic or rubber that is stitched to the upper and insole and provides a place to attach the outer sole. The welt forms a cavity that is filled with a porous (breathable) material, and the sole is firmly attached with cement and stitching. Red Wing has been making shoes and boots this way for a long time, which is one of the reasons why they are so comfortable and long-lasting.
The interior of the 971 boot is lined with a cool, mesh-type material and there is a generously padded removable insole. Thick padding around the entire ankle and inner steel toe caps provide impact protection. A nylon pull-on loop at the back that says “Red Wing” makes it easy to slide your foot inside. The laces go through four pairs of heavy-duty metal rings and then criss-cross two pairs of metal hooks. Though the thick cord laces are unlikely to break, the outer black webbing twists and splits easily. White inner cords often show and the laces look tangled. If you have OCD neatness tendencies like me, you’ll want to swap these out.
Where the rubber meets the road is a heavily lugged Vibram sole with a short heel, which forms a perfect notch for motorcycle foot pegs. The soles grip the ground well regardless of surface; these boots could be easily be used for hiking. According to Red Wing’s safety requirement chart, the 971s are oil, gas, heat, chemical and abrasion resistant; provide excellent traction; are comfortable on concrete; and have non-marking soles. Also, the boots are approved for toe and electrical hazard protection by the ASTM International (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials, now a worldwide voluntary standards development organization).
I’ve been wearing the 971s regularly for over a year. From day one, they felt comfortable and required minimal break-in. Other than the unraveling laces, my only complaints are about size and weight. The steel toe is bulky, which makes shifting difficult on bikes with limited space between the left peg and the shift lever. Though built to last, the boots are heavy, which can limit feel on the foot pegs and shift/brake levers and contributes to fatigue when you do a lot of walking. At 5.2 pounds for the pair, the Red Wing 971s are 0.25 pound (4 ounces) heavier than the heaviest pair of boots—Aerostich Combat Lites (4.95 pounds)—in our latest Boot Buyers Guide (Rider, June 2010).
Red Wing’s 971 boots have an MSRP of $159.99, which is one heck of a bargain for such a comfortable, well-made, waterproof, durable riding boot. Available in men’s sizes D 7-14 and EE 8-13.
Available through retailers only, visit www.redwingshoes.com to find a store near you.