Prehistoric, primitive, practical.
The peculiar joys of the steel shoe
Nothing that can be strapped-on, slid-over, pulled-up or cinched-down to the human body is the equal of the steel shoe. You see it in first-timers at flat track schools, staring at their left foot, collapsing mid-stride while they re-learn to walk. You see it in the way retired flat-trackers have phantom steel shoe syndrome—the half-mile limp even without the shoe. The steel shoe is the most serious accessory in motorcycling.
The easy description for the use of the steel shoe is to liken it to knee sliders. Just as competent road racers skim a knee lightly to aid in judging lean angle (or, with more urgency, to loft a bike back onto its wheels if things go south) an expert flat tracker has a deft touch. Watch Jared Mees; his left leg swings like a pendulum; ahead to keep the rear wheel spinning and the bike turning, back to add traction at corner exit.
Like most amateurs I put too much pressure on my steel shoe, even though I remind myself I’m not digging a furrow to plant soybeans. And I don’t open the foot to the corner as well as I could. Ideally, the foot strikes the ground 90-degrees from straight ahead—scratches from use should extend side-to-side and not front-to-back. If you know what you’re looking for, a steel shoe reveals a rider’s tendencies like a palm gives up its secrets to a fortune teller. (It gives me encouragement that Brad Baker—former AFT champ and Marquez’s Superprestigio sparring partner—doesn’t have classic steel-shoe form either. But our similarities, regrettably, go no further than the angle of our foot.)
What makes the steel shoe special is that its purchase is just the beginning of the relationship. You earn the right to wear it. The regulars at our Tuesday night meet-ups at the practice track are mostly kids and middle-aged thrashers, but sometimes you’ll see a former Grand National race winner with his elbows up on the boards, checking things out. And on an eighth-mile track, there’s nowhere to hide, and flat trackers are notoriously dismissive of excuses for lacklustre riding.
What makes flat track difficult to master (aside from slick tracks, ineffectual tires and a front brake gone missing) is that—like flying—it requires a minimum threshold of speed. You can putter down a grass airstrip overstimulating the flaps on your Cessna until it looks like a duck in heat, but until you leave the ground, you’re just playing with dolls. But screw up your nerve, carry some speed, drift that bike into a corner with conviction and the instant your steel shoe skims the track you’ll feel you’ve learned to fly on wings of your own creation.
"A steel shoe reveals a rider’s tendencies like a palm gives up its secrets to a fortune teller"