As Rolling Stone‘s John Swenson once wrote, “John Entwistle had the misfortune to be a good songwriter in a band (The Who) with a great one (Pete Townshend).” Entwistle was responsible for “My Wife” (from Who’s Next), “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About” (from Tommy) and “Boris the Spider” (from A Quick One). He was overshadowed by Townshend the way Greg LeMond overshadowed Paul Willerton. Sigh.
I have much the same feeling about Shimano’s footwear. No matter how good it is, it is overshadowed by their component line. I never hear people talk about Shimano footwear with the reverent tones people reserve for Sidi, Lake and Bont. I don’t get it. And I wonder if the problem is that because Shimano is the default spec for production bikes the world over, maybe people forget how good their other products are because they are simply thought of first, and certainly foremost, as a component manufacturer. I suspect this is why people don’t talk about their wheels the way we used to talk about their hubs as well. We talk about how great Lake shoes are because Lake only makes shoes, and they also happen to be stellar.
Not every shoe Shimano has made has been amazing (most of us who wore their first-gen SPD mountain bike shoe ripped the cleat out of the sole sooner or later), but they’ve made a number of shoes over the years that have rivaled anything else on the market for quality … and availability.
That latter is a point I return to over and over when considering products for review. Can you get it? Not, comprehension, mind you, but can you find the product. I was approached some years back to review bikes from both Hinault and Museeuw and as much as I was interested in those bikes and as much as I loved those riders, their distribution was leaner than that of a cult Napa Cab. I remember the Hinault contact told me they had 12 dealers in Canada. And…?
Because you can find Shimano footwear with the same ease as locating Who’s Next, I think that’s one of the big reasons to recommend their footwear. Nearly every shop across the country has an account with Shimano.
So I’ve been riding the new S-Phyre RC9 (road) and XC9 (mountain) shoes. These shoes represent a big departure in design for Shimano because they are the first shoes the Osaka Behemoth has offered with the Boa closure.
Now, I’m aware that there are still people out there who are Boa skeptics and think they are just a gimmick. What’s remarkable about the Boa is that each single-ratchet turn of the Boa dial results in a single millimeter adjustment. When you click that plastic buckle on another shoe that pulls the strap 3mm. Ergo, the Boa offers a finer range of adjustment than straps. And when compared to a Velcro-type strap … nevermind.
I know riders who constantly adjust their shoes while riding. They’re too tight, not tight enough, way too tight. That’s never been my jam. Maybe it’s because I have potatoes for feet. Once my foot is in, that’s pretty much it. But for those constantly making adjustments, the current generation of Boa dial is pretty amazing. There are a great many buckles that when released will let the strap slip until there’s no tension on it, so you have to start over. With the Boa you can simply dial backward a click or two, so you know the tension has been decreased relative to what it was. I’ve watched guys release a buckle and start cinching it down only to realize they’ve overshot and start over.
Other people I encounter continue to be fearful that the Boa wire will break. I’ve seen Boa dials break and I’ve heard of the wire breaking on exactly one occasion; I’ve seen plenty of plastic straps break over the years. Considering the Boa has been on the market for more than 10 years at this point, I think they are doing alright in terms of reliability. Also, a Boa is replaceable, unlike some straps.
Shimano did all the riders who need on-the-fly adjustment a solid by positioning the upper dial right on top of the shoe. It couldn’t be easier to reach while on the bike.
What really separates the S-Phyre shoes from Shimano’s previous footwear comes down to a few details. First, there’s just less stuff on the Teijin synthetic leather. Without the assortment of three straps, the upper conforms to your foot better. Also, the Boa wire is infinitely more flexible than the straps previously used. Second, there’s no lasting board, which decreases weight and stack height, making the shoe feel stiffer and better balanced. Third, the new heel cup reduces foot twist in the shoe for those prone to thrashing. Like Shimano’s previous efforts, the S-Phyre shoes are still built around an ultra-stiff carbon sole.
In addition to spec’ing the top-of-the-line Boa IP1, Shimano also uses the Powerzone lacing so that you can better adjust your fit. While I’ve had other shoes featuring the Powerzone lacing, the S-Phyre shoes are the first with an upper supple enough to realize a different fit when the wire is pulled across in an extra loop. As it turns out, I like that extra run of wire across the shoe.
Another reason to like Shimano footwear is that they offer an incredible number and range of sizes. They offer from 38 to 48, with half sizes between 40 and 47. If you don’t fit in Shimano shoes, you’re either Gulliver or one of the people tying him down.
We did something a bit different with this review. With the RC9, I went with a 41.5 in the standard width and a 42 in the E width. I suspected I knew how this would turn out, but I wanted to get a better feel for the difference in fit. While the 41.5 is the right length for me, I am definitely someone who requires the E width. Just one tiny problem: the E width is only available in whole sizes from 40 to 48.
Compared to shoes from some of the other popular brands, Shimano runs just a hair wider in their standard width. You might call it a D+. It’s a reasonably high-volume shoe as well, perfect for people with high arches and/or high insteps. Shimano’s E width is still the widest production shoe I’ve encountered. Faced with going with a shoe a half size too long or a half width too narrow, I’ll take the bigger shoe. On long days I start to lose circulation if my last two toes are pinched.
The XC9 shoes are kitted out with a tread featuring Michelin rubber. I tend to be less concerned with what kind of rubber is glued to the bottom so long as it stays put. Long before I start tearing lugs from the shoe I tend to shed the midsole rubber, making the shoe slippery on the pedal and the trail alike. I’ll check back in if I rip this patch off.
There once was a time when I was happy if I could get a second season out of a pair of shoes. These days, shoes are much more durable and the materials are such that the fit stays consistent over that time. While I wear a number of different shoes over the course of the year I do enough miles on each pair I can tell which ones will hold up, and these are going to last for several seasons. I mention that because not everyone is happy about spending $400 on a pair of shoes, but considering the demands placed on them, that seems a fair price for a pair of shoes you may use for as long as five years, depending on how much you ride.
The road shoes come in blue, yellow and white, plus a limited-edition black, while the mountain shoes come in blue, yellow and black.
Of all the shoes I’m using for riding on unpaved surfaces, the XC9 is easily my favorite. The combination of the supple upper, the stiff sole, double Boa closure and (so far) grippy bottom make these my go-to. Heck, I’d like a second pair set up with Speedplay Syzr cleats, I dig them so much. This isn’t just the next shoe from Shimano, it’s big leap forward.
Final thought: they deserve to be considered Lennon to McCartney.