I receive calls from time to time to help newer companies with their branding message. Part of the problem I often identify is that they are trying to position themselves as utterly unique, a snowflake among rocks. Universally, my response is that you don’t want to be unique. Not in the marketplace. As a novelist, musician or artist, sure, but if you’re selling something that has no peer, why would anyone want it? My effort is always to show how they’ve improved upon an existing idea. Making the world’s only gonkulator is not a recipe for success. But if, instead, you tell people that it’s the world’s fastest-shifting rear derailleur, and it happens to be solar powered, well then you’re onto something.
Such was the situation for Giro when they introduced the lace-up Empire shoes. Giro introduced the world’s only lace-up cycling shoes nearly 20 years after we’d decided that lace-up cycling shoes were a bad idea. But then they fixed every problem inherent to that kind of shoe—breaking laces, laces caught between the chain and chainring, eyelets that pull through and soles that broke in half. Still, the Empire was less a black sheep than a red one. Never mind that consumers were unsure about the value and performance of a shoe lacking a Boa or velcro straps, their competitors poked fun at them mercilessly. Maybe not in their ads, but their reps taught shop staff how to sell against that shoe.
Then Specialized came out with a lace-up shoe called the Recon. Giro was no longer an oddity, an outlier, unique.
Shimano is the latest to enter the market with a laced model. The XC5 is pitched as a mixed-surface shoe; it could easily be used for touring or mountain biking. In broad strokes, this shoe is cut from synthetic leather, accepts toe spikes and has seven sets of eyelets for a fine-tuned fit.
There are several features that make this shoe noteworthy. The first, biggest, most important dimension of this shoe’s personality is that it’s big. By big, I mean, it’s a high-volume shoe with a wide toe box. I’ve worn shoes by every maker that offers wide models and I can tell you that some manufacturers’ wide model is no wider than the XC5. For anyone who has trouble finding shoes either wide enough or high-volume enough to fit, the XC5 is a welcome change. My foot has quite literally never been more comfortable in a standard-width shoe. So why such a big toe box? Well there’s a rationale behind this. When you think about gravel events, many of them are long and sometimes involve walking. As a result, Shimano wanted to give riders a bit more room so their foot could swell over the course of the day, not to mention wear a thicker sock for increased comfort. I’ve been able to wear waterproof socks from Showers Pass without my feet going numb because there was too much sock stuffed into the shoe along with my potato-like feet.
Of course, for every yin, there is a yang: If you foot is narrow or low volume, keep moving people; nothing to see here. The alternative is that you could buy these and use the extra room to store gels.
I’ve lost count of the number of times someone in the industry has touted how sticky the rubber is on the bottom of their shoes, only to be disappointed by how my foot slipped the moment it touched wet granite. While out on a ride the other day with my four year old, we stopped at a local park composed of giant slabs of granite interrupting the flow of a creek. I was wearing these shoes on the ride and when I stepped onto a big, wet granite boulder I thought my foot my slip a bit but the Michelin rubber coating the bottom surprised me when the midsole held onto the rock. Color me surprised.
One of the unique features of the XC5 is what Shimano calls the MPS—Mini Power Strap. This is the black strap that wraps across the top of the shoe, which I’m told helps to hold the foot and aid power transfer. Because it cinches the shoe down well behind the toe box this may really be a genuine benefit; I can’t say conclusively as I haven’t tried this shoe without the MPS but it does seem to focus any upward pressure placed on the laces to that portion of the shoe, rather than gradually tightening the laces near the toe.
While Shimano has the technical ability to produce a carbon fiber sole stiffer than a 2×4 on Viagra, we have come to appreciate that stiffer isn’t always better, right? A multi-surface shoe is just such an occasion. Given the chance that you may need to get off and walk a bit, it’s nice to have a shoe that flexes with your foot, rather than sandpapering your heel. The XC5 gets a carbon-reinforced sole, which rates a 7 on Shimano’s 1-10 scale of stiffness. It’s plenty stiff for pedaling, but you can walk up stairs without remembering what it’s like to tromp around in ski boots.
In keeping with the philosophy that gravel events can run long, and because all-day riding can mean encountering low-light situations, the heel and toe of the XC5 were given a reflective finish to make them pop when hit with headlights.
My size 42 shoes weighed in at 602 grams (for the pair). The XC5 comes in 11 sizes, from 38 to 48. In what might be my only criticism of these shoes, they are available in whole sizes only. Due to its terrific width and volume, this is one shoe where I am reasonably convinced a 41.5 would offer me a terrific fit.
With a suggested retail price of $149.99, the XC5 comes in at a terrific price point; it’s nice to be able to wholeheartedly recommend a pair of shoes that doesn’t go for $300, or more. Honestly, these shoes feel so good, fit so well, I get excited to do a ride on which I can wear them. I’m such a bike nerd.
Final thought: Being the roomiest production shoe on the market makes it unique, but don’t hold that against it.