There are two pieces of apparel that can ruin a day. Ruin it. The first, I can personally attest, is a bad pair of bibs. I’ve been rubbed raw in places that should never give blood, and I’ve encountered bibs bad enough that I experienced chafing both above and below the waist. Chafing on my nipples is one reason I rarely ever ride without a base layer anymore. It’s too much work to remember which pair has caused trouble previously, so I bought a blanket policy, so to speak.
The other, of course, is shoes. The wrong footwear on a ride (and I’m not talking about driving two hours to meet friends and having to do the ride in tennies because your forgot your cleats at home) has caused me big enough problems to cruise right past moleskin and into a days-long limp. One pair back in the 1990s gave me Achilles tendonitis and forced me off the bike for the better part of a month.
So while I have a foot that’s a bit different (potato shaped), I like reviewing shoes because no other piece of apparel has seen such dramatic improvements in the last ten years as shoes have. Closures have improved, comfort has increased and fit has diversified.
This summer I’ve been wearing Northwave’s Ghost XCM mountain bike shoe. This is the first time I’ve reviewed a Northwave shoe since sometime in the Clinton administration. This Italian brand has tended to fit like … an Italian brand. By that I mean narrow and low volume. There are some Italian brands that I can’t even fit my foot into. It was in talking to them at the show last year that I learned their fit has evolved quite a bit and rather than simply pass these to someone else, I figured I’d give them a try.
The very first thing I noticed about the shoe was just how much more volume there is inside, when compared to a brand like Sidi or Fi’zi:k. I caught myself saying, “Good Lord,” to my feet. Not only is the upper built with more volume than previous Northwaves, the last is wider as well. I’d compare the last width to Shimano standard-width shoes; it is perhaps even a touch wider.
That there was adequate capacity for my russet-shaped feet, was terrific, but that left me with a fresh concern. The closure on this shoe uses a single dial. Just the one. This isn’t a Boa; it’s called the SLW2 and is arguably the least confusing dial on the market. It only turns in one direction, so you can’t get confused and tighten the shoe when you mean to loosen it. The release is performed with a small trigger at the top of the dial mount. Pull it up and the shoe can be opened like a book. My previous experience with single-dial shoes is that as they equalize tension throughout the shoe, I end up with too much tension across the bridge and too little at my forefoot. The lacing pattern on the Ghost XCM (and its companion road shoe, the Extreme RR, which is nearly identical) was invented by someone who consulted on spider web design in a former life. While the path the cable takes looks convoluted, it distributes pressure across the foot so that no one location becomes the source of a pressure point. That said, there is a lot of winding and flexing to do before I head out on a ride. That cable has a long way to travel. And yes, removing the shoe afterward requires a fair bit of pulling to get enough cable to unspool from the SLW2 to remove my foot. For anyone who has ever pulled a foot from a shoe, I submit this as a ready alternative.
The Ghost XCM uses Northwave’s Carbon XC carbon fiber sole which rates a 12 on the company’s stiffness scale, not quite their stiffest. This isn’t a shoe you’d want to do a hike in, but for shorter, aggressive gravel rides and mountain bike rides where you don’t get off the bike much, this shoe is a marvel in power delivery. The upper is cut from a synthetic leather that is plenty supple but more abrasion-resistant than some materials. As this is a shoe directed more toward the cross-country rider, it has less in the way of lugs and other grippy things on the bottom, but enough to keep you from sliding if you plant a foot on a rock or log. I have yet to manage to tear any of the tread free, which surprises me. While it comes with some pretty low-key studs, the shoes can be fitted for toe spikes.
My size 42s weighed in at 322g apiece, which is roughly 100g more per shoe than the road version—all the rubber on the bottom.
Shoes, like all other pieces of cycling apparel, have climbed in price rather significantly in the last 20 or so years, but then so has everything else. These babies go for $249, which is a good deal less expensive than the big brother and top-of-the-line Ghost XC at $399. Of course, all these prices are subject to the vicissitudes of the Internet.
Final thought: I could fit a tiny heat pack inside these shoes on cold days.