It's not that my bionic toe with its new, Wolverine-like titanium endoskeleton is particularly sensitive. It's that for the first time in my life my feet got out of shape and I noticed what a beating they take.
The muscles were shot after the best part of a year with no riding, surgery, and 4+ months in a boot and on crutches. Sure, they're better now, but my first rides over the Summer and early Fall felt awful. My soft Shimano 087 shoes felt terrible, with my feet compressing in odd places as the soft plastic soles bent. My walkable Lakes didn't feel much better. Even my mid-range Sidi road shoes, with patented Italoplastica (Lorica? Wasn't there a Dr. Suess book about the Lorica?) felt mushy and painful. Only my super rigid Northwave winter mountain boots felt good.
It was clear: I needed some new shoes. High quality, stiff ones.
Bike shoes are a bit like car seats. If you're uninitiated, you figure that squishy feels better. The plush seats in a Caddy feel more comfortable at first than the spare, stiff seats in a BMW. But if you spend serious time in the things, the Caddy seats lead to hotspots and numbness, while the BMW seats get more and more comfortable. Bike shoes are the same way. A properly designed stiff one is way better over time and long miles than a squishy soft one.
Finding high quality shoes is a problem for those of us who are members the Galloot-American community, with our handsome big, wide feet. Shoot, I can't even fit my toenail fungus into the typically sized cyclist's show. Bike shoe companies apparently think big guys must not ride much, or mash hard like 130 pounders - elfin folk who simply don't need beefy shoes. So the supply of high quality road and mountain shoes with carbon soles, in big sizes is limited. By "limited" I mean "nonexistant."
That really sucks, and it's kind of stupid. If anybody needs a really strong, rigid shoe, it's a big dude. We may not climb real well but it doesn't mean we're weak, or that we can't mash the bejeebers out of the pedals. There's also the cult of strong fat dudes who ride singlespeed MTBs - the last refuge of the mashtodons.
Regular shoes just aren't strong enough for big fellas... but all most companies make in the 48/49/50 W range are craptabulous basic cycling shoes or walkable tourist shoes.
After looking for about 6 months I consulted with C3/Twenty 20 teammate Matt Hennessy about what to get. He is a Specialized shoe guy living out west. He told me to chill... Specialized would have a stocking stuffer dropping just for me in late November.
Sure enough, Specialized dropped the S-Works Trail. It's a lot like the regular S-Works racing shoe, with an amazingly stiff carbon sole, but it also has some solid rubber treads and a decently thick body, including a good solid toe box. More on that in a sec. Plus it's only about 60 grams more than the regular S-Works shoe: a legit racing shoe for mountain bikers who ride on trails other than groomed World Cup courses.
So I hit up Tommy and Norman at Twenty 20 bikes to order me a pair. Norman fitted me in the Savage Mill store, up near Laurel, and I worked out to be a smidge over 47 in the bionic foot, and a smidge over 48 in the mere mortal foot. 49 here I come...
The Specialized fitting / measurement doohickey showed I was definitely in a wide shoe, and have a medium (blue Specialized footbed) arch. Full disclosure to help the FTC prosecute me for reviewing products in a blog: I'm not being paid for this review but like all team members I got the amazingly awesome team discount on the shoes. Not sure how much that saves me but it ain't a pay-to-play arrangement.
When the shoes came in, I had some misgivings. They weren't comfortable to stand in. In fact they sucked to stand in. Norman said his sucked to stand in as well, but they pretty much disappear on rides like a pair of slippers. I figured he wouldn't steer me wrong, so I took them home and decided to try them out on the trails - risking quite a few bucks if it didn't work out, 'cuz there's no returns for muddy shoes. Fingers - and crampy toes - crossed, right?
I've had a couple rides now, ~3 hours total, and they're working out pretty well. My misgivings have been assuaged, and I'm actually really liking these shoes. Here's some initial riding impressions.
The standing fit sucks - not fun to stand in! - but if you have to hike-a-bike up a hill they aren't bad at all. On the bike with the snuggers, or whatever you call the thin wires with dialing tension adjusters, feel like cozy bedroom slippers when properly adjusted. It's important to get the tension of the snuggers just right and took me some mid-ride adjustments to do that. I am starting to figure them out and anticipate I'll know how to dial them in just right at ride start pretty soon. Interestingly, they seem to pinch a bit in my forefoot when riding with them too loose, but feel just fine when snugged up fairly tight.
The snuggers are durable so far and superior to the usual velcro and buckle arrangements. I have some nagging doubts about their durability but in combination with the fairly stiff but well-cushioned ski boot-like tongue, they make a lot of sense. They tension that tongue quite evenly, and that allows for the shoes to be snugged up just right, like somebody cupping your foot really firmly, but not painfully so. It's the first time I've had a Goldilocks fit in a mountain bike shoe - not too snug at any point, not too loose at any point, but just right. They feel exceptionally well locked into the pedals (using my SPDs). I think I will probably want to get an extra pair of snuggers for long races & the backpack on epic rides just in case (they do look thin) but they've lasted okay so far.
The Wire Snuggers Seem Strong Despite Their Size
And They Achieve a Goldilocks Fit
Often, things marked with a "trail" moniker are heavy and substandard, but these are legit race shoes. I had glimpsed the regular S-Works shoes but Norman waved me off, pointing out their lack of tread and thinness. Really good CX racers could probably use the regular S-Works shoe, or perhaps those whose familiarity with rock is limited to periodic NPR interviews of aging 60s music legends. I will stick to the Trail models which seem much better suited to normal enthusiast level MTBers, including most racers, who probably want a durable, do-anything shoe rather than a race day-only slipper. They are reinforced at the places where the shoes (and the big ankle lump) tend to hit the cranks, and the toe box is the toughest thing this side of an M-1 tank. I tested that out on consecutive rides by kicking the same stump (accidentally) (twice - I never learn) without any negative consequences.
They aren't terrible to walk in uphill because they have good, large, soft treads, but they aren't great 'cuz they don't bend. A hilly 12 hour race with lots of hike-a-bike would make me think hard about using my walkable (and much softer) Lakes. At a minimum I'd want to do a lot of hike-a-bike training, to prevent blisters developing mid-race on the back of my heel. When walking uphill, there is some slippage on the heel due to the ultra stiff soles, and perhaps the heel box is a little on the large size too. It's not noticeable when riding though. Speaking of the soul of this shoe...
The carbon sole is dynamite. It is incredibly comfortable because it doesn't bend and the pedals aren't digging an SPD-shaped imprint into my forefoot. Specialized footbeds take up the slack and provide adequate cushioning and great arch support. These shoes match the efficiency of my Northwave winter boots, without weighing 5 lbs. Standing efforts are a breeze; the 2.5 square inch surface of the SPD pedals might as well have been a 12"x12" piece of 11/8 plywood, for how stiff and stable the platform felt.
Maybe They Don't Look Special
But I Like That Understated Style
I'm looking forward to taking these on some 3-4 hour rides over the next couple months, and I'll post up and tell you how they work on those rides. For now, based on what I've experienced so far, these are really good do-anything shoes for big guys who train, race, and just ride around - and probably for smaller racers and riders too. They are costly, you're probably looking in the high $300 range for these. Are they worth it? Yeah, they are worth every penny so far. I've been browsing various bike shoe websites for years looking for shoes like this, in my size. It feels good to finally meet them - they're my sole-mates.