Is there such a thing as a ‘cross specific shoe and if there is what would it look like? Does the Bontrager RXL MTB Shoe have what it takes to make it in the mucky world of cyclo-cross?
Cross country MTB racers seem well served in terms of choice of shoes for their discipline, with a host of manufacturers aiming flagship models and less technical spin-offs at their specific requirements. As a cyclo-cross rider rather than mountain biker, those requirements appear to this writer to be centred around a sole of superior stiffness for efficient pedalling, and a non-slip sole for those brief off the bike moments. This search for maximum efficiency when pedalling married to being able to stand upright when off the bike potentially fails to address the demands of cyclo-cross racers, who can often dismount multiple times a lap for running sections off the bike.
Cyclo-cross race laps require riders to make frequent pedalling efforts close to maximum power combined with one or more off the bike ‘carrying’ sections, over barriers, up steep un-rideable banks or through deep mud. This dual requirement of stiffness with running comfort and practicality is not an easy compromise for a shoe to achieve and as such, represents the holy grail for off-road shoes used for cyclo-cross racing.
Previous reviews on CTR – Pearl Izumi Project X, Lake MX331 and Northwave Hammer CX– have looked at attempts to design a ‘cross specific shoe (with varying levels of success) and this review of the MTB oriented RXL is conducted firmly in the same vein, namely looking at the shoes suitability for lap based cyclo-cross.
Bontrager describe the RXL as ‘light, stiff, well ventilated and tough’. The sole is a carbon/fibreglass composite, their Silver Series which delivers a stiffness rating of 9 on their scale of 1-12. Only the range topping XXX race shoe is stiffer at level 12. A low-profile, Micro-Fitt II retention system of ratchet strap allied to 2 velcro straps allows easy and quick adjustments with an usual split ratchet to fine tune adjustments on the move.
A shiny microfiber upper with mesh areas and a solid rubber rand round the whole of the lower part of the shoe give a solid feel combined with the stiff sole. Interestingly, the heel is described as having a ‘no-slip heel cup with integrated Heel Trap’. This turns out to be a textured inner heel lining that ‘grips’ upward movement of the sock/heel allied to an external metal band that can be moulded to clamp the heel more securely.
The sole has replaceable forefoot treads in a hardened PU type material with the option for toe spikes, a welcome feature for a shoe intended for cyclo-cross use as well as MTB. RRP is around £200 but there are discounts to be found as ever.
In terms of review conditions, this test was conducted over the summer period in preparation for winter cyclo-cross racing, followed by a winter season of racing in which most of the usual conditions for ‘cross were present, bar snow.
When it comes to pedalling the RXL is predictably stiff, the stiffest shoe I’ve used for ‘cross. This translates into noticeable pedalling urgency as very little effort is wasted. With its customisable insole, there’s comfort with that stiffness though. The shoes don’t feel like an unmalleable lump beneath your feet and support for my average height arches was fine.
When running, the RXLs are comfortable enough over longer sections. I say ‘comfortable enough’ as the stiffness works against good running form a little. It is a hard compromise to find and good fit can help with this to some degree. I have narrow heels and did find that my heels were slipping despite the featured metal strap and textured material inside heel cup. On balance, or at least for my feet they didn’t really help secure my heel in shoe and resulted in a slightly insecure feeling that was particularly noticeable on harder, less giving ground.
However, it’s rare that running sections last more than 30 secs in a ‘cross race so this isn’t a huge problem in reality. Where I wouldn’t be so comfortable with the RXLs is on rockier carry sections on more generic off-road rides, including the 3 Peaks Cyclo-cross. Their stiffness, allied to the lack of fit around the heel gives rise to a slightly aggravating ‘slop’ on and off the foot on hard surfaces, exacerbated by the more solid conditions compared to softer mud.
The RXLs don’t absorb much in the way of water when bog-trotting or riding through water, so they work well in bad conditions. Equally the ratchet and strap system is still adjustable even when fairly comprehensively muddied up and the shoes aren’t difficult to remove, even when properly caked. When it came to clipping in (crucial from a cyclo-cross perspective), the sole design gave a positive clip in that was easy to hit each time when remounting, even when tired. Equally the clipping in was no more affected by mud and stones/debris than any other shoes I have used and the sole seemed to efficiently clear mud from cleat area when using the SPD type cleats that I favour.
Grip from the sole when running in mud was good, though not spectacular and I fitted Horst toe spikes (available from Fluent in Cross in the UK) when the weather turned worse. These went in fine and allied to the basic sole pattern, gave an extra element of security on steep muddy banks, running off-camber or on descents. The RXLs come with nice stainless blanks for the thread holes when spikes are not required.
The upper material is very easy to clean (being glossy across much of the upper) but appears very durable along with the sole treads which are also in good condition, even after rocky bridleway bashing over the summer.
The RXLs are a stiff, reasonably light shoe which work well for regular League cyclo-cross duties with a variety of course forms and conditions. Stiff and very efficient for pedalling, they also perform in off-the-bike running sections, holding up well when things get really muddy late on in the season. Or October if you live in the North West…
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