What makes a gravel race shoe?
Is there such a thing as a gravel race shoe? Or even just a gravel shoe?
Gravel riding covers a wide range of surfaces, riders and events. From round-the-world riders, to UCI racers and everything in between. Can there be one shoe that would be perfect? I can’t see a super-lighweight carbon-soled race slipper being of any use hike-a-biking up some gravel strewn goat path for hours on end. Nor would a deep-winter boot be fun in a fast and dusty race.
But I don’t need a do-it-all shoe, I’m looking for a gravel race shoe. Over the last couple of years I’ve found I’m doing less road racing and more gravel events. While the UK doesn’t have many, it’s easy to nip across to Europe and ride a UCI Gravel World Series event. And in most of these races you rarely need to get off your bike. So why am I riding with a Mtb shoe, with toe-spikes and super aggressive tread? Wouldn’t a road shoe make more sense? In fact I was thinking this at the Gravel Fondo Limburg, looking at other riders, there were plenty using road shoes. And that got me thinking; what do I think a shoe needs to cope with a gravel race?
What do I want from a gravel race shoe?
So for the type of racing I’ve been doing, my list would look something like this:
- Easy to adjust
- Wide fitting
- No spikes
- Cleat options
Stiff and light? Of course!
Okay let me explain my list. First off I want a stiff shoe, I’m not worried about walking, these are shoes for racing. Hopefully any walking will only happen at the start and finish! Occasionally you might need to dismount. For example, in one race a bottle-neck on a narrow trail meant we had to walk for fifty metres, not an issue. I want to know that what little watts I’m exerting are being used to propel the bike forwards, not flex my shoes.
Next, weight. While I’m not a weight-weenie, I don’t want to be carrying around any unnecessary weight if I can. Also I feel that a lighter shoe will probably feel cooler, with less material in the construction. Gravel racing for me is a summer sport, all dusty roads and blue skies. I ride ‘cross in the winter and get my fill of mud there! So no need for goretex water-proofing or neoprene ankle cuffs.
And carrying on with temperature related needs, ventilation. Vents, either in the sole or the upper-body are a must.
Some form of protection for the toe and sides of the shoe. While you tend not to come across anything as rough as a typical Mtb course, there are still opportunities for damage. With rocks pinging off other rider’s wheels, narrow gullies with roots and rocks there’s more opportunities for damage than on a road ride.
Adjustment and fit
The shoe needs to be easy to adjust and not just when you’re putting them on at the start. Long rides in hot weather can make your feet swell, so you want to be able to release the pressure. And when you’re powering in to take that final sprint, you’ll want to crank them up! All this needs to be done while on the bike, without stopping. So you want a system that is easy to work with; does this exclude laces?
A wide fitting last. I still suffer from corns from years of riding in narrow shoes. I didn’t even realise wide-fit options were available, just assumed it was all part of the suffering that goes with cycling! So a choice of fit would be good.
Toe-spikes, don’t need them! If it looks like it’s going to be a wet ride and I’ll have to get off the bike, I’ll bring my ‘cross shoes.
Cleat options, do I need the option of Look and 2-bolt fitting on the sole? I always ride with off-road style pedals on my gravel bike and sometimes on the road bike. I have seen some riders using their road pedals on fast gravel races; would the wider platform offered by road pedals offer an advantage? Not sure, but nice to have the option.
And finally, they’ve got to look good! Ok this last one is going to be completely personal. For me a cycling shoe needs to be white, or something bright. Black is just, bleurgh! As a a rider from my team once said “it looks like you’ve got two burnt loaves on your feet!” Like a good looking bike, fresh bar tape or a nice jersey design, it’s all part of the psychological game: boosting ourselves and psyching out the opposition.
So that’s my list done, it’s what I would like in a shoe. Now I don’t think anyone is going make me my own set of shoes anytime soon, but let’s see what’s out there. I’ve picked out ten shoes in no paticular order, some I have experience of and some are unknown to me. I’ll take a look at their pros and cons and then, hopefully get to try some out.
Specialized say they have spent thirty years developing the fit of the Recon and it ticks a lot of my boxes. I’ve ridden their road shoes before and like the fit. This shoe comes with a lot of fit customisation by way of Varus Wedge, a Longitudinal Arch, and Metatarsal Button. They also have 3, 6, and 9mm pontoon shims for leg length discrepancy and a cleat stacker which are available through Specialized Rider Care. Two BOAs – I like BOA style adjusters – deal with closure and are easy to work. They have been re-positioned for this version, which has allowed them to remove the front strap. These straps never actually seem to do much, so glad to see that go.
The carbon sole has an internal I-Beam that stiffens the sole while saving weight. And talking of weight a single size 44 weighs 280g. It comes in two widths and three colours, but not white.
Bont are a brand I know well, but have never tried on. They’re famous for their 100% carbon monocoque chassis which can be heat moulded to your foot. The Vaypor G comes in four widths: standard, wide, Asian and narrow. They also have options for semi and full customisation to tune your fit via casts made of your foot. This even extends to the colour/design of your shoe, head to their My Bonts page and unleash your inner Jimmy Choo! But back to the facts.
The super thin carbon sole offers an impressive 3.6mm stack height, getting you closer to your pedal. The uppers are made from an anti-stretch material with a faux-suede leather liner that has lightweight padding. The inner-sole is designed specifically for Bont shoes. They have curved edges to create a seamless transition between the foot and sole. BOA li2 adjustment dials are guaranteed for the lifetime of the shoes: that’s a good sign of quality. The Sole Gaurd tread is completely replaceable, which is a nice touch, but hopefully not needed in my gravel race shoe! Weight for a size 42 is 310g.
The Vento Ferox Carbon has an unusual woven mesh over a PU laminated upper, this keeps the weight down, but is still tough and breathable. It also uses a mixture of a Powerstrap for the instep with a BOA Li2 ratchet for the forefoot. The X1 carbon sole is covered with rubber tread, protecting the sole and giving you some grip, should you need it. It comes in three colours, no white though. Weight is 297g not sure for which size. I think the only issue I might have is that they tend to be a bit of a narrow fit.
What can I say about Sidi? They’re Italian and have been the choice of riders for, well, a long time! They also gave me some serious corns due to their narrow lasts. That’s changed though and my recent pair have heaps of room. The tigers have Sidi’s quality build and a lot of replaceable parts from tread parts to insoles and sole plates.
Sidi have their Techno-3 closures, I’ve used the older versions and they can be awkward to adjust on the bike, especially with gloves. The two closures sit on the middle line of the shoe, which could protect them in case of a crash. The heel retention device looks a useful addition device if you suffer from heel slip with other shoes. Weight for a pair is around 700g and colours are black, nero ruggine and abisso, no white.
Scott say this is a dedicated gravel shoe, combining the best features from their Mtb and road shoes. It’s designed to be light and durable with a “gravel-adapted outsole”. That last seems to mean a minimalist tread over a nylon-carbon composite sole and no fittings for toe-spikes. The sole is covered in Scott’s Sticki Rubber, giving you some grip when not clipped in, or going to the podium.
With stiffness index of 8, does this mean there’s some unwanted flex there? While that will make it more comfortable when walking, I wonder if you’ll feel it when pedalling? The double BOA’s offer good adjustability when it comes to closure. And Scott’s adjustable ErgoLogic insole system has metatarsal pads and arch adjustment to fine tune that fit.
Shimano say the RX8 is “made to make you ride further, faster.” I guess that’s what we’re looking for in a gravel race shoe. Their S-PHYRE SH-XC902 shoe is a common sight on the top step of Mtb and ‘cross races, so they know how to make a good shoe. Will the RX8 deliver the same performance?
It has a lot of the right stuff; super-lighweight carbon composite sole; BOA Li2 dials; lightweight, 628g for a pair of size 45; abrasion resistant tread; and you know they will work perfectly with SPD pedals. It also looks more like a road shoe with an off-road sole: could be just the ticket. If only it came in white!
Lake say the MX238 is aimed at gravel and mixed-terrain riders, sound like me. It promises the “comfort and performance of a road shoe with the walkability of a mountain bike shoe without the addition of excessive weight or bulk.” I have owned two pairs of Lake shoes and have always found them comfortable and hard-wearing: my current pair are seven years old and still riding hard.
The MX238 has the MX Competition Last, which has a wide toe-box and tighter heel and it comes in two widths. The sole is carbon fibre with plenty of tread and it will take toe-spikes. You get three colour options for the uppers, of which Beetle/Black and White/Black are Clarino Microfiber. The Black/Gold version is made from Ecco Fullgrain Suede Leather. Not sure how the last would deal with any mud, so maybe dry weather racing only? The uppers ae closed using dual Push/Pull BOA IP1-S laces.
The Rebel 3 has a full carbon sole with a stiffness index of 12, which is well protected by the tread. The upper uses Northwave’s BioMap unibody construction , this is meant to give a wraparound design to minimise power loss when pedalling.
Double SLW3 dials deal with closure – two is always better than one. The shoe is protected against scuffs and scrapes by TPU thermowelded panels.
The Empire VR90 is a laced shoe, as I mentioned I’m not sure about laced shoes never having used them before. However laces have been coming back onto bike shoes, so maybe worth a try? It comes with a Easton EC90 carbon sole, with moulded Vibram tread and fittings for toe-spikes. The upper is a breathable synthetic microfiber called Teijin, Giro say it won’t stretch over time. The adjustable SuperNatural footbed allows you to fine-tune the fit.
There’s a rubber toe-cap to protect the front of the shoe and am anti-microbial top sheet, to keep your feet fresh! Weight for a shoe is 315g for a 42.5 and you get a travel bag to keep them tidy, which is a nice touch.
Pearl Izumi say they have blended the light weight and stiffness of a road shoe with the durability of a Mtb shoe; perfect. The light weight and stiffness comes from the 1:1 EX PRO carbon sole. This has a TPU toe, heel bumpers and stop plate to protect it.
The upper is a breathable synthetic leather, with perforations for ventilation. Dual BOA Fit System with L6C dials allow you to fine tune the fit and the laces are Soft TX to help eliminate pressure and hotspots. A size 42 weighs in at 319g
While Mtb race shoes will have most of the attributes of a gravel race shoe, I do think there is a place for for an exclusively gravel version. While for some the joy of gravel riding is getting out and exploring roads less travelled, racing is a different beast. The terrain tends to be a bit tamer and there are usually road sections. And with UCI races being more accessible to us amateurs – who has the time to train for 200+ kilometre races? – with their shorter distances, a stiff aggressive shoe makes sense. I have put SPD cleats onto a pair of road shoes and will try them out on my local trails. Maybe this is the best option for these type of events? Or just use your road pedals and shoes? I’ll get back to you and let you know how this works out.