We have before us two excellent road shoes, with all the usual trimmings: stiff carbon soles, soft, comfortable uppers, solid buckles, and good looks. They’ll each cost you a whopping $300, or as near as makes no difference. Both are available now, but the Fizik’s are still hard to get ahold of.
Representing American ingenuity and technical proficiency (or something like that) are Bontrager’s wholly redesigned RXXXL. Significantly lighter and more comfortable than its predecessor, the RXL, the RXXXL is Bontrager’s first truly pro-level shoe. You can tell by the extra X’s.
From across the pond, a manifestation of the Italian style gene so infused with passion they’re practically oozing, Fizik’s R3 uses kangaroo leather, carbon fiber and sailcloth and nifty brushed aluminum for a unique retro look, while maintaining performance.
So, which is better?
The R3 is the cheaper of Fizik’s two new shoe options. It loses the full-kangaroo leather upper, carbon buckle, and heat-moldable insole of the R1.
I love the R3’s styling. They’re classy, understated and retro, with an old-world look rarely seen these days. Logos are subtle, stitched and laser-etched into the uppers and buckles, respectively. I think they’re the best looking shoes available.
The microfiber uppers were stiff out of the box, but loosened up significantly over the first few rides. They’re perforated near the toe and along the inside of the shoe, and the ventilation was adequate in temps up to the mid-80’s (I didn’t get a chance to ride them on a really hot day). The sailcloth straps conformed to the foot well, eliminating hot spots, and look great as well. The buckle feels solid, and is easy to dial in, though I do wish it had a stepped release.
The R3 features a carbon heel cup molded to the outside of the shoe, which, according to Fizik, allows the shoe to flex and accommodate a wide range of foot shapes. It certainly holds very securely, with no heel lift even when yanking on the pedals.
Now to my big issue with the R3’s – fit. Of course fit is always highly personal, so I’ll preface this by saying I have relatively narrow feet, and don’t like big arch support.
The problem is that rather than using the insole to provide arch support, the arch is built right into the sole itself – and is quite high. Since I don’t need that much arch support, I found the sole uncomfortable out of the box. The tall arch made the R3’s fit way too tight around the middle of my foot, and I had weird hotspots. There was plenty of toe-box room, and the heel cupped my foot with aplomb, but even with the ratchet strap completely loose, the middle of my foot felt constricted.
As a quick band-aid, I tried some ultra-thin insoles out of another pair of shoes. This lowered the arch a bit and opened up the middle of the shoe. Problem solved. The R3’s became respectably comfortable, particularly after breaking in the uppers on the first few rides. I did a few 4-6 hour rides with them while testing endurance bikes for our latest VN Bike Lab review (see the June issue, on newsstands May 1) and didn’t think about my feet once.
I should also note that I wore EU 42.5 R3’s, though I usually wear 43.5 (44 on tight fitting shoes). In fact the pair I tested originally came in for Nick Legan, but they were far too large for him. They seem to run somewhere between a half and full size large.
The RXXXL’s are light – really light. Only 234g per shoe for my EU43.5’s on the VN scale. And they’re available in a 206g/shoe “Limited Edition” that replaces the buckle with another Velcro strap for the same price. That’s Mavic Huez (201g/shoe) territory, but with actual padding.
Much of the weight loss is thanks to Bontrager’s “ZeroXS” approach, with a focus on eliminating redundant material. ZeroXS is most notable in the RXXXL’s novel upper design, which eliminates the classic notion of a tongue. Instead, the outer side of the upper wraps from the sole up and across the top of the foot, sliding neatly under the other half of the bonded upper.
The result is a sublime, slipper-like feel. Both Nick and I had the same reaction when we first tried them – “these are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever put on.” The Limited Edition version is equally comfortable. They stayed comfortable, too, quickly becoming my go-to shoes.
The RXXXL’s insole is relatively flat, but I like that. Those who need real arch support will have to go to different footbeds. The uppers are well padded and decently ventilated. Like with the R3’s, I never had a chance to try them out on a truly hot day, but they did just fine into the mid-80’s.
The RXXXL’s carbon sole is thinner than the R3’s, lowering stack height. However, Bontrager seems to have drilled the cleat holes quite far forward, even in relation to their own RXL model that I used for much of last year. Using Shimano SPD-SL’s, I was unable to get the cleats far enough back. They were off by about .5mm. That’s not really enough for me to notice when I’m riding unless I really concentrate, but it’s still a nuisance.
I don’t ride a mid-foot cleat position or anything even close, I just stick them under the ball of my foot. Maybe my toes are much longer than Bontrager thinks they should be. Regardless, the holes should be drilled another 2-3mm further back, because unless you have no toes at all the current position puts the cleat way too far forward.
I solved the problem by running Speedplays (as pictured) with their nifty adapter that allows the cleats to be moved back quite a bit. But swapping pedals systems at random won’t make sense for anybody but a tech writer.
Well, take a look at the photos and it’s easy to see which pair I ended up spending more time on. The Bontragers are supremely comfortable, working well with my particular foot shape. But Fizik has created a wonderfully beautiful shoe that still maintains a high-performance edge. Anyone who needs even a modicum of arch support will likely find the sole much more comfortable out of the box than I did.
In the end, I’d take the Bontragers based on fit alone.
A quick look
Pros: incredibly comfortable, light
Cons: cleat holes too far forward
Pros: great style, comfortable uppers
Cons: built-in arch won’t work for all feet