Reviewed: Six cyclocross shoes to take on the mud
Cyclocross is coming. Cyclocross is here. Cyclocross never went away. Whatever your mantra, it’s high time to think about your ’cross kit. When it comes to shoes, there are certain subtle design features that can make even the best pair of off-road shoes more appropriate for cyclocross. With an abundance of race-ready pairs primarily marketed toward mountain bikers, how do you know which make the best cyclocross shoes?
Before I give my assessment, I offer you the brief opinions of two longtime, high-caliber ’cross racers, who also happen to be objective VeloNews journalists not beholden to a particular brand. Here’s what they had to say:
Lennard Zinn: “First, I like a stiff sole and a little flex at the toe for running. After that, I look for a tough upper, especially at the toe; good tread and ease of mounting spikes; finally, I want good clearance of the instep strap on the inboard side so as not to hit the crank arm.”
Spencer Powlison: “The weird thing is that most ’cross courses these days have so little running that I usually just opt for the more race-oriented MTB shoe I can find for pedaling stiffness. Features that I always like but could be relevant to ’cross include a more forgiving heel cup for rough terrain and a closure mechanism that won’t gunk up — BOA is great. Finally, dark colors … not white!”
All good points. To which I would add:
- A grippy tread that extends over the instep portion of the sole. (This is helpful for racers who unclip from their pedal before approaching a barrier and then plant the pedal underfoot.)
- Durable construction that can tolerate repeated bouts of thick mud and the necessary washing that comes with it.
- A comfortable and highly secure fit so that even if the shoe has a race-oriented, stiff sole, the shoe stays put when striding and planting your foot during mounts and dismounts.
For reference, I have a fairly boring, standard shaped foot: a moderate arch, not much pronation or supination, no bulbous knobs or grotesque shapes, and a medium width. I wear size 45 in most brands.
Now that you know what type of foot I have and what I look for in a cyclocross shoe, let’s jump in and look at some of my favorite shoes for ’cross.
704 grams (per pair; size 45)
Light, stiff, super comfortable, and stylish: that’s the XC9. Shimano’s top-of-the-line off-road shoe offers an immediate slipper-like fit. That’s a function of its one-piece wraparound supple upper and robust rounded heel box. The low-stack-height sole helps stabilize the foot during the downward pedaling stroke, offering a decisively responsive sensation under heavy pedaling loads.
According to Shimano, extensive research led them to produce a last design with an optimized toe-spring section that promotes a smoother, more energy-efficient upstroke. In practice, the shoes do have that coveted pop that you hope for in a race shoe.
Keeping the foot firmly in place also helps with pedaling efficiency. Dual independent Boa IP1 dials allow quick and precise micro-adjustment. The perforated upper is anatomically designed to reduce pressure and tension on the highest points of the foot. The asymmetric pattern of the upper prevents the foot from twisting under high power as well, providing that glove-like fit. Despite their comfort, my heel would lift slightly when walking or running, in some ways a function of the stiffness of the sole. Grippy fabric on the inside of the heel helps to somewhat reduce this effect.
A proprietary Michelin outsole is grippy yet minimalist, with the tread extending over the instep specifically designed to improve grip on pedals. A reinforced spike mount allows for optional extra-long climbing spikes (18 millimeters) for penetrating mucky slopes and berms. A minimal toe bumper and a hard plastic heel cup improve durability.
All in all, this is one of my favorite off-road shoes in this roundup. Plus, Shimano revealed a revamped XC9 shoe at Interbike, which may afford more durability and better ventilation.
Giro Empire VR90
675 grams (per pair; size 45)
Laces? Yes, laces. If you still haven’t tried them, don’t knock them. Yes, you lose on-the-fly adjustability. However, once you’ve dialed in your fit in laces, you may only ever need to make minor adjustments in the future. After a couple of rides, you quickly learn what works. The laces themselves are designed to knot securely and not come undone. That was my experience. Finally, in some ways, the laces allow for an even more precise fit than straps or buckles because you have seven different points of contact across the top of your foot. If laced correctly and with the right tension, the pressures of the laces are spread across a wider portion of the foot.
The Empire VR90 is one of the lightest and narrowest options in this roundup. The upper is made of a breathable Evofiber synthetic material. It has several perforated areas on the outer and inner sides of the upper, as well as the tongue. In all, the material offers a comfortable fit, with all the support you need for power transfer. The non-stretch material is durable and easily cleaned after splashing around in your favorite foul-weather conditions. An Easton EC90 full-carbon outsole is mated to a Vibram rubber tread, creating a well-balanced blend of stiffness and grip. The tread extends over the instep to create a mid-foot scuff guard. The molded rubber outsole features both a thick toe and heel bumper, providing one of the most robust outsoles in this roundup.
Giro’s SuperNatural Fit footbed comes with different size inserts, allowing for fine-tuning of fit and arch support. The notch at the top of the heel cup is well padded and comfortable. The shoes come with steel toe spikes and the tools to install them.
Fizik Infinito X1
709 grams (per pair, size 45)
Fizik is well known for its attractive road shoes, but its off-road offerings are also worth a serious look. The Infinito sports a stiff, light, racer-oriented design featuring a refined, clean construction. The shoe features two micro-adjustable Boa IP1-B dials, the cables of which run along the outer edge of the forefoot and through loops of material to eliminate pressure points. Small rubberized grippers inside the heel cup help keep your foot from lifting.
The Infinito shares its upper with the top-of-line Infinito R1 road shoe. It’s then bonded to an aggressive, minimalist rubber sole. The dial design works with Fizik’s Dynamic Arch Support technology and the Increased Volume Control system to shape the whole shoe’s 1.4-millimeter thick lightly perforated Microtex upper directly around the foot’s profile. The rear dial pulls the large flap at the top of the tongue area only, pulling the shoe around your foot and decreasing the height overall. The second Boa controls the so-called dynamic arch support, pulling a figure-eight of cable around the forefoot, as well as the arch support on the inner side of the shoe. As you adjust the dial, it pulls up around your mid-foot and adds stability to the arch. The best part about it? It isn’t just marketing. It actually works, and you feel the subtle pull and added support envelope your foot.
The stiff, light, uni-directional carbon fiber outsole delivers impressive power transfer while smashing at the pedals. Pronounced treads on the heel edge and toe sections allow for mud clearance around the cleat recess and provide solid grip and protection. There is a bit of rubber underfoot for those who like to plant their pedal there before dismounting. The shoes come with rubber studs for muddy days. Finally, a wraparound toe bumper and heel cup keep these shoes kicking through inclement conditions.
Sizing is on par with other brands. They’re comfortable out of the box, though not quite as glove-like as the Shimano’s or Giro’s. I used a pair of aftermarket footbeds to improve the fit, bringing these up to the level of the most comfortable.
Pearl Izumi X-Project Elite
916 grams (per pair, size 44.5)
The little brother of Pearl Izumi’s X-Project P.R.O. off-road shoe, the Elite model features a rigid carbon sole that stays stiff while pedaling and flexes while walking without compromising off-the-bike hike-ability and traction. For those who find themselves running more often at ’cross races or who experience pain when running in stiff shoes, this could make the difference. They are immediately comfortable, and the bend in the shoe when walking is noticeable. But is it necessary? For me it isn’t simply because, in my experience, the amount of running in my local ’cross races is so minimal that my foot can tolerate a stiff sole across an hour of racing. For others, it might be just what they’ve been waiting for.
Straight out of the box, these fit comfortably and securely. The seamless composite upper is perforated above the toe box and around the sides. Breathability is good, and Pearl Izumi says the material adapts to your foot shape.
A single Boa IP1 dial on top of the shoe complements a Velcro strap across the forefoot. The combination works well, and the placement of the dial gets it out of harm’s way more so than on shoes where the dials are placed on the sides. The dial allows one-millimeter micro-adjustability and pops out for full release. The dials are directional, so they twist to tighten in different directions on the left and right shoes.
The sole is constructed of stiff, hollow plastic lugs with rubberized tips, providing impressive traction on an extremely lightweight sole. The grippy rubber extends through the midfoot, and the shoes come with replaceable hard plastic toe spikes. An EVA foam heel absorbs impacts well and adds to the off-the-bike comfort of these shoes. Inside, Pearl’s tunable arch and varus support system allows several ways to modify the sole of the shoe, with easily replaceable inserts in the arch and under the ball of the foot. Easy and effective.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of these shoes, especially when compared to the others in this roundup, is their weight. They don’t feel bulky, but the running-shoe look and construction make them nearly a half-pound heavier than the others. It’s worth noting that these are not the top-of-the-line shoe, so it’s safe to assume the P.R.O. model shaves some weight.
Still, these shoes are a great choice no matter how you look at it, especially considering the price.
Gaerne G.Sincro +
760 grams (per pair; size 45)
Gaerne’s small factory in the Treviso region of Italy, just down the road from Sidi’s headquarters, has been pumping out shoes since 1962. Its G.Sincro + is one of the plushest shoes in this roundup. The upper is made of a microfiber that’s laser-perforated to increase breathability. The tongue is also perforated for further airflow, and the cushy padding helps alleviate any pinching or hot spots.
The upper features two Boa IP-1 micro-adjustable dials and four guides for each reel, creating the precise, fast, and personalized closure system that Boa dials are known for. (Boa guarantees the reels and the cables of the closing system for the entire useful life of the product.)
The G.Sincro+ features an EPS, nylon-reinforced carbon fiber sole, which is not the stiffest in this roundup, but plenty stiff for even the most serious racer. It offers great power transfer when pedaling and just enough flexibility when walking. The minimalist Michelin tread comprises a toe area, two parallel forefoot pads on either side of the cleat, and a heel portion which extends across the midfoot. Otherwise, the sole is bare. The rubber compound is designed to balance performance and abrasion resistance and provides excellent hold and traction. The large distance between the treads allows for better self-cleaning and instant mud shedding. The shoes can accept toe spikes; they come fitted with hard plastic nubs, but metal spikes are not provided.
The G.Sincro + is designed with what Gaerne calls its “Tarsal Support System” to ensure the perfect position of the foot inside the shoe, obtaining a rounded and more efficient pedal stroke. It features an injection-molded anatomic carbon heel-cup, which prevents deformation or weakening. In my experience, the features work well: This is one of the most comfortable shoes in the roundup, and as durable as they come.
Lake MX 237 SuperCross
842 grams (per pair; size 45)
There are few shoes specifically designed for ’cross, but Lake makes several models. The company’s MX 237 SuperCross features a toe box with plenty of room, yet a tighter heel that keeps the foot from lifting as you walk or run. The dual side-mounted BOA IP1-S lacing dials create an exceptionally secure fit. You can tighten and loosen them incrementally, and fully release tension by popping the dial out.
The race-oriented full carbon fiber sole has a beefy rubber tread, which extends across the midfoot. The shoes come with traditional pillar-shaped toe spikes as well as some we’ll call “blades.” These are flat hoops that really bite in. Together, the chunky tread and blades make for a highly effective surface for running.
The Helcor abrasion-resistant leather and mesh upper is as durable as they come. Considering the abuse that cyclocross shoes put up with — the conditions, the constant washing, and the fact that depending on where you live they may spend as much time being wet as they do dry — durability is one of their biggest selling points.
Light venting on the sides helps keep feet cool, though don’t expect an airy feel. A vent below the heel also helps with ventilation.
Overall, this is one of the heavier shoes in the roundup. Presumably, for an extra $110, you would get weight savings as well as other superior features in the brand’s top-of-the-line MX 332 SuperCross.
The MX 237 runs large compared to others in this roundup.