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Why the Boa Li2 dials are a big deal

Great fit adjustment that's easy to grasp.

The latest Boa Li2 retention system makes adjusting shoe comfort precise and easy. The updated dial offers 1-millimeter increments in lace tension and can be easily and safely tuned on the fly. It may seem like a small detail, but here’s why this new system is worth paying attention to, plus my short wish list of how it could be improved.

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How to tighten shoes? Let me count the ways

I’ve worn so many different kinds of cycling shoes over the years, with so many different kinds of retention systems to keep my feet secure and comfortable while riding outdoors in single to triple digits, and of course indoors, too. I’ve worn cycling shoes with just about every retention system available: Three Velcro straps, two Velcro straps, a buckle system, dial-actuated tension cords, Velcro and buckles, Velcro and dials, and a few different combinations of these systems, and of course tried and true shoelaces. Each retention system has its merits, some more than others.

The new Li2 dial protrudes less compared with previous versions of the dial system. Photo: Greg Kaplan

I’ve not raced much on the track, so I don’t need redundant systems — the shoe’s system plus and an extra set of straps that wrap shoe to pedal — to keep connected to my bike. I’m more of a fan of roads and light gravel, so, the need to keep the retention system protected from dirt or mud intrusion is not paramount when I decide what shoes I wear. But I have done my fair share of multisport races to know that getting my feet into and out from my shoes — which remain on my pedals before, during, and after cycling — is a requirement equaled by the need to keep my feet comfortably and securely in my shoes when I’m ripping along on the bike. But from a straight-up functionality and performance standpoint for my day-to-day riding, my preferred retention system remains Boa dials.

If you’ve ever needed to adjust the fit of your cycling shoes while riding, like if you’ve made your shoes too tight while wearing winter socks, or too loose when wearing summer weight socks, then you’ve probably experienced the need to adjust shoe fit after you’ve already hopped on your bike. And more often than not, when I put my shoes on, I’m sitting on a coffee table, or a stair, or someplace convenient for just a few moments, and when I stand after putting my shoes on, whatever tension I had set to keep my shoes on my feet feels different when standing than when sitting. And even afterI’m clipped in, the tension on my shoes often still needs minor adjustment.

Velcro retention systems work well and offer a snug fit, but have you ever tried to adjust the strap tension, perfectly, on the road? It can be done, but this get-comfortable process might take a few attempts of unstrapping and re-strapping shoes, which also can lead to taking eyes off the road to do so.

Buckles and Velcro combination offers ample foot-security but may require some fiddling to get the fit right. Photo: Greg Kaplan

Buckle systems also provide ample retention and comfortable fit, but I’ve often found the adjustment increments too large; my shoes wind up either too snug or not quite snug enough. And while standard shoelaces — an ancient but effective technology — offer a trendy, retro look with a modicum of security, invariably, they stretch and come out of adjustment. I’ve had the experience of a shoelace coming free and wrapping around a pedal spindle midway through aride. It’s panic-inducing.

Some dial-actuated fit systems have a release lever which can be tricky to use while wearing gloves. Photo: Greg Kaplan

Dialing in the dials

Systems similar to Boa — with a dial that winds to increase lace tension — may require an additional lever to loosen the lace incrementally, or to completely release the lace so that one can remove the shoe. While any dial system may look efficient, it may require more work to function optimally compared to Boa’s simple and elegant solution.

After wearing shoes with the Boa L2 dials — the latest Boa iteration that offers a precision fit, and which can be adjusted on the fly in 1-millimeter increments — I kind of stopped reaching for other shoes that have other retention system options. Previous versions of the dial-actuated retention system like the Boa S3 offer precision adjustment. The metal dials on the Specialized S-Works road shoe have a firm, positive feel, are easy to grip, and are scuff resistant. Each dial controls a single lace which offers a fit that keeps feet in shoes for the likes of riders like Julian Alaphilippe, Sam Bennett, and Peter Sagan. And while this Boa S3 system works well, it was designed exclusively for this particular Specialized shoe and is not yet available as an option for other models or brands.

The Boa S3 dials specific to Specialized S-Works shoes offer a smooth and pleasing mechanical feel. Photo: Greg Kaplan

Bring back the metal

If I have any suggestions for improvements to the Boa Li2 dials, it’s use of materials. The Boa Li2 dials are not metallic like the Boa S3 dials, and I really like the feel of the S3 dial on the Specialized S-Works shoe. This dial feels nice in my fingers, and the adjustment control is quiet with a pleasing and smooth mechanical feel. While Boa says the Li2 manufacturing process creates less waste compared with other dials, I think this begs the question: Couldn’t reclaimed aluminum be repurposed for fabricating more Boa dials?

The most notable difference between previous versions of the non-metallic, dial-actuated systems and the Boa Li2 is feel. When adjusting the dials, the clockwise turns to tighten the coated steel laces feel smoother and more discernible from the reverse movement to loosen the lace. What this means is that adjusting fit while rolling is a simpler, more refined process, alleviating the need to take one’s eyes off the road.

When I’m riding indoors, I tend to keep my shoes a little less snug than when I’m on the road and don’t fiddle with them as much as when riding outdoors. And when I’m on the road, I adjust the dials once or twice immediately after the start of a ride, after I’ve become aware of how the shoe fits with a specific pair of socks. This adjustment also corrects how my feet spread differently in my shoes when I’m standing compared with how they take up shoe volume when I’m sitting.

The Boa Li2 Type A dials are non-slip, so making adjustments on the bike is nearly sure-fire, even with sweaty hands or cold fingers. And since a single dial can adjust the lace tension for an entire shoe, this too means no-fuss adjustments.

The Boa Li2 dials provide a pleasing, smooth feel when adjusting fit. Photo: Greg Kaplan

Three types of Li2 dials

There are three different “flavors” of the Boa Li2 dial. Type A is the one shown above on the Shimano S-Phyre shoes.  Type B has a faceted composite grip on the perimeter of the dial. And Type C offers an angular, cushioned grip.

The Boa Li2 system is available on shoes from Shimano, Fizik, and Scott. By early 2021, expect other brands to have the retention system on production models.