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Reviewed: Solestar, Footbalance orthotics

Lennard Zinn tries custom options from two companies at Interbike

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As someone who has had foot problems brought on by cycling that require custom orthotics, I’m always on the lookout for new options because improvement continues to be possible and desirable for my feet. And I’m convinced that almost any rider could pedal more efficiently and powerfully and reduce injury with custom orthotics properly shaped to their feet. I found two good new franchised custom orthotic-making systems at Interbike, one for the budget conscious, and one for the person wanting the ultimate footbed.

Footbalance and Solestar were at the show hoping to find shops that would offer their systems and custom-form their orthotics in the shop for customers. Footbalance is an $80 retail, single-piece, heat formable orthotic that is speedy to make, once a shop is equipped with the Footbalance forming equipment. The idea is to sign up bike shops that would use the system as an add-on to their shoe sales or fitting services.

Solestar, on the other hand, is a $350 retail, carbon-fiber orthotic that requires layering additional foam, gluing on a cover, and grinding it to final shape. It is intended to be custom formed and fitted by a professional, and its distributor is seeking bike-fitting studios, rather than normal bike shops.

Footbalance’s Lauren Wilson molded the lightweight plastic footbeds to my feet using the company’s squishy foam molding blocks on its special platform with an integrated light box, mirror, handles, computer stand, and warming slots. She observed the way I stood on the glass light box and later held my ankles in the same position as I stood atop the preheated footbeds on top of the foam molding blocks. Once they cooled, she set the footbeds on a flat surface and checked that the heel and forefoot were in the same plane. When they were not, she warmed them in the slots under the laptop on the computer stand and twisted them until they cooled with the heel and forefoot coplanar.

The Footbalance system comes up with a printed foot analysis with photos of the client’s feet in the running/riding position and in the neutral position. The Footbalance Analysis said that I have an extremely high medial arch and that my feet overpronate. It includes the orthotic recommendation and how it will assist me and make me healthier.

Wilson molded one first set of footbeds to my feet without any additional supportive inserts. But without metatarsal arch supports in my orthotics, I get pain between the metatarsals of my second, third and fourth toes on both feet when pedaling hard. So she made me a second pair, and she placed triangular pads under the warm footbeds so that when I stood on them, the footbeds were domed up under the third metatarsal of each foot to lift and separate the metatarsals.

Solestar is a carbon-fiber custom orthotic that must be made by a highly trained technician. Called Stabilization-Delta design, the carbon section is roughly triangular, with one corner of it being the rear of the medial arch. German pedorthist Oliver Elsenbach came up with them and has been making custom Solestars for years for some of the world’s top cyclists, including Fabian Cancellara, André Greipel, Alban Lakata, and Gerald Ciolek.

Paul Paris of Paris Orthotics, the Solestar distributor for the U.S. and Canada, and Elsenbach himself made my Solestars. Paris has been making orthotics for decades and used to work with orthotics pioneer Bill Peterson. Elsenbach’s carbon-fiber creations offer a further development over traditional materials used in orthotics.

The resin in the carbon matrix of Solestar is heat-sensitive, so it, like Footbalance, can be molded to the foot. Then Paris and Elsenbach made further additions of foam to the top of the carbon base to support my feet in the way their physical assessment deemed critical. This included higher arch support, particularly toward the front of the medial arch, metatarsal arch support, and wedging of the lateral edge of the left forefoot.

The beauty of the Footbalance system is that a bike shop equipped with its tools and training could make custom footbeds without the need for years of experience at it. The raw footbeds themselves are relatively inexpensive, being made of plastic with a fabric cover. The downside is that with a complicated foot like mine, the end product has some shortcomings relative to an orthotic made out of stiffer materials that has been formed and shaped by an experienced pedorthist. The Footbalance orthotic is too flexible to deal with an extremely high arch like mine, and it also cannot support the foot at an angle if required. When I pedal hard, the medial arch and the metatarsal arch supports give way under the pressure.

The Solestar orthotics, on the other hand, support my feet without flex. Their carbon fiber construction is extremely stiff, and the shape seems ideal. I have done two cyclocross races with them, and I could feel the support when pedaling full out as well as running up stairs and steep hills.

Last year at Interbike, Scott Peterson, the son of foot guru Bill Peterson, made me some superlight, very stiff CycleSoles orthotics. Those orthotics have worked very well for me, giving my medial and metatarsal arches strong support, and they were further improved when fit guru Andy Pruitt noticed that my left forefoot needed to be wedged inward. Pruitt put a thin wedge in the front of my left shoe under the orthotic that lifted the outside edge of my forefoot higher than my first metatarsal behind my big toe. This brought my left knee better in line with my left pedal throughout the stroke.

Elsenbach used an applied kinesiology technique to assess how well my orthotics were supporting my feet. He had me hold out the opposite arm of the foot that was standing on the orthotic and asked me to hold it firm while he pushed down on it. Standing with my left foot on a non-supportive footbed, I could not hold my right arm up against his downward pressure. When standing on my left CycleSoles orthotic, I could hold it up better, but not as well as I could hold up my other arm. But when standing on my left CycleSoles orthotic with the wedge from Pruitt under it, I could hold my right arm up firmly against Elsenbach’s downward pressure. How firmly I could hold the arm up was the same or possibly even improved when standing on the new Solestar left orthotic that Paris and Elsenbach had made for me. They are not as light as the CycleSoles, but they may make me more efficient and they don’t require the additional wedge, as that’s built in.

Orthotics can make a big difference in cycling performance and comfort for people with problem feet. The awareness as well as the technology availability for making them is spreading rapidly, and Footbalance and Solestar offer two great alternatives — one that is very affordable and can still make a significant difference for a rider, and the other one that costs a pretty penny and which can provide the required support under the most demanding conditions.