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Cycling shoes as canvas: Zusha Bettoun’s custom art for pros and everyday riders

Ashton Lambie, Skylar Schneider and The Vegan Cyclist are among Bettoun's customers.

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Why are cycling shoes so boring?

A haphazard accident led Zusha Bettoun and his brother Mendel Bettoun into a cottage industry of custom painting cycling shoes for everyone from world champion Ashton Lambie and L39ion of Los Angeles pro Skylar Schneider to hundreds of everyday riders with their brand NVR Look Back.

Zusha Bettoun got into cycling about three years ago, and after the artist and architectural student scuffed his shoes, he took a Sharpie to them.

“You know how it is, when you’re first learning how to clip in… I tipped over, and my shoe ripped,” said Zusha, who then drew on his shoes to make them look better. “Later, I posted them to like 15 Facebook cycling groups to sell them online, and then people started messaging me, ‘Hey, can you paint on my shoes?‘ It’s kind of spiraled since then.”

Zusha Bettoun paints every shoe by hand – sometimes with a brush, sometimes with an airbrush, and sometimes with toothpicks.

“I love cycling, but so much of the design out there is so generic,” he said. “So it just became, how much more art can we get out there in the world. With shoes, it’s like, how crazy can we get? We’re still super young, and learning the space.”

Mendel said the initial feedback from people surprised them, and the brothers are now making artistic kits, too.

Ostroy is similar to what we are providing,” Mendel said. “There is so much generic design. We started with shoes, and then someone hit is up for fundraiser ride where they wanted a crazy kit. We had to go find a clothing manufacturer, and I spent four months trying on like 100 different kits.”

Mendel said that when they were growing up, his brother was constantly drawing.

“Zush drew on the wall, on receipts, just whatever he could get his hands on,” Mendel said.

Now we’re the brothers who have also partnered with Watrbotl for custom bottle designs.

When riders send him their shoes, their instructions run from the hyper-specific to the very vague. Zusha has a hard time with vague direction.

“I hate that. The whole, ‘you’re the artist’ thing,” Zusha said with a laugh. “That said, I do have a running list of random concepts I would like to do, so I can make suggestions from there. Some people will be very specific, like ‘Mickey Mouse here, Andy Warhol there.’ That makes it easier.”

A pair painted last year for a Rally pro.

“Then some people are like, ‘do something in the color blue…'” he said.

Zusha works with a very different tools, depending on the task I hand, from brushes to airbrushes to toothpicks.

He uses durable paint that can stretch, so that the design is permanent on not only cycling shoes but sneakers, too.

Lambie had a pair of his shoes painted with the Polish word Zapierdalać, which is a crude expression meaning “go really fast,” or ”work your butt off.” He also has that as a tattoo.

Related: Ashton Lambie on his world title strategy, sensations, and thought process — and his Zapierdalać tattoo.

“I’ve always been a fan of artists in cycling, and love the artwork that goes with it,” said Lambie, whose partner Christina Birch has done artwork on a few now-retired pairs of shoes for him.

For the Zapierdalać shoes (and tattoo), Lambie explained the origins.

“On European trips with USA Cycling, we worked with a Polish mechanic, Mirek, and his son Patryk was our soigneur. They always used to tell us ‘Zapierdalać’ as we walked up to the start line, just to go really f—ing fast.”

Although a lifelong artist, Zusha had never painted with brushes until two years ago.

“For me, art is manifesting what you can see on paper,” he said. “And for me, it has to be as realistic as possible.”

Now, painting on shoes is a leap of faith.

“With every shoe I learn to trust the process. Each time I see the drips on the tape, and runoff from the brush, and think, ‘oh no,’ but then it comes out great,” he said.

The Vegan Cyclist is a customer of NVR Look Back.

While Zusha does paint on used shoes, he highly recommends that people send him new shoes. It’s much easier to prep a new shoe for paint. “And new shoes also don’t smell,” he said.

Zusha is now a full-time architecture student in Houston, Texas, and he paints in his off hours. He and Mendell have discussed bringing in others to paint, “but that’s not what people are paying for; they are paying for me to paint their shoes,” Zusha said.

You can check out NVR Look Back’s shoe and clothing designs on the brothers’ website and NVR Look Back Instagram.

A pair painted for Skylar Schneider (L39ion of Los Angeles).