Road Gear

Clothesline Review: Pearl Izumi Octane SL II road shoes

We take a close look at Pearl Izumi's newest road shoe.

*The Clothes Line is an occasional column about clothing, shoes, helmets, and other accessories we’ve encountered. Clothing is possibly the most personal of all gear choices: two riders can try the same jersey and come back with completely different opinions. This is not meant as an extensive review (as in, worn until threadbare), but we simply hope to ride these products for as long as possible and report back on the basic fit and features. We hope you find it helpful.

Pearl Izumi’s Octane SL II
Pearl Izumi’s Octane SL II

In the 2010 VeloNews Buyer’s Guide, we assembled a group of the latest and greatest in ultralight road shoes and helmets. The objective was to find helmets and shoes weighing in the neighborhood of 200 grams and see if they actually compared to gear of more substantial heft. We reviewed the 2010 Giro Prolight helmet, Specialized Body Geometry S-Works road shoes, and Mavic Huez shoes, among others, and discovered they were all nearly as light as promised and perfectly viable.

But the Pearl Izumi Octane SL II shoes barely showed up in time for photography, let alone test riding. We desperately wanted to include them, since we’d seen preproduction samples with weights hovering in the low-200 gram range.

Now that spring has sprung and I’m on my bike again, I finally put the Octane SL II shoes to the test. While the shoes aren’t quite as light as I hoped, they’re really stiff and really comfortable. In fact, with just a few minor quibbles, I’d put Pearl’s new road shoe up among the best I’ve used in the last few years.

I’ve also got a pair of Bontrager RXL Road shoes in the product test mix, plus the new Ulteam RS shoes from TIME. Look for those in the next few months.

Pearl Izumi Octane SL II road shoes ($290)

Pearl Izumi’s shoe lineup underwent significant revision last year, and the 2010 Octane SL II road shoe is a terrific example of how the company reworked its entire shoe line. All the new design features are heavily draped in marketing catch phrases and vocabulary, but it all adds up to a shoe that fits and feels good. I’ve been wearing the Octane SL II’s for a few weeks now, and I can’t find anything of consequence to dislike.

The sole is made from Pearl Izumi’s “Octane Grade” unidirectional carbon fiber. The sole is subtly concave in shape, a design that Pearl used to help shed weight and add stiffness. It also lends a cradling effect, giving the wearer’s foot a feeling of sitting deeper in the shoe rather than riding on top of a flat plank. Arch support is partially built into the sole itself, rather than just molded with the insole. Curving the edges of the sole upward make it naturally stiffer, so the sole stack height under the cleat is just 7mm with no reduction in efficiency.

Another critical element to any shoe is a good, solid heel cup. Pearl built one with an external carbon fiber “Power Band” that loops from the outer heel edge, around the top of the heel cup, and down to the instep. It’s asymmetric, so the inner loop is shorter and doesn’t interfere with arch support. Thicker padding below the lip of the heel cup helps fill volume to the sides of the Achilles tendon.

Finally, Pearl designers looked at the shoe’s closure. The Velcro straps angle rearward, following the natural curvature of a human foot. The “Anatomic Closure” amounts to pretty standard straps, but the one-piece upper as a whole is nicely executed. A long tongue extends over the toe and helps prevent distortion in the upper as the straps are snugged.

If you boil it down, all that engineering could be written off as a lot of marketing blather. But whether it’s hype or not, the Octane SL II turns out to be quite comfortable. The shoe does what its supposed to, plain and simple.

Heel retention
Heel retention

My test shoes in size 44 weigh 288 grams per shoe – they’re not feathery, but any shoe that comes in under 300 grams can be considered very light. What’s nice is that the light weight wasn’t achieved at the expense of fit and function.

The upper is very pliable and comfortable, but not so flimsy as to be unsupportive. The toe box is round and roomy, so I never had any pressure points develop against my knobby outer toes. The heel cup is as robust as promised, and the straps hold my foot in place just fine. I like that the tongue doesn’t bunch up or slip to the side over time. Sole stiffness is outstanding.

I particularly like the shaped sole. Pearl is on to something with adding curvature not just front to back, but side-to-side as well. Another tester wasn’t as keen on this feature, but he noted that the size 44 shoes were a touch small for him. Personally, I like the very subtle cradling effect, and I especially appreciate the arch support.

My complaints are minor. One is that I still haven’t completely figured out Pearl’s sizing. My typical size is 43.5, but a similar Pearl shoe in this size felt tight. The Octane SL II test shoes in size 44 feel perfect with my custom orthotic insoles, but too roomy without them. In any case, I’ve got the 44s figured out and they’ve been good enough for several four-hour road rides. Bottom line: try different sizes before you buy.

The only other problem I encountered early in testing was with the forward edge of the heel cup digging into my outer anklebone. The material has since softened and gives me no problem, but the shoe might be improved with a little deeper cut around the ankle.

It’s been chilly lately. Therefore I haven’t noticed a lack of ventilation, but in hotter weather I’ll be curious to see if the small holes in the upper are good enough to keep my dogs from barking in the heat.

Until then, I’m going to keep pedaling with the Pearl Izumi shoes. They’re doing great so far.