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Road Gear

Clothesline Review: Bontrager RXL road shoes and eSoles eFit modular footbeds

In search of pain-free feet, Zack Vestal takes a look at Bontrager's new high-end road shoes and the eSoles eFit modular footbed.

The Clothesline 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.

The full kit
The full eSoles eFit

I’ve ridden something like ten different pairs of high-end road shoes since last fall. And in every single one of them, I’ve improved the fit by installing my own custom orthotic footbeds. Podiatrist Dr. Jim Owen in Boise, Idaho, made them for me and cured all kinds of numbness and discomfort I’d previously suffered. Proper arch support makes a world of difference for me. Every single pair of shoes I’ve worn is made more comfortable when I slip in my own insoles — sometimes they go in over the top of the stock insole, and sometimes in place of it. But I have to keep close tabs on my insoles and move them from shoe to shoe, because they cost $500.

We choose white
The Bontrager RXLs

That’s why the eSoles eFit custom modular footbeds were so intriguing when they landed on my desk. I thought there might be a single, $70 solution to suit a wide range of riders.

And even more intriguing, high-end Bontrager shoes come stock with a simpler version of the eSoles modular footbed. With an upgrade kit available from eSoles, they can be fully customized for arch and metatarsal support.

Are the Bontrager Race X-Lite shoes totally sweet? Heck yeah! And whether or not you choose to customize the stock eFit compatible footbeds that they come with, the standard eSoles eFit arch insert provides better arch support than anything I’ve yet come across.

Is the eSoles system a viable replacement for 100 percent custom, made-by-a-podiatrist orthotic insoles? Nope. At least, they don’t work so well for me. But they are certainly worth checking out if you are seeking an off-the-shelf solution for added arch support.

Bontrager RXL Road shoes – $230
Bontrager is doing something right with its first effort at high-end road shoes. The fit and finish on these guys is top notch, and the features are on par with the best of what’s available.

The RXL Road shoe is based on a top-shelf unidirectional carbon fiber sole. Bontrager calls it “Gold Level,” signifying the lightest and stiffest in the line. On top of the sole sits an external, molded heel cup and a nicely pliable, ventilated upper. Two hook-and-loop straps plus a basic ratcheting buckle provide closure. The top strap has a broad, molded EVA pad to distribute pressure across the top of the mid-foot. My size 44s weighs 314 grams per shoe.

When you boil it down, the RXL shoe sports roughly the same features as any top-end road shoe. It’s pretty basic. But what sets it apart in my eyes is the fit, comfort, and execution. The RXLs are just really well done.

The toe box is round and wide. The upper is very soft and pliable across the top, yet supportive along the sides. The heel cup is firm and stable. The tongue is very supple and stays in place with the help of a loop engaged by one of the lower straps. The soles are plenty stiff and don’t cause hot spots. Ventilation is outstanding. Heel retention leaves nothing to be desired.

Stout heel cup
Stout heel cup

For me and my (fairly wide) foot shape, they’re among the most comfortable shoes I’ve ridden. Having test ridden only a few short hours in the RXLs, I nevertheless packed them for a trip to Belgium in April, knowing the Tour of Flanders cyclosportif on our travel docket would be a seven-hour adventure. I had no regrets — they were super-comfortable all day, rain and shine. They’ve remained so on a combination of longer and shorter rides back here in the States.

I can’t find anything not to like other than the weight. At just over 300 grams they are not heavy by any stretch, but having ridden 200- and 230-gram shoes, there’s no comparison. Ultra-light shoes legitimately feel faster.

I wore them with the stock eSoles compatible insoles, and I thought they were great. When I tried one of the custom arch supports from an eFit kit (see below), I wasn’t impressed. However I did like the option to add a metatarsal pad, and that’s how I’ve left them: stock eSoles compatible insole, stock arch support, and accessory metatarsal pad.

One more really nice aspect to the Bonty shoes is that they’re built to accommodate whatever insoles you choose to use, be it eSoles or something else. They’re roomy and high-volume with a neutral inner structure, so if you’ve got a really fat custom orthotic or some gel inserts from Dr. Scholl’s, you won’t have any problems.

eSoles eFit custom modular footbeds – $70 ($50 for the Bontrager upgrade kit)
The flagship product from eSoles is their ePro fully custom footbed. It’s made to order for your foot based on a 3D scan of your foot, weight distribution on a pressure mat, and data input from a touch screen computer user interface. The entire system is self-contained as a retail kiosk, and it generates a ticket with all the information for the retail store staff to order a pair of custom-molded ePro insole. It sounds awesome, and I’m sure it is, but so far despite rapid growth from eSoles, kiosks are located in only a limited number of states.

Arch support options
Arch support options

On the other hand, the less expensive and easier to obtain eFit system is meant to be customizable by the user and doesn’t require a foot scan (although the foot scan device also outputs exact eFit configuration information, if it’s the product you’re shopping for). A $70 eFit insole kit includes a sized insole, a selection of arch supports, and two options for metatarsal pads.

There are different kits that include components of different rigidity based on the user’s planned activity. For example, the “dynamic” kit is meant for golf, walking, and cross training, whereas the “supportive” kit offers more rigid arch support for cycling, skiing, or skating. eSoles says the shapes and sizes of the footbed components were selected based on over 50,000 aggregated foot scans. The insole assembles like a puzzle as you follow the simple but detailed instructions for finding your perfect fit.

Following the instructions to assemble the insoles is easy. Velcro on the top of the arch support overlap and on the bottom of the insole holds everything together. I didn’t have any problem following the instructions to build my insoles, nor with trying several different combinations of arch support and metatarsal padding. Moving the insoles from one shoe to the next is not a problem, either — they are true to size and fit a wide variety of cycling shoes.

eSoles suggests a gradually increasing adjustment time of a few hours per day for several days. I tried several combinations, finally settling on the smallest of the arch supports and the larger of the metatarsal pads.

Like Legos
Like Legos

I do like the metatarsal pad, but I’m not convinced on the arch support. I never achieved the level of comfort I had hoped for. I used the smallest of the four available arch support sizes and still found it to be too firm and obtrusive against my foot. I think the ability to swap sizes and find the right fit is great, but I’m not convinced that the shape of the arch support is fully dialed in.

Compared to Superfeet insoles, a similar product with smooth contours for the entire surface of the insole, the arch supports in the eFit system feel like they protrude too obtrusively and abruptly from the rest of the insole. And while proper arch support for cycling is meant to be firm and unyielding, I think it needs to be much more accurately shaped if it’s going to work in this specific application.

With that in mind, I would be very curious to see if the Dynamic or Super Dynamic version of an eFit system would be more comfortable. Both have more give in the arch support. Alternatively, I’d love to try a complete ePro foot scan and workup for 100 percent custom insoles. The process sounds quite similar to a podiatry analysis, but faster and less expensive.

In any case, my suggestion would be to try eFit in a controlled setting or at the store first. Or better yet, seek out a retail kiosk and try the custom ePro option. In either case, if you’re not happy, eSoles has a 30-day money back guarantee.