Shimano have been in the mountain bike shoe game a while. In fact, they are celebrating 25 years of the SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) system this year, which gives you a good understanding of their time in the game – that’s not much less time than production mountain bikes have been around.
In late 2013 Shimano launched the XC90, their latest premium XC shoe, and it came out in an understanded blue and black, and the full Shimano, or Smurf, blue. With a full carbon last, a heat moldable inner sole and upper, replaceable buckle, standard and wide fit options, replaceable toe studs and the Dynalast upper – they’re pretty much set on the features.
I bought a set in April last year, and just about every Subaru-MarathonMTB.com team member has invested in s et, not just for the matchy-matchiness with our team kit, but also due to the fit and reliability. Fit is a key point here, as it should be with any contact point. Both Sebastian Jayne and I use the wide fit models, and I also use the extra arch support that can be added to the inner sole.
I have a pretty wide forefoot, narrow heel and high arch. But with the wide fit, the adjustable inner soles and the strong heel cup with high-friction material – my foot isn’t shifting around. And that’s quite a feat with a shoe that’s rate ’11’ on stiffness. More on that later.
Fit also comes down to pressure points, and the cross-strap system does two things – it really holds your feet down with each strap working opposite the other, but it also spreads the load really well, thanks to how the straps are offset. I’ve never had pressure points with the shoes. And with a wide foot, and a penchant for long rides and races, that’s pretty impressive. THat said, I still did have a few occasions of hot foot – but that was in the Crocodile Trophy, where that shit can just happen anyway.
Shoe setup with cleats wasn’t a big issue at all, as you’d expect from a company that is probably more well known for it’s pedals than their shoes. The cleat plates are replaceable, which is essential I think. You can slide the cleats a fair way back too – nothing like what you’d need for nouveau-hip mid-foot pedalling, but far enough back for where I like to run my cleats.
The comfort of the shoes has been great since I started using them. Save for some time in trail shoes, the XC90s have been my go-to shoe. They replaced another brand which I had been using since 2008, which I’d become accustomed to replacing every 10-12 months – under warranty. I don’t think I’m overly tough on shoes, but the reality is that from 2008-2014 I usually had 40-50 race days per year, with at least half of them being in marathon stage races. Add in training around there, and factor in the steep, rocky, hike-a-bike sections that the Swiss inparticular love (Pas de Lona, as an example) and you just wear shoes out.
So the fact that after about 18 months, the XC90s are battered, but not beaten, is a good thing.
I kicked a rock at speed hard enough when riding above Zermatt to high side, cork my hip and thigh, and give myself a pretty ringing head ache. But save for a dent out of the toe bumper, the shoes survived.
As I said, these shoes have seen some time hoofing it, and if you’re off and walking it’s usually very steep, or very rough. Or both. And the shoes really do show signs of wear from that, on the instep and at the toes. A lot of material has been sacrificed here, and the reinforced black material in the instep is mostly cursory, as sharp alpine rock has sliced straight through.
The sole has worn pretty well, and the material is meant to shed mud better than other soles. That’s a hard one to judge, but I have had plenty of time in all kinds of mud in these shoes, and usually been able to get them clear enough to clip in. It would be great to see replaceable sole lugs though, like Bontrager and Sidi do. I think it’s a great way to extend the life of a shoe, and change the scope of it, if different rubber types are available. Of course, it adds weight, and this shoe is a premium XC shoe. Claimed weight is about 640g for a pair in EU40. Mine are 830g with the cleat, innersole and whatever trail detritus won’t come off no matter how much I clean them.
There seems to still be people wary of buckles on MTB shoes. But I’ve always found them to be reliable. Shimano use replaceable buckles (and the plastic strap is too, if the teeth on it get worn) and it’s got a really positive feel, with the ability to easily adjust it looser or tighter with gloves on. There’s a little guard on the front side of the shoe which should prevent ripping the buckle off. But if you’re sliding enough to shave away your ankle, chances are your shoe is suffering too.
The sole is rated to ’11’, which is odd as I also have some new shoes that are rated to ’14’ for their stiffness. I’m a bit lost as to where the scale stops. The sole lugs are a bit worn, and with current XT and XTR pedals there’s a lot of movement. Probably enough to cause some knee pain. I’ve recently switched to Look pedals, and you can set how much clearance there is between the sole and pedal. Sure, the mud at the end of the Swiss Epic prologue showed me that it’s probably too tight – as once you’re out, you’re not getting back in in a hurry. But the XC90s felt really worn out with Shimano’s own pedals, but felt fantastic with another brands. I really think replaceable lugs would be a great addition to this shoe, to keep that secure contact.
All in, I’ve really liked the shoes. They don’t dry as quickly as something like the Specialized S-Works MTB shoes, which are excellent in a stage race for drying between stages, even after jetwashing them clean, or washing them in the shower. The shoes breathe pretty well, thanks to some vents at the toes, but I’m yet to find a shoe I could call ‘cool’ in Australia. I do wish the sole was longer lasting, and if I’m fussy – I wish they were a bit lighter too.
But compared to any other top-end race shoe I’ve used, they have lasted the longest, with the least upkeep. I never even did the heat-moulding for mine, but if I were to get a new pair and could find somewhere that had invested in the equipment to do so, I’d give it a shot. It would really be worth looking at if you have trouble getting shoes that fit. Does that make them worth about $AUD400? That’s up to you. You could get a lot of the performance from their XC70 shoe. But if you want their best model, the XC90 shouldn’t disappoint.