Watching the likes of Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado and Mathieu van der Poel rock the Shimano S-Phyre XC9 shoes as they bunnyhop the barriers, finesse the sandpits, and dismount gracefully in the blink of an eye during the cyclo-cross season, we're pretty much sold already.
However, no matter how much we might fancy ourselves as handy through technical sections of gravel or forest, most of us, to our disappointment, won’t be riding the cyclo-cross or mountain bike world championships any time soon. So do we need such a pricey shoe for regular use? Are the gains from spending those extra pennies on top of the range kicks worth it for improvements in style, performance and comfort?
We put the Shimano S-Phyre XC9 Shoes to the test on both long rides and shorter intense efforts to see if they were worth the investment for the everyday off-road rider in terms of style, performance and comfort, or if they solely (pardon the pun) belong among the feet of the world’s best.
While achieving a minimalist and aerodynamic look, Shimano hasn’t compromised on comfort when creating the XC9s. Though a ‘race’ fit shoe is often expected to be narrow and restrictive, the XC9s are actually much wider than they may look on the foot at first glance. The wider toe box and heel cup mean there is very little friction and plenty of room, especially in the hotter weather which can often lead to swelling of the feet. Despite being used for over four hours in reasonably warm climates, the shoes had a barely there feel, quietly doing their job as perfect medium to transfer power from the feet to the bike.
The construction of the XC9 shoe also aids comfort, with a one-piece upper that allows the wearer to have full control of the fit depending on the fine BOA-dial adjustments. The low-cut ankle is accompanied by a softer fabric around the rear heel box and stretching around to where the tongue would conventionally be, replaced here by a one-piece surround upper design, that avoids any rubbing. By contrast, the customary sharp, high cut of Specialized’s S-Works shoes can often be a hindrance when walking as the tongue can cut into the top of the foot – though the tongue-less S-Works Ares does offer a solution here. For the XC9, there’s abundant comfort whether riding or walking.
Again making them ideal for warmer weather or intense efforts, the XC9's upper uses MicroVent perforations, especially hundreds of small holes that aid in ventilation. That's cool airflow is further enhanced by a small mesh panel above the toe section, where heat build-up can get nasty.
Customisable arch support is another detail that offers the XC9 a slightly more bespoke and premium finish, with Medium and High add-ons that can be attached to the bottom of the footbed with velcro. Of course, custom footbeds have become increasingly popular in recent years, but do come attached with a significant cost – so having more control of the footbed as standard is a big bonus. For me, the ability to tweak the insole, alongside the other tiny details made the shoes consistently comfortable for endurance rides. Despite them being a race-focussed shoe, we found no reason why the XC9s wouldn’t do the job for an all-day adventure.
The form-fitting upper of the S-Phyre XC9s is easily adjusted to size with the two BOA dials that don the top of the shoe. Becoming an ever-more popular fixture on high-end shoes, Boa dials can be micro-adjusted to within a single millimetre ahead of the ride, and offer the easiest on-the-move adjustment of any retention system. We didn't appreciate how valuable that would be in gravel riding, but the control on super steep gravel climbs, coupled with easy release to improve ventilation on downhill stretches was a surprisingly enormous benefit.Shimano has done a nice job of the lacing routing of the laces, threading the laces below the bottom BOA through a pair of guides over the toe which spread the pressure very evenly distributed across the foot. Not only does this ensure that there are no tight spots, it also prevents any twisting of the foot during high power pedalling or intense efforts.
The adjustments of the BOAs really add to the feel of the shoe being simply like a second skin with a glove-like fit — exactly what Shimano's Dynalast upper was designed to do. This feeling is also aided by the weight of the XC9s, coming in at a relatively lightweight 330 grams per shoe (size EU 42).With replaceable dials, the Boa's also have an advantage over more specialised retention systems when it comes to potential damage when riding off-road. We rode the XC9s over 300km of road, gravel and trail, though, and were impressed with how tough and resilient the exterior of the shoes were to minor snags and scrapes.
It’s fair to say that the XC9s aren’t made for extensive walking or running. At home on the feet of the aforementioned cyclo-cross winners, whose aim is to stay on the bike for as much as the race as possible, the shoes perform better on the bike than off it.
The carbon soles are extremely stiff and deliver palpable power transfer, which is a big advantage in some of the high-torque steep and slow settings of all-day adventure riding. Whether climbing or sprinting, it felt like all the power was being shot through the pedals, with no watts being wasted. This was helped by the low stack height sole which greatly stabilised the foot during a downward pedalling stroke and aided in pedalling efficiency. On top of the carbon inner are Michelin outsoles which do give some added traction and grip when walking or running. However, there is very little tread on the outsoles and the stiffness of the shoe that makes it perform so well when it comes to power transfer lets it down when not on the bike.
The glove-like fit and complete rigidity of the sole is certainly not optimum for running, as there is no flex whatsoever. Shimano clearly is not prepared to compromise on performance on the bike for improved benefits when it comes to giving into a hike-a-bike section of terrain. That said, Shimano do offer optional 18mm climbing spikes for cyclocross and wet conditions, which does reduce the risk of slippage.
The S-Phyre XC9 are designed for people who want to go fast off-road. If that’s what you’re after, they tick all the boxes in terms of speed and performance gains. If you’re more inclined for a leisurely bike-packing adventure that’s going to involve some walking in your cleats, then these might not be for you, unless you really put aesthetics above practicality that is.
Beyond their looks, the high price point is justified by the fact that the S-Phyre XC9 shoes could cross over a plethora of disciplines. While they will suit the cross-country mountain biker, the XC9s are also at home on the road, gravel and in cyclo-cross, fitting the ever more varied riding habits of the modern rider. In addition, Shimano has used Silvadur’s patented silver ion technology on the insoles, which they claim will protect the shoe from odour and discolouration, extending the lifespan of the XC9s.
Precision and performance is no surprise from a brand like Shimano, but the S-Phyre XC9 shoes prove that the brand is as good in shoes, on or off-road, as its extremely competitive game in groupsets.