‘We talk about shoes every day’ – Movistar's Will Barta on why pro cyclists are obsessed with their footwear... and how they get it exactly right

A WorldTour rider and his shoe sponsor give insights into the painstaking detail involved in sourcing a shoe that facilitates optimal power transfer and maximum comfort – and the difference it can make

Talking to American Movistar pro Will Barta about his shoes could be a sort of Cinderella story. ‘You shall go to the races!’ his Italian fairy godmother, shoe sponsor Fizik, might have said: the brand has given him a wide-fit version of the Vento Infinito Carbon, solving his earlier issues with too-narrow shoes. And the magic is working: he’s won his first pro race this year – stage five of the Tour of Valencia. But the parallel really ends there. The slipper is unlikely to fall off Barta’s foot – it's not made of glass but microtex and carbon-fibre, and is held in place by two Boa Li2 dials.

Barta, 28, had just finished 15th on GC at Paris-Nice when he spoke to Rouleur. “It was a nice race but the weather wasn’t the nicest and now half the peloton are sick after those mountains in 4-5°C and rain. I wanted to be more in the top 10 but it was the first race I’ve really gone to with GC ambitions so learning to do that in a race with all these stressful moments – positioning, am I using too much energy etc – it was a new thing for me and I learnt a lot from it.” 

But still, his best season so far? “As a bike racer you’re trying to win bike races and it’s the first year I’ve won a pro race so for sure it’s the biggest year so far. It’s only March but so far I would say it’s been my best start with my feeling in the races and my ability to be competitive.”

Having suffered two broken femurs in separate crashes in the past, Barta says he's had his first consistent winter of training after no surgery on his legs for the first time since he turned pro. "That was a big thing to have a consistent winter, and the last two years I feel like I’ve had coaches who understand me well. It’s been huge having a good support team behind me and also the last two years I’ve gone to altitude for pretty much the whole of January. These days if you want to do well you have to do an altitude block before racing."

Barta is also keen to talk about the the part his wider Fizik shoe plays in his newfound success, and not just to keep the sponsor happy – though it undoubtedly will. “I always had this feeling growing up that I had a short and small foot, so I compensated for that by having a narrow shoe. When I was trying on the [different models of] Fizik it was quite clear that I needed a shorter but wider shoe. The setup I have is a bit custom: it's a Fizik Vento Infinito Carbon 2 Wide with an insole from [Movistar podiatry partner] Podoactiva. For me I found a lot of benefit from not being pointed in the shoe but keeping the forefoot a bit more separate and wide.”

Barta explains how having his feet and shoes reassessed also led to a discovery that his feet were “quite weak”, with his coach implementing a targeted strength training programme to bring them in line with his legs. “Knowing that I had these weak feet and now having a wider base, I've really worked on foot strength and now that I’m using wider shoes I've been able to use that strength.”

The programme consisted of “variations on calf raises with more emphasis on the foot, small ones with bands and weights, curling under and bringing a towel towards you with your toes. I found it beneficial. With a foot that’s small and trapped you can’t access that, so that’s why strength training really helps.”

How big a topic in the pro peloton is shoes? “It’s a huge thing that we talk about. Everyone has their different experience of what works for them. Luckily Fizik has a huge range of models so it’s possible for most riders to find something that works for them. But I’m always interested in talking about how and why they [fellow pros] like this shoe or that. I would say talking about shoes comes up every day when you’re at the races.”

Nicolo Ildos, who is Fizik’s liaison between the shoe brand and the Movistar team, explains how getting the right shoe for the right rider works: “When you have an existing rider or a returning rider you already have a back history of what they like and don't like in road shoes. When they come on board the team we do our early-season fitting session in November. Then we let the rider decide which model they want in the high performing range – that means Vento Powerstrap, Infinito or Stabilita – and generally we suggest some options based on foot shape. We ended up seeing that Will had wide but short feet. It’s neither common nor uncommon for a rider to go for custom shoes – because we have the capability to do it – but we only go custom when it’s absolutely needed. Off-the-shelf shoes [such as Barta's] are always available and they are more stable in features."

There are always stories and spyshots of pros using shoes from other brands with blacked out logos. If a Movistar rider wants to bring a shoe from a different brand, can they do that “No,” says Ildos, “first of all because it would be breaking the contract, and secondly because Fizik has a wide range so we can accommodate all needs – or if it’s very special we go custom. Sometimes we keep providing shoes or saddles to a rider who changes teams – unbranded Fizik – but this is only for the transition until they find a solution. It’s a very small game, we don’t like to play dirty. If they’re not comfortable and it’s performance related there are exceptions, but it’s very rare.” 

Let’s talk about the day-to-day of a pro and their shoes for a moment. How many pairs does Fizik give Barta and is there a limit on the number he can have? What happens if they get soaked and filthy, as they did in Paris-Nice?

Ildos says: “Generally we allocate an average number of shoes per rider per season, and therefore per team, and it’s in the common interest to provide as many pairs as is needed. If you have three crashes and wreck three pairs of shoes there’s no point in not replacing all of them – for both technical and aesthetic reasons. After all, the pros are our ambassadors and their shoes have to be shiny! On the other hand, sending over 20 pairs of shoes just so that they’re always white doesn’t make any sense – and also because pros like their shoes to be broken in and tested before going to the races. Normally three to five pairs of shoes is what a rider uses per season considering normally they have spare shoes for the rain bag. So early season we provide enough shoes and then when more are needed we replenish them.”

“I’m never in need of shoes,” Barta agrees, “but you always have one pair for a while that you find is really perfect. Even though they’re exactly the same, you’ve just worn them in better.” And, as Barta explains, wanting to use the favourite shoes can mean resorting to the same emergency measures after a wet ride as the rest of us: “We always have at least three pairs of shoes with us for the races because we have the rain bag in the car which has spare shoes in it. It’s easy to go through different shoes based on whether they’re wet or not. But [at Paris-Nice] there was a lot of stuffing the with newspaper and hairdriers also – because you always want to wear the shoes that you like best.”

Does Barta not use overshoes for rainy stages to keep his feet dry and protect his favourite shoes? “I’m quite lucky that I get cold in my body but my hands and feet I don’t have a hard time with. So if I really used a heavy overshoe I might sweat too much and I don’t like that feeling. So I just use wool socks and an aero overshoe unless it’s absolutely insane. The bottom is kind of waterproof on the aero overshoe but that’s it.”

Ildos adds “Some riders really get to the end of the season with such destroyed shoes because they don’t want to change and we have to try to persuade them to use a new pair.”

And finally, now that Barta has dry shoes, good legs, his first pro win and a top 15 GC finish in Paris-Nice behind him, what does the rest of the season look like? “Now I’m preparing for the Giro and we have some really good riders so I’ll mainly be riding in the service of them and it’s an exciting prospect to be going with such strong riders. After that, it’s more chances for myself in the latter part of the year but I don't know the schedule yet.”

And the World Championships? There are quite a few fast Americans all vying for selection, not least Paris-Nice winner Matteo Jorgenson. “Yeah, it’s quite challenging now. It’s got a point where you really have to look at the course to decide the riders. You have a lot of good Classics riders like Quinn Simmons, Kevin Vermaerke and then there’s Matteo, Neilson Powless, Sepp Kuss so it’s pretty insane the level of the riders from the US. It’s not been since Lance’s time that you’ve seen something like this and even then the talent wasn’t spread out over as many teams. So it’s really cool to be part of it.”

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