Mountain Bike Shoes
Ridden and Reviewed: Pearl Izumi’s X Project Mountain Bike Shoe
High-tech sole has enough flex and traction for walking on any terrain, but still pedals fast
Interbike’s Outdoor Demo
, where the industry got a chance to ride—and walk around in—the translucent-soled kicks. The Colorado-based apparel company followed up with a series of media launches in October. Bicycling
editors tested the shoes with Pearl-sponsored former mountain bike world champion Brian Lopes
last week on the steep, exposed trails in Aliso Creek and Wood Canyon, above Laguna Beach, California.
Pearl will sell three X Project
models, each designed to give riders a solid, efficient platform when pedaling, equal to the stiffest, most locked-down shoes. The key difference is that you can hike in these comfortably and without fear of slipping, a real risk with most race-bred models. Working with suppliers in Italy—the company won’t reveal who—Pearl created a thermoplastic sole with lugs similar to those found on mountaineering boots. Each lug is tipped with a rubber compound that proved to be very grippy on all kinds of surfaces, and, Pearl says, durable for miles of walking.
That flexible sole was very helpful when Lopes led a group of 20 cycling journalists to the base of the day’s first trail. While the lowest slopes were rideable, nearly everyone was off and hiking before long, pushing their bikes to the top of a ridge that promised more opportunities to pedal. Not every ride includes a hike-a-bike, but it’s a situation common to riders who regularly seek aggressive descents, and those driven by a sense of adventure to push over the next ridge, no matter how steep the hillside may be. Even as the shoe gave us traction on the hills, and its flex let us use our toes when scrambling up steep rock, its fit was close and refined—like any good race shoe—and it felt plenty stiff when we were finally able to pedal.
The rigidity necessary for efficient pedaling comes, in the high-end X Project 1.0 model ($280, 320g), comes from an underfoot carbon plate whose thickness varies from front to rear. Under the forefoot, where it’s most important to have a rigid platform, the carbon is thickest. It then tapers toward the toe and heel, giving the shoe enough flex for (relatively) comfortable walking.
Pearl Izumi saves weight by hallowing out thermoplastic bottom plate of the X Project shoes. (Andrew J. Bernstein)
The X Project 2.0 ($210, 325g) and 3.0 ($160, 330g) were designed to have the same performance characteristics as the 1.0 model, but use heavier thermoplastics, instead of carbon. Both the 2.0 and 3.0 will come in narrower, women's-specific sizes. The 1.0 model also comes with Pearl’s custom-fit insole, which lets you adjust both your arch support and the varus (forefoot) angle. All three models use two Velcro straps and one buckle. The high-end 1.0 model has a durable, low-profile metal buckle that looks stout enough to survive multiple encounters with rocks, while the 2.0 and 3.0 use a larger plastic buckle.
After a day of breaking in the 1.0s under the hot California sun, the upper—a thermoplastic skin bonded to mesh that kept our feet cool (cyclists in wet environments, or those interested in using the shoes for racing 'cross, may be better off with the less-porous upper found on the 2.0 model)—seemed to loosen up as the day went on. That meant, as our long hike up the walls of Wood Canyon continued, our heels began to slip with each step, causing some members of our group to get hot spots. Sizing down a half size may solve the heel-slip issue, but it also goes to show that no shoe is perfect for riding and hiking. But, this one does an admirable job of trying to do both well. Pearl’s Alp X attempts a similar combination of walkability and pedaling efficiency, but uses a softer sole and weighs a claimed 360 grams for a size 10.
The X Project seems to have delivered on Pearl’s promise of a performance-oriented shoe that doesn’t leave your skittering across rocks, or taking two steps back to go one step ahead—but we’re reserving final judgment until we try the shoes in a smaller size to properly evaluate whether our heels can stay planted.
Look for the shoes in bike shops on March 1.