Contact points are key to happiness on the bike. We don’t need to beat that horse, which is clearly already dead, but the point remains: happy hands, bum, and feet make for happy riding. After eight months in Shimano’s flagship mountain bike shoe, the XC90, my feet are still happy.
The price is high, with a suggested retail of $370, but the shoes are top-shelf Shimano, on par with its famous XTR line, and that kind of performance will cost you.
If I’m going into the backcountry or the mountain park with a big group of guys, I grab something with a Vibram sole, such as the Giro Terraduro. If I’m riding by myself, or doing a training ride with minimal stops, I grab the XC90s. They’re a cross country shoe, more at home clipped in than trudging back up to try the tough line again.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the XC90 doesn’t appear to be named using Shimano’s usual random number and letter generator (Care for a pair of WH-9000-C24-CLs, anyone?). XC90 is a much cleaner name and easy to remember. The next thing that you’ll notice is the middle velcro strap. It’s backwards. But more on that later.
Heat-molded for a better fit
Out of the box, the XC90s are relatively light, 380g per shoe, and are heat-moldable at your nearest Shimano shoe dealer. Do not try to heat mold them in your oven.
The heat molding process does take some time, as the insoles must be molded separate from the shoe, so it’s a four-step process, assuming you get everything dialed on the first try. It may take multiple attempts to make them just right. It’s okay to remold them, and though we don’t recommend doing it once a week, you could remold them once a season to adjust to any minute changes to your feet. Thank you to Peloton Cycles North, in Fort Collins, Colorado, for helping us mold up these samples.
If your retailer does not have a Shimano shoe-molding oven, the shoes can be worn without molding, and this set was worn for weeks without any issue. Once molded, however, I was happy I took the time. The shoes went from simply comfortable to tailored, like a good suit.
Built for pedaling
Shimano’s Dynalast sole is stiff. Maybe too stiff for some, but as a flagship cross-country shoe they are just right. For those looking for a sole with a bit more give, check out something like Pearl Izumi’s X-Factor shoes. Similarly, if you’re the kind of rider who spends a bit of time walking in your mountain bike shoes, look elsewhere.
However, the XC90 soles have surprisingly grippy polyurethane lugs, given that they are just bits of plastic rather than soft rubber. They held up decently over the past eight months, and do well at concealing and protecting the carbon sole. Where the carbon sole is exposed, at the toe, and at the cleat mount, the carbon, while beat up, isn’t cracked or delaminating.
The buckle system is the same as that used on Shimano’s road shoes, though the Velcro system is new. The buckle should be built a bit stronger, as it loosened a click or two during long rides.
The Velcro straps are secure. The reversed middle strap took a little getting used to, but it’s clever. It feels as though the shoe is being pulled together from each side, similar to a lace-up shoe.
Shimano’s last has a toe box that’s a bit on the roomier side, and overall, the XC90 fits well on an average-shaped foot. I sized down as a result, picking a 42 when I normally ride a 42.5 in Sidi, Giro, and Specialized shoes.
The heel cup is secure, but not particularly well cushioned. Its material is similar to mohair, like that used on backcountry ski climbing skins. The heel cup material allows your foot to slide in, but bites on to your sock a bit when you pull up against it. Once again, a clever little detail. Still, I wish there was a bit more padding back there.
I expect that the XC90s will be my go-to this fall during cyclocross, which is where these shoes first made waves, as riders like Niels Albert, Marianne Vos, and Lars van der Haar wore a vibrant blue version of the XC90. Unfortunately, that blue is only available in Europe, so all of us on this side of the Atlantic will have to slum it in the mostly black version. I may spring for a second pair of XC90’s ahead of ’cross season in a 42.5, so that I can wear a thicker sock during the winter. Hopefully Shimano releases the all-blue version in the US before then.
The XC90′s suggested retail is $370, which puts them in the same price range as the Sidi Spider SRS, but a savvy buyer can find the XC90s, which are now nearly a year old, on sale for far less. Be sure to keep in mind that if you decide to get the shoes heat-molded, and you didn’t purchase them from your local Shimano Dynalast shoe retailer, you may incur extra charges for the molding service.
MSRP: $370 — but can be found for far less
Pros: Incredibly efficient pedaling platform and comfort
Cons: Buckle could be burlier, and the shoe needs more padding in the heel cup