If you’ve been flicking through fresh pages of the current issue of Singletrack Magazine, you may have already read our in-depth technical feature about the latest generation of platform clip-in pedals. As part of that feature, we took eight sets of these new generation clip-in pedals and put them through the grinder to find out which one came out on top.
I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone who hasn’t read the results from that group test, and I’ll also avoid repeating any of the particulars here. The general thrust of that feature though was about highlighting the (literal) broadening of choice for those riders who choose to ride with clip-in pedals, and how cleated riders no longer need to resort to lollypop-sized pedals and super stiff XC race shoes. For gravity racers and everyday trail riders, there have never been so many options available to ride with a clip-in pedal that uses a nice large platform for added stability and traction.
Much like flat pedals however, getting the right footwear to match is equally as important with a platform clip-in pedal. Stiff XC race shoes (and winter boots) are typically a horrible pairing with big platform clip-in pedals, because their rigid tread blocks tend to catch on the pedal platform, causing awkward engagement and release issues. Ideally you want something with a softer and flatter rubber outsole that allows for more consistent contact between the pedal body and the underside of the shoe. A little bit of flex through the midsole is also preferable, which not only makes walking and trail-scrambling that much more tolerable, it also allows the shoe to bend around the pedal body to make use of the bigger platform.
For the group test, we paired each of the eight pedals with a variety of different testers and shoes (some of which were featured in an SPD trail shoe group test that I conducted last year). For the final evaluation however, I ran all of the pedals with a single pair of shoes in order to reduce variables and assess the action of each pedal as objectively as possible. Those shoes? A brand new pair of AM901s from Shimano.
Having now notched up a solid couple of months of testing under my belt, I figured it would be a good opportunity to report back on how these kicks have fared.
Goodbye AM9, Hello AM901!
First announced at the Fort William World Cup last year alongside new XT flat pedals and Saint SPD pedals, the AM901 shoe sits at the top of Shimano’s metaphorical gravity shoe tree. But seriously, I hope that is something that actually exists at Shimano’s Japanese headquarters.
For 2018, Shimano has simplified its naming structure by splitting its gravity footwear into two distinct ranges; AM (SPD specific) and GR (flat pedal specific). For those who like to clip into their pedals, you’ve got the entry-level AM500 (£84.99), the mid-level AM701 (£99.99) and this pair; the top-end AM901 (£119.99).
The biggest change on the new AM901 compared to the old AM9 shoe is the upper. With a more streamlined (yet still space-boot) aesthetic, the AM901 sits a little lower than its predecessor – no longer is the inside of your ankle shielded by the shoe. This is good for crank and frame clearance, and it also improves the shoe’s pedalling comfort. But it does come at the expense of protection, which seems to be a pretty big omission for gravity-oriented footwear.
And perhaps ironically, the weight is no different – a pair of size 45s weighs in at 926g without cleats.
There’s no denying that the new AM901s are much easier to slip on however. Gone is the previous lace-up design, and its place is the much sweeter-sounding ‘Speed Lacing System‘. This comprises of a drawcord and a small locking buckle that allows you to quickly tighten or loosen the entire lace network via a single button. It’s simple, and it works very effectively. In addition to that you’ve got a single Velcro strap for securing the shoe around your ankle, as well as a large storm flap that is designed to both shield the laces from trail spray and debris, while also allowing you to get more tension over the top of your foot if you so need.
Personally I’m not adverse to using old fashioned laces, and tend to find they actually provide a more adjustable fit compared to clever buckles and ratchet dials. In the case of the AM901s though, you kind of get the best of both worlds. And I quite like the ease and lack of faffing these require to slip on before heading out the door. But while there are no mechanical buckles or ratchets to get caught and ripped off by passing rocks and tree roots, I did find the main Velcro strap to be a little too long and flappy when tightened down. Then again, I do have quite slim feet and tend to max out the adjusters on most shoes I wear, so it’s not strictly a Shimano-specific fit issue.
In terms of sizing, you can get the AM901s in whole Euro sizes from 36 through to 48. The overall volume on the shoe is broader than any other Shimano MTB shoe – including the ME7s I have previously reviewed and recommended. However, I still wouldn’t say these are the widest shoes out there (5.10s tend to be some of the wider options available for the particularly girthy-footed rider).
For my narrow-gauge tootsies, there’s plenty of wiggle room in the toe box to allow my feet to comfortably splay out. There’s also enough volume inside the shoe that I could pair these up with thick waterproof socks for winter riding – something that isn’t always possible with thinner and racier footwear.
Speaking of conditions, I spent about three weeks in Australia riding with these shoes in temperatures ranging from 20-43°C. I was surprised to find that the AM901s actually breathe relatively well, with those micro-vent holes doing their job as promised and keeping my feet from being stewed inside. Still, there isn’t a lot of mesh on the upper, so those that ride in warmer climates and are particularly sensitive to hot-foot will want to bear this in mind, and potentially consider the much breezier ME7 shoe for trail riding duties.
Unchanged over the AM9 shoe is the rubber outsole, which is loosely based on the flatter profile of a skate shoe. It’s this smoothened sole that allows the AM901 to integrate cleanly with large platform pedals, and combined with a more flexible nylon midsole, means you’re also much better able to ‘feel’ the pedal body underneath your feet.
The flexible midsole also makes these a lot more comfortable to walk in, though Shimano’s attempt at increasing traction with additional ‘tread’ at the toe and heel is laughably useless for UK conditions. As soon as conditions are mildly wet and greasy, these are not the shoes you’ll be stoked to be wearing while hike-a-biking.
One of the AM901’s best features is the extra-long (and patented apparently! – Ed) cleat channel that extends both in front and behind the cleat holes. Not only does this cutout channel allow for smoother engagement by helping to guide the pedal mechanism towards the cleat, it also provides a useful pocket for resting the shoe on top of the pedal whilst being unclipped. When paired to HT Components X2 or Crank Brothers Mallet DH pedals, the fit was almost like using a regular flat pedal, with the clip mechanism sitting discreetly behind the cleat. This was particularly appreciated on those occasions where you accidentally enter a sketchy chute while being unclipped, and need to put foot-to-pedal in any way possible to avoid disaster.
On that note, the textured pattern of the rubber outsole provides useful traction on big pedal bodies, without being so sticky that it causes interference when unclipping. Paired up to properly-adjusted pins, the grip and stability that these shoes provide when you’re descending is insane. When you’re out of the saddle and pushing your weight down into the bike, there’s enough flex in the shoe that traction increases as the tread pushes deeper into the pedal’s pins and traction grooves. Even when you’re banging through big rocks at speed and ever-so-slightly out of control, these shoes help to keep you stuck down.
Also noticeable was that my feet, achilles and calves experienced significantly less fatigue on long descents compared to using a stiffer shoe with a smaller-bodied pedal. Part of this is due to the ability to run the cleats further back (I run mine slammed all the way rearward), which increases your natural weight balance over the pedal axle. It also allows you to descend with a heels-down technique, but without your calves and achilles having to support so much of your bodyweight.
The only real downside I encountered with the AM901s is that they aren’t so comfortable with smaller-bodied pedals. With Shimano XT Trail and Sixpack Racing Vertic pedals, there was enough flex through the shoe that hot-spotting became more of an issue on longer rides. This isn’t a surprise though. Shimano rates the AM901 shoe has being a ‘5’ on the shoe stiffness scale. Compare that to the ME7 trail shoes (8) and the XC9 racing shoes (11). That said, it’s the in-built flex and sticky rubber sole that make these so good with big-bodied pedals, so it’s a compromise I’m happy to make.
Tough, comfortable and well-featured shoes that are best paired to a big platform clip-in pedal for confidence-inspiring traction and feel. The moon-boot appearance may not work for all, but personally I prefer to look ahead on the trail rather than down at my feet.
The flappy Velcro strap could do with a broader adjustment range for dainty-footed riders like me, and the lack of ankle protection is a bummer (note that the cheaper Shimano AM500 shoe still features the mid-top ankle coverage). But I can forgive Shimano for that given just how comfortable these are to wear and how well they connect you to your bike.
|Tested:||by Wil Barrett for 2 months|