Jason reviews the latest go-fast SPD MTB shoe from Shimano; the S-Phyre SH-XC901
If you’re serious about riding bikes fast and going faster than other people, you’re probably going to be interested in the S-Phyre SH-XC901 shoes (or the XC901 if you want to keep your teeth in) which are right at the top of Shimano’s range of off road cycling shoe range.
Uncompromising, stiff and lightweight, are they any use for anything other than racing?
Shimano XC901 Construction
Available in black, a rather nice electric blue and this bonkers shade of green (which my camera really struggled with), the XC901 can be had in half sizes from 36 all the way through to 48. There’s also a specific ‘wide fit’ version too.
The uppers are made from an extremely-well vented and perforated synthetic leather upper that looks great but being lightweight, is unlikely to survive too many close encounters with pointy rocks. There’s a bit of thicker material around the toe though, should you have a bad race and decide to give your bike a good kick.
There are two Boa IP1 dials on each shoe that are the only method of adjustment (no Velcro here), the forward-mounted dial pulls on a ‘powerzone’ wire that nips up the forefoot while the rear dial makes the shoe opening nice and snug. Adjustment is much easier than Velcro and the dials are easily dismantled and serviced/replaced/cleaned should you need to.
Getting your foot out of the shoe is also dead easy and requires you to pull upwards on the dials to release them. I was never much of a fan of Boa-type dials in the past, but these seem to be really tough.
Fit & Adjustability
The overall fit, while it’s narrow, isn’t like putting your feet in a vice and fit for a given size (in my case 43, a UK 9 in old money) is spot-on.
There’s a layer of one-way material inside the rigid heel cup which is a bit like shark skin – smooth one way, rough in the opposite way. It means that your socks are gripped and held in place, so your heels don’t ‘lift’ on the upstroke or when you’re trying to gracefully run…
Unsurprisingly the XC901s aren’t brilliant for walking and hiking in. That’s to be expected of a thoroughbred race shoes such as this, but I’ve walked in much worse. The Michelin rubber outsole provides a load of traction and stability when you’re walking or standing around on rough surfaces and helps your foot stay reasonably secure if you’re unable to clip in. It also protects most of the carbon from getting trashed. There’s a reinforced spike mount at the toe-end of the sole so that you can use them in a muddy ‘cross race.
Shimano helpfully supply a couple of different-sized inserts for those of us with weird insteps who need to tune the fit of the insole so with any luck you won’t need to fork out even more money for some of those. Which is fortunate, because these shoes are over £300.
On The Trail
Apparently Shimano isn’t the only shoe manufacturer to rate the stiffness of the soles of their top-level shoes as ‘11’, which is either inspired by Spinal Tap or the volume control of the BBC iPlayer. We’re stuck with it now anyway, until someone brings out a sole with a 12-stiffness rating that is.
These shoes, rated at 11, are very, very stiff. Not a single watt of pedal-stomping power is wasted on the 100% carbon sole bending and flexing, so that’s good if you’re trying to go as fast as possible. They’re also very lightweight – my test pair came in at 379g per shoe (size 43).
You would think that due to the stiffness of the XC901s that they would start to hurt your feet after a short period of hardcore sprinting and maximum stomping action, but that’s really not the case. I’d go as far to say that these are among the comfiest cycling shoes I’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing, which includes the latest Bontrager XXX and Giro Empire models.
Even for really long rides I didn’t get any aches in the soles of my feet like I would otherwise do if I was wearing certain other brands of footwear.
Clipping in and out with my Time ATAC XC8 Carbon pedals was also really easy. Again, some other brands of shoe seem to have soles designed in a way that makes clipping in quickly really awkward but the XC901s were a breeze. There’s a big range of adjustment for the cleat position too, so you can get things just how you (and your knees) like it.
XC9 vs XC901
While I’ve been zooming around in this pair of nuclear-green XC901s, Wil has been rolling in a Smurf blue pair. Here’s his take on the XC901, and how they compare to the previous generation XC9 shoes;
“I’ve been riding in this pair of XC901 shoes for about nine months now, and I’d say in general, my experience mirrors Jason’s. These are very light and very stiff XC race shoes that also happen to be supremely comfortable. The upper fabric is extraordinarily supple, which gives them a luxuriously snug and conforming fit that moulds around all the bumps and boney bits on your feet.
As with all the other Shimano shoes I’ve tested over the past three years (ME7, GR7, AM9, XC7, XC9) this test pair is also a size 45. This is what I’d fit in a pair of Giro Empire VR90s, though I usually go for a 44 in Specialized and Bontrager shoes, which tend to be a little bigger in volume, width and length compared to Shimano shoes.
As Jason said, the fit on the XC901 is on the narrower and lower-volume side, though because of the supple fabric, they’re not restrictive. If you’ve got fatter flippers though, you’ll want to go for the ‘Wide Fit’ option.
Compared to the previous Shimano XC9 shoes I’ve reviewed, the XC901s are very similar. The fit is basically the same, and they both have dual Boa IP1 dials. For some reason the ratchets seem to be easier to unravel on the newer XC901s, though that might just be that they’re newer. They can be pulled apart for general cleaning and servicing if needed though, and if you do smash one off, replacements can be bought on their own.
You’ll notice that the newer XC901 does have more secure routing for the Boa cable, which supposedly makes it less likely to pop out on its own. I’ve not personally had any problems with either shoe.
Also of note is the reworked tongue, which seems to wrap around my feet more naturally. The tongue on the XC9s has a tendency to fold over when you first put them up to tighten them down, which creates an annoying pressure point. It’s only a case of undoing the Boa dials, uncurling the tongue and retightening, but it’s an annoyance that doesn’t occur with the XC901s.
There’s a fraction more armour coverage with the XC901s, particularly around the toe area, which is a good thing because the upper fabric isn’t particularly abrasion resistant. I’ve got a few tears on the older XC9 shoes from where they’ve scraped up against a granite rock.
The soles are basically identical, with Michelin rubber tread blocks providing grip while tip-toeing over unrideable rock gardens or tap dancing one’s way into the pub post-ride. The rubber has worn away quite a bit on both shoes (I’ve ridden each pair a lot), and annoyingly none of it’s replaceable – unlike what you’d find on a pair of high-end SIDIs.
The carbon outsoles are also looking quite scratched up. But these are kind of the tradeoffs you accept when getting a race shoe that’s as light as this. As for engagement, the open area in front of the cleat allows for seamless entry. I’ve tested these with Shimano’s latest XTR pedals (both Race and Trail versions), and as you’d expect, the interface is about as perfect as it gets.”
There really isn’t anything bad to say about these shoes. They’re light, they’re stiff, they’re comfortable and you can choose understated or mad colours.
The fit and adjustment is about as easy and wide-ranging as it gets, and while the price is high, as long as you’re reasonably careful with them the XC901s will give you many a season of hard pedalling with all of the pain and suffering everywhere but down at your feet.
These are my new favourite shoes, by some margin.
|Price:||£319 / $449 AUD|
|Tested:||by Jason and Wil for 3 months|
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Bontrager uses a stiffness index which goes up to 14 on both Road and MTB footwear.