A good cycling shoe is meant to be something that isn’t felt or noticed. It’s easy to think about your shoes during a ride when there’s discomfort, and even easier to forget about them when they fit perfectly and do the job they’re meant to.
Shoes are a highly individual piece of kit and as the saying goes, one size doesn’t fit all. I’m fortunate that I can enjoy many different types of shoes and am not overly particular. However, some the most fussy cyclists I know all wear Shimano shoes.
What’s not new would be a better way to describe the evolution of these shoes. The entire upper and last has been redesigned and you won’t recognise much of the R320 or R170’s legacy.
- Heatmouldable Custom-Fit
- “Surround” upper pattern provides a balance of wrap-around glove-like fit and comfort
- Adjustable ratchet adjusts position on the shoe to various instep height and shapes
- Teijin Avail 100 ultra-fine fiber synthetic leather
- Expanded Custom-Fit sections for support and comfort
- Breathable mesh for ventilation
- Custom-Fit reinforced ergonomic heel cup
- New “Dynalast” provides a precise fit and is said to optimise the toe-spring angle and secure the foot and heel to reduce unwanted losses of power
- Custom-Fit insole (R321), heat-mouldable insole with adaptable arch wedge
- Ultra-rigid, lightweight hollow channel, weaved carbon fibre sole
- Available in half sizes and wide
Same same but different
At first glance you’d have a difficult time telling the R321s and R171s apart aside from their colour. Both shoes use the new ‘Surround’ upper design which is made from Teijin Avail 100 ultralight fabric. This new design is meant to provide more support and uniformity for the instep of the foot with the wrap-around fit.
The two front velcro straps with a ratchet buckle is a proven formula for Shimano’s shoes. The straps pulls the upper down on to your foot and the ratchet pulls your foot up so that everything fits snug. The whole system pulls the foot down as close to the pedal as possible.
The differences between the shoes are subtle and you need to look closely at the lower half of the shoe to notice what sets them apart.
The R321s have vents at the toe cap and on the top of toe, while the R171s do not. The one thing that I did notice about the extra material on the toe of the 321’s is that the extra milimeters caused me some wheel overlap, compared to other shoes that don’t have this problem (cleats being in the exact same position).
The R321s have Shimano’s maximum carbon sole stiffness (their rating of 12) while the R171s are rated at a 10. That’s not to say that the R321s sole is something without any give. I’ve worn shoes that are too stiff before, and these are not too stiff.
The differences between the soles of the shoes is something that’s very difficult to notice if I’m honest. However the R171’s simpler insole and slightly more pliable construction has lead to a tiny weight advantage – the R171 shoes weigh 486g per pair (size 40 EU) compared to the R321 which weighs 489g.
Fit and Comfort
I wear a size 44 and my foot is by no means wide, but not narrow either. Both the R321s and R171s have a fit that probably wouldn’t be ideal for someone with a narrow foot.
According to the spec sheet, the R321’s and R171’s are designed to the following sized foot:
Heel Cup: Narrow
Toe Box Height: Medium
Toe Box Width: Medium
Arch structure: Low
*Available in half sizes and wide type
Besides a few small features and aesthetics, the most profound difference between the shoes is the Custom Fit option available only on the R321s. It might not seem like that big of a deal, but it’s what you’re paying a large premium for. It wasn’t until I went through the process and road with the shoe half a dozen times that I was able to fully appreciate the difference and the gap between the R171s and R321s.
I loved both models of shoe from the moment I went for my first ride and to be honest, didn’t see much of a need to go through the Custom Fit process. Why would I? If the shoe fits, right? Well, just to find out for myself what difference it would make (seeing as this is the main selling point of the R321s) I went through the process.
The Custom Fit process basically entails the shoes being put in the oven (done by someone qualified at your local bike shop, not the oven in your kitchen) to heat and make the materials pliable. After around two minutes in the oven the shoe is fit and vacuum-sealed around your foot. Through this process you can feel the shoe wrapping around your foot and moulding itself to every bump and crevasse. You can learn more about the process here.
The term “fit like a glove” sounds cliche, but the shoes had a remarkably comfortable and exact fit after the process. It took a few rides to get used to, but it was well worth going through the process in the end.
If you don’t have the need or desire for custom fit shoes, then you’ll be thrilled with Shimano’s new R171. It feels like a top-end shoe without the price premium and until you look closely you won’t be able to see the difference between it and Shimano’s top-end R321. It has the same features, fit and technology minus the Custom Fit.
If you want something that’s customised to your own feet and having the best of the best is important to you, then you’ll appreciate the gains that the R321s offer. Custom fit and small attention to details is what you’re paying nearly double the price for, and we all know you people exist, so why not make a product that allows you to indulge?
Suggested Retail Price:
R171: $229 AUD
R321: $419 AUD