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by James Huang
March 31, 2016
Photography by James Huang
Peel back the insole of virtually every cycling shoe on the market and you’ll see a sad little tan layer of material that basically looks (and feels) almost like cardboard. It’s called a lasting board and it’s been a staple in shoe construction for ages.
But if you do the same with the Pearl Izumi PRO Leader III, all you’ll find is the carbon fibre sole plate that’s normally only visible from the outside.
With few exceptions – the entire Bont range and Specialized’s latest S-Works models, for example – uppers are basically formed by wrapping the material around a foot-shaped form called a last, wrapping the edges around a lasting board at the bottom, and then either stitching or gluing the edges in place. The last is what determines the upper’s shape while the lasting board not only creates a flat bottom on which your foot can rest, but also serves as a filler for the upper material edges. Once you glue that assembly on to a nylon or carbon fibre sole plate, you’ve basically got yourself a cycling shoe.
Lasted construction is prevalent because it works. But it also adds an extra layer of material in between your feet and your pedals. For the PRO Leader III, Pearl Izumi’s shoe designers figured out that you could instead use the carbon sole plate as the lasting board itself, and secure the edges with a layer of polyurethane for a nicely finished appearance – and 1.5mm less stack height, according to Pearl Izumi.
Other aspects of the PRO Leader III are similarly high-tech. The uppers themselves comprise a single sheet of airy mesh, reinforced with a polyurethane ‘web’ thermo-welded on top to create a decidedly space-age look that no one will ever mistake for a pair of Sidis. Out back, the T-shaped heel counter is bonded to the outside of the shoe instead of hidden away inside the upper.
While the PRO Leader III’s novel construction method should theoretically make for a lower stack height, there was no noticeable difference between these and other, more conventionally built shoes.
As is becoming increasing popular, the whole thing is wrapped around your foot with a pair of Boa IP1 cable reels, offering incremental adjustments in either direction for easy on-the-bike tweaks as well as a quick-release function that makes it easy to get the shoes on or off (and as always, they can be quickly replaced if something goes wrong).
Even the insoles are worthy of mention. If you want more forefoot varus angle or arch height, for example, just slide the included plastic and rubber inserts into the designated pockets between the insoles’ two layers with no cumbersome heat moulding required.
Actual weight per pair is 532g (size 44) – not exactly feathery-light but competitive for the category.
Pearl Izumi describes its PRO Leader III is the “ultimate Pro Tour level shoe designed to disappear on your foot but still transfer every last watt of power to your pedals.”
Indeed, I found the PRO Leader III shoes to be very comfortable, particularly on longer rides where hot spots and pressure points often tend to creep into the equation.
The toe box is comparatively roomy, especially relative to many traditional European brands. The body is evenly snug through the midsection, and pressure is pleasantly distributed across the top of the foot even when both Boa reels are cranked down tighter than they should be. Arch support is good, too, with the contoured carbon fibre plates providing a more solid foundation than flatter ones, and the customisable insole filling in whatever else you might need.
The thick and dense padding on the tongue does a good job of alleviating any undue pressure from the Boa cables but the lacing system still tends to push down on your foot instead of pulling it back against the heel cup.
That comfort erodes a bit in warmer conditions, though. Overall breathability is pretty good, but it could be better, especially on the top of the foot beneath the heavily padded, non-perforated tongue. As compared to the preproduction preview Pearl Izumi showed at the Eurobike trade show in August, there’s noticeably more polyurethane webbing and less exposed open mesh on the production shoes, particularly around the external heel cup, which instead has a bit more structure. A fair bit of mesh remains — particularly along the outer edges — but don’t let the shoe’s outward appearances fool you; the areas where the mesh is actually open are still much smaller than outward appearances might suggest.
The carbon fibre sole plate is very rigid, in terms of bending, but less so in terms of torsion. There’s some twist underfoot if you tend to roll your feet from edge to edge, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing depending on your preferences, particularly for riders who like to log really long days in the saddle. Nevertheless, if you generally seek road shoes with a rock-solid feel underfoot, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
More troubling is the disappointingly sloppy feel around the heel. The extra polyurethane around the back of the shoe may very well have added some support in that critical area, but I felt that the top of the T-shaped heel counter didn’t pinch down around the top of the heel as much as it should. The cup itself is also quite roomy, so I experienced some noticeable slip. Unfortunately, cranking down the Boa dials only created more downward pressure on my feet; it didn’t at all tighten the shoe around my ankle for a more solid hold.
Overall, the Pearl Izumi PRO Leader III shoes are competitively light, stiff, and generally comfortable over the long haul. But, as always with cycling shoes, it’s all about the fit — and these could use a bit of work in that department before I would consider them on equal footing (pun intended) with top offerings from other brands. Of course fit is subjective; everyone’s feet are different. At the very least, make sure you’ve tried them on before purchasing.
Available sizes: 38-49 (half sizes from 39-47)
Available colours: True Red/Lime Punch, Black/White
RRP: US$320 / AU$469 / £250 / €380
The one-piece upper uses a layer of polyurethane that’s thermo-welded on to a mesh base.
The T-shaped external heel counter is a nice idea, but doesn’t pinch down nearly enough up top to produce a firm hold.
The smoothly lined heel cup is comfortable, but doesn’t grip much, allowing for slip.
If you pull back the insole of most cycling shoes, what you’ll find underneath is a lasting board that is commonly used while the uppers are being formed. The Pearl Izumi PRO Leader III shoes ditch the lasting board entirely, instead wrapping the uppers directly around the bottom of the carbon fibre sole plate.
The inside of the uppers is impressively smooth with no rough edges to irritate your feet.
The quick-release Boa reels make it very easy to get the shoes on and off.
While many cycling shoes have uppers that immediately angle inward at the toe box (thus constricting your toes), the PRO Leader III material bows outward, making for a noticeably roomy feel.
The bold aesthetic probably won’t suit riders that prefer a more traditional look.
The dual Boa dials make it easy to tune the tightness.
One of the most brilliant aspects of the Pearl Izumi PRO Leader III shoes is the modular insole, which features special pockets and interchangeable ‘cookies’ to tune the forefoot angle and arch support.
The heel tread is easily replaceable with bolts hidden on the inside of the shoe.