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Ever since Sep Vanmarcke finished third in Flanders back in April, rumours were circling for exactly who produced his unlabeled footwear. Since then, a small number of Shimano-sponsored WorldTour riders have been smashing pedals in what looked to be the next phase in Shimano racing shoes. Yet with a true one-piece upper, Boa dials and no reference to ‘Custom-Fit’ technology, these shoes looked nothing like what we’ve become accustomed to seeing from the Japanese powerhouse.
The new S-Phyre RC900 (RC9) shoes are a clear step forward from the R321 shoes they replace, with a number of new features and a far more competitive weight. A more price-conscious RC700 (RC7) also joins these top-tier shoes, as do mountain-bike and cyclocross equivalents. The S-Phyre range as a whole represents a new pinnacle of performance footwear from Shimano, and the name plays on the fact that the blue part of a flame always burns the hottest (Shimano’s branding is blue).
David Rome got his feet into an early sample of the S-Phyre RC900 shoes, and provides details and first impressions below.
Update December 12, 2018: We have now completed the review of the 2019 Shimano RC901 S-Phyre and RC701, including a comparison to the older model covered here.
To the point: updates over R321 shoes
- Lighter weight
- Non-heat mouldable upper (innersole available aftermarket)
- 3.2mm lower stack height
- Replaceable heel pad
- Improved ventilation
- Claimed improved aerodynamics
- Boa closure system
- Wider colour choices and subtle branding
- Sock ‘system integration’ (no joke)
- Extra 11mm of cleat adjustment range
The RC9s are more about what’s been removed
In a strange twist, the biggest updates are perhaps more about what Shimano has removed, than what was added.
The most obvious feature taken away is Shimano’s long-standing Custom-Fit heat mouldable technology, which allowed the footbed and portions of the upper to be slightly modified as needed for a more precise fit. In reality, my experience (retail and racing) with the Custom-Fit technology showed the majority of the population got little benefit from it. To this point, I stopped bothering to perform the task on my own shoes in recent years, and the Shimano shoe ovens and vacuums of many bike stores seemingly always smelt like burnt dust when occasionally put to use.
Those with weirdly shaped feet or abnormalities (e.g: bone spurs) would occasionally find relief after the process, but even then, it wasn’t a given. Incorporating the feature into the shoes also made the upper material stiffer, heavier, and more expensive, so the decision to remove the heat moulding option was arguably just a fix to Shimano’s own problem.
The more simplified construction means Shimano can now use a one-piece upper from Teijin – a fellow Japanese company and a specialist in synthetic materials. This new dimpled and generously perforated Avail microfiber synthetic leather is noticeably more supple as compared to Shimano shoes of past.
Additionally, Shimano continues to offer a choice of half-sizes in a 37-47 range, with only the extreme 36 and 48 sizes excluded from half-size options. Many of those are offered in both normal and wide lasts, too, adding further fuel to the fire for the argument that the heat moulding is no longer needed.
With the expense and limitations of the Custom-Fit technology out of the way, Shimano then ripped a page from the book of one of its own companies: Pearl Izumi.
As seen in the Pearl Izumi Pro Leader III shoes, the RC9s do away with the cardboard-like lasting board that helps ease the manufacturing process and sits beneath the insole. Instead, the upper is bonded directly to the underside of the carbon fiber sole, removing redundant material and, according to Shimano, reducing stack height by 3.2mm relative to the previous model.
The simplifying of the upper and removal of the lasting board has also helped Shimano reduce one of its weak points – weight. My standard-fit size 43 samples weighs 500g for the pair, including 33g for the insoles. This figure sits approximately 60g lighter than the R321 per pair. It’s a competitive weight, but true weight weenies are likely to point out that the latest pro-level shoes from the likes of Specialized and Giro now sit at 440g or even lighter in an equal size.
Features added to the S-Phyre RC9
Shimano’s approach to footwear has often been a bit conservative, but the RC9s are unquestionably up to date in terms of features.
Most obvious is the company’s first use of Boa’s reel-and-cable retention system. Here, each shoe offers two IP1 dials for easy micro-adjustment in both directions, and a simple and incredibly fast pull-to-release for when it’s time to get out of them.
As the global leader in fishing reels, I had expected to see Shimano enter the dial retention game with its own design, but it’s not disappointing to see the popular, proven, and easily replaceable Boa system used instead.
The placement of the top dial is opposite to that of most brands, with it sitting on the strap instead of the outer portion of the upper. The lower dial sits in a more traditional spot, with the wire crisscrossing its way down toward the front of the shoe for mid- and forefoot support.
Another first for Shimano is a replaceable heel pad. It’s held in place with two small Phillips-head screws that are fed in from the inside for a seamless appearance. A hole runs through both the pad and the carbon sole, and then lines up with vents in the inner sole for improved water drainage and general ventilation. Like most shoes, the toe pad is not replaceable.
Bonded to the bottom of the carbon sole sits a sleek and smooth plastic heel cup that runs almost to the mid-point of the sole. A similar design is seen in the likes of Specialized’s highly-praised S-Works 6 shoes and is said to help stabilize the heel and assist in a firm hold.
Shimano’s removable-chip cleat adjustment carries over from the R321, offers an additional 11mm of fore-aft adjustment. Setting cleats to be well behind the ball of the foot is an option, and the new cleat adjustment markings are a nice upgrade. No surprises, but these are designed to fit three-hole cleats only (e.g.: Shimano SPD-SL, Look, Time, etc.).
Shimano has even made some significant strides in the aesthetics department. Despite the generous number of size options, the RC9s will be available in four different colours, all with very subtle branding. In addition to the pearl white samples shown here, there will be metallic blue, high-vis yellow, and a stealthy black on offer. At least in Australia, the three latter colour options will be tougher to come by, and only sold through exclusive dealers.
The good stuff remains
Following the cliché of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, plenty of proven features continue in the new S-Phyre range.
Shimano’s Dynalast fit is such an example, with the flatter sole (along its length) supposedly reducing tension in the calves and hamstrings through a reduction in toe uplift (toe spring). Curling your toes upwards while standing straight is the simple example Shimano provide for the purpose of this design.
While heat moulding is no longer provided, the innersoles still allow for optional arch wedges. This new design uses a Velcro-like material to hold the two pieces together, and two different height options are included. For a flatter fit, the innersoles can be used without wedges, too.
Interestingly, Shimano will offer a new premium Custom-Fit inner sole as an aftermarket option (AU$60) for those that want the heat-mould technology in an older Dynalast shoe. This new inner sole features a deeper heel cup and heat mouldable EVA foam sections, and claims to offer high rigidity through a reinforced plastic base. While the included inner sole is a quality item, I’m perplexed as to why this Custom-Fit version isn’t included with the RC9s. Cost is likely one factor, as is the approximate 30% extra weight, but most importantly Shimano has probably realized that only a minority benefit from the premium feature.
The upper continues with Shimano’s ‘Surround’ design first released with the R321. Here, the inside of the shoe’s upper wraps over the foot and provides additional support. Tighten the Boa, and the inside of the shoe is effectively wrapped more tightly around the foot.
A one-way anti-slip material remains in the heel to create a Velcro-like hold on your sock. It’s a material I’ve long been a fan of, with its roughened texture only being felt when pulling up against it.
Shimano’s stiffness ranking continues with the RC9s sitting at a 12/12 on the brand’s own scale. It’s an aspect of cycling shoes that’s incredibly difficult to compare to other brands reliably, but regardless, it’s undoubtedly stiff.
Socks are part of the package
Shimano hasn’t stopped at just the shoes, either, with a matching pair of S-Phyre socks provided, too. In what is perhaps an industry first, the socks are designed specifically with the S-Phyre shoes in mind to enhance the shoes channeling, while also supposedly providing increased ankle stability and heel-slip resistance.
The S-Phyre socks carry with them some bold claims, with such marketing lines as ”By looking at the shoe/sock interface and applying our Linkage Effect approach, S-PHYRE socks combine thermoregulation, comfort, ankle roll stability, and heel slip-resistance with an extra-tall cuff that’s guaranteed not to droop. Asymmetrical structural weaving of proprietary fabrics provides guiderails for proper foot alignment through the entire 360-degree crank rotation.”
Regardless of that drivel, it’s a sock with clear attention to detail. The long cuff and matched aesthetics certainly don’t hurt, either.
Off-road and lower cost options
The RC9s are not the only new shoe in the S-Phyre range. While we only got our hands on a sample of the top-tier road model, Shimano will be offering a replacement for the popular R171 in the form of a RC700. Details provided are scarce, but it’s safe to assume that they’ll feature a slightly softer carbon sole, perhaps downgrade a few of the special materials, and replace one of the Boa dials with a conventional hook-and-loop lower strap. At a RRP of AU$259, they’re likely to be a popular choice for those seeking performance on a budget.
For the cross country and cyclocross riders, Shimano will be replacing its XC90 and XC70 shoes with the S-Phyre XC900 and XC700, respectively. Having used the XC90s for two seasons now, these new versions look extremely nice. The S-Phyre XC9 builds on the road version with a Michelin rubber sole. This is a new partnership for Shimano and should prove to be an extremely good upgrade over the plastic-like outer sole used on previous Shimano SPD XC/CX race shoes.
Early ride impressions of the RC9
Despite only being announced today, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a pair of pre-production S-Phyre RC9s on test for the past few weeks. While it isn’t long enough to test the durability of these shoes, it has provided a chance to get a better understanding of them than what a trade show allows.
Shimano’s current last is one of the more universally forgiving shapes on the market, and the majority of cyclists are likely to find comfort in it. With the supple upper material, padding around the heel, generous toe box width, and even distribution that the Boa dials provide, it’s a superbly comfortable fit on my narrow-medium width foot. The flatter Dynalast shape also sits well with me.
I find Shimano’s fit to be quite relaxed compared to other race-focused shoes on the market. For example, Specialized S-Works 6s are tough to get into, but hug tightly around the upper part of the foot. The S-Phyres are different: it’s a gentler hold, but at the same time, it feels efficient.
With much of the dimpled upper perforated, there’s respectable ventilation. There aren’t any vents directly at the front of the toes like found on the R321s, but a lack of thick straps as well as vents at the front and back of the carbon sole help greatly in removing moisture.
Much like any other top-tier race shoe, hard sprints reveal nothing but a surefooted platform. With Shimano’s slightly more relaxed fit around the heel, the trade-off is a hair of heel lift under hard pulling, but it is minimal.
As a wearer of orthotics in my casual footwear, I first chose to use the highest arch support wedge provided with the inner soles. However, I’ve since moved to the medium option as I’ve found Shimano’s purposeful rearward placement of the arch support a little too aggressive for my feet. I’m not missing the Custom-Fit option.
The reverse position of the top Boa dial is a little strange for those familiar with them from other cycling shoes, but it’s a great placement. Pulling on the dial leads to one of the easiest entries or exits of any race shoe I’ve tried – I’ve seen triathlon race shoes that are slower to use than these.
On foot, the replaceable heel pads offer confident espresso ordering, despite the hard-feeling material. Early signs are that these will only need replacement years down the track. With an equal height of heel pad and cleat (Shimano SPD-SL), the white outer sole surrounding the cleat area doesn’t contact the ground and so has remained like-new.
With a stylish long cuff, matching branding, supportive fit, and padding at the top of the foot for protection from shoe retention systems, the socks show plenty of thought. Whether or not they truly enhance the shoes, they’re a respectable product by themselves. The claim of them helping to channel air better than other high-quality cycling socks is tough to prove, and I actually think the ventilation of these slightly thick socks could be better still. Another small complaint is the slightly excess material at the toes, although perhaps this may improve their durability by not being stretched against jagged toenails. In my mind, it’s a case of a nice thought, but I won’t be running out to buy multiple pairs to match the shoes.
It’s still early days, but signs are that Shimano has answered many of its critiques with the new S-Phyre RC9 footwear. Whether you deem system integration with a sock a gimmick or the removal of Custom-Fit a loss, there’s still plenty to like here. For me, my recent go-to shoe has been the Specialized S-Works 6 (AU$549), and despite the slight weight addition, the more relaxed fit of these Shimanos have me reconsidering my choice.
More colour choices with simpler aesthetic, lower weight, and an equally comfortable fit – Shimano has done very well with these new shoes. However, as fit remains the most important aspect of any cycling shoe, that’ll be the deciding factor in how good these are for you.
- Price: AU$449 (add AU$60 if you want Custom-Fit inner soles)
- Sizes available: Wide and Regular widths in 36, 37-47 in half sizes; 48.
- Availability: From late September