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by James Huang
September 8, 2016
Photography by James Huang
When it comes to gear, victory at the Olympics imparts on its winner one inalienable right: wholesale justification for draping anything and everything in gold for the next four years. Belgian rider Greg Van Avermaet has already been spotted on a new golden BMC TeamMachine SLR01, and now he has the shoes to match. CyclingTips U.S. technical editor James Huang was on site at Rocket7 to watch firsthand as van Avermaet’s new custom golden slippers were being built.
According to Colorado-based custom cycling shoe maker Rocket7, there are essentially two main reason why someone would resort to the expense and time of a fully bespoke pair of shoes: because they just want to, or because they need to.
“Half of our customers are people with mostly normal-shaped feet who just like the design,” said Colin Jaskiewicz, who handles day-to-day operations at Rocket 7, along with much of the production work. “They like the style, and they want a super boutique, high-end product. The other half are people who just can’t find anything that works.”
Rocket7 estimates that roughly half of its customers would be perfectly fine in off-the-shelf shoes, but just prefer the exclusivity that comes with a truly bespoke set. However, other riders, such as Greg Van Avermaet, have feet that can truly benefit from a custom fit.
For newly crowned Olympic men’s road race champion Greg Van Avermaet, his motivations definitely fall into the latter category. The Belgian has long suffered with issues stemming from his somewhat unusually shaped feet, and a conspicuous — and painful — injury after last year’s cobbled classics prompted BMC Racing team doctor Eric Heiden to call upon the skills of a friend from his speed skating days.
Fellow American skater K.C. Boutiette took over the reins of Rocket7 a few years ago from yet another speed skater, Brian King, who founded Rocket 7 in 1997.
“Greg had these open wounds after Paris-Roubaix because of his really weird heel shape,” said Jaskiewicz. “He was cutting these holes in the backs of his shoes, and Eric put him in touch with us. So we made a custom last for him, with a super padded-out heel.
“The toe box is a little squarer and it’s a little bit lower volume, and the instep is a little bit high, but it’s really just the heel. That’s where the custom sole, and then actually lasting on the mold of his foot really helps. From Greg being on them — and doing well — we immediately saw a lot of other Belgian guys get interested. It seems like it’s definitely been the people who have struggled to find shoes that work.”
Van Avermaet has bone spurs around his heel, and an Achilles tendon anchor location that’s slightly off-center. Both characteristics have sometimes resulted in severe pain when wearing standard cycling shoes.
According to Jaskiewicz, Rocket7’s growing appeal to the Belgian contingent isn’t purely a matter of word of mouth. Having built countless pairs of custom shoes, he says he’s actually noticed regional trends in the shape of riders’ feet.
“American feet tend to be fairly wide — E, EE, EEE. Most of our pro riders are Belgian, and they tend to be very low-volume, medium/narrow width — B, C, D width. A lot of the Dutch guys we sponsor are super narrow — A, B width — with long, pointy feet, super-low volume. And it seems like a lot of the east Asians are closer to American feet, maybe even wider in the forefoot, but narrower in the heel.”
But what about heat-moldable shoes? Aren’t those supposed to offer all the benefits of custom, but with the convenience of standard production? Yes and no, at least according to Jaskiewicz.
“For people that are in that realm where there are just little things that might not work about a shoe, that is something that definitely has an added benefit of fit and comfort. But heat-moldable shoes still have a limit, as far as how big a difference you can go off the stock shape. For people who are fairly close, I think it’s definitely a step up.”
In essence, Jaskiewicz feels that heat moldability is akin to buying a suit: you can always get it tailored, but it’s still best to start with something close.
Van Avermaet’s feet feature a medium-to-high instep but a very low-volume forefoot — something Rocket7 says is quite common among Belgian cyclists.
Van Avermaet’s foot mold is on the left; a more average one is on the right.
Rocket7 specializes in riders with atypical feet. The rider at right has a very narrow and tapered forefoot, while the one at left not only has huge feet but also pronounced bunions.
Rocket7 may specialize in custom, but it also keeps an enormous range of standard lasts on hand.
Rocket7 boasts quite the elite list of clients who have tapped the Colorado company for relief.
Rocket7 keeps virtually no stock shoes on hand. This pile comprises the entire company inventory.
Yep, that Boonen.
Production cycling shoes are always built around a particular last — essentially a hard plastic model of what a particular brand views as the ideal, or at least average, foot. Van Avermaet’s shoes, however, began with a precise plaster mold of his own feet.
From there, Rocket7 first slightly builds up the area around the toe box (and in Van Avermaet’s case, around the heel) to provide some wiggle room, and then the actual building process can begin.
Jaskiewicz starts by marking Van Avermaet’s cleat position on the mold, and then taping a pre-made carbon fiber cleat insert directly onto the plaster form. If required, this would also be where shims and/or wedges would be added.
Jaskiewicz also builds up the heel area in preparation for the raised tread to be added later on. The entire assembly is then wrapped in a layer of heat-activated shrink wrap to provide a smooth inner surface around which the carbon sole will be built.
Plies for the sole are cut by hand using motorized carbon-specific shears and patterns that Rocket7 has developed over time through a process of trial and error. Whereas most carbon fiber production in the cycling industry revolves around so-called “pre-preg” materials — where the two-part epoxy is already applied to the fabric — Rocket7 works in dry carbon fiber and adds the epoxy later.
According to Jaskiewicz, it’s a messier, and less precise, method than using factory-made pre-preg materials, but hardly a concern given Rocket7’s low production volumes.
Epoxy is mixed and applied by hand, and then the plies are individually laid on to the last. Once all the layers are in place, the edges are roughly trimmed, and then a final layer of epoxy is applied over the top that will yield a uniform, glossy finish.
Another layer of shrink wrap is applied over all of this, and it’s then heated up to pull the carbon fiber around the last. Where needed, concave sections are pressed inward by hand to achieve the desired shape.
“It’s a lot of feel; it’s all feel,” said Jaskiewicz. “It’s definitely not a hard science.”
Soles are left to cure for a minimum of six hours, after which comes final trimming, drilling, and finishing.
Custom shoes start with a mold of the rider’s feet.
Molds are then slightly modified, building in wiggle room around the toe box and other additional space as needed or requested.
Before the carbon molding process begins, each last is marked to ensure proper cleat position.
Being fully custom, Rocket7 can essentially accommodate just about any desired cleat position.
Cleat plates are pre-made, and taped into position before carbon plies are laid. It is here where modifications such as shims and wedges would be added. The heel area is also built up to provide a better walking platform later on in the process.
Shrink wrap plays a critical role during the build process, not only to help keep everything in place but also to provide smooth surfaces during the carbon molding steps.
All wrapped up and ready to build.
Carbon plies are first cut by hand from dry woven cloth.
Whereas most carbon frame manufacturers prefer to work with pre-preg carbon (where the carbon is already impregnated with two-part epoxy), Rocket7 prefers working with dry cloth and applying the epoxy itself later on.
It’s critical to mix the epoxy and hardening agent thoroughly.
Rocket7’s build process is part science, part art.
Reinforcing layers of carbon are first applied to the cleat and heel areas.
Epoxy is forced into the carbon weave with a simple plastic squeegee. It may seem like an unusually crude process, but it’s effective.
With the final layers applied, it’s starting to look more like a carbon fiber cycling shoe sole.
It’s important to “massage” the carbon fiber plies while the epoxy is still wet.
Excess carbon is trimmed off before the curing process sets in.
A final coat of epoxy will give the finished product a glossy look.
With all the carbon and epoxy applied, it’s time for another layer of shrink wrap.
A heat gun contracts the shrink wrap, pulling the carbon fiber tightly against the last. Where needed, the carbon is pressed up against the form by hand.
This carbon plate will be left to cure for a minimum of six hours. Afterward, the edges will be trimmed, cleat holes will be drilled, and threaded inserts will be added.
Van Avermaet may never see this hand-drawn note, but it’s fun to know that it’s there.
Rocket7 doesn’t employ any trickery for its uppers; the secret simply lies in the fact that they’re built to custom lasts instead of standard ones — and that there are nearly three dozen different fabric colors and finishes from which to choose.
Larger sections of upper material are first cut out by hand, and then smaller pieces are individually cut as needed. Ventilation holes are punched by hand as well, and woven nylon reinforcement straps are glued in to prevent unwanted stretch through the midsection of the shoe. Where appropriate, heat-transfer vinyl graphics are added to individual pieces.
All of the bits are stitched and bonded by hand — including Boa cable guides, as appropriate — and then synthetic suede and mesh liner materials are added to the interior. The suede is used in the heel cup and tongue area, and the mesh everywhere else to retain airflow.
Once the upper is fully assembled, the Boa reels and cables are installed by hand, and then it’s time to join all of the subassemblies together.
Whereas high-end shoes are typically only limited to a handful of color choices, if any at all, Rocket7 offers an enormous range of options and finishes.
Upper materials are first rough-cut by hand, and then the individual pieces are cut from there.
Woven nylon webbing is hidden inside the shoe for additional support.
Excess webbing is trimmed by hand.
Ventilation holes are punched by hand as well.
Rocket7 uses a computerized plotter and heat-transfer vinyl to create custom graphics.
Once the graphics are positioned, it’s off to the heat press.
And voilá! Custom graphics.
Rocket7 also offers custom embroidery, although it’s a feature that’s rarely used now.
Once all the individual pieces are done, it’s time for stitching.
This is not your grandmother’s Singer.
This station is primarily used for repairing customer shoes. The unique setup allows stitching without removing the upper from the sole.
The interior of the completed upper is admirably free of any irritating edges.
Once the upper is stitched, closure mechanisms are added in — in this case, Boa’s top-end IP1 reels.
Cables are fed through by hand.
In concept, the uppers and carbon sole of Rocket7 shoes are simply glued together, but as is usually the case, the reality is a bit more complicated.
Jaskiewicz begins by laying the sole over the inverted last — being sure to include a strap, in between, that will aid in removing the last later on. He then applies glue to the inner edge of the upper, then carefully lining up the rear over the sole plate’s built-in heel cup. If the starting point is correct, the toe portion of the upper naturally wraps the front of the sole plate exactly where it should. If not, he repositions and starts over.
Once the front and back are in place, he starts manually stretching the upper around the edges of the carbon sole until the material is uniformly taut around the last. According to Jaskiewicz, one trick he’s learned over time is just how tight to pull. As it turns out, more performance-minded riders tend to want the uppers to be more snug overall, while more casual riders prefer a slightly more relaxed feel.
Either way, the shoe is left to sit for another day for the adhesives to cure. Afterward, the edges are trimmed, the tread is applied, the custom insole is added in, and finally, the entire shoe gets one last round of cleaning before being dropped into a box for shipping.
Actual weight for Van Avermaet’s shoes — roughly equivalent to standard size 44D — is about 450g.
Glue is brushed on to the lower edges of the upper in preparation for bonding.
A strap is placed in between the sole and last to make it easier to remove the latter after the upper is bonded in place.
Bonding the shoe starts at the heel.
If the back end of the upper is properly positioned, the toe naturally wraps around the forward edge of the sole.
Sometimes a little extra muscle is required. Rocket7 says it tailors the tightness of the upper to client preferences, too.
Once the upper is placed and the glue is cured, the edges will be trimmed off.
Building custom shoes may seem like a simple process in theory, but there’s clearly some finesse involved in getting it right.
The finished shoe, complete with wraparound tread and heel pad.
Insoles are custom made, too.
At this point, it’s basically a matter of letting the glue cure, a few finishing steps, and shipping. By the time you read this, Van Avermaet may already be wearing these on the road.
I was on site at Rocket7’s facility in Erie, Colorado, for just a few hours, but Jaskiewicz says the complete build process from start to finish actually takes much longer.
“It’s a highly fragmented process. There are a lot of steps that maybe don’t take super long, but then you have to let them cure. Our molding process might take two hours to get someone sized up for a pair of shoes. Then we have to wait four to seven days to let the molds dry. Getting the last ready for carbon, cutting out the carbon, laying the carbon — that whole process is probably another week or so. The upper — sewing, cutting it out — another week. Lasting it is another couple of days. All said and done, it’s probably three weeks of work.”
Rocket7 typically quotes a turnaround time of 6-8 weeks, and given the US$1,450 price tag for the full custom treatment, it’s a process that most customers are comfortable sitting through in order to get things just right.
Understandably, Rocket7 pushed Van Avermaet’s shoes through a little faster — but then again, it seems safe to say that the Olympic champion has earned the right to jump the queue.