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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.”
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.”
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.
From plaster to carbon fiber
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.
Forming the uppers
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.
Putting together the pieces
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.
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.