February 2017 Product Picks: Northwave, Bell, Silca, and Pearl Izumi

by James Huang

February 3, 2017

For this edition of Product Picks, U.S. technical editor James Huang is all about covering the extremities: Northwave’s radical-looking Extreme RR road shoes for your feet; Bell’s Stratus helmet, the less-expensive alternative to the Zephyr flagship model, for your head; and Pearl Izumi’s PRO Softshell Lite gloves for your hands. Silca’s novel Seat Roll Premio tool wrap perhaps doesn’t fit the theme, then, but its innovative Boa saddle attachment system could certainly be considered “extreme” for a saddle pack. Will any of them pass muster? Read on and find out.

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Northwave Extreme RR road shoes

by James Huang

While nearly every shoe company has jumped on the Boa bandwagon to some degree — Sidi being the other notable holdout — Northwave continues to forge a different path, using a similar cord-and-reel closure system, but with a mechanism of its own design. Northwave’s SLW2 dial offers similar functionality to Boa, too. You can easily tighten the shoes on-the-fly just by incrementally turning the dial; you can release the cable step-by-step by pushing on a small lever on top of each dial base; or you can release the cable tension altogether by lifting the lever upward — same as Boa, but different.

What’s truly unique is how Northwave has incorporated its system into the new made-in-Italy Extreme RR road shoes, with a single dial per side, and a staggered criss-cross pattern for the woven cord anchoring a wraparound-style, tongueless, and perforated synthetic leather upper. According to Northwave, those anchor points (and, more importantly, the reinforcing straps to which they’re connected) are specifically chosen to hold firmly where needed but more gently elsewhere, and the fabric loops used are less likely to create pressure points on your foot than molded plastic guides.

The lacing pattern criss-crosses along the side of the shoe, anchored at a series of loops and non-stretch webbing to provide a bit of support. Photo: David Rome.

For additional hold, the heel cup is lined with a textured one-way fabric that lets your feet easily glide in when you’re putting the shoes on, but gently grip your socks when you’re on the upstroke.

Naturally, the sole plate is made of molded carbon fiber to keep flex at bay. The sole is drilled for standard three-bolt cleats or Northwave’s own low-profile Speedplay four-bolt adapter. Vent holes are molded in to help keep your feet cool in hot conditions, and non-replaceable traction pads are located in the usual spots at the heel and toe.

Northwave includes two sets of footbeds with each pair of Extreme RRs: one made with a standard foam thickness, and a second one that’s considerably thicker to maintain a consistent fit for riders with lower-volume feet.

Actual weight for a pair of size 43.5 shoes (with standard footbeds) is 537g; going down a half-size drops the weight by 27g.

Our Take:

Aside from the highly tapered toe box, the fit of the Extreme RR is a little higher-volume than most Italian road shoes — typical of Northwave shoes, in my experience. Most riders with average-width and average-volume feet should find these pretty accommodating, and the included thicker footbed option makes a very noticeable difference in the overall feel.

Preferences vary in terms of how much structure and support riders like from their shoes, and between the flexible cable closure, fabric cable loops, and supple upper material, the Extreme RR gravitates toward the softer end of the spectrum. The embedded non-stretch strips — the heart of Northwave’s so-called Xframe construction — keep the shoe from feeling sloppy, or stretching over the course of a long ride.

The carbon fiber is extremely stiff, and the vent holes actually go completely through the footbed. The traction pads at the heel and toe aren’t replaceable, though, and they’re very slippery. Photo: David Rome.

Nevertheless, they still don’t provide the same rock-solid feel of something like a Specialized’s S-Works 6 or Bont Vaypor S. Likewise, arch support on the Extreme RR comes only from the foam insole, and not from the carbon plate itself, which is notably flat and devoid of any built-in shaping. As usual with cycling footwear, whether that’s a good or bad thing will depend on your preferences, but it’s important to note regardless.

Many alternative cable-and-dial closure systems have come (and gone) to challenge Boa, and while there’s no reason to expect Northwave’s SLW2 design to expand outside of the company, it does work well. The cable release functions aren’t quite as easy to use, mind you, but they’re good to have nonetheless and held up well throughout testing.

Northwave includes two sets of footbeds with the Extreme RR shoes: a standard set, plus one made of thicker foam for lower-volume feet. Photo: David Rome.

The bigger issue I have is how Northwave has utilized the SLW2 dial on the Extreme RR. With just a single dial per shoe, there’s no way to independently adjust the tightness of specific regions of the shoe, and whereas Northwave aims for an even fit throughout, that’s not how everyone will want it. For example, I prefer a tighter fit around the ankle, but a slightly more relaxed fit around the toebox. Here, the end result is the exact opposite of my usual setup, and heel fit seemed to suffer as a result with some noticeable slipping out back, even with that cat’s-tongue material inside the heel cup.

Speaking of slipping, the traction pads on the underside of the carbon sole are too hard and slick to provide much grip on hard surfaces — which is perhaps for the best since they’re non-replaceable and need to last as long as possible. In addition, ventilation is only so-so, despite the numerous perforations up top and vent holes in the sole.

Price: US$399 / AU$450 / £295