Pearl Izumi PRO Leader V4 shoe review: Improved, but far from supple

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Pearl Izumi’s PRO Leader V3 road shoes packed a lot of features and a truly innovative construction method into the company’s flagship offering, but I found the quality of fit to be somewhat lacking when I reviewed them last year. Now in its fourth generation, the PRO Leader V4 road shoes recently received a major overhaul that included a revamped shape, an all-new upper, and some rather blingy outsoles. But have the changes closed the gap between the PRO Leader V4 and other top-end competitors? 

Changes are afoot

If nothing else, it’d be hard to accuse Pearl Izumi of leaving things be when it comes to its flagship road shoe. As compared to the lackluster PRO Leader V3, the fourth-generation model incorporates a long list of changes.

The biggest improvement on the Pearl Izumi PRO Leader V4 shoe is the new offset closure, which reduces pressure from the top of your foot while also allowing you to tighten the Boa dials a little more than before without discomfort.

The biggest is a move to an asymmetrical opening, with all of the associated hardware relocated from straight along the midline to further down the side of the rider’s foot. According to Pearl Izumi global brand manager Andrew Hammond, the offset design more closely follows the contours of the foot, moving the Boa dials off of the dorsal (top) ridge of the foot.

“For riders with a high arch, this significantly reduces pressure in a sensitive area,” Hammond said. “Also, the asymmetric design closes the shoe more consistently across a variety of foot shapes and provides an overall closer fit without pressure points.”

The ventilated carbon fiber outsole is also the same as before, but it’s impossible to miss the new electroplated rainbow finish. Many riders will undoubtedly question the wisdom of adding such a flashy mirror-like treatment to a part of the shoe that so few people will ever see — and that will inevitably be scratched and scraped over time — but that’s where it is.

The electroplated outsole is hard to miss, even though it’s on the underside of the shoe.

Less obvious changes include a revised last with more room around the ball of your feet, and a revamped sizing chart that now falls more inline with other mainstream brands, such as Specialized, Shimano, and Giro.

Otherwise, the PRO Leader V4 is built in the same innovative way as the V3. With few exceptions, cycling shoe uppers are manufactured the same way: a lasting board (often made of some kind of paperboard) is placed underneath the last, the upper material is stretched around the top and wrap around the bottom, and the edges are bonded in place. From there, that subassembly is then bonded on top of the outsole plate.

Normally when you peel back the insole of a cycling shoe, you see a cardboard-like lasting board. But with the Pearl Izumi PRO Leader V4, there’s nothing underneath but the carbon fiber outsole itself.

With the PRO Leader V4, however, Pearl Izumi skips a step and uses the carbon fiber outsole itself as the lasting board. The edges of the upper material still wrap down and around as usual, but in this case, the edges are sealed underneath a cosmetic trim piece that’s bonded to the perimeter of the outsole. The process is more efficient in terms of manufacturing, but it also saves a bit of weight and theoretically reduces the overall stack height, too (down to just 5mm, according to Pearl Izumi).

The uppers themselves are constructed similarly to the V3, too, using layers of open mesh that are welded to thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) film to add the necessary structure. Out back is the same T-shaped external heel counter as before, along with a replaceable heel pad. Up top are Boa’s top-end IP1 dials with dual-direction micro-adjustment and a handy pull-to-release function.

The offset tongue requires a lot less padding than before. Carrying over from the Pearl Izumi PRO Leader V3 model are Boa’s top-end IP1 dials with dual micro-adjustment and a handy pull-to-release function.

Also carrying over is Pearl Izumi’s neat 1:1 Insole System, with built-in arch and metatarsal shaping, plus optional (included) plastic inserts for riders that want more arch support or varus angle up front.

Actual weight for my pair of size 43.5 testers (I previously wore size 44 in Pearl Izumi) was 564g, including insoles — a gain of 32g over the PRO Leader V3.

The standard 1:1 insoles feature built-in support at the arch and metatarsal areas, plus there are several different inserts included if you want more varus wedge up front, or more arch support.

Better in some ways, but not in others

I admittedly didn’t have many issues with instep pressure with the PRO Leader V3 model, given that shoe’s generous tongue padding, but the improved fit on the V4 was nevertheless noticeable as soon as I first tried them on.

First and foremost, the more refined last and newly asymmetrical design wrap more evenly around your feet, with each click on the Boa dial feeling just pleasantly tighter overall instead of creating more downward pressure. Notably, that snug fit and minimal pressure comes about without the need for the thick tongue padding used on the V3.

While the forefoot of the Pearl Izumi PRO Leader V4 shoe last has been revised for a more refined fit, there have been no changes to the heel area. There remains some slipping as a result, but it’s still better than the V3 version given the better footholding ability up front.

A new notch at the top of the tongue leaves more room for the anterior tibial tendon on the front of your ankle, too — an especially good thing for riders prone to irritation in that area.

That flashy electroplated outsole coating drew a few (positive) comments, but given the carryover design of the plate itself, it’s no surprise that they’re just as stiff as before. Pile on the watts and there’s no perceptible bending flex underfoot, but there’s still the same moderate amounts of torsional movement as before. Whether that’s a good thing or not will likely depend on your preferences — Sidi marketed torsional flex as a feature in its carbon-soled road shoes — but it’s something to note regardless.

The undersole vents have an open path behind so incoming air really can get all the way to your foot. That said, they’re only modestly useful.

For as many changes as were instituted here, Pearl Izumi didn’t revise the heel shaping on this fourth-generation shoe, and it remains as so-so as the previous model. That said, the modest amount of movement was less noticeable while riding this time around, perhaps due to the improved fit from the ankle forward. Nevertheless, riders coming off of (and who enjoy) the ultra-snug fit of Specialized’s latest models will invariably be disappointed.

Perhaps the biggest letdown, however, is the fact that Pearl Izumi has squandered the positive changes by continuing to use the same upper material as before. While the one-piece construction may be high-tech, that mesh-and-polyurethane sandwich material isn’t nearly as form-fitting or supple as the more conventional microfibers used by other brands. A bit more stretch and flexibility would be most welcome here.

Pearl Izumi builds the PRO Leader V4 road shoes with a high-tech three-layer material, where a layer of open mesh is sandwiched between two layers of thermoplastic polyurethane film. It’s a neat way to construct cycling shoe uppers, but the end result is disappointingly stiff and doesn’t take full advantage of the shoe’s refined shape.

Even after several weeks of use, the V4 uppers still feel much more like plastic than leather. Whereas more supple shoes tend to conform slightly to each rider’s individual foot anatomy over time, these have only highlighted exactly how my particular feet differ from the last used in the shoe’s initial design.

Moreover, the PRO Leader V4 still isn’t as well ventilated as its outward appearance might suggest. While there appears to be heaps of open mesh from the outside, holding the shoes up to the light reveals a different story. Because the mesh doesn’t provide much structure on its own, Pearl Izumi has to use quite a bit of wholly non-breathable TPU to hold the PRO Leader V4 together — and there’s more on the inside of the shoe than the outside. Functional sole vents on both shoes help somewhat, but not enough.

A cosmetic cap covers the edges of the upper for a tidy appearance.

I had high hopes for this latest version of Pearl Izumi’s flagship road model, especially given the initially positive reaction when I first pulled them out of the box and strapped them on in my living room. But ultimately, the work Pearl Izumi has done is betrayed by the company’s stubborn commitment to a material that just doesn’t work that well in this application.

Price: US$350 / AU$449 / £275 / €330
Weight: 564g (pair, size 43.5, with insoles)
Available sizes: 38-49 (half sizes from 38-47)
Available colors: black/black, black/lime

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