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When it comes to riding gravel, shoe and pedal choice is wide open (much like the places to ride). Road pedals and shoes remain for those who ride on smoother and better-kept gravel roads, ideally where putting a foot down isn’t likely. While cross-country mountain bike shoes and pedals (SPD style) are commonly the pick for unknown adventures. The smaller pedals offer a smaller cleat, and space for a surrounding tread on the shoe, meaning walking across rocks or over sketchy river crossings isn’t nearly as bad as if you were in road clogs.
Mountain bike shoes do the job, but you can be sure a cycling discipline has reached mass appeal when big brands, such as Shimano, start offering product specific to the space. Joining the likes of Giro and Specialized, Shimano’s relatively new XC5 laced SPD shoe is just this, a mid-range shoe tailored to the gravel crowd, but one that can comfortably handle duty in touring, commuting, cyclocross and even mountain biking, too.
Tech writer Dave Rome has been spinning circles with a pair since September last year, using them for everything from bunch rides to commuting to gravel rides and trail riding.
Priced at US$150 / AU$199, the XC5 is not the typical performance shoe you commonly see reviewed on CyclingTips. Instead, they represent a mid-level option for those that just ride rather than racing. So, you know, the majority of us.
Without question, the laces are the defining feature and are a contrast from what’s expected of the Japanese manufacturer. These laces flow in a traditional orientation from the knuckle of your toes through to the top of the shoe’s tongue. At the forefoot, the laces deviate through short loops connected directly to the shoe’s upper, the goal being to help tension and wrap the upper more snugly around the curviest part of your foot.
The upper is made up of a few panels, with the closed-off toe splitting the two perforated pieces of synthetic leather. A large reflective panel sits at the rear, with a padded interior designed to cuddle your heel. Unlike Shimano’s performance shoes, the XC5 doesn’t attempt to lock the heel in with any special one-way fabric or aggressive shaping.
The sole reveals a similarly relaxed design, with a carbon fiber-reinforced nylon construction that rates a 7/12 on Shimano’s stiffness scale. Keeping the sole covered is a tread from Michelin, a company that knows a thing or two about rubber tread and off-road traction. Provisions for toe spikes are provided, but the optional 18mm toe spikes themselves are not.
The XC5s are available in either black (as tested) or a lighter grey/orange option. Additional laces are provided, with our black sample supplied with both orange and grey laces. The shoes span a size range of EU38-50, all in a single width option. A women’s-specific version is available too, spanning sizes EU36-44 and in a black/magenta colourway.
I weighed my EU43 sample at 615g for the pair, lighter than expected given the rubber tread.
Comfort over speed
It’s not often I get a product that’s so laissez-faire in its ways that I struggle to find a specific purpose for it. And this isn’t a bad thing — the XC5 proved to be a reliable (and comfortable) choice for just about any bike-related adventure.
Shimano classifies the XC5 as a mixed-terrain shoe, pointing toward gravel, cyclocross, cross country mountain biking and commuting. And while I agree with much of that, I’d add in touring (aka bikepacking, for the new-age crowd) to the mix, too.
No doubt, these are more like a cross-country mountain bike shoe than a road shoe. The 2-bolt SPD compatibility and generous Michelin tread is all the evidence you need there. However, the laced retention, synthetic upper and reflective details are not features you’d typically seek (or find) in a mountain bike shoe.
In how they feel, I’d liken the XC5s to Shimano’s endurance-focused RP road shoes, where the technology and style of a performance shoe is there, but with a relaxed fit designed for all-day comfort.
Shimano shoes are generally quite generous with who they fit, and the XC5’s relaxed nature only adds to this reputation. With a more open heel design, a forgiving upper and a pliable sole, there’s certainly more leeway here than with a race shoe. However, a lack of width choices is perhaps as much a sign of the price as it is of demand. If your foot shape is at one extreme of the bell-curve, you’ll likely want to pursue something with additional width options.
With a relaxed heel hold, these feel more like a cross-trainer sneaker, albeit with a stiffer sole. The sole offers a carbon plate that starts at the toes and ends just before the heel, enough to offer suitable stiffness at pedal contact. Walking reveals enough flex in the right places to nearly get around like a normal person, especially with the pliable rubber tread.
The shoes feel plenty efficient, and only minimal heel slip is felt when making a specific effort to seek it. Where a race shoe’s complete stiffness means your foot naturally wants to pull away from the board-like sole, the XC5’s sole allows some flex to retain the foot.
The interior side of the nylon sole is moulded in a gridded pattern, something that attempts to optimise stiffness while reducing weight. While I can’t say I actually noticed it, this type of design does increase the stack height.
Take a look inside and you’ll find a basic foam innersole with an average amount of instep support. Unlike the innersoles provided in Shimano’s more expensive shoes, these innersoles don’t offer adjustable arch support, but nonetheless, I found them comfortable.
The Michelin tread does an impressive job at providing traction from clean tile floors to wet roots. The mid-foot of the sole is covered in rubber, with four lugs protruding from the heel to give a stable stance. Traction at the toes is a little limited in stock form, and you’ll want to buy some toe spikes if you’re planning on running anywhere. Like most mountain bike shoes, none of the lugs are replaceable and to date, durability hasn’t been an issue.
With basic setup markings, the cleat attaches with Shimano’s typical four-hole cleat plate, allowing plenty of fore-aft adjustment. The cleat is protected with a two-compound rubber tread, with a more durable material used at the pedals’ contact point. Just past this, the tread is separated, allowing a more natural step instead of the usual flat-foot stomp of performance shoes. The tread height is generous enough to allow near-silent walking on a hard surface, whereas racier shoes often leave the cleat slightly exposed.
The laces are effective at providing a generous range of tension across the foot, however, the mid-foot loops stubbornly hold the laces in position. To some, this may be a positive as the shoe will keep its adjustment between wears, but for me, I just found it slowed the process. Either way, they serve a functional purpose, and certainly the upper would squirm if it weren’t for them.
Flat in shape, the laces offer a little stretch, enough to help lock them in place. Annoyingly, the laces themselves are obscenely long which, I suspect, is due to Shimano using the same length lace across its full size range. Laced up and tucked through the elastic lace holder, the loops would sit over my toes and flap in the wind. Make smaller loops and the plastic crimped ends would tap against the crank arms. At least with my EU43 samples, the laces are simply too long.
With a closed toe, the perforated synthetic leather upper is breathable, but not at all breezy. Arguably this is nice to keep your toes dry through stream crossings and puddles, but you’ll quickly get clammy socks on a hot summer’s day.
The toe area is lightly reinforced, with some protection given to the big toes. I managed to test this out on both gravel and mountain bike rides, where rocks flipped up were deflected away without a stubbed toe.
To tie it up
I still believe that laces aren’t the best pick for trail riding, or cross country and cyclocross racing. They hold dirt, get caught on things and are finicky to get off when you see a leech enter your shoe (perhaps too specific of an example, but the event is still fresh).
Likewise, the gentle heel hold and softer sole of the XC5 isn’t going to replace a performance shoe when Strava trophies are on the line.
But I admit to liking the casual style and all-day comfort they offer, and they’re nice for sightseeing, gravel riding, commuting and the occasional play on the mountain bike, too. The XC5’s long laces (on the smaller sizes) are my biggest complaint of these shoes and, frankly, a simple oversight on Shimano’s part. Assuming the XC5s tick the boxes of what you’re after, they’re cheap enough to allow room in the budget for new laces.