French-Canadian brand Louis Garneau might not immediately spring to mind when you think about top-tier road shoes. However, they’re no newcomer to the space, having catered to the market since the late ’80s. The Course Air Lite II is Garneau’s newest top-tier road offering, and with a long list of innovative features, it won a Gold Award at Eurobike 2017. Most notably, the shoes are built with neat expansion zones to cater to a variety of foot shapes.
A long list of features
While most premium shoe offerings aim to conquer width issues through multiple last options and/or soft and malleable uppers, Garneau uses a fresh approach called X-Comfort Zone, which places a stretchy panel around the base of the small toe – a common point of irritation. Between this, and a perforated panel on the medial side, Louis Garneau claims that the Air Lite IIs can accommodate foot widths from B to D+, all with the same last.
Otherwise, the Air Lite IIs are fairly standard pro-level road shoes, albeit with a few neat features.
The arch area is built with a “Power Zone” panel designed to prevent the foot collapsing inward while pedalling. In the simplest sense, it’s a small plastic insert that adds shape and support to the upper. The heel is given a similar supporting structure, with a molded band wrapped around the plastic heel cup. Inside, the heel cup is shaped with a deep pocket, and is lined with a a grippy directional fabric.
I first came across this so-called cat’s-tongue material on premium Shimano shoes over a decade ago, and it has become a popular method for heel retention since. Where many brands use it simply on the back of the heel, Garneau uses it to surround the whole back of the foot.
Two Boa IP1 micro-adjust dials are used on each shoe, and the fabric wire guides are hidden on the inside of the upper — there’s no plastic to be found here. A generously padded tongue helps eliminate pressure points.
Ventilation is a big part of the Air Lite IIs, and there’s more going on than the immediately obvious mesh panels above the toes and perforations in the microfibre upper. The hollow carbon sole uses Garneau’s patented Ergo Air design, channeling air from the ports below the toes, beneath the cleat, and then back out through vents behind the forefoot.
Inside is Garneau’s “Ergo Air Transfo 3D” insole, which includes three interchangeable foam wedges that work in tandem with the carbon sole’s subtle raised shaping to provide tunable arch support. In addition to the Coolmax inner soles which offer maximum airflow for summertime use, there’s a second winter pair included, built with a solid base that blocks the sole vents.
The Air Lite IIs are available in sizes from EU38 to EU48, with half-sizes available between EU40.5 and EU46.5. My sample EU42.5 weighs 469g without inner soles, or 510g with the summer option. They retail for US$370 / £290 / AU$N/A.
How’s the fit?
Slipping on the Air Lite IIs reveals a somewhat narrow fit overall, with the ball of the foot feeling snugger than regular-fit Specialized S-Works, Shimano S-Phyre or Giro Empire shoes. However, while it may feel narrower, the expansion zones mean the shoe simply stretches where it would otherwise feel like you were being pinched.
As someone with feet on the narrow side of average (in Australia), the shoe conforms without giving a feeling of excess space, nor uncomfortable tightness. I have long toes and the outside of the toe box tapers a little too suddenly, meaning my pinky toe gently (it’s not uncomfortable) bumps the edge of the toe protector that sits just forward of the stretchy X-Comfort Zone panel. At the heel, it’s tighter-feeling than a Shimano but not nearly as restrictive as a Specialized. I like it.
I often fit an EU43 with a bit of wiggle room to spare, and I often find many EU42.5s can be a little touch and go. In this case, I was told Garneau shoes run slightly long and that’s certainly backed by how my EU42.5 samples fit. They run approximately half a size longer than a Shimano or Giro.
Dialing in the fit further, I settled on the medium arch wedges, providing a similar feeling to a green Specialized inner sole.
I got along well with the Air Lite IIs, experiencing no discomfort or irritation during my testing. The snug – yet yielding – fit gives a performance feel to the shoes, and they feel wonderfully supportive under power. There are certainly lighter shoes available, but the Air Lite II’s are suitably competitive.
Dropping your heels exposes the sole vents to the wind and rewards you with a sudden burst of air flow. It’s like turning on the air conditioning, but it shows the ventilation isn’t optimised to suck in air if pedaling with a toes-down style. Thankfully, the mesh panels above the toes are still effective when the sole ports aren’t, and together there’s enough ventilation to keep your feet dry. When the cold front hits, swapping in the winter foot beds certainly makes a difference, especially as a mid-season option.
Like any top-tier race shoe, the Air Lite II is very stiff with no noticeable flex. However, those flow-through air channels in the hollow carbon sole are not without compromise. The obvious downside is the increase in stack height beneath the cleat. Admittedly, except for the very subtle difference in resulting saddle height, it’s not something that bothered me, but regardless, higher stack naturally comes with less stability, at least in theory.
Getting the shoes on and off is super easy with the Boa IP1 dials, which release completely with a quick pop. These dials are the same as what’s used on other premium shoes, such as Shimano S-Phyre RC9, Fizik Infinito R1, and many others. They allow for easy micro-adjustments in either direction, made simpler on the move thanks to the grippy material on the dial’s outer edge. The Air Lite II’s somewhat traditional tongue can occasionally get pinched between the upper when putting the shoes on, but all is well if you just push it in while fastening the shoe.
The cleat inserts are titanium to save a few grams, but there’s a noticeable dearth of printed markings. The Air Lite IIs offer just simple fore-aft and side cleat markings, the latter barely visible with a Shimano SPD-SL cleat installed. It’s a stark contrast to many other premium shoes which offer multiple angle markings for easier setup and adjustments.
Louis Garneau hasn’t been shy about marking the rest of the shoe, however. All the technology is clearly marked, with “X-Comfort Zone” (the stretchy zone at the ball of the foot), “HRS-400” (the heel retention), and “Power Zone” (reinforced instep) logos all printed on the upper of each shoe. While the text is only small, it’s an element that still looks a bit cheesy. I’d rather a cleaner aesthetic with little more than the Garneau brand visible. Certainly, Garneau could learn from the latest Specialized or Shimano offerings in this regard.
Sticking to the aesthetics, I learned to love the “look at me!” yellow color option with subtle reflective details at the heel, especially given the science that supports the notion of improved safety when moving limbs are outfitted with contrasting colours. However, the shoes are also available in black, orange, or white. The glossy microfibre material is easy to keep clean, but it didn’t take long to spoil the front of the toe by walking; the tread material could certainly wrap around that area a little more. Despite the cosmetic damage, walking in the Air Lite IIs is about average for a performance road shoe, with the hard plastic heel grippers and toe tread feeling secure on tiles. The heel tread is replaceable, too.
The outer layer of the toe edge on my test shoes may have chipped away, but underneath is a reinforced toe guard, which provides a surprising amount of protection for a road shoe. Assuming you ignore the risk of aesthetic damage, the shoe is built tough, and seems sure to provide a long service life.
One width fits most
In the end, the innovative fitting solutions leave me somewhat divided. On one foot, allowing expandable width is really quite smart for riders on the edge of sizing, or riders whose effective foot size changes with sock choice and temperature. But on the other foot, I can’t help but feel it’s reminiscent of a budget one-size-fits-all helmet, where more premium options can afford to offer more specific and tailored size options. And more to the point, fancy stretchy panels aside, they’re still a pretty narrow shoe.
That said, CyclingTips US technical editor James Huang has also been using the Air Lite II shoes, and he found them to be very helpful with the small bunions he has at the base of each small toe, so your experience may vary.
Given I have a narrow foot, I really enjoyed using these shoes, and they have a lot going for them. The ventilation from the hollow sole design is noticeably effective, and the shoe holds the foot snug and offers no signs of energy loss. Likewise, I found the expansion zones, to an extent, work as claimed and offer a comfortable fit. The Air Lite II is one of the best shoes I’ve used, however they fall shy of pushing my favourite off the perch.