Shimano S-Phyre RC901 vs RC701 road footwear review

by Dave Rome


Shimano’s S-Phyre range of racing-focused cycling footwear has been heavily revised for 2019, including a new S-Phyre RC9 (RC901), an update on the RC900, and the new RC7 (RC701) which replaces the RC700.

As Shimano’s only two performance racing shoe options, the new RC9 and RC7 each feature carbon fibre soles, dual Boa dials, and a similar weight. So is there enough difference between the two to justify spending nearly double for the S-Phyre? It’s a question that, on the surface, is not too dissimilar to debating the value of Dura-Ace over Ultegra. But as CyclingTips tech writer Dave Rome found out during his testing, it’s more akin to comparing Dura-Ace and 105.

Story Highlights

  • Shimano S-Phyre RC9 (aka, RC901):
  • – Weight: 512g (EU43)
  • – Price: US$400 / AU$449
  • – Sizes: Wide and regular (tested) widths available. Half sizes are available in each width from EU37 to EU47. With EU36 and EU48 sizes available at the limits.
  • – Colours: White, black, green, blue
  • Shimano RC7 (aka, RC701):
  • – Weight: 521g (EU43)
  • – Price: US$225 / AU$259
  • – Sizes:Wide (black only) and regular (tested) widths available. Half sizes are available in each width from EU38 to EU46. With EU38 and EU50 sizes available at the limits.
  • – Colours: Red (limited availability), white, black

What’s new and what’s not

In the grand scheme of things, Shimano’s S-Phyre shoe platform is still relatively new. As covered in my review of the original RC9, the S-Phyre range marked the first time Shimano ditched the most common method of manufacturing shoes, where the upper is wrapped around a paperboard plate – commonly referred to as a lasting board – and then the outsole is glued on to that subassembly. Instead, S-Phyre shoes omit the lasting board completely and wrap the microfibre upper directly around the carbon fibre sole, thus reducing weight and lowering the stack height.

Additionally, Shimano walked away from its long-standing heat moldable Custom-Fit technology, something that freed them to use lighter and more supple materials. The original S-Phyre shoe was also the first in the Shimano range to employ Boa dials, a now-common sight amongst the Japanese company’s footwear line leading into 2019.

Shimano RC901 vs RC900
Old (right) versus new (left). The new RC9 gets a new upper material.

For 2019, the second-generation RC9, or RC901, incorporates a number of subtle, but welcomed, adjustments that supposedly make the shoe more comfortable, but also more supportive.

The previous golf-ball-like dimpled fabric has been replaced with a smoother one-piece Teijin Avail microfiber synthetic. The new upper material boasts more perforations for improved ventilation overall, and larger perforations at the (outside) ball of the foot supposedly provide a little extra give to the material in a sensitive spot – a similar concept, although more restrictive, to Louis Garneau’s patented “X-Comfort Zone”. Shimano claims the new material retains less moisture, too.

The mesh toe panel of the original RC9 is gone, removed to prevent unsightly creasing when the forefoot is pulled tight. Shimano claims that the smoother surface that results is faster in the wind tunnel, but the specifics of that claim seem more closely guarded than the secret recipe for KFC fried chicken. Out back, the revised heel cup design is still externally reinforced, but the shape is modified to work with a wider variety of foot shapes while offering an improved hold.

The original RC9 included a pair of S-Phyre socks, said to be the perfect complement to the shoes. While Shimano still offers those socks, and sticks by that claim, a sample pair is no longer included. I really like the S-Phyre socks, but not receiving them is hardly a deal breaker.

Beyond all that, the new RC901 is much the same shoe as the original RC9, which is hardly a bad thing. Carrying over are the much-loved dual Boa IP1 dials, with dual-direction micro-adjustment and a quick-release function; the “Surround” wrap-over upper construction that envelopes the foot; the directional grippy material within the heel; a huge range of fore-aft cleat adjustment; a replaceable heel pad; drainage ports in the sole; and Shimano’s stiffest carbon sole offered.

Shimano RC701
The new RP7 (RP701).

Looking to the new RC701, the old single-Boa and hook-and-loop retention combination has replaced with a dual Boa layout. More notably, the shoes have gone through a major aesthetic refresh, and with the choice of white (pictured), black, or a great red fade, they’re easily mistaken for a top-tier shoe.

Beyond that, the new RC7 is much the same as its predecessor. The carbon sole, which rates a 10/12 on Shimano’s stiffness scale remains (the RC9 is 12/12), as does the more basic padded heel cup and non-replaceable heel tread. Cleat adjustment is almost as generous as with the RC9, and certainly, getting the cleats set up behind the ball of the foot is no issue. Where the RC9 has a premium innersole with interchangeable arch support, the RC7 sticks with a more basic footbed.

Shimano RC901 vs RC701
Both shoes feature Shimano’s Dynalast shaping. This design reduces how much the toe is raised compared to more traditional cycling shoes, an idea borrowed from running footwear.

Both the RC9 and RC7 feature Shimano’s Dynalast outsole concept, with a flatter profile – or less toe spring – from the ball of the foot forward than traditional cycling shoes that is said to reduce foot, calf, and hamstring tension. To understand how it works, simply place your feet flat on the ground and then lift your toes. Feel that tension in your calves? But even Shimano says you can’t simply remove all toe spring from a shoe, as it creates an unsupported and inefficient fit. It’s a fit philosophy that certainly works for me.

Despite the updates to both models, claimed weights remain unchanged from the respective predecessors. Actual weights for the S-Phyre RC901 and RC701 (size EU43, pair) are 512g and 521g, respectively.

Testing the RC900 versus the RC901

Having tested the original S-Phyre RC900 and finding it to be my all-around favourite road shoe, I was keen to see how much of a difference the updates provide.

Heel retention is better on the new version and the whole upper feels more secure and supportive, just as promised. It’s most noticeable in off-plane twisting, but out-of-the-saddle efforts, or even just walking, reveal that improved heel retention, too. It’s still not quite to a Specialized S-Works level of security, but I actually like that it’s not so locked-in. The older S-Works 6 used to give me blisters in this area, and even Specialized has relaxed that ironclad heel hold on the S-Works 7.

Shimano RC9 RC901 shoes
At the right angle, you can see the light beam through the new RC9.

Differences between the old and new RC9 shoes are more subtle in terms of ventilation. The mesh panel of the old shoe perhaps let in more air in that one spot, but the new version offsets that with better airflow across a larger surface area. Dropping your heels and exposing the sole’s vent ports to the wind also brings a flurry of cool air into the shoe. And if you’re caught in the rain, the upper material’s more moisture-resistant properties will certainly be welcome, along with the carryover drain in the heel.

The general aesthetic of the new RC901 is an improvement, too, and the sleeker, smoother profile is more befitting a premium shoe. I used to look down on the RC900 and see toe area creasing under under load, but that’s no longer the case.

Shimano RC9 RC901 Boa IP1
The new RC9’s pearlescent white finish sparkles in the right light.

Shimano offers the new RC9 in four colourways: black, lime green, Shimano blue, or the pearl white tested here. Frankly, none of the four available spoke to me, and the cheaper RC701 arguably offers better choices. Along with the silver-bronze heel cup, the new pearl white will perhaps be a little polarising with its somewhat feminine aesthetic. That’s great given these shoes can, and should, be used by performance-seeking female riders, but guys chasing a plain white shoe may be left wishing for something less showy. But as it stands, the pearl white continues to grow on me.

On the positive side, the upper is easy to clean and resistant to scuffing. Keeping white shoes white can be tricky, but these should hold their sheen for a long time.

Overall, the RC901 isn’t a huge improvement over the RC900, and that’s hardly surprising given that the overall design, and the sole, remain unchanged. The new version offers a more supportive fit and is certainly the better shoe, but there’s also not a whole lot of reason for owners of the original RC9 to upgrade.

Enter the RC701

While the RC901 and RC701 are easily comparable on paper, there are stark differences on the road. The RC701 still feels like a shoe made for racing, but it simply lacks the locked-in feel and premium functions of the S-Phyre.

Shimano RC901 vs RC701
Whereas the RC9 (right) uses a wraparound upper design, the RC7 (left) uses a more traditional tongue.

The RC9’s upper wraps around the foot, but the RC7 features a traditional symmetrical design with a separate tongue. As found on both models, the lower Boa wire routing is adjustable, and there’s a fair amount of fit control around the ball of the foot.

Even so, the RC7 feels just a tad wider at the toe box than its flagship sibling. Adding to this, the RC7’s padded synthetic upper is noticeably softer and more forgiving. That fit follows on to the padded heel, offering a softer-hugging and more relaxed fit that’s more comparable to Shimano’s premium endurance shoe, the RP9. This gives the RC7 a different feel to the RC9 overall. If the RC9 is a racing car seat that keeps you somewhat locked into a set position, the RC7 is the leather seat of a sports saloon.

Shimano RC901 vs RC701
The RC9 (front) uses an external heel cup; the RFC7 is built with a more typical internal cup.

Despite being more relaxed, the heel retention is surprisingly great, especially given the RC7 foregoes the RC9’s reinforced, external heel cup and two-way fabric liner. But even so, the RC7 heel area actually seems to hold more tightly than the RC9. I believe this is a symptom of the RC9’s more secure upper and rigid sole leving little other option than for your heel to lift. The lift is not an issue on the bike with either the RC7 or RC9, but it’s something you may feel when trying them on in a shop.

Interestingly, the RC7 also feels shorter than the RC9, despite being the same stated size – perhaps due to the additional padding inside the heel area and the heel cup’s shallower shape. As a result, my big toe contacts the end of my RC7 sample, whereas the RC9 sample in the same size fits me just right (like many EU43 shoes on the market). Thankfully, half sizes are available if the issue presents.

Shimano RC901 vs RC701
The inner soles are just part of the fit story. The shoe sole shaping varies, too.

The RC7’s more minimally profiled footbed and more subtle sole shaping may be contributing to this, too, since they’ll allow your feet to flatten more under load. By contrast, the customisable footbed and more aggressively raised arch support in the sole of the RC9 produces a noticeable rearward bulge. With time, I found myself wanting more arch support from the RC7, and switching in the RC9’s footbed (which is available aftermarket) went a long way to solving that. The RC7’s fit is the safer option of the two, whereas the S-Phyre extra arch support may prove too much for some.

Shimano RC901 vs RC701
The Boa dials on each shoe offer micro-adjustment and a full release by pulling up on the dial. However, The RC7’s L6 dial can only micro-adjust tighter, and you must fully release the tension if you want it looser.

The RC7’s simpler Boa L6 dials immediately had me missing the dual-direction micro-adjustment of the S-Phyre’s IP1 dial. Just a click too far on the RC7 requires you to release all tension and start again. I like the option of adjusting my shoes on the move, and certainly, I missed not being able to go a click less.

The RC9 is extremely low-cut around and in front of the ankle; the RC7’s tongue and top strap sit higher. My shallow foot means I’m quick to notice high-cut shoes, and I can feel the RC701s contacting the front of my ankle when I drop my heels. It’s not painful, and frankly I quickly forget it once I’m moving, but it does highlight how well the RC901s fit (at least on my feet).

Another key difference is that the RC7 sticks with the traditional lasting board construction. As a result, the RC7 has a stack height of 8.8mm, as compared to the S-Phyre RC9’s impressively low 4.7mm. A lower stack gets your foot closer to the axle and directly aids in pedaling stability. It’s enough to be felt with a consistent saddle height, and certainly, the S-Phyre has you feeling closer to the pedal.

Shimano RC901 vs RC701
The RC9 offers precision cleat setup markings, though the RC7 is sufficient.

The RC7’s carbon composite sole is sufficiently stiff under power, and while I didn’t miss what the RC9 offers in this domain, the RC9 is just a tad more rigid again. Similarly, the RC9 offers more pronounced vent ports in the sole, and combined with its upper, also does a better job of keeping your feet dry.

When you combine the softer upper, simpler heel cup, flatter innersole, and taller stack height, the S-Phyre RC9 just feels more stable under load. Swinging my knee side to side sees the RC901 hold my foot more snugly with minimal give, while the RC701’s upper wrinkles and yields more under load.

Shimano RC701
A very subtle graphic appears in the right light. This only barely captures it.

Aesthetically, the RC7’s are nothing to scoff at. My white samples even feature a very subtle ghosted artistic design. It’s not something others would see without a close look, but it’s there.

Two very different shoes

I arranged this test with the expectation to find the new RC701 full of value and with so much of what the flagship S-Phyre RC9 offered. However, despite the similar names and aesthetic, there’s a clear distinction between these two racing shoes.

The price difference is really quite telling on which is the better shoe. The new RC9 builds on my favourite road cycling shoe – it’s comfortable, practical, and stable. However, it is a shoe made for racing, and the snug fit, additional arch support, and firm hold won’t be for everyone, especially those who prefer a more sneaker-like fit.

By contrast, the RC7 offers that more relaxed fit. It does so many things right, and certainly, it’s a solid race shoe for the money, but if you want a truly performance-minded shoe, you’ll want to spend the extra money. The RC7 may be AU$200 cheaper, but the way the soft upper creases under load and the single-direction Boa dials undo what is otherwise an impressively good, if not simple, shoe.

In my opinion, the RC7 almost feels like the neglected child of Shimano’s footwear lineup, especially when compared to the RP9, Shimano’s top-tier endurance road shoe (which is only marginally more expensive than the RC7). The RP9 shares the same carbon sole as the RC7 but with a subtly more relaxed fit again. It adds an external heel cup and offers the dual-direction Boa IP1 dial as seen on the RC9.

Put more simply, if the RC9 is Dura-Ace and the RC7 is 105, then arguably, the RP9 is Ultegra. Yes, the RP9 isn’t designed with racing in mind, but that distinction seems murky at best. If you’re set on going fast, you really should try on the RC9 – it’s truly one of the very best racing shoes available. However, if you’re not racing (or chasing PRs) and looking for a more relaxed hold, check out the RP9 instead.

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