Bontrager Ballista shoe review: The look of laces; the convenience of Boa
The Bontrager Ballista road shoes are undeniably sleek, what with their ultra-smooth exterior and simple rear-mounted single Boa cable reels. But does such a streamlined approach still yield the necessary fit and performance? “Almost,” says CyclingTips global technical editor James Huang.
- Price: US$300 / AU$350 / £200 / €300
- Weight: 472g/pair (size 43)
- Highs: Clean styling, convenient single-Boa format, stiff carbon sole, lightweight
- Lows: So-so heel hold, single-Boa format doesn’t allow for zonal tightening
Bontrager first debuted the Ballista name on its premier aero road helmet, but it’s now applied the moniker to a pair of similarly speedy-looking road shoes, apparently as part of a greater plan to craft a whole family of Ballista products focused on aerodynamic efficiency. With the new Ballista road shoes, Bontrager wanted to retain the convenience of Boa cable reels — seemingly a necessity when it comes to high-end cycling footwear these days — but in a form factor more reminiscent of classically styled lace-ups.
What results is a single Boa dial mounted to the heel of a nearly seamless microfiber upper that is otherwise devoid of extraneous hardware; even the wire guides are made of fabric so as to not create any unnecessary pressure points. Bontrager claims that single Boa dial — there are no other closure mechanisms — is enough to provide a secure hold, thanks in part to the way the cable wraps around the ankle in addition to across the top of your foot.
Down below is a carbon fiber sole plate (ranking 12/14 on Bontrager’s stiffness scale) with vents under the toes and midfoot, a replaceable heel tread, and standard three-bolt cleat drilling.
Fit-wise, Bontrager builds the Ballista with its most aggressive inForm Pro last for a snug hold, while the standard insole sports a modest bump under your toes and a bit of arch support to supplemental the built-in shaping in the carbon plate.
Bontrager supplied my set in the impossible-to-miss Ballista LTD version, finished in a “Radioactive Yellow” high-visibility hue, plus a smattering of reflective elements to help keep you conspicuous day or night. More conventional color options are available as well, including black, white, and red.
Actual weight for my size 43 test shoes is 472g per pair, including insoles. Retail price for the Ballista LTD is US$300 / AU$350 / £200 / €300.
Long on promise, but a touch short on delivery
First impressions were very favorable for the Bontrager Ballista shoes.
As expected, the single Boa dial is convenient to use. The heel-mounted location is a bit awkward to grab until you get used to it, but the format certainly does streamline things somewhat. And I continue to have nothing but praise for this particular Boa IP1 dial model. The dual-direction micro-adjustability and handy pull-to-release exit strategy are excellent.
I can’t deny the clean looks that design produces, too. As someone who very much buys into the aesthetics of lace-ups, these Ballista shoes tick a lot of boxes for me. Lace-up styling with Boa convenience? Sign me up.
But unfortunately, I didn’t find the system to work all that well.
I’ve always found that, with the best cycling shoes I’ve used, tightening the closure devices should snug up everything behind the toe box evenly, almost as if your foot was stuck inside a plastic bag as someone was drawing a vacuum. And accordingly, Bontrager claims the Ballista’s “Heel Reel” lacing design “draws [your] foot down and back to create a secure heel lock for a more efficient pedal stroke.”
However, I found that tightening the Boa dial on the Ballista just creates more pressure on top of the foot instead of tightening up everything, and even when things are cranked down tight, there’s noticeable heel lift. Instead of that shrink-wrapped feel I seek in cycling shoes, it felt more like someone was just stepping on my feet. As a result, I was never able to get the Ballistas as tight as I wanted without creating some unwanted discomfort.
From what I can tell, part of the issue is that the uppers are much more pliable over the top of your foot than around the ankle area. Moreover, the heel cup itself strikes me as a bit wider and shallower than I’d typically prefer. But that said, the way the Ballistas tighten up perhaps highlights even more the inherent limitations of using a single closure in terms of being able to choose where the shoe is tight, and where it’s a little more relaxed.
Fit-wise, the Ballistas are similar to other Bontrager shoes made with the company’s inForm Pro last, which is to say that they’re fairly roomy throughout with a moderately tapered toe box. The upper materials are admirably soft and supple, although riders with any sort of anomalies will want to note that they don’t stretch much at all. Arch support is modest, and should suit riders with both flat feet and high arches, perhaps with a little insole customization required.
Otherwise, the rest of the shoe is about what you’d expect. The carbon sole is very stiff, the shoe is reasonably well ventilated overall, and the materials seems fairly durable. Cleat placement seems spot-on to me for neutral positioning, too, and I like that the heel tread is replaceable.
Overall, I found myself feeling a little let-down by the Ballistas. The design is very promising, and my guess is that most riders will find the clean aesthetic to be quite agreeable. But even so, I think Bontrager needs to do a bit more work to improve the heel hold. The rear-mounted Boa concept seems to hold merit — it worked in the past for Lake, for example — but as it stands currently, it feels like it could use some refinement (either in the lacing design or the heel cup shape) to make the Ballistas truly competitive with other top options in the segment.