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by James Huang
November 12, 2019
Photography by James Huang
I wasn’t a huge fan of Bontrager’s standard Ballista road shoes. Although they looked sleek with their seamless synthetic leather uppers and single rear-mounted Boa dial, the heel hold was only so-so, and tightening the dial only created more pressure on top of your foot.
Bontrager has since added a knit version — aptly named the Ballista Knit — which you’d expect to be just be an airier version of the original. But in reality, it’s actually a better shoe all around.
So why is there so much hype about knit cycling shoes, anyway? Style obviously plays a part in it, but there’s a functional component as well. Conventional synthetic leather materials can be molded to shape during the manufacturing process, but only to a certain extent. And once the molding is done, what you see is what you get. Assuming the same materials are used, the toe box area of the shoe will stretch or conform to your foot just the same as the midfoot area — for better or worse, and it’s only by replacing critical areas with other materials that you can add some specific features to improve the fit.
The knit upper offers a distinctive appearance, but also some notable benefits over a conventional synthetic leather upper, too.
In some ways, it’s like metal bicycle frames vs. carbon fiber composite ones. On a metal frame, the only way to engineer zonal flex or stiffness is to change the shape of the structure. But on a carbon fiber composite frame, you can adjust the underlying fiber types and orientations so as to tune the structural properties to your liking, almost wholly independent of the tube shape.
It’s for that same reason that shoe designers and engineers are so smitten with knit technology. Want to make the toe box a little stretchier? Just alter the knit pattern and/or change the textiles used just in that area. It’s the same with ventilation hole size, surface textures, and even colors. Simply put, there’s just a lot more you can do with a knit material than you can with a traditional synthetic leather.
In the case of the Ballista Knit, Bontrager has mostly eliminated the laminated polyurethane sheets that are typically used in all-mesh shoes to provide structure. Instead, Bontrager has just altered the knit density where those strips would normally go, and opened up the mesh pattern elsewhere to enhance ventilation.
The overall shape looks identical to the regular Ballista, but the knit construction makes these feel quite different.
There are still some laminated polyurethane pieces, mind you, but they’re limited to areas where the Boa wire needs to be guided along the surface of the upper, along with the forward edge of the toe box to provide a little protection. Bontrager is sticking with the same heel-mounted Boa dial configuration found on the standard Ballista, along with the same full-length carbon fiber plate. As such, the three-bolt cleat hardware is adjustable fore-aft to accommodate a wider range of rider preferences, and while the toe tread isn’t replaceable, the heel tread is (and at US$20 per pair, it’s not even terribly expensive).
Actual weight for my pair of size 43 samples is 491g — 19g heavier than the standard Ballista that I reviewed back in January. They’re also slightly more expensive at US$325 / £270 / €300, and offered in three solid colors: black, white, and hi-viz yellow. But sorry, Australia, Bontrager doesn’t appear to be offering the Ballista Knit in that market.
Bontrager’s motivation for offering a knit version of the Ballista may very well be mostly aesthetic, and the Ballista Knit obviously offers up a very different look from the standard version. But in my experience comparing both shoes, the knit version is also just better than the regular one, too.
As with the standard Ballista, Bontrager uses a single heel-mounted Boa dial on each shoe.
First and foremost, the heel hold issues I had with the standard Ballista somehow aren’t present here, despite the fact that these presumably use the same last. Knit materials do behave differently than conventional synthetic leathers during the manufacturing process, though, and it does seem to me that the Ballista Knit is better able to evenly wrap around the rear half of my foot relative to the standard version. While tightening the Boa on the regular Ballista make it feel like someone was stepping on my feet, these thankfully just held on tighter.
Even though the hold is improved, I found the Ballista Knit to be more comfortable as well.
They’re still fairly narrow, but the additional stretchiness around the toe box makes them feel a little roomier. Ventilation is absolutely superb, too. The bigger openings seem like they’re reserved just for the area above the toes and a panel along either side of the upper, but air can actually flow so freely through the entire surface of the upper that the Ballista Knit is downright chilly even on just moderately cool days. Thankfully, Bontrager includes a pair of purpose-built shoe covers, complete with a dedicated cutout on the back so you can still access the micro-adjustable Boa IP1 dial on the fly.
Although air can obviously flow freely through the parts of the upper where there are visible holes, it can easily pass through virtually every other part of the upper as well. This is not a shoe for riders whose feet get cold easily.
In terms of performance, there’s little to complain about. The carbon fiber sole is exceedingly rigid — making for excellent power transfer — but there’s still a bit of torsional give to keep your feet from falling asleep.
There are still some downsides ti Bontrager’s new Ballista Knit, however.
Bontrager uses a water-repellant finish on the Ballista Knit to help keep your feet clean in wet conditions, but as with any DWR treatment, there are limits to its effectiveness (and lifespan). As you’d expect, then, the knit material is hard to keep clean, especially in the lighter color options. The white pair I tested here started looking rather dingy after just a couple of months, and I’ve yet to figure out how to make them new-looking again without resorting to just tossing them in the washing machine. If there was ever a compelling functional reason to go with basic black, this is it.
The OCLV carbon fiber sole is as stiff as you’d expect.
Just as with the standard Ballista, the rear-mounted Boa seems a little fundamentally flawed. It gets the job done, but like on a bike with a mechanical drivetrain and less-than-ideal cable routing, there’s a lot of friction in the Boa cable path here, so quite a lot of effort is required to get things properly tight — and even when you do, there’s a good chance you’ll need to snug them up shortly after setting off for your ride once the Boa cable settles in a bit.
And also as I found with the regular Ballista, arch support is on the lighter side. I ended up swapping the standard insoles for some Specialized Body Geometry ones for a little extra stability, but as always, your mileage may vary.
The ultimate measure of a cycling shoe’s performance will always boil down to how well it fits your particular foot, but if Bontrager’s last is a good match for you, the new Ballista Knit has a lot to offer. It certainly doesn’t qualify as an ultralight shoe by any means, but it’s supportive, comfortable, and exceptionally well ventilated — almost too much, in fact. The clean styling will be a plus in the eyes of many, too, although keeping things clean may be a challenge, so keep that in mind when choosing your color.
Overall, the Ballista Knit still strikes me as the better of the two Ballista shoe options, and a solid case for knit technology in general.
Instead of incorporating multiple layers of different materials together, Bontrager just has to alter the knit density and pattern depending on what parts of the upper need to be stiff, and which areas need to be more flexible.
The complex cable routing creates a fair bit of friction, though, which then requires a fair bit of hand effort at the Boa dial to get things nice and tight.
A “cat’s tongue” liner in the heel cup helps keep the back of your foot in place.
The rear edge of the upper is where you’ll find the lone seam.
The heel tread is not only replaceable, but fairly reasonable in terms of cost to replace, too.
Slotted cleat holes provide a little extra adjustment room.