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by James Huang
December 11, 2019
Photography by James Huang
Gravel this, gravel that.
It seems everything has a “gravel” variant these days, and Pearl Izumi answers the call with its X-Alp Gravel shoes that are supposedly purpose-built for the genre. Automatic entries into Dirty Kanza aren’t included with the purchase price, but here’s the thing: they’re actually pretty good, albeit hardly perfect.
First and foremost, the X-Alp Gravel shoes are seriously comfy, at least for my feet. The toe box offers up plenty of room for your little piggies to roam free, the synthetic upper material is very soft and pliable, and the well-shaped heel area is nicely padded and holds well enough without any irritation. Despite the simple single-Boa closure configuration, the X-Alp Gravel also secures evenly across the top of your foot with no pressure points to speak of.
The Pearl Izumi X-Alp Gravel shoes blend the fit of a road upper with the walkability of a fully treaded outsole.
Ventilation is very good, too, thanks to the generously perforated upper and (effectively) single-layer construction, and while performance-minded riders might scoff at the nylon midsole, the X-Alp Gravel seemed stiff enough for the task at hand. For sure, there’s a noticeable difference between these and something with a full-length, real carbon fiber midsole, but for casual gravel rides, all I really cared about was having enough support that my feet stayed comfortable during long rides (which they did).
On foot, that nylon midsole becomes more of an advantage, as there’s certainly more flex to help you amble about with confidence. The generously treaded TPU outsole obviously plays a major role here as well, and kudos to Pearl Izumi for leaving very little nylon exposed as a cruel surprise when you’re scrambling on rocks. As an extra bonus, Pearl Izumi also inserts a wedge of shock-absorbing EVA foam in the heel that largely eliminates the unpleasant jolting that often goes along with walking in cycling shoes on hard surfaces.
While I did find the uppers on the X-Alp Gravel to be quite coddling, getting to that point was a bit of a pain.
Instead of the usual criss-cross pattern found in most Boa-equipped cycling shoes to date, Pearl Izumi uses a “sequential” routing setup where only one of the wire paths snakes across the top of your foot; the other wire takes a straight path down one side of the shoe opening.
The one-piece synthetic upper is reasonably supportive and supremely comfy. The goofy Boa lacing pattern isn’t my favorite, though, at least not how it’s executed here.
“During our development of this lace pattern with Boa, we were aiming for the best total closure possible with a single dial and no toe strap,” explained Pearl Izumi product developer Zach Walz. “In a perfect world with no friction, you would never have an uneven tension issue, but once the shoe is on and tightened down the lace tension evens out with a couple of steps.”
I don’t know about you, but I unfortunately don’t live in that perfect world, and achieving that perfectly even tension across the top of my foot typically took more than a couple of steps. Instead, I found myself pulling and tugging on various points of the wire to help get things where I thought they should be, and even then, I usually needed to tweak things a bit more a few minutes into my ride.
Complicating matters is the lower-end Boa L6 dial that Pearl Izumi uses on the X-Alp Gravel, which offers micro-adjustment when tightening the wire, but not in the other direction. In other words, if you tighten things down too much, you have no other option but to just pull the dial out for a full tension release.
There’s some modest armoring around the toe, which also helps the toe box retain its shape.
Even assuming you’re ok with that hassle, getting the right fit in the X-Alp Gravel is a bit of a crapshoot since it’s only offered in whole sizes — something I find rather disappointing for a midrange shoe with any sort of performance pretence.
Other niggling issues — at least for me — include ho-hum arch support with cheap-feeling insoles, and a range of colors that was apparently chosen in the style of Ford’s original Model T.
Hopefully you like all-black shoes. And hopefully one of the full sizes fit you. And hopefully you don’t mind very possibly needing to upgrade your footbeds.
A cushy insert of foam in the heel adds noticeable comfort when walking about on hard surfaces.
And are they light? Well, no, at 682g for a pair of size 43 shoes, they’re not. But I’d argue that most people shopping for shoes like this aren’t likely to care, anyway.
Am I being too picky? Maybe I’m being too picky. Or maybe I’m being just picky enough, because while I generally really enjoyed riding in the Pearl Izumi X-Alp Gravel shoes, I generally really disliked the process of putting them on, and that’s never a good way to start a ride.
“Our approach to a gravel shoe was the fit of a road upper with the walkability of a mountain shoe,” said Pearl Izumi global brand manager Andrew Hammond. “Usually, our mountain bike lasts have a little more room to allow for foot splay off the bike, whereas road shoes are designed to more closely hug the foot to evenly distribute pressure over hours in the saddle. Also, road shoes (and this gravel shoe) use a little lighter upper materials. We think this blend of function is pretty optimal for a consistent pedaling effort and occasional off-the-bike slog.”
Fair enough, but I’d argue that that’s how nicer cross-country shoes have always fit, anyway.
The tread is fantastic for the application. It’s not as grippy as real mountain bike shoes with softer rubber, but it provides secure purchase in most scenarios and excellent support on pedal bodies for a nice, stable feel.
The toe box is pretty roomy, and the shoe overall features a medium amount of volume. I suspect most users will find it works just fine.
The heel cup is nicely padded, and well shaped.
Arch support could be better.