Shimano S-Phyre SH-RC902 road shoe review: Messing with success

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Shimano’s latest flagship road shoe doesn’t really look all that different from the previous model. However, there are some very substantive changes underneath the surface, and while the move will undoubtedly be welcomed by some, long-time fans of that characteristic Shimano fit might want to stock up on older models before they’re all gone.

Evolution, not revolution?

Feet are highly variable appendages, and, by and large, riders who have been in the saddle for a while are likely to have already found which brands fit them best. Fizik shoes are typically quite narrow, for example, with aggressively tapered toe boxes, high arches, and high insteps. With Specialized, you can expect a rather snug heel and midfoot area, but a decent amount of room around the toe box. In Bont shoes, your piggies have room for days. Giro? Kind of a medium fit all around, but with the lace-up models tossing in a curve ball in the form of a narrow toe box.

As such, cycling shoe companies typically try to sell the merits of their latest models based on a laundry list of improvements: a few grams shaved here, a little more stiffness there, perhaps a sprinkle of extra comfort and ventilation, and, of course, some more up-to-date colors. Those new features might serve to attract some fresh attention, and maybe bring some new customers into the fold, but in terms of that critical aspect of fit, brand devotees will pretty much know what they’re getting.

Instead of forming the upper around a lasting board and then bonding the whole assembly to a plate, Shimano wraps the upper directly around the carbon fiber, which eliminates a layer and reduces the overall stack height of the shoe.

With Shimano, what that has historically meant is a medium fit around the heel, a pretty wide (yet rather aggressively tapered) toe box area, a medium-wide midfoot region, and an overall layout that has typically worked well for riders with low insteps.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking Shimano’s new S-Phyre SH-RC902 road shoe is just a mild refresh of the very similar-looking SH-RC901. After all, the overall configuration of the two shoes includes the same wraparound upper design and double Boa dial closure layout, there’s once again the same sleek slip-lasted construction where the sides of the upper wrap all the way around the bottom of the carbon plate, and both have big external plastic heel cups.

On the surface, then, what you seem to be getting with the new shoe is a set of Boa’s snazzy new low-profile Li2 dials and shiny new uppers that aren’t all scuffed up from daily wear and tear.

Like an especially tight hold up front? The lace guides give you the option of doubling up the number of times the lace crosses over to provide a firmer hold.

As with the RC901, you get your choice of several monochromatic colors: red, white, black, and Shimano’s signature metallic blue shown here. There’s also a broad range of size options that run from 36 to 48, with half-sizes from 37-47, and wide options throughout that offer a little extra wiggle room in the upper.

Actual weight on my size 43 test pair is 493 grams, including silver-treated insoles with interchangeable arch inserts. Retail price is US$425 / AU$549 / £320 / €360.

Tweaking the formula

According to Shimano, changes to the S-Phyre SH-RC902 in terms of fit are “minimal”, with just a little more room around the big and little toes, and a tighter-fitting heel cup that allows for less movement under power than before. Truth be told, all of it is noticeable.

As promised, the heel hold is a tangible improvement over the RC902 with a firmer hold relative to the RC901, and easily the best of any Shimano shoe that I can remember. And just like Shimano says, the gentler taper in the toe box impinges less on the inner side of your big toe, and doesn’t force your little toe to point inward as much as before, either.

The changes to the toe box shape aren’t immediately obvious – until you put the shoes on.

There are some subtle improvements elsewhere, too.

The cut of the upper has been revised such that the left and right halves overlap more cleanly when everything is pulled tight (especially on low-volume feet), there’s more protection around the edges of the toe area so it’s more likely to stay clean in the event your shoe rubs up against the front tire, there’s more surface contact on the replaceable (albeit somewhat fast-wearing) heel tread so walking is a tad more secure.

The new Boa Li2 dials once again feature micro-adjustability in both the tightening and loosening directions and the same pull-to-release function as before, so you can quickly tear your shoes off after a long day in the saddle. I do miss the rubberized texture of the RC901’s older IP1 dials, though, and while Boa makes a big deal of the Li2’s supposedly lower profile, I don’t think it’s something most people will notice unless you carefully inspect them side-by-side. Nevertheless, they’re quite nice.

Shimano is among the many brands using Boa’s latest Li2 dials, which are (very) slightly lower in profile than the IP1 and have a more pronounced texture.

No one will be surprised to hear that the updated carbon fiber plate is mega-stiff — just like before — and I dare say that Shimano’s claim of a “surreal connection to the pedals” carries some merit. It honestly does feel like your cleats are bolted right to the bottom of your feet, and I mean that in a good way, at least in terms of stack height. And if you need it, there’s ample fore-aft adjustment on the three-hole cleat inserts.

The heel and toe vents have been reshaped to pull in more air, too. I often don’t notice a whole lot of benefit to sole vents in a lot of shoes I test, and while I wouldn’t say the RC902 are the breeziest shoes I’ve ridden in very hot weather (that crown would likely fall on the Giro Imperial or Specialized S-Works Exo), they’re still pretty good in that respect, and I did feel air coming in under my toes on the RC902. For riders that might regularly find themselves in wet conditions, it’s worth pointing out that those same vent holes would also act as drain holes, and should help the shoes dry out faster in general.

Unlike too many shoes, the vents in the sole on the Shimano S-Phyre SH-RC902 are sufficiently sized that you can feel the air coming in under your toes.

Taking all of this together, it sounds like the RC902 is easily a better shoe than the RC901 then, right? Let’s come back to that subject of fit.

As I said earlier, long-time riders often rely on companies to maintain their tried-and-true shapes, and it wasn’t until I started mixing left and right shoes during testing that something dawned on me. The S-Phyre SH-RC902 feels less like the RC901 model it replaces, and more like a Specialized S-Works 7. For riders who have come to depend on the distinctive shape that has characterized Shimano road shoes for ages, this news might be more than a little unsettling.

There’s that tighter-fitting heel, and more snugly-wrapped midfoot area. And while the toe box on the RC902 really is more squared-off on the sides than it was on the RC901, it still feels narrower up there than it used to (a perception that was confirmed by other RC902 owners).

Heel hold on the new shoes is fantastic.

They’re not identical, of course. The RC902’s arch support isn’t quite as aggressive as what you find in a Specialized shoe (it’s still very supportive, though), there isn’t that built-in varus forefoot wedge, and the RC902’s toe box is still a touch more tapered than the S-Works 7’s. But when wearing an S-Works 7 on one foot and an RC902 on the other, it’s hard to tell the difference after a few minutes in terms of how they fit.

Shimano shoe fans with duck flippers for feet perhaps don’t have to despair, though. Remember that Shimano offers that wide fit option across the board, although I can’t say exactly how different they are or precisely what parts of the upper are roomier than the standard fit.

Six of one, half-dozen of the other?

Specifics aside, the RC902 just doesn’t fit like Shimano shoes that came before it. Whether that’s an improvement or a huge bummer will obviously depend on how well you fit in older Shimano models.

For me, it’s a good thing, but for others… well, sorry. As always with footwear, it’s critical to try them on before making your decision, but if you find that Shimano’s last updates don’t suit you, I’d suggest wasting little time in stocking up on older-model spares, because you can rest assured that the rest of the Shimano range will soon follow suit.

Change is good, right?

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