December 2016 Product Picks: Smith Optics, Bontrager, Edco 3ax, Bar Fly, Fix-It Sticks, Tacx, and Wind-Blox

by James Huang

December 7, 2016

Photography by James Huang

In this month’s edition of Product Picks, U.S. technical editor James Huang provides his feedback on Smith Optics’ latest lens technology, some budget-minded footwear from Bontrager, a novel pedal concept from Edco 3ax, Bar Fly’s latest two-in-one gadget, Fix-It Sticks’ innovative take on the lowly multi-tool, Tacx’s stylish water bottle and cage, and a neat idea from Wind-Blox to keep wind noise at bay.


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Bontrager Specter shoes

by James Huang

Bontrager’s Specter shoes squarely target the heart of the road shoe market with a price tag less than half that of top-end models. Nevertheless, Bontrager has managed to pack the Specter with features, including Boa’s premium IP1 dial with micro-adjustment in both directions and a single-pull instant release, a supple microfiber synthetic upper with generous sized mesh panels for ventilation, and sole vents that aren’t just for show.

It's surprising to find Boa's top-end IP1 dial at this price point.

It’s surprising to find Boa’s top-end IP1 dial at this price point.

That said, you don’t get something for nothing.

The usual carbon fiber sole of higher-end shoes is replaced with a fiber-reinforced nylon plate, but one that’s cleverly bolstered with a girder-like truss that runs from the heel to the ball of the foot. That sole also offers both two-bolt and three-bolt cleat plates for versatility, and Bontrager’s inForm Race last provides a touch more interior volume than the snugger-fitting inForm Pro shape used elsewhere.

The truss-style construction is the key to the Bontrager Specter's sole stiffness.

The truss-style construction is the key to the Bontrager Specter’s sole stiffness.

All that material adds up, but not as much as you might think. Actual weight for a pair of size 43 shoes is 521g — just 21g heavier than Shimano’s latest S-Phyre RC900 flagship.

Our Take:

These shoes blew me away with how good they are for the money. Bontrager self-rates the stiffness of the Specter’s nylon sole at a modest 8 out of 14, and if you do a casual “bend test” in your hands, you can detect a hint of flex. But in the saddle, it feels like a much closer competitor to carbon fiber — so much so that I doubt most riders would notice the difference. The truss-like construction does a fantastic job of boosting the capability of the nylon material, and this mechanical solution will probably negate the long-term softening that often plagues cheaper cycling shoe soles. It’s a smart approach for sure, and one that other companies would be wise to follow.

Heel hold is excellent with no slipping noted during testing. Reflective elements on the back aid in low-light visibility, and the optional high-vis yellow color is certainly hard to miss.

Heel hold is excellent with no slipping noted during testing. Reflective elements on the back aid in low-light visibility, and the optional high-vis yellow color is certainly hard to miss.

The inForm Race last is a little roomier than Bontrager’s inForm Pro setup, but it’s not a major difference, and still provides a pleasantly snug and even fit through the midsection with excellent heel hold and plenty of space up front for your toes to wiggle around. Ventilation is as good as I had hoped, with generous airflow coming in through the open mesh over the front (even more so than with Bontrager’s top-end XXX shoes, in fact). My feet stayed dry even at the end of long, hot mid-summer rides, but toe covers would be recommended below 10°C/50°F.

As good as the Specters are, there are a few areas where there is no mistaking their budget roots.

The additional two-bolt cleat interface is nice to see from a versatility standpoint, but the insert rattles incessantly if it isn't used unless you remove it completely.

The additional two-bolt cleat interface is nice to see from a versatility standpoint, but the insert rattles incessantly if it isn’t used unless you remove it completely.

The insole is disappointingly cheap, and offers little arch support; I ended up swapping to a different set made with denser foam and more ergonomic shape. The nylon sole is impressively stiff, but the taller stack height relative to carbon fiber plates forced me to raise my saddle a couple of millimeters to compensate. Bontrager doesn’t include any means of locking the two-bolt cleat inserts in place when using conventional three-bolt road cleats, either, so they rattle around unless you take the time to pry them out through the lasting board up top. Lastly, neither the heel nor the toe treads are replaceable.

Nevertheless, these are great shoes with exceptional value, and ones I wouldn’t hesitate to wear myself.

Price: US$160 / AU$220 / £130
www.bontrager.com


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