I remember my first set of mountain bike shoes. I picked a ‘best guess’ size and special ordered them from my local bike shop. There were a men’s design, fitted well enough, and worked well in the face of no other wildly different options that small or at that price point. I’ve had knee niggles ever since, a likely outcome given over training, under stretching and my feet swimming around in my shoes.
Specialized have developed research, training and design systems that eliminate experiences for female riders like the one above. Like the women’s saddles we tested recently , our women’s shoe test also began by meeting with Lyndell van de Walle at Cyclery Northside, getting fitted for two new offerings from Specialized: The Riata MTB shoes and the Cascade XC shoes.
[divider]Finding your fit[/divider]
The fit process for a pair of Specialized shoes takes into account two important measurements. The first is a rider’s size, the second is the amount of contact their foot has with the sole of the shoe.
A heat sensitive device measures the two in one go. This limits the fussing around with special ordering and multiple shop visits if the first size isn’t right. (Although, due to brand’s reputation for excellent fitting women’s shoes most shops stock a good range of sizes and styles.)
Our foot contact measurement indicated a high arch. This signalled that extra support inside the shoe would provide additional stability, an improved pedal stroke and better power transfer.
Three different innersoles, or footbeds, are available as an add-on to a shoe purchase for riders who want to address this area of fit and performance. In our case, we were supplied with innersoles that support a higher arch, which stopped our foot collapsing during the pedal stroke.
The built up footbeds have led to much better tracking of our hips and knees, to the point where knee pain on the bike and was far more responsive to stretching and maintenance off the bike. The difference is so pronounced we want to put these in our regular shoes as well – except that they’re carefully designed for a pedal stroke, not a foot step.
With size and arch support taken care of, what would the shoes offer on top of this?
[divider]Specialized Women’s Riata MTB Shoe[/divider]
The Riata MTB shoe is an entry level mountain bike shoe. At $129.95 it retails at a price you’d expect to pay for a reasonably supportive running shoe.
Like a similar level of running shoe, the Riata is constructed out of well-researched features delivering fit and performance without going over the top with bells and whistles.
The sole provides reasonable traction. There are no studs or softer compound materials to add extra grip, but we didn’t miss this. In fact, we preferred the durability of the more basic sole that is less affected by walking on scratchy surfaces.
Specialized shoes are built up a little along the inside middle of the foot. Whether you buy additional inner soles or not, riders will also benefit from the ‘metatarsal button’ which helps to keep the toes feeling relaxed and ‘longitudinal arch’ support. Again, great for the demands of long rides and a cycling pedal stroke.
The sole of the Riata has a ‘stiffness factor’ of six. This means it’s stiff-ish without being so light, hard and power transfer-y that Specialized would want to use similar materials for Tony Martin’s next time trial bike.
Of the two pairs of shoes we tested we preferred these for trail riding and gravity enduro – ride days where we valued the flexibility of the sole for extra pedal feel and subtle manoeuvres through the feet. We also preferred the Riatas for these rides as we’re more off and on the bike as they’re better suited for walking. Our heel tended to slip a little but not in a deal breaker way.
We were very impressed by the fit, feel and value for money of these shoes. They offer new riders an affordable, stylish and very functional package.
We were blown away by how far they’ve come from heavy, ‘unisex’, box-like designs of the past.
[divider]Specialized Women’s Cascade XC Shoes[/divider]
There aren’t many companies offering a high end women’s specific XC shoe. The carbon soled, fancy-strapped, shiny, pro-looking Cascades are in fact a model down from the even more blinged out Specialized Women’s S-Works race shoes.
We were excited about testing them, but then devastated when they didn’t seem to fit. They’re so snug, stiff and efficient that, at first, matched to our broad feet they just seemed to cause blisters and cramps.
We were surprised about this given our success with other models in the Specialized range, but soon realised it wasn’t the shoe that was causing the problem, but the shoe combined with our broad, high arched feet and the extra bulk of the add-on green footbeds we’d inserted.
After a month of breaking in the shoe with the original, less built up footbeds we were able to switch back to the support of the green inserts and have blissfully remained blister and cramp free since. In fact, the Cascades now feel akin to a pair of stylish, powerful slippers. Cinderella eat your heart out.
The Cascades do away with some of the extra material that adds room and bulk in the Riatas. Two Velcro straps and a replaceable ‘Boa S2 Snap’ dial pull the top in nice and close.
A carbon sole adds stiffness and shaves weight. The sole also has more traction than earlier women’s shoe designs from Specialized, a welcome addition given they are made for mountain biking after all. Like the Riatas, we were really pleased to see these shoes come in a practical black.
With a stiffness index of 11, five more stiffness-es than the Riatas, these shoes are the pick for transferring power to the pedals. They hold the feet in place well eliminating extra movement and energy loss, but are still as comfortable at the end of an all day ride as they are at the beginning (after that initial breaking in period for our test feet).
Like the name suggests, they’re best suited to XC and marathon. We also used them a lot on the road bike during the test period. They’re light, efficient and we prefer the extra float on MTB pedals compared to some road brands. Plus, if we were to spend $350 on a pair of shoes, we’d want to be using them every chance we could!
The Cascades are more than twice the price of the Riatas. In the absence of many competitors on the market, they’re a worthwhile investment for women wanting a high performing, injury reducing, snug fitting pair of kicks.
We were obviously impressed by these two women’s offerings from Specialized. While some brands still only make a token effort in the women’s shoe department, it’s impressive to see such a comprehensive, innovative and extensive range coming out of this company for female riders at both ends of the sport.
The fit process reflects the research findings from the design team and adds to the pleasurable ride experience both shoes provide. The impact of a good fitting pair of shoes on injury reduction is something we can’t emphasise enough making either pair a valuable investment if you find yourself riding regularly.
We were surprised by the initial tightness of the Cascades, but it was in fact the fit process that made us think it was worthwhile trying them a little longer – and given how comfortable they became, we’re certainly glad we did.