Pearl Izumi X Project Mountain Bike Shoes

The Pearl Izumi X Project started off with a simple-enough premise: create a mountain bike shoe that hikes and runs as well as it pedals. But before firing up the computer or simply asking the factory to use more flexible materials, Pearl Izumi got in touch with pro mountain biker Brian Lopes and researchers at the University of Colorado to help them do their homework. After countless tests and iterations, the result is a shoe that is comfortable and flexible off the bike while retaining all the pedaling efficiency you expect from a cycling shoe.

This year Pearl Izumi is offering the X Project shoes in 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 configurations (with 2.0 and 3.0 versions for women). This review will focus on the top-of-the-line 1.0 version ($280 MSRP).

In order to understand how the X-Project shoes work, it’s helpful to talk about how the design came together. The Pearl Izumi designers started with a standard, full carbon sole and, working with exercise physiologists, measured pedaling performance and monitored biomechanics. Then, they hacked off part of the sole and did the test again. And again. And again, until they found the point where removing any more of the carbon shank would negatively impact the rider’s pedaling efficiency. It turns out riders didn’t need a full rigid, carbon shank covering the entire bottom of their feet. The upshot: improved flexibility without a loss in efficiency. Eureka!

If Pearl Izumi had stopped at this point they would have had a great shoe that works as advertised but instead, they chose to keep going. Starting at the bottom of the shoe, Pearl Izumi used a new process to co-mold rubber tips onto the bottom unit for improved traction (shown above). Many performance-oriented mountain bike shoes feature almost plastic-like tread whereas the X-Project tread is like what you’d find on hiking boot or rugged sneaker. The heel even features EVA padding similar to what’s used for running shoes.

Like other mountain bike shoes offered by Pearl Izumi, the X-Project shoes feature the company’s 1:1 Insole System which use inserts to get the right arch support for your foot shape.

The X-Project 1.0 uppers are VERY lightweight with tons of venting. In fact, the venting on these shoes is so extreme they probably aren’t appropriate for winter riding in many places. But the upshot is a comfortable warm-weather shoe that’s extremely lightweight, almost in the same vein as minimalist running shoes. Even the velcro straps have mesh windows to cut down on weight!

The tongue on the X-Project 1.0 shoes features a stretchy, neoprene-like material mated with a leather-like material around the edges for improved durability. I’m told the toe area is “seamlessly constructed” which I haven’t verified but I can tell you these shoes are amazingly comfortable with an almost suction-like fit on my foot.

The ratcheted buckle on the X-Project 1.0 shoe is top-of-the-line and has the smoothest action of any ratchet I’ve tried. Pearl Izumi chose to angle the strap at 25-degrees to provide a better and more comfortable fit and the design definitely delivers.

Outwardly, Pearl Izumi went with a bold and easily recognizable design for the X-Project shoes that I’m really digging. The sole is transparent, allowing you to see the shape of the carbon shank inside, evoking a sort of Nike Air experience.

On the Trail

I’ve had several chances to test these shoes over the past few months (including a test spin at Interbike and at Aliso and Wood Canyon) but I’ve been saving my full review until I had a chance to also wear these shoes on my local rides.

On the bike, the X-Project shoes feel like regular bike shoes that fit really well. They’re not heat-moldable but in my experience, they don’t need to be. The uppers are flexible enough to conform to almost any foot shape snugly without any sharp edges. Compared to other shoes I’ve worn, they’re lighter weight which makes them a bit easier to pedal on long rides and the venting is welcome on hot days.

Off the bike, the X-Project shoes feel very different from anything else I’ve tried. I do my best to avoid getting off the bike during a ride but while testing these shoes I realized just how often my feet are on the ground. Running out of steam on steep climbs, walking around between demos at Interbike, and dismounting to run up stairs or avoid technical spots, the X-Project shoes are pretty amazing. And to be clear, the flexibility isn’t just up-and-down–it’s torsional as well which allows your feet to respond to the terrain. Beyond just the comfort factor, these shoes truly grip trail surfaces better than any other shoe I’ve tried.

It’s rare to find mountain bike products that are able to combine performance and comfort but Pearl Izumi found a way to thread the needle with the X-Project shoes. High tech design and materials combined with a minimalist approach has yielded a revolutionary mountain bike shoe that will change the way you think about your trail footwear.

Now if Pearl Izumi would just take on saddles for their next X-Project…

Thanks to the folks at Pearl Izumi for providing these shoes for review.

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