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Finding the right shoe is a lot like finding the right saddle—it’s totally individual. It comes down to fit and comfort, which depend on the anatomy of your foot. If those elements don’t work with the shoe, it doesn’t matter how light the carbon-fibre sole or how big the heel pull-tab, the shoes won’t perform their worth. While some triathletes own both a road and tri bike, as well as a set of road and tri cycling shoes to accompany them, that’s not an viable option for many of us. Hence the interesting question: what’s the best choice for triathletes, a road shoe or a triathlon shoe?

The answer is not straightforward. We’ve tested both tri and road versions of three top cycling shoes to evaluate the differences. Clearly tri shoes are faster to put on and take off, but in making them so, a certain amount of stiffness is sacrificed. In a sprint or Olympic distance race, fast transitions are essential, particularly in the draft legal ITU circuit. But, in the longer races—the half iron to full iron distances—does the higher power transfer from a stiffer, more firm-fitting shoe translate to a better performance over more miles?

TMC had testers try both the road and tri versions back to back throughout a number of sessions to compare wattage, comfort and the ease of putting on and removing the shoes. The variables we couldn’t control included rest time between tests which may have an effect on the power variations. Our 3 x 1 hour tests were conducted on both a CompuTrainer and on the road with a Powertap.

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Bontrager Hilo RXL  ($210) and the Bontrager RL ($200)

Bontrager’s Hilo RXL is among the most versatile of triathlon shoes. Unlike the earlier fastening trend of tri shoes—which closed on the inside, thereby potentially interfering with the crank or pedal—the Hilo RXL closes conveniently on the outside of the foot.

Hilo RXL tri shoe

Hilo RXL tri shoe

A well-ventilated mesh panelling in the arch, lateral side and toe area ensure the wet feet from T1 dry quickly and stay cool. The Hilo RXL feels like a road shoe and the difference in power transfer compared with the Hilo RXL is not significant: our tester posted the exact same output in both shoes. This continuity is likely achieved by the no-pull through strap, leaving no extra material or space at the instep. The result is superior support and a firm fit.

Both the road and tri versions share the Silver Series Carbon sole and sturdy in Form Pro last. Our tester preferred the RL’s low profile micro-fit buckle with its incremental tension and release to the hook and loop strap of the Hilo RXL for its precise fit at the heal and instep, while allowing enough room from a wider forefoot.

Bontrager RL road shoe

Bontrager RL road shoe

However, the tester really valued the transition heel loop of the Hilo RXL in comparison to other tri shoe versions. It is wide and rigid so it stays open and easy to get into without looking—a bonus for a flying mount. Of all the shoes we tested, these two feel the most similar between the two models.

 

 

Giro Melee Tri $250  and Giro Prolight SLX $430

Giro’s premium tri shoe is designed to produce power without compromise. The Easton EC70 carbon composite outsole is light and thin, allowing for a remarkably thin stack height.

Giro Melee Tri

Giro Melee Tri

Our testers marvelled at how swift and efficient these shoes felt. Two straps provide a snug and secure fit without any pinching or hot spots. The heel pull-tab is sturdy and there’s a lot of breathable mesh built into the upper in order to keep the shoe light and feet dry.

Since the Prolight SLX is a significantly higher price point than the Melee Tri, we thought there would be more of a noticeable difference between the two, but the similarities speak to the high quality of the latter. Both versions feature hook-and-loop closures that conform well and are easily adjustable. More importantly, according to Giro, the hook-and-loop straps are more likely to survive a crash than buckled closures. Three separate straps on the Prolight (versus the two straps on the Melee Tri) are angled slightly differently to accomplish three separate aims. The top strap holds the heel into the cup, the middle strap crosses the metatarsals to anchor the foot, and the bottom strap ensures there is no extra material in the forefoot creating pressure points. The Easton EC90SLX is the lightest and stiffest sole Giro offers allowing for maximal stiffness. Because there are few seams and a polyester liner, chafing won’t be a problem going sockless in these road shoes.

Giro Prolight SLX

Giro Prolight SLX

While our testers found both models to be superb, the Giro Prolight SLX yielded slightly higher power numbers (a difference of an average of 5 watts over one hour). But without the heel loop, a flying mount was impossible with the Giro Prolight, and despite having hook-and-loop straps, it did take longer to put on and take off than the Melee Tri. Our tester insisted however, that it was possible to leave the road version on the pedals upon dismount with a difference of only 20 seconds lost in balancing without a heel loop.

 

Mavic Tri Hellium $450 and Mavic Zellium Ultimate Road Shoe ($475)

For the high-end purchase, we’ve compared the Mavic Tri Hellium and the Zxellium Ultimate road shoe. In bright canary yellow, both shoes make a statement. A full carbon sole makes the Tri Hellium an extremely stiff and lightweight shoe optimizing energy transfer. Mavic’s Ergo Strap Custom was engineered to stay open when the shoe is not on, which means whether clipped in or on the ground at T1, entry is fast.

Mavic Tri Helium

Mavic Tri Helium

The heel pull-tabs are ample and stiff so don’t sag, making them easy to find mid pedal stroke. Because the opening spans almost the entire top of the shoe, wearers can achieve a customized fit by folding one layer of the upper over another. Two large top straps open away from the drivetrain, allowing for quick and secure closure of the shoe. The main strap comes extra long so you can trim to size.

When the Tri Hellium is compared to the Zxellium Ultimate road shoe, there is a noticeable difference in terms of overall stiffness which allowed our tester to generate more power (an increase of 10 watts over one hour) in the road shoe.  The Zxellium fits like a second skin. This fit is achieved by a moulded thermoplastic truss wrapping from the carbon sole over the forefoot on the medial side and the Energy Frame similarly wrapping the foot on the lateral side. A ratcheting buckle locks the heel and instep in place.

Mavic Zxellium Ultimate

Mavic Zxellium Ultimate

Additionally, a heel counter cradles the back of the foot, further optimizing position for maximal power output. Auto Fit padding in the heel, tongue and insole effectively mould to your foot without heat. Mavic uses small Kevlar cords for a stretch-free system that allows a perfect adjustment with each wear. The middle strap also has teeth for fine-tuning to accommodate varying forefoot volume requirements.

The Bottom Line:

Fit is paramount and it’s worthwhile trying on both road and tri versions of your favourite brand to find what works best for you. Tri shoes tend to have more give so they are a great option if you have a wider foot and have a hard time finding road shoes that are roomy enough. Other cyclists need to feel the extra support of a road shoe to push down on the pedals with confidence. There are many advantages of the high-tech developments on both current road and tri shoes, but they won’t work for you if they result in hotspots, compressed toes or lack that arch support you might need.

-Suzanne Zelazo