Every time I try shopping for clipless pedal shoes for trail riding, I inevitably get sent into a spiral of anger and confusion. Among the plethora of trail shoes out there, there are very few that don’t have some sort of deal breaker for me. I’m a tough customer though.
For one, I won’t wear mountain bike shoes with regular shoelaces. It’s a hard no for me. Laces are inefficient, cumbersome, and can actually be dangerous when loose laces get wound up in drivetrains. But I’m not trying to get up on a safety high horse here. Mostly, I’m just offended by laces because it feels like we’re going technologically backwards for the sake of style. They all but disappeared from mountain bike shoes 25 years ago, because duh—but then somehow managed a massive comeback. Yuck.
To complicate matters, I’m also resistant to over-engineered shoe designs and closure mechanisms. I’m referring mostly to the Boa lace system, since it has become the industry-preferred high-end shoe cinching mechanism. Boa’s ratcheting dials have been refined over the years to be more adjustable and reliable, but they’re still not perfect.
You know what was perfect? The old two Velcro straps and a buckle method. Why did that have to go away? When done right, with quality materials and good design, it was a fast, easily adjustable, low-profile, durable solution. Can someone please just do that layout in a modern trail shoe format? Like the Sidi Eagle 7 but with more coverage, toe protection, hike-able sole, and trail shoe aesthetic. Is that too much to ask for?
Yes. But, despite not being totally satisfied by the clipless pedal shoe scene, I did manage to find a couple pairs last year that I’m happy with. One of them, I actually love.
Specialized 2FO Cliplite | $200
Specialized’s 2FO Cliplite mixes sleek, casual styling and technical features to create a near-perfect trail shoe. The fit is on the money lengthwise, with an average width and a slightly tapered toe box. Once broken in, I found the shoes to be comfortable all day long, but I have to say that things did not start out that way. The first few rides were downright painful for me, and I’m not the only one. There’s a common thread in the review section of the Cliplite’s webpage that the shoe causes painful pressure points at the top of the tongue as well as the side of the ankle, which is exactly what I felt, too. All shoes take a little time to break in and start feeling perfect, but most don’t actually hurt you in the process.
I think the fit issue is twofold. First, it’s a lightweight shoe that’s made to be durable and shed water, so the materials aren’t exactly supple to begin with. Also, I’ve found that it’s easy to over-tighten shoes with Boa dials, and too-tight shoes are always uncomfortable. I’d go so far as to say that Boa systems on bike shoes in general are difficult to not over-tighten—you sort of have to actively try to keep from ratcheting them down too much. Half the time, I still do and I have to back off a bit.
After a rough introduction though, I’ve come to really like the 2FO Cliplites. They’re stiff enough under the cleat for great pedaling efficiency and comfort, but flexible enough at the toe for good walkability. They have decent toe protection, are relatively lightweight at 460 grams per shoe (with an SPD cleat), plus they do an excellent job of shedding water and drying quickly. I recently did a ride with multiple hub-deep creek crossings and was surprised first by how little water stuck around and sloshed inside the shoes each time, and then the fact they were completely dry the next morning. Granted, I’m living in a dry climate where you can leave a bag of chips open for a week without them getting stale, but it’s still impressive.
The pedal/shoe interface is done well, too. It’s always something I worry about with non-Shimano shoes. I know for sure that Shimano shoes will interface well with the Shimano pedals I run, but with every other manufacturer it’s a toss-up. Half the time, the soles drag on the pedal, reducing float and causing knee pain. But the cleat box on the Cliplites is at just the right depth so that I can float freely and still get side support under side-loading.
There’s just one thing I don’t love about the 2FO Cliplites at this point. I tried to ignore the big Boa dials. I tried to give them a chance, again, for the millionth time, and yet again I’m confounded as to why they have such a massive presence on shoes. I mean, they don’t ruin the shoes for me because overall time of putting on and taking off shoes is far less than being in them, but they do present an unnecessary hassle every time.
The biggest issue is friction—there’s way too much of it. When you pull up on the Boa dial to release it, the shoe doesn’t loosen. You have to tug on the tongue or the actual Boa lace pretty hard to get the lace to pull back out through the mechanism. It’s not an easy or fast shoe to get out of. And I tend to open them up just enough to slide out, meaning that they’re too tight to get back into easily without needing to tug on things to open them up some more. Lubricating them with a light PFTE spray helps, but who wants to lube their shoes like the Tinman in “The Wizard of Oz”? The dials also protrude from the shoes, just asking for trouble and frankly, detracting from their subdued styling.
Judging by how many shoes have Boas, I suspect I’m in the minority for not liking them. Still, I’d rather have Boas than laces, even if they’re not faster (they aren’t faster). Other than wishing that Specialized went with my preferred closure system that mostly doesn’t exist anymore, I’m happy with the 2FO Cliplites. They’re comfortable, they run cool on hot days, are easy to clean, and look good. It’s why they’re my second favorite shoes.
Shimano AM9 (SH-AM902)| $160
I wound up with a pair of the Shimano AM9 shoes by accident. I’d ordered the newest version of the ME7, a shoe I’d loved for the past few years, but the ones Shimano sent looked like they came straight off the stage of a Blue Man Group show. Just solid bright blue. I’d wear them if I had to, but luckily they also sent this pair of AM9s, with an acceptable amount of bright blue.
Shimano’s speed lace and cover flap setup turned me off when I first saw it years ago, but I’ve really come to love it. It might not look super fast, but it’s perhaps the quickest off-and-on system I’ve come across, and the flap is an excellent solution for keeping the laces clean, protected, and restraining the stray end of the speed lace. The AM9 uses a single Velcro strap to tension the top portion of the shoe that tucks cleanly underneath the lace flap. Sure, it looks a bit like a moon boot, but it works extraordinarily well.
The AM9s broke in nicely within five rides or so without much discomfort, and they’ve been going strong for about a year. I do recall there being some pinching at the tongue as well, but it wasn’t as harsh as the Specialized Cliplites. The construction is solid, they’re not too hot despite their appearance, and I really like the higher inner ankle coverage to protect against the rare but painful ankle-on-crank hits. I also appreciate Shimano including a stiffness scale on all their shoes. The AM9 is rated a 5 out of 10, while the ME7 shoe I’d previously been on is rated 8 for stiffness. I’ve traditionally preferred a stiffer shoe, but I find the AM9 to be sufficient. And, they’re great to walk in. I’ve done plenty of hike-a-biking on steep, loose terrain, and am happy with their off-bike performance.
Over the past year, the AM9s have become my go-to favorite shoes. They’re a touch heavier than the Cliplites, at 495 grams per shoe (with an SPD cleat), but I can’t feel the difference. They’re also not overly padded, so they also dry relatively quickly. They fit true to form, with an almost identical volume and toe box shape as the Cliplites. By the way, I always use Euro sizing because it’s far more reliable than U.S. sizing. For instance, both these shoes are size 44 EU, but in US, the Shimano is size 9.7 (what the hell?) and the Specialized is 10.5.
Head to Head
The toe protection on the AM9 is significantly more robust than that on the 2FO Cliplite, and so is the tread on the sole. The Cliplite has soft, grippy rubber but the AM9’s lugs are more prominent. I’d say that the Cliplites offer better traction on slickrock and hard surfaces, while the AM9s have the edge in looser stuff.
The Cliplites are slightly stiffer than the AM9s, which can be detected on the bike. I will say that the AM9s are more comfortable to me, though, even on long days in the saddle. I’m not sure the extra stiffness of the Cliplite is translating to more comfort, but I suppose it’s possible I’m getting better power out of them.
Both have very similar foam thicknesses around the cuff and throughout the tongues, and the both stock footbeds feel fine to me. They both have a medium amount of arch support, but the shape of the arch on the Shimano shoe has more taper to it.
I’m equally happy with the pedal/sole interface on each. Neither rub on the pedal to prevent float, and neither needed any type of shim when used with Shimano XT or XTR pedals. I ran both shoes with trail and XC versions of both pedals without them catching on any portion of the pedal. Both are excellent trail shoes.
But I’m a much bigger fan of Shimano’s closure system. For me, it’s the perfect blend of technology and simplicity. It’s a lace, without needing to tie anything, and the flap takes care of the loose end problem of any lace-type system. It’s neat, tidy, simple, reliable, and fast. Boas have none of those attributes.
Shimano just released an updated version of the AM9, the third generation SH-AM903. Unfortunately, they buggered it all up. They made the tongue thicker than a pair of 90s Etnies, changed the lock button thing on the speed laces to one that’s harder to operate, and replaced the refined Velcro top strap with a big, thick monstrosity that doesn’t even lay flat. Just when I found my next perfect shoe, they went and ruined it. I wonder how much backstock Shimano has of the AM902.
Photos: Ryan Palmer