If y’aint walkin, y’aint ridin’

Mountain biking inevitably involves at least some walking.  Be it a quick dab, walking an uncomfortably technical stretch, or scrambling up an impossibly steep climb to reach the singletrack above, many of the best trail rides include at least a bit of hiking.  With that in mind, Pearl Izumi asked themselves if it would be possible to create a race-weight, trail-ready riding shoe that was stable and comfortable off the bike while maintaining race shoe stiffness in the pedals.

Two years later and after drawing on experts from three continents, they feel that the answer is “yes.”  And they invited a number of journalists to Laguna, California for some riding and pushing to prove it.  Hit the jump to find out more.

Pearl Izumi worked with four-time world mountain bike champion Brian Lopes, Italian composites and footwear manufacturers, their parent company Shimano, and Colorado State University to meet their goal of designing “a shoe that hikes and runs just as well as it pedals.”  Soft launched at Interbike this fall, the 5-model X Project line of shoes is the result.

Pearl Izumi’s last effort at an on/off bike trail shoe was the X-Alp series.  Somewhat chunky and biased more toward walking than riding, the X-Alp is more of an “all mountain” shoe that isn’t quite at home on long bike rides.  The X Project line approaches the problem from another direction- and its race shoe roots are clear.  Working with physiologists at CSU’s Human Performance Lab, the X Project team measured rider output and VO2 Max as they removed more and more of the carbon fiber plate that made up the sole.  The results surprised even Pearl Izumi: by mid-arch any added stiffness is largely wasted.  Similarly, little stiffness is needed ahead of the cleat.

The result, as can be seen here, is a carbon fiber plate that is at its thickest under the ball of the foot and tapers both in width and stiffness toward the front and back of the shoe.  The tapered width allows for a bit of torsional flex between the forefoot and heel, allowing the shoe to better follow rough ground.  The translucent TPU outsole sole just plain looks cool and shows off the carbon.

Each model has a signature color

Working with an unnamed Italian mountaineering footwear company, Pearl Izumi developed an extensively lightened outsole (seen at right) with every bit of unnecessary  material cored out to reduce weight. In order to provide better grip than most mountain bike shoes, the Italian boot maker helped Pearl develop a co-injected rubber tread that would actually last. Getting the tread-sole interface correct is so critical and requires enough proprietary technology, that the outsoles are made in Italy before being shipped to one of Pearl Izumi’s Asian factories for final assembly.

Similarly, getting the carbon fiber sole plate to flex to allow easy walking while still remaining efficient is no easy task. To tackle that effort, Pearl Izumi employed the carbon genius of a composite supplier to Ferrari, Ducati, Luxottica, and unspecified Formula 1 teams. Needless to say, they know carbon. The 1.0 and 2.0 level shoes share the same carbon plate while the 3.0 retains the same stiffness and flex properties, but from a slightly heavier (but less expensive) glass composite mix.

Other features include anatomically-designed 25° backswept straps (the top with Pearl Izumi’s clever three-position anchor) and a shock-absorbing EVA foam heel pad borrowed from the company’s running line.  A dense, perforated closed-cell foam tongue is designed to remain comfortable without becoming hot or retaining moisture after stream crossings.  The X Project line consists of five models: one unisex and two each for men and women:

X Project 1.0  Unisex, $280

  • A fully bonded 3-layer upper that seamlessly transitions from scuff-resistant to open mesh areas
  • An Italian-sourced micro-adjust low-profile buckle on the top strap
  • Includes Pearl Izumi’s 1:1 Insole System, which feature interchangeable Total Tune Performance cant and arch support inserts
  • Green outsole and graphics
  • 280g weight

X Project 2.0 Men’s and Women’s, $210

  • A seamless microfiber upper with perforated vents that is slightly heavier but more scuff-resistant than the 1.0’s bonded construction, with seam free toe box and reinforced toe
  • Pearl Izumi’s standard top strap ratchet
  • Includes Pearl Izumi’s 1:1 Static Insole System, which offers 1:1 fit geometry, without the customization
  • Orange (men’s) or purple (women’s) outsole and graphics
  • 325g (men’s), 280g (women’s)

X Project 3.0 Men’s and Women’s, $160

  • Standard stitched construction with seamless toe area
  • Pearl Izumi’s standard top strap ratchet
  • More cost-effective glass composite sole plate with the same performance as 1.0 and 2.0 levels
  • Dual-density insole
  • Red (men’s) or teal (women’s) outsole and graphics
  • 330g (men’s), 285g (women’s)

Revised slightly since their Interbike launch, the X Project 1.0s came straight from the factory to our press camp with only hours to spare.  The sizing now seems a smidge bigger and the upper no longer bunches like it did at Interbike.  Brian Lopes, who played a big part in the shoes’ development, and the Pearl Izumi team took us on a group of Laguna-area trails chosen to highlight the shoes’ on- and off-bike performance.  (Locals groaned audibly when told they’d be climbing a trail called “Mentally Sensitive.”)  Sure enough, the entire group was making the most of the soles’ stiffness while pedaling up the walls of Wood Canyon- and soon thereafter taking advantage of the soles’ flex and grippy tread while pushing up steep and technical sections.  Not a trail any of us would have chosen race shoes for.

Because half-size molds are still not complete (the shoes will be available in early March, 2013), it was hard for one of our writers to get a great fit in any one shoe.  That said, the shoes’ stiffness on the bike felt on-par with even Specialized’s S-Works Evo shoes.  Off the bike, the mountaineering rubber was very grippy and, combined with the soles’ tuned flex, very confidence inspiring (and not at all bike-shoe-like)- even in our host inn’s parking lot.  The tapered carbon fiber plate made the flex feel quite natural, without any sharp transitions or folds.  Breathability was good and the straps felt well placed.

On steep climbs, fast rolling trails, and technical descents, the shoes never felt out of their depth.  All of these things suggest that Pearl Izumi have achieved their goals and created a shoe that racers, ‘big day out’ trail riders, anyone faced with a cruel LeMans race start, cyclo tourers, and cyclocross riders could appreciate.

The only possible yellow flag (shared by both of our writers and most other attendees) was the microfiber (synthetic leather) heel cup.  Like older Shimano shoes, the smooth fabric allows for a good deal of heel lift while hiking extremely steep sections- even on too-small shoes.  Presumably, however, that material choice will also improve durability and reduce the likelihood of blisters when faced with long walking sections.  In any case, it doesn’t seem to be a problem on less-steep climbs and was less of an issue later and on subsequent rides- making us wonder if it was a break in issue or just different.  With only twelve hours in the Pearls between two riders, it’s too early to say.  We’ll try to wrangle a 43.5 for longer-term testing and report back before the X Project becomes available.

Our personal and professional thanks to Pearl Izumi, the Outside PR crew, Pivot Cycles‘ demo team, and Laguna’s Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course for their hospitality!



  1. I rode these at outdoor demo, they were really comfy to walk in and they were stiff on the pedals. I will pass on the matching sox, but already ordered a pair.

  2. Cool idea. I like the shoes and would buy a set for CX

    But unfortunately, Pearl Izumi fails in the style department again. When will they learn?

  3. As someone that had an old pair of vapors with the green flames in 2000-ish, I will be getting a pair of these!

    Laughably hideous is whats up!

  4. MGreen,

    I lusted over those green flame Vapors at the time… No wonder I’m psyched about the current color scheme (even though I keep looking down to think that there’s a stray leaf on my toe).


  5. mountain biking is already a ridiculous activity so I’m all for ridiculous looking bicycles and clothing. embrace it, people.

  6. @Basic black
    I have to disagree. Matching socks are OK if you’re wearing black shoes and black socks, in all other cases it is totally lame.

  7. WOW… no wonder companies still make SPD sandals!!! judging by all the comments here… There are a lot of old coots with no style and/or flare.

    Dang kids with their rock n’ roll and clothes with colors other than shades of black or tan!

  8. Another shoe that is aimed at a similar purpose is the Specialized Rime – it’s stiff enough on the bike, is comfortable to walk in because the toe is not overly stiff, and has a really grippy, Vibram sole. I use my Rimes for bike touring and mountain biking. I also have some super-stiff Shimano race-level MTB shoes that I use on my road/race bike (I cannot stand walking in road cleats at all), but I would never use a shoe like that when mountain biking because they suck to walk in, especially on tricky trails.

  9. One nice thing about my old Sidis is they force me to ride sections I would prefer to walk, because walking in those is scarier than riding!

    That said, they’re crazy comfy and fit like a glove.

  10. Chris,

    As someone with Alp-Xs, Specialized Rimes, and (now) X Projects in the closet, I can say that the Rime sits between the two- the stiffness is a notch or two above the Rime but walking is similar. The X Project pedaling stiffness really is closer to Specialized’s S-Works Evos.


  11. Warning – Fitting Alert . . . Unisex shoes? Mmmm . . . don’t buy these without trying them on. I’m sorry but there’s a reason that most shoes are either men’s or women’s and not both. Other than that . . . I’ll pass on these. Price OK.

  12. These would be awesome (aside from the fugly styling) if the outsoles were replaceable. It sucks to have to replace a $200 pair of shoes just because the pedalsole interface is a bit too worn.

  13. Aside from the “what the h*ll did you step in” factor, I wonder what the break-in time is on these, and how comfortable they are for multi-day rides.

  14. These look great and I applaud the effort to produce a produce a light mountain bike shoe that fares well on extended hike-a-bike passages. However, I wonder how they could not include exchangeable rubber pieces. When using these in rocky terrain the soles will be worn out in not time, thus exposing the cleat and rendering the entire shoe worthless. If they offered a sole replacement system à la Sidi I’d be very interested in the shoe.

    • @Mike, not sure, though we’ve heard there is hope for a late Summer/early Fall arrival.The good news is everything we’ve seen so far indicates they will be well worth the wait.

  15. Wow, really wanted to try a pair of these and have continued to hold off replacing some very tired shoes. I may have run out of wait time though. From comments above perhaps have to try the Rime?

What do you think?