Words by Brice Minnigh
Photos by Anthony Smith
It’s no secret that Pearl Izumi’s much-anticipated new ‘X Project’ mountain-bike shoes are just months away from hitting the market, but few people outside of the company have put the actual production models to the test.
We at Bike got our chance a few days ago, when Pearl Izumi brought several journalists from all over the country to our backyard trails in Laguna Beach, California, to see how they would perform on the steep, technical terrain that is almost as notorious for mandatory hike-a-bikes as it is for sheer gnar.
Not only do the core members of the nuclear Bike clan leap at the chance to rip some Laguna loops during work hours, but we also predicted that Pearl Izumi was showing brilliance by picking such precipitous trails to highlight the strengths of a new clipless shoe designed to perform as well off the bike as it does on the pedals. After all, these very trails are where the legendary Laguna Rads host their weekly pain fests—which are almost as well known for extended bike-lugging huffs as they are for hair-raising fall-line descents.
Fortunately for us, we got to do plenty of both—which was an ideal way to test the versatility of the X Project kicks, in addition to making for a radass day on some woefully underrated trails. The press launch was being staged at the scenic Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course, the back gates of which provide enviably direct access to some of Laguna’s most celebrated rides.
After getting a thorough overview of the X Project’s tedious two-year development process, we cleated up and hit the trails with Pearl Izumi-sponsored Brian Lopes, who played an integral role in the shoes’ development—and even won a commanding victory in the UCI World Cup’s inaugural XC Eliminator event this April in a pair of X Project prototypes. Knowing Lopes and his propensity for demanding trails, we were expecting an entertaining roller coaster of a ride.
Much to our amusement, Lopes chose one of our favorite Laguna descents—a steep-and-loose little number called ‘Mentally Sensitive’—as our climb into the local trail network. Though some of the journalists met with limited success on the climb, the incredibly steep pitch and loose sand made hike-a-bikes mandatory. It also gave everyone a chance to see how the X Project shoes flexed while walking up the steep, sandy terrain.
Once at the top, it seemed that most—if not all—of the journalists were impressed with how comfortable and stable the shoes felt on the hike up. The only common complaint was that several people felt their heels slipping out of the heel cup while straining up the steepest sections. However, this heel slippage didn’t seem to cause problems with maintaining traction, and some riders felt it was necessary to avoid painful rubbing against the heel cup.
Back on the bikes—and on some more cleanable sections—the group got to test the power-transfer performance of the shoes. Unlike Pearl Izumi’s X-Alp models—the hiking-friendly precursors to the race-oriented X Project designs—the new shoes felt plenty stiff on the pedals and exhibited instantaneous power transfer. It was clear that these shoes would be far more suitable to all-day epics than the X-Alps, with just enough stiffness to keep the feet from getting sore after several hours of mashing on the pedals.
What’s more, the top-of-the-line, unisex X Project 1.0s that we rode in were extremely comfortable right out of the box, with well-ventilated mesh uppers that breathed well and kept feet cool and dry on a fairly hot Southern California afternoon. It was noted during the earlier presentation that the other two X Project models—the 2.0 and 3.0, which will come in men’s and women’s models—feature more material on the uppers, making them potentially more suitable to riders who live in colder climates.
But Lopes was not content to let the test end there: We headed straight into rocky, technical descents such as ‘Car Wreck’, which features an extensive succession of square-edged hits in between unavoidable rain ruts, giving the journos who braved the trail a glimpse of the shoes’ stability while bashing through truly burly terrain.
And while the ride was originally meant to end with a rip down the previously-hiked ‘Mentally Sensitive’—with a more forgiving opt-out down the switchback-filled ‘Meadows’ for some—Lopes somehow managed to convince over a half-dozen of us to join him on a finale down a nearby fall-line descent that proved impossible for any of us to clean without tripoding through the most treacherous chutes. In the end, half of the crew—including two Pearl Izumi marketing staff—had bloodied shins to bolster the smiles of accomplishment on their faces.
Lopes was smiling, too. And we’re pretty sure his satisfaction had as much to do with his pride in the Laguna trails as the positive reception toward the X Project shoes he helped to create.