The Bontrager XXX Mountain shoes cost $400. Hold that fact in your head for a minute and consider, for example, that the Shimano XC501 shoes cost $170. The XC501s are in a different class to be sure, but they’re not bad. They’ve got a similar XC build, a BOA dial and a Michelin rubber outsole. So, assuming you’re reading this because you need a new pair of high-end XC shoes, that $230 delta is what really matters. I’m not saying this because $230 is easier to accept than $400. Quite the contrary. That $400 will get you shoes. As we’ve established, you need shoes. What I’m saying is that you don’t need to spend that extra $230.

Normally, this is the part where I’d insert a plot twist and tell you that you just don’t know what you’re missing. That any rider could benefit from that extra $230. But for most riders, a more conservative shoe just makes more sense. The XC501s have a little more rubber on the outsole and a little more flex in the midsole. They are moderately practical high-performance shoes. The XXX Mountain shoes are purely high-performance. They’re not the shoes I would grab for most of my rides. But when they are the right shoes, boy howdy. You just don’t know what you’re missing.

Bontrager XXX Mountain Shoe
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

The first standout feature is how unapologetically stiff they are. They use a variation of Trek’s OCLV Carbon in the sole, making for the stiffest shoe in Bontrager’s line. And if it weren’t for their dialed ergonomics, that stiffness might only be a benefit on the climbs. A stiff sole can eliminate the ‘hot spot’ above the cleat, but only if that insole is perfectly contoured. If you’ve never worn a dedicated road-bike shoe, they dip the ball of your foot down a tad more than mountain shoes do. Less natural for walking, but more natural for pedaling. The XXX Mountain shoes feel like a half-step in that direction. It meant that my feet weren’t struggling to maintain an optimal shape in hard hits or hard pedaling. They could just relax. They were less fatigued and in less pain than they would be on more flexible shoes. 

Bontrager XXX Mountain Shoe
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

One element, though, that is almost pro-fatigue is the cleat position itself. While some more modern, aggressive shoes are extending the optional positions back towards the arch, the XXX Mountains keep the range short and biased towards the toes. I spent a few rides following my normal cleat-position rule of thumb; mounted in the frontmost of the two positions, but with the plate slid rearward. If I were sprinting for an hour, that would bring more of my muscles to the pedal-pushing party, but given that I’m still in the later stages of recovering from last year’s broken leg, I wanted something more forgiving, so I shifted to the rearward position with the plate nudged forward slightly. I had no problem finding a ‘trail’ position, but those looking for an ‘enduro’ position likely won’t find it.

Bontrager XXX Mountain Shoe
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

Above the sole, the comfort continues. The construction is not as seamless and high-tech as some of the space-aged one-piece shoe chassis out there, but it feels like it might as well be. They’re flexible and foot-hugging. Ventilation is somewhat lacking, and I can’t say I ever felt the breeze through them like I do in my Giro Empire VR70 Knits. But those have not held up as well in the nearly two years I’ve had them. The XXX’s perforated TPU skin makes for a more durable shoe than would panels of thin mesh. 

Bontrager XXX Mountain Shoe
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

I’m convinced that dual-BOA closure is the very best way to tie a shoe. In the case of the XXX, the lower BOA controls tension above the arch and the upper cinches around the ankle. I want both of these relatively tight, but not the same. They’re quick on and off and quicker to adjust. It’s the easiest way to make your foot feel like it’s one with a shoe. And that goes all the way back to the heel. There’s a tall, burly plastic-like heel cup that really holds on, and it’s aided on the inside by a unique material that is slippery in one direction but grippy in the other. It’s like one-way Velcro, constantly pulling my heel back into the shoe on the upstroke, adding power and stability.

Bontrager XXX Mountain Shoe
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

But it’s not a perfect solution. It doesn’t really grab your heel. It grabs your sock. If you ever have to hike with these, instead of the annoying sensation of your foot sliding in and out of your shoe every step, it’s the painful, blistering action of your skin sliding up and down your sock. Coupled with the ultra-stiff sole, it makes long hikes in the XXX a risky maneuver.

Bontrager XXX Mountain Shoe
Photo Credit: Travis Engel

Equally risky is quickly remounting after those hikes. We all do it differently, but I like to toss my pedal beneath my arch until I actually get moving. It’s nice to have a couple pedal strokes’ worth of momentum before I dedicate those few seconds to actually clipping in. But I do not recommend this method in the XXX Mountains. That tiny patch of rubber under the arch is not enough to reliably hold on to a pedal. The slightest angle or outward force, coupled with those first forceful pedal strokes out of a standstill may easily launch your toes to the dirt and your crotch to the stem. Extending rubber across the entire arch would have made mounting and dismounting safer and quicker. 

But that’s how I determine whether my next ride is the right ride for these shoes. Technical, widow-maker climbs demand something more practical. Long hike-a-bikes demand something more flexible. But if all I’m going to do in a given day is push, there’s nothing I’d rather be pushing against than these.

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