Browsing a Sidi shoe catalog is a lot like looking through a yearbook full of classic Lego figurines. It's just the same thing over and over again. Maybe one is for winter weather. Another might be bright red. But they all look like … well, they all look like Sidi shoes. They're all deep-cut low-tops that are light as a feather and stiff as a board. That's why I was so keen to try out the Defenders. They're cut like a high-top, and the outsole is actually one continuous piece of rubber instead of a constellation of hard plastic gumdrops bolted to shiny carbon fiber. The Defenders look almost normal. But of course, they're not.
Most obviously, they're more of a half high-top, only protecting the side of the ankle that might bash your crank arm or frame. There's a stiff plastic panel just under the outside ankle bone to deflect whatever it can, but directly above the guard a mesh panel allows for flexibility and ventilation. The Defenders are fitted with Sidi's version of a Boa system, called Tecno 3 which, in this case, uses one knob to handle closure all the way to the velcro strap above the toes.
The defenders have a roomier fit than most Sidi shoes. I've owned a couple pairs of Sidi's emblematic Dragon model over the years, and my feet always sized somewhere between Sidi’s standard and its wider "mega" size. But the Defenders are a bit more relaxed. Plus, they don't seem to have as much of an on-the-bike-only contour to their soles. So when my foot flattens out when standing or walking, it's able to distribute its weight evenly from heel to ball, from pinky to big. And the single knob on the Tecno 3 system works a treat. I'm picky about shoe fit, and if I have my choice I like multiple points of adjustment or even old-fashioned laces. But the Defender spreads its snugness evenly and naturally.
The Defenders' biggest departure from Sidi's design tradition is not quite as pronounced as the unique uppers. It's a little more hidden. The structure in the midsole is remarkably flexible. Not just for a Sidi, but for any trail-oriented shoe. And that goes for both the toebox and everything behind it. Walking over uneven ground, the Defenders conform to the natural flex of my feet themselves. Sidi achieved this glove-like feel by using a noticeably thin-soled structure. The minimalist insole, the flexible midsole and the thin-but-full-coverage layer of outsole are all especially low-profile.
That feature isn't without its disadvantages, of course. Though they're tractable hikers, that bare-bones sole doesn't cushion your feet for long periods of walking. And the thin structure isn't ideal when interacting with the pedals. On each different brand clip I used beneath my Defenders, there was a noticeable amount of side-to-side rock. That flexible sole meant that, once I put the power down, the instability was gone, but in those weightless moments during each pedal stroke, there was a slightly detached feeling. Also, in particularly punishing terrain, my foot would develop a hot spot just above the cleat. It's not unbearable, though. I spent some of my time testing the Defenders during our Mammoth Mountain Bible Summer Camp. If that kind of terrain was all I rode, these wouldn't be the right shoes. But if my go-to trails were flowy and loose, punctuated with small bits of park-level rowdiness, that flex would absolutely not be a deal-breaker.
If the Defenders stray from Sidi's path in their stiffness, they definitely stay the course in fit and durability. True to their Italian heritage, they have an all-day coziness, right out of the box. The half-high-top design truly combines the best of both worlds. The material that protects the inner ankle isn’t squeezing it or restricting motion. It’s just there, waiting to stand between flesh and steel. But despite the beefy profile, these are as lightweight and light-feeling as any summer shoe. And they should last a few summers. Though I share their load among a few other sets of kicks, the Defenders haven't threatened a single torn outsole, separated heel cup or split seam after nearly a year of regular use. But all that comes with another Sidi staple: The Defenders aren’t cheap. The $220 price tag is actually mid-pack among Sidi’s lineup, but it’s definitely above average in the larger world. I guess that makes the Defender’s a good value, considering they’re a Sidi. They’ve proven to be durable, so those dollars will stretch. Also, they’re unique, so there’s no true comparison, which has value in itself.
Far from another cookie-cutter Sidi, or for that matter a cookie-cutter trail shoe, the Defenders offer something unique and versatile, and with the soul of a Sidi … just not the sole of a Sidi.
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