Shimano XC50n and XC70, Beauty and the Beast?

Most of my kit is glamorous, at least to me. My Parentini stuff is typically Italian. Designed with flair. Endowed with emotion. I love wearing it. Feel good, cycle good. Ditto anything by Assos that I’ve owned. And, frankly, much of the stuff I’ve looked at on here is aesthetically pleasing in some way. I’ve come to love those Shimano R171 shoes as well, their looks, whilst divisive, are growing on me.

At the end of the day a shoe is a shoe. It has a singular purpose and that is to provide a stable platform to generate power through your pedals and cranks whilst not killing your feet. Provided that it does nothing to interfere with that transfer then all is good. But if they can look nice while doing it? Yeah, that’s a bonus. Step forward Sidi, take your place Giro Empire, hello there not often heard of Gaerne. Shimano, you may not go to the ball. But, here’s the thing. The others. Are they better than Shimano stuff while providing a clear aesthetic win? I’m not sure actually, and I’ve worn a lot of shoes. Call me Bicyclo Imelda.

Let’s start with the XC50N

My Shimano XC50n are not glamorous. They are not pretty. They are the very essence of functional. Oh, and you can’t buy them anymore. Sorry about that. But you can buy the similarly specced XC51N for £69.99 or so. So if I convince you of their worth then you’ve got an alternative to have a look at.

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The important part of the moniker is the “N” designation here. You can get XC51/61/70 and 90 etc (I’ll deal with the 70’s later). But the N designation is key to this review. It means all season. So, come rain or wind or snow or sun (yeah right) these could be your go to shoes if the claim of all season is to be believed.

During the winter of 2014/15, which was not all that severe, I decided to wear Northwave Artic (sic) MTB boots. That was because, on those really cold days, I suffered. I was ok with overshoes but never really toasty warm unless I had my winter boots on. So, even though we never really plumbed the depths of real cold, they were still my go to shoe for commuting. But, the thing is, they are a bit full on, a bit clunky and, if it was ever really wet took quite some time to dry out again. So, in the Spring of 2015 in came the XC50’s as a back up shoe. The ones to wear when it was grim so as not to sully my nice dry weather and rather flashy Sidi Drako shoes or, lately, my XC70’s.

Rather oddly, given my dalliances with many makers over the years, I now find myself in a position where a 45 pretty much fits in all the shoes I’ve owned. Sidi are a little tight overall at that size but still comfy. Giro are a much better all round proposition though the 45 Empire’s were a little tighter than I’d want. But the much vaunted small sizing of Shimano was never an issue for me. A 45 fits, certainly in the XC50, like the metaphorical glove. And, I suppose, when I first owned them that was all I really thought about them. They fitted and they did what they needed to. There’s none of that technical stuff like boa wires, or heel adjusters, but it all just works.

But, now and again, there’s that product, the one that just grows and grows in your estimation the longer you wear it. The more you don’t even think about it. And, after Battle on the Beach, along with the other kit that just didn’t make me think about it at all, I realised that, actually, the XC50’s have been one of the most run of the mill, anonymous, bread and butter, amazing, incredible, perfect things I’ve ever used on a bike. Goldilocks? Nah, these are Cinderella. But the transformation is really that you can see their beautiful soul and look beyond their dreary looks.

Anyway, let’s start with the specs. These are not carbon, instead a mere glass fibre polyamide reinforced sole. It’s rated around 5 on Shimano’s stiffness scale (which goes up to 12 which is presumably their little Spinal Tap joke). It’s plenty stiff in practice and you don’t lose any power. Walking is easy though as a consequence. I’d say that they feel slightly less stiff than the XC70 (later) and my R171 but I’d rate them more like a 7-8. A 5 rating implies some sort of noodling which just isn’t present.

The lugs on the bottom are of moulded plastic with a rubbery feel. In practice I’ve never had any issues walking in them in the wet, which is useful as they spend most of their time being wet. The lugs aren’t replaceable but they are hard wearing. Bear in mind I’ve owned these for 18 months and they’ve been through the ringer. Eventually the lugs that are each side of the cleats will, no doubt, fall below the height of the cleats. That’s going to be a long time coming and when it happens the shoes will probably be many years old. So don’t worry too much about that. There are attachments for cx studs if you want to install any. I’ve always found the grip fairly good though. I’ve used them for a lot of off road and they work particularly well for cyclocross. The spread out nature of the lugs means that mud and dirt don’t get stuck in there and anything that does stick is quickly banged off. They’re also incredibly easy to clean which for CX is a real boon.

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The rears have a small reflective patch on the heel. It’s nice to have. There’s a small section on the toes as well, it’s that little double silver strip. Since I use these for commuting a lot it’s a tidy safety feature.

There are two fairly run of the mill but very robust velcro straps and, finally, a mechanical buckle and strap (both of which are replaceable). Unlike the reverse set up of the R171 ratchet, these slide through in the usual way. Those buckles have been abused but they still look like new. The velcro still sticks. I don’t know what it will take to kill them off frankly.

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But the killer feature is that they are sealed. There are no vent holes on the uppers (that bit that looks like carbon weave is not carbon, but it is “solid”) and water can’t get in from below. Yes, there’s that massive hole in the top where your feet go so water CAN get in there. But, in practice, through rainy commutes and deep puddles in CX I’ve found that it takes ages for water to ingress. Now, of course, the disadvantage here is that once it does get in it cannot get out, so you have to empty your shoes. But, that’s certainly the case for the Northwave boots I had as well, and they were furry inside which merely exacerbated the issue. Because they’re sealed they’re also that bit warmer. Surprisingly warm in fact given that they have no technical lining intended to provide warmth. As I said earlier, I’ve been wearing them happily in minus temperatures when partnered with, for example, Prendas’s rather lovely thermolite socks. On the very worst cold days I’ve chucked on some overshoes such as the Prendas aqua light ones I reviewed a few months ago. That takes care of the worst conditions. These shoes also play nicely with MTB hole overshoes. Indeed, they even play nicely with the dhb aeron race ones!

And what about Summer? Fine. No issues whatsoever with overheating, just wear a lighter sock. The ratchet and strap system is great and makes getting the right size straightforward. So I can squeeze a slightly thicker sock in the winter and still get the right fit with a thinner one in the summer. You might think that by lacking any breathable holes you’d sweat. The truth is that you don’t, not really. If you’re in sub Saharan temps and high humidity there might be a bit of that. But that’s overthinking it. And, in the summer, it still rains, so having the option of keeping water out is still a good one to have.

I really rate the XC50n. I think I paid something like £50 for them. The XC51n, which are slightly more attractive, are going for £69.99 on both CRC and Wiggle at the moment. For CX, light off roading and commuting I think that they’re as good as it gets. With that review done I’ll get back to wearing them, loving them and forgetting all about them.

Race tech : Shimano XC70

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Ok, beauty might be stretching it. But, you know, I think they’re actually very smart and nicely understated. If you want bling have a look at the XC90, in blue. I really like those but, well, they’re a bit pricey. If the XC50N were pretty basic overall these are seriously high tech. Not only can you bake and mould the insoles, but you can do the shoe as well. Not that I’ve been brave enough to try that. If Shimano’s instructions are to be followed then I need to obtain a cover for the toes (to prevent them boiling off I guess) and some form of vacuum set up to ensure that the heated uppers conform to my fit. But, the thing is, out of the box they currently fit just fine, so I’ll leave that for now. Genetically, while they are quite advanced from the XC50n they feel very firmly like part of the same family.

The observant amongst you may have noted the asymmetric straps. That is to say that the toe strap closes from inside to out, and the reverse for the middle strap. Does it provide any additional comfort? I can’t say I’ve noticed but then I’ve not noticed any undue pressure at all. Once more on the flip side I’ve not noticed any on the XC50n either and they don’t have that feature. Shimano say that these “Cross XC straps” introduce “a new strap design for off-road riding. When you kick the ground or push your bike uphill, pressure increases on the tendons and bones on top of your foot. To alleviate this pressure and reduce discomfort when you’re off the bike, Shimano relocated the strap’s fastening section to the side of the shoe.” Whatever. I suppose all I can really say is that I’ve not noticed anything, so it’s all good.

While I have no issues with venting in the XC50n it’s fair to say that these are more breathable. There’s the traditional mesh set up at the toe box and, in addition, the front section of each toe is vented either side of the middle. It does make for an airier feel but, of course, water will flood in if you’re riding in wet or muddy conditions. But hey, I don’t do that with them. These are my good day riding daps for dusty trails and summer days. They’re great for CX as well and they will clean up well but, hey, I’m keeping them clean. 

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It’s the soles that really mark these out as being a competition race model. That said Shimano still only have them at 8 on the 12 point stiffness scale. For reference the slightly more high tech XC90 come up at 11 on the scale and the only shoe to make the 12 is the R321 road shoe. It’s hard to imagine what a stiffness of 11 feels like given how very stiff the XC70 are. Indeed, I do wonder, if the change in stiffness is possible to perceive and whether the other models may be that bit too stiff in the cross country world. These, to me, seem fine. They also feel as stiff as, for example, the Sidi Drako or Giro Code. The other thing that they really do feel is premium. And although it’s fair to opine that Shimano are all about the function there’s an attention to detail here that does elevate them from the norm.

Once again the lugs are not replaceable. And whilst I’ve managed to dig out some photos whilst they were pristine I’m happy to say that, whilst they used on my nicer rides, they are absolutely fine.

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As you can see the mouldable insoles come with a pocket in which to insert an arch support. The default medium yellow arch support is pre installed and there’s the option of a red high arch support included in the box. That’s before you bake then as well. The addition of different arches is a nice idea and has always worked well with Giro’s supernatural insole system. This is an area in which Shimano and Giro’s upper echelon of shoes really do shame offerings from Sidi. It’s been oft said that you should replace Sidi’s stock insoles on even their highest offerings with something from Giro or Specialized. It seems such a shame that a company that innovates doesn’t sort their insoles out. No such issues here. It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into how the whole shoe works together.

I’ve left my arch inserts at the medium setting for now and they provide a good amount of comfort and support. Indeed, this is the area in which the XC70 is very different to the XC50n. They are like tailored gloves. They conform to the shape of your feet and provide a lot of support whereas the XC51n are just nice gloves that happen to work. Much, of course, will depend on the shape of your feet and whether you can achieve the correct size. Fortunately, for me, I can and wearing these is a different sensation to the XC50n. They feel like a shoe that would give you that little bit more in a race rather than one you might just go out and ride in. It’s a small sensory difference but an important one. But they are equally at home pootling on the commute as they are racing up a gravel path. Despite their stiffness there’s no issue in walking in them.

The ratchet system is once again replaceable. It’s pretty much the same setup as on the XC50n and, if it ain’t broke then just leave it alone. The heel is described as being an XC heel cup with anti slip. Does it work? Yes. Do the descriptions add anything? No. In terms of value these are pitched against some of the big guns at around £175. Shop around and you can get that way down. Indeed, compared against something like the Sidi Cape with its resolutely old school sole and these look like a race tech bargain. Once you take that ability to customise into account then they’re off the scale.

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They’re great actually. Great out of the box. Great out on the trails or on the road. And that’s the interesting thing. If they’re great now, given my experience of being merely whelmed by the XC50n’s, how good are they going to be in the years to come? Watch this space (I might even take up baking).

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