after a little research on endurance gravel races in hot wet and miserable conditions, i determined that my full body mtb shoes were not going to be to my liking, so i began investigating mtb sandals.
so far so good
i knew i was looking for something breathable with at least a little toe protection, so those funny birkenstock-lookin’ ones weren’t going to cut it. ask me sometime about what happened to the girl that lost her pinkie toe riding on the handlebars of a bmx bike. that was enough to scare me into closed toe shoes forever.
keen looked like a good option- they have a good reputation and are readily available at specialty shoe stores in my area, so i started looking at their models first. really, i didn’t much consider any other brands because i wasn’t aware of them. i saw that the keen commuter line looked pretty close to what i wanted. $130 felt a little steep for sandals but if that was the going rate, i was prepared to pay it, if the shoes had good reviews.
unfortunately, reviews for the model i fancied were not so good. buyers reported that the keen commuter 5 sandals were hot, dried very slowly, felt heavy and generally didn’t last as well as the previous iterations of the shoe. there were also multiple reports that it runs narrow. my feet get wide up front as a result of my hobbit toes and i cannot wear narrow shoes of any kind… so i started looking for alternatives.
i stumbled upon the following review: Cycling SPD Sandals: The Most Versatile Touring Shoes from the website Cycling About. yeah, it’s from 2014 but it was a real eye opener for me- reading through, i felt this person really had a handle on the sandal! for example, i had never considered that sandals might have options outside of socks / no socks:
How are they good for all weather conditions?
1. Wear your sandals without socks in conditions over 15 degrees Celcius.
2. Wear your sandals with thin, ventilated cycling socks for a bit more warmth/comfort.
3. Wear your sandals with thick, waterproof socks in cold or wet conditions.
4. Wear your sandals with socks AND booties/shoe covers in super cold and wet conditions.
sandals and booties? this guy is a genius!!! i could drag a bunch of other helpful pull-quotes out of there, but just go read it, it’s full of great information, is succinct and includes a list of available sandal recommendations. highly valuable.
the keen commuter is included in the selection of recommended sandals (with that warning about width again) but also some other options. the top comparable model, the shimano SD5, is only available in euro sizes 39 & up. in american sizes i wear about a womens 7 (pretty average despite my shortness of stature) or an EU37… so, kudos to shimano for keeping cycling a sausage fest, i guess. the nashbar model “ragster” was cited as going down to a size 37 and i’ve had good experiences with the nashbar / performance brand in the past, but when i looked them up they were only avbailable in sasquatch size. this is probably due to last years sudden folding of performance bike so i’m not going to crap on nashbar today. at least their designers tried.
a brand i had never heard of, exustar, was also on the list. apparently exustar is a manufacturer that makes sandals for a lot of other companies to brand as their own. the photo looked like about what i was going for and i was able to source my size from a bike shop for $90. i like a deal, so i decided to investigate a little further.
a google search for reviews of the exustar E-SS503 yielded some pretty good results, barring the typical complaints of “the sole is too hard” and “the sole is too soft.” because the sole cannot be both of those things at once, i assume sole density is a matter of taste. i’ve never worn sandals on a bike before (because i don’t want to be heather-no-toe) so i don’t really have an opinion. there was the usual smattering of amazon users saying “these have 4 holes in the bottom, not 2, they won’t work with spd,” ok, good buddy, you only use 2 holes at once because it’s nice to be able to adjust where that cleat is situated (more on that later) but what the hell do i know? noting that the weight of the shoe seemed acceptable and figuring that the 4 velcro straps (3 on top and one around heel) would help me adjust for socks or no socks pretty easily along the trail, i went ahead and bought them.
for sandals, they’re okay looking. i think we can all agree everyone looks silly in velcro sandals, crocs and water shoes. show me someone that doesn’t look like a goober in one those styles of shoe and i will buy you an ice cream cone.
the soles are similar to the vibram i’m used to, maybe a little softer but nothing i could notice bending them back and forth in my hands. after i took the plastic kick plates off and installed some cleats, i took a walk around my neighbourhood fussing with the straps and seeing how the soles felt. no issues walking, so the only thing left was to try them out on bike! we’ve been having some absolutely crap weather here in ohio and all the local trails are closed due to mud and mud and mud and mud. it’s the mud that never ends. (HARCOURT! HARCOURT MUDD!) (… if you get this joke, message me, you are also entitled to an ice cream)
so this past weekend i spent 2 days at ray’s indoor bike park in cleveland working on my falling down skills and dialing in the new sandals. the first half hour was rough. i had gauged where to install the cleat based on my giro mtb placement- i put the cleat in the more toe-forward of the 2 options. within 15 minutes, my toes were burning with pain, so off course i went to sit down with an allen key and fiddle with the cleat. after riding around a little i had at least an idea of where the ball of my foot was compared to the sandal’s sole. i moved the cleat to the rear 2 bolts and off i went. on day 1 i wore thin socks and on day 2 i wore a thin under layer with a thicker sock over. i wanted to test out the velcro and see if i could get a handle on how tight the sandals needed to be to support me in various types of conditions. i did xc loops, pump track workouts, rock gardens and worked on bridges and skinnies. pretty much everything except just hammering down on a fire road (there’s just not anything like that at ray’s!)
a friend asked me if i felt secure in them and i think after 2 days of testing i can say “yes.” even when navigating rock gardens (where i often get my front wheel pinned, have to unclip and dab to get moving again) i didn’t feel my foot slip inside the sandal. they came in and out of the pedals without bending. also they breathe well. if i didn’t look down at them i forgot i was wearing sandals.
so yes, they look a little goofy but i hear they are all the rage at these endurance gravel events. i have already recommended them to my brother, who has recently lamented the fact that he cannot buy crocs in 2 bolt clipless. (yes, he has issues, but you did NOT hear it from me!)
impression: awesome price, sturdy shoe with good ventilation, many sizing options with velcro straps: definitely pleased with purchase
downside: cleats are not included in the box: if you are a noob you will need to provide your own cleats.
if you are interested in how cleat placement can effect your overall bike fit & power performance (as well as how to diagnose extreme footie pain from poor cleat placement) you can check out this article from cycling weekly: cleats explained.
here’s me, getting into one of the rock gardens at ray’s. i guess the sandals don’t look that silly from a little distance.
thanks to yellowman at mohican for taking some photos for me at the bike park.