Cyclocross Magazine’s year-long search for the perfect cyclocross shoe continues with Day 3 of Shoe Week. Today we take a look at Northwave’s Aerlite SBS shoe. Missed our previous reviews? See our reviews from Day 1 and Day 2.
by Andrew Yee
Northwave released their Aerlite SBS mountain bike shoe just before the Beijing Olympics for the 2009 model year. Thanks to its PRO white look with silver and red accents, it’s a hard shoe to miss. While at the time of its release it was the company’s top-shelf model, it now sits just below the carbon-soled $250 Razer and, for a brief period, sat below the 2009 Aerlite SBS Carbon mountain shoe that the Razer replaced. For 2010, the Aerlite SBS shoe gets a minor update in a reconstructed toe box with smoother stitching and more synthetic leather to reinforce and improve the comfort of the transition area between the Velcro straps and the toe box. Being worn in the Olympics is one thing, but how would such a shoe do in the harsher hard-man and hard-woman world of cyclocross?
A close look at the shoe reveals a ton of technical features. The Ultra-Y heel cup features Y-shaped carbon straps to keep the heel cup secure and prevent it from stretching out over time. The toe and side mesh sections are covered with a thin wire mesh that helps protect the thinner ventilation areas. The same wire mesh is used at the top of the heel cup to add more durability and structure to this area – helpful if you’re feeling lazy and remove one shoe using the toe of your other foot. At the front of the shoe, there’s a small vent and rubber reinforcement to protect the area.
The SBS in the name stands for “Step by Step” and, despite being a little bulky, works exactly as its name suggests, giving you the ability to tighten and loosen the buckle in small steps. As a result, there are no sudden, unintentional ejections while attempting to loosen the buckle while riding. Press the black button in the middle of the lever and it opens the strap by one notch. Gotta get out in a hurry? Press the silver button and you’re out. The SBS system also allows for additional customization of the fit with four different volume adjustment slots if you find the stock settings have you at the extreme ends of the buckle’s adjustment. The buckled strap is complemented by two Velcro straps that have a Velcro coating over their entire length. The underside of the tongue is padded to avoid pressure points from the straps.
Shall we get to the bottom of this already? The sole of the shoe is “carbon reinforced” which Northwave constructed with the addition of “carbon powder.” It’s important to note in today’s world, the word carbon is thrown around like PBR at a Cross Crusade race. Technically, you and I are both carbon life forms, even if I’m not superlight, laterally stiff and vertically compliant. Your old clunker steel bike has a bunch of carbon in it and, if you’re feeling left out by the carbon movement, just tell your significant other or buddies that you’re going for a ride on your carbon bike. But in terms of shoes? We see carbon-reinforced plastics and then carbon fiber soles. This has the former, not the typically stiffer latter version. It’s still pretty darn stiff.
Looking even lower, the tread of the Aerlite SBS is a natural rubber, and just in case you want to pull a Bart Wellens and show a fan the bottom of your shoe, it’s a matching PRO white and red. Want to psyche out your competitors? Show up to the start of a race with these, and point to the pristine white sole of your shoes to show everyone you never have to get off your bike. And if that’s really the case, you might as well remove the unique, grippy yellow Northwave toe studs that come preinstalled. They’re a hollowed-out plastic stud that provides more grip in the soft stuff, but because of the thin edges, they can crack on rocks or harder surfaces. They’re better than soccer studs though, but can be removed and replaced with your favorite stud or spike with just a flat or Phillips screwdriver.
Despite the Aerlite name, the shoe is on the heavier side, with a size 46 shoe weighing 475 grams each (that’s 950 grams for the pair for the number-challenged). In terms of sizing, Northwave lists the 46 as a UK 12 or US 13, but I’m used to seeing that be a US 12 instead. I’d say it fits closer to a 12.
If the Slipper Fits
I’m either the perfect shoe tester or the worst person for the job. I’ve got two incredibly different feet, with a very flat, longer left foot, and a shorter, high-arched right foot. So I can provide one-stop testing for both types of feet. However, both my feet are a little narrow and pretty low volume. To complicate things, there’s almost a size difference between the two. Needless to say, finding a single pair of shoes that fits well is a challenge. Northwave was kind to outfit me with two different sized pairs, and so length wasn’t a problem in this test.
Upon my first fitting, it was clear that my low volume feet might not be a perfect fit for this shoe. On my flat foot, on the tightest buckle fitting and with the strap cranked down all the way, it was just about right. Over time, I wanted just one more notch tighter, but there was none to be had. With a different insole, I could take up that space. On my high-arched foot, I could get a decent fit on one of the tighter settings.
Around the toes, the shoe tends to be quite wide. I had to yank at the Velcro straps to get a decent fit, and it’s here where the 2010 redesign should help – at my cinched-down setting, I could feel the a pressure point from the metal loop of the Velcro strap. The 2010 models have more leather here to avoid such an issue.
Although much of a shoe’s performance is the fit, we actually ride and race the products we review. So I hit the races in my blinding white shoes to see how they’d do in cyclocross.
White Knight in Dirt
On the course, the Aerlite SBS has a ton to offer. While pedaling, the sole is stiff and efficient, and smaller pedal platforms like the EggBeater don’t create pressure points. As things loosen up on the ride, it’s easy to adjust the SBS buckle and Velcro straps, and the padded tongue was quite comfortable other than the pressure point of the third strap mentioned above. Some people avoid buckles because they jam in mud, snow and ice. I did not test these in snow and ice, but they were not affected by the mud I experienced, even on a sloppy Seattle weekend.
On warm days, the ventilation was decent and on cold, wet days, I didn’t find the shoe to be any colder or wetter than average. The wire mesh suggests screen-door ventilation but, behind it, there’s a hefty mesh fabric to slow down air and water transport. Perhaps the one feature that I could do without for cyclocross is the toe vent. I’d rather have hot toes in the summer than wet ones when real ‘cross weather arrives, even if that day never comes some seasons in NorCal. The rubber “bumper” protects the area a bit, but adds a little stiffness to the toe as well. It wasn’t very noticeable for me as I like a bit of room at the toes for ‘cross. If they were snugger-fitting road shoes, it might be an issue.
Off the bike, the natural rubber sole and tread design is grippy on all surfaces, and isn’t so minimal that you’ll need to start gluing Dugasts to your sole. The large tread blocks have big spaces between them, so they don’t pack with mud as much as some other designs. And I appreciated the extra grip with the toe studs, especially because the sole is on the stiffer side. They certainly didn’t feel like running shoes when I had to run, but I wasn’t bothered by the stiff sole, even while cursing everything else while tackling the mile-long Knapp Time Run-Up in Steilacoom Park.
At nearly a kilogram for my big feet, I certainly wish they were lighter, but the carbon-soled top-shelf Razer should offer some gram savings for the weight weenie for a $50 upgrade fee.
A Fairytale Ending?
With a great buckle, nice design, and some well thought-out technical features, I wanted to be Cinderella. Unfortunately, the fit just didn’t work perfectly for me. That’s probably good news for Northwave and most riders though; I’d bet the Aerlite would well accommodate those with a normal width or slightly wider foot with normal to high volume. If it does fit, its stiff sole and good amount of mesh fabric would make the Northwave Aerlite SBS a great choice for cyclocross racers (especially EggBeater users) in drier, milder climates that don’t require a ton of running.
Northwave Aerlite S.B.S. MTB Shoe:
Sizing: 37-47, half sizes from 39.5 to 45.5
Weight: 950 grams per pair, size 46
Colors: white with red or silver/black fade
For more info: Northwave’s website