Final review: Northwave Core Plus road cycling shoes

At the end of the review period, how have Northwave’s Core Plus road cycling shoes fared?

PROS: NEAT, CLASSY LOOKS

Just look at these shoes. These are on the “quietly confident” end of the Italian styling spectrum, opting for relatively understated flourishes and logos instead of loud logos and lurid color splashes. The black and fluoro yellow colorway goes great with almost any cycling kit, and I have a soft spot for its red-on-white sibling as well.

PROS: GREAT ADJUSTABILITY

The SLW2 ratchet dial closure system is solid. With a bit of familiarization, quick fit adjustments are easily done, although pushing the release button to loosen the shoe is best done singly and deliberately. It’s not quite a no-brainer operation but is easy enough to do.

That said, the Velcro strap for the toe box isn’t quite as adjustable as you’d think. To Northwave’s credit, the volume of the fit is forgiving, but there’s just not enough difference in how much the Velcro toe box strap actually tightens up the fit until you pull a lot of it.

PROS: HARD WEARING MATERIALS

Northwave doesn’t use leather on the Core Plus, but what material it does use on the upper is very hard-wearing and shrugs off scratches. In black, it’s a very “wash-and-wear” shoe, unconcerned with cyclists with clumsy feet. As a side benefit, ventilation is quite good too.

PROS: STIFF OUTSOLE

Road cyclists desiring good power transfer and minimal deformation from leg to pedal should enjoy this shoe. Northwave sells these short by rating them on the low side for stiffness. They’re great for repeated full-gas efforts, in my experience, such as the kind you’d kick out in a criterium. You may be able to coax the tiniest bit of twist out of them in your hands, but underfoot and under pedaling duress, they are strong.

One other thing is that the cleat positioning on these shoes is very centrally located when looked at from side to side. Other shoe manufacturers like Shimano tend to push the cleat a bit outboard; these Core Plus shoes were more truly centered.

CONS: SPD CLEAT COMPATIBILITY

Northwave touts these shoes as compatible with SPD cleats or other two-bolt mountain bike cleat systems, but the process involves having to cut into the shoe’s midsole. A cursory search of just how well that can go reveals that if you value compatibility with two-bolt cleats, this shoe just isn’t a good fit unless you go the adapter route.

If you like Northwave but can’t give up SPD cleats, opt for their mountain bike shoe lineup instead.

CONS: PERHAPS NOT QUITE THE BEST FOR FLAT FEET?

I’ve documented at length the journey I’ve had making these shoes fit for my relatively flat, low-arched feet. While the looser and more adjustable fit works great, the hot spots I got with these shoes never totally went away, and they seemed to arrive faster than in my other pairs. To these shoes’ credit, it took quite a long while before the hot spots degenerated into discomfort.

It was a little saddening to see the Ergon IP3 Solestar insoles didn’t result in a great improvement with these shoes, when they had proven transformative with the Shimano XC5s. This tells me something else is afoot – something not as easily explained as outsole width, or as easily addressed by cleat positioning, and perhaps is just down to how the Core Plus’ foot last is shaped.

All that said, everybody’s feet are different, and these may well fit yours better than they did mine. If your feet can play nice with the fit, the Northwave Core Plus shoes shouldn’t let you down.

Advertisements

Addressing forefoot pain, plan B: Stiffer cycling insoles

Previously, I wrote about the lateral forefoot pain I observed when I transitioned over to stiffer-soled cycling shoes. Using the location of the pain, I tried to address it via adjusting my cleat position to yield a narrower pedal stance width. My thinking was that pushing my shoes outboard to minimize shoe rub on the crank arm also led to my feet effectively “spilling over” the outboard edge of the pedals unsupported.

After experimenting with the concept on both my Shimano XC5 and Northwave Core Plus shoes, I had some improvement on the Northwaves, but I came off thinking perhaps some more relief could be had.

The second thing I considered was insoles.

In both the XC5 and the Core Plus, the insole is essentially nothing more than a piece of either foam or cardboard. There is no firm shape to it, let alone arch support or any kind of stiffness, and yet this was the part of the shoe my feet would be in direct contact with as I pedaled. Perhaps this was the area ripe for improvements in foot support and stability?

ERGON IP3 SOLESTAR CYCLING INSOLES

To test this, I ordered Ergon IP3 cycling insoles, made for them by another German company called Solestar. These green Ergon co-branded items are their most affordable option, coming in at around US$49 a pair. Solestar has three other options of insoles, each going upward in stiffness.

The text-heavy documentation on the packaging basically confirms what my suspicions were all along: cycling in clipless shoes and pedals is all about giving support, stability, and controlling unnecessary movement. This is in contrast to the design philosophy of a walking or running shoe, where the foot is generally left to move as freely as it can. So that’s the theory…

The Ergon IP3 insoles have a three-layer construction. The outermost shell is the stiffest component and sets the overall shape, while the green damping padding layer and antibacterial cover are meant to cushion your foot’s sole. The idea is that these will provide the support that a shoe’s narrow outsole can’t, effectively extending it.

I understand not everyone agrees with Solestar’s approach with insole design. One notable critic is famous Australian bike fitter Steve Hogg. If it were up to him, he’d place the stiffness on the instep or medial side for arch support. For my specific purposes, though, Solestar’s shape and focus on the lateral forefoot seems to fit the bill, and the company’s insoles have their fans too.

But I digress. Back to the Ergon IP3 Solestars:

Looking at these insoles from the top down really does not do them justice. Below are comparisons of the Ergon IP3 Solestar insoles with those of the Northwave Core Plus and the Shimano XC5.

COMPARISON PHOTOS

View from the rear.
L-R: Northwave Core Plus insole, Shimano XC5 insole, Ergon IP3 Solestar insole
Side profile comparison.
From top: Northwave, Shimano, Ergon Solestar.
Front view comparison.
From top: Shimano, Northwave, Ergon Solestar.

Generally speaking the Northwave insole is the flattest of the three. This reflects in how early I tend to get hot spots in them, but the shoe’s generous fit mitigates it well, and preventing it from flaring into uncontrolled pain. Shimano’s has a bit more shaping, especially around the heel cup. The Ergon Solestar unit, though, is something else.

What the pictures don’t show is the stiffness of the material. Drop either the Northwave or the Shimano insoles to the floor, and you hear a whimper. Drop the Ergon Solestars, and you hear a loud slap across the floor tiles. There’s the stiffness for you – and remember, this is supposed to be the runt of Solestar’s cycling insole lineup.

In the case of the Shimano insoles, it’s this lack of substance and material stiffness that ultimately renders the fancy shaping moot, especially on longer rides like my experience at the 7-Eleven Tour event. As Steve Hogg says, Shimano is taking baby steps, yet not quite fully committing to better insole construction.

One final comparison involves just placing them on top of my crossed-leg right foot and seeing how much of my foot’s sole each insole covers.

Foot sole coverage of the Northwave Core Plus insole.
Foot sole coverage of the Shimano XC5 insole.
Foot sole coverage of the Ergon IP3 Solestar insole.

No adhesives were involved in the three preceding photos. These were just the insoles each gingerly placed on top of my right foot in a crossed-leg pose. It’s not a sophisticated test, but it easily shows just how much support each insole provides.

As expected, both the Northwave and Shimano insoles let my black-socked foot spill over the outboard/lateral side. The Ergon Solestars simply don’t. This bodes well for my comfort, but nothing is for sure until I take them pedaling. The plan is to use these insoles on both the Shimano XC5 and the Northwave Core Plus shoes, and take them riding.

RESULTS

The Ergon IP3 Solestar insoles transformed the XC5s. After an hour’s worth of HIIT on the turbo trainer, I was mildly surprised that my feet had very minimal hot spots. There is enough shaping to the insole to notice the support, yet for me it was not intrusive. I just felt the shoe finally doing its job.

The Northwave Core Plus shoes also improved their fit with the Ergon insoles, but not quite to the same degree as with the Shimanos. After a 90-minute trainer session, I still felt hot spots on my foot, but it was still an improvement over just the more inboard pedaling stance brought by cleat adjustment. The same findings applied when using the combination on a 75-kilometer road ride spanning three hours.

CONCLUSIONS?

So yes, aftermarket cycling insoles – or even expensive custom orthotics – can provide that final bit of fine-tuning for your feet to fit better into a cycling shoe. Presenter and ex-pro sprinter Chris Opie of the Global Cycling Network has his pair that he uses from shoe to shoe. In my case, they successfully serve as a width extension of an already stiff, but too narrow, cycling shoe outsole, and provide the support needed to ward off lateral forefoot pain.

That said, much also rides on how well the insoles or orthotics work with the shoes they’re placed into, and as we’ve seen, they’re not a magic bullet that will give the exact same results with different shoes. Much like with saddles, personal preference and fit will play a large factor in shoes, cleat placement, and insole choice.

Review: Ritchey TorqKey preset torque driver

Not too long ago, I got the Minoura Vergo-TF2-WH in-vehicle bicycle transport system to ferry my bike Hyro inside my car, a GD-chassis Honda Jazz. While Hyro fits inside it when hooked up to the Vergo-TF2, his stem has to be loosened and turned about 100 degrees to the left for the Jazz’s hatch to close all the way.

Stem bolts are a classic example of tightening torque being rather critical on a bike, especially so if either your stem or your handlebars are made of carbon fiber. While Hyro currently runs an all-aluminum cockpit, it’s still important to tighten bolts to correct torque, and it’s not always practical to carry a full torque wrench and bit set around.

That’s where this comes in. It’s a preset torque driver from bicycle frame and component manufacturer Ritchey.

This particular TorqKey is calibrated to 5 Nm, which is a very common torque spec for things like stem bolts, cleat bolts, and cable anchor bolts for brakes and derailleurs.

Shorn of its plastic packaging, Ritchey’s TorqKey is an impressively small package. The torque driver itself has a handle shaped like a twist knob. Along its shaft slides on its carrier for the other bits, which are 3/4/5 mm hex keys, a #1 Philips screwdriver bit, and T20 and T25 Torx keys.

The business end of the TorqKey accepts any of these six bits in its shaft. Not only does the shaft have a rather tight, secure hold on the bits, it’s also got a magnet at the base for even better bit security when active.

The TorqKey is a joy to use. With nothing to adjust, all you have to do is swap in the relevant tool bit and twist away until its internal clutch clicks and slips, indicating 5 Nm of torque has been applied to your fastener of choice. The only downside I see is that the internal clutch is a one-way affair. I don’t think you’ll be able to torque a reverse-thread bolt with this.

It certainly beats lugging this full-size torque wrench around for low-torque applications.

The TorqKey and its tool bits now live in the emergency/EDC bag in my Jazz, alongside my second, shorter set of metric hex keys. This way, the Jazz always ready to accommodate Hyro in his cargo hold.