The clipless diaries, part 3: Shimano SH-RT33L road touring shoes

Previously, I went over Shimano’s Deore XT T780 pedal set, which combines SPD retention mechanism and flat pedal in one unit. I also discussed how they performed underfoot on normal sneakers.

To use these pedals to the fullest, I needed proper shoes. I found a lot of them underwhelming, though.

Cross-country MTB shoe: Shimano SH-XC31

Despite the promise of easier walking, many MTB shoes deliver on that premise only on muddy ground and off-road conditions. Most cross-country MTB shoes do just this, equipped with hard, unyielding plastic tread blocks. If your walking happens mostly on floors, asphalt and pavement, this isn’t what you want.

Mountain touring shoe: Shimano SH-MT34

More walkable MTB shoe options do exist, but they also give you a tall stack height (measured by the thickness of the sole from insole to outsole) – not what I wanted, either.

Then I saw Shimano’s road touring shoe line.

Road touring shoe: Shimano SH-RT82

These look like road bike shoes, but throw out the three-bolt cleat mounting. Instead, they get a two-bolt SPD cleat mount with a full-length rubber sole. Interesting.

I ended up getting Shimano’s SH-RT33L shoes. The company logo aside, I like how simple and understated these look. You could get away with using them for work…just about.

I’ve heard horror stories of the company’s shoe sizing running on the small side, but these EUR 44-size shoes fit me well with just enough give at the toe box.

One level down from the RT82, the category flagship model, these jettison the third ratchet-buckle strap and offset strap arrangement, relying on two normal hook-and-loop straps instead. They still get the same sole, though, and have a few nice touches. Dense mesh at the toebox provides foot venting, but doesn’t let the odd splash of water through immediately. There’s also a bit of reflective material on the ends of the straps and on the heel cup.

The RT33s may be more walkable than your typical road bike shoe, but they’re still rather stiff in the sole. The outsole has a strange profile, with a pronounced “tiptoe rocking” as you roll forward from the ball of your foot to your toes, since the area of the sole where the cleat recess lives is thicker. On most surfaces walking with them is fine, although depending on how your cleat is set up, you might still hear its metal scraping and clicking on the pavement.

Driving with them isn’t the best of ideas. The stack height on the ball of the foot is still kind of high, so it forces my left knee to go unsupported while manipulating the clutch, and brake pedal feel is diminished. On longer drives, I’d advise a change of footwear.

With this shoe, as with some other models, Shimano provide you a “cleat nut” with four threaded holes, as well as a rectangular waterproof sticker. To mount the cleat and fine-tune the position, you remove the insole (or “sockliner”), then put the cleat nut face down into the long thin holes. Take the cleat, foreplate and two mounting bolts, place them on the outsole, and loosely thread them into the cleat nut while you fine-tune the position of the cleat. Once satisfied with the cleat position, prep the cleat bolts with grease or thread locker, and torque them down to 5 Nm. Teeth on the back edge of the cleat will dig into the outsole and leave divots to secure its position. You then cover up the cleat nut from the inside with the waterproof sticker and return the insole.

So, how do I get along with them on the bike? That’s a topic for next time.

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The clipless diaries, part 2: Shimano Deore XT PD-T780 pedals + SM-SH56 multi-release cleats

In the previous installment, I went over the two basic kinds of clipless pedal systems. At the end, I mentioned a subset of the two-bolt variety that combined both SPD retention mechanism and normal flat pedal into a single unit.

Well, I ended up getting Shimano’s Deore XT PD-T780 “trekking” SPD + platform pedals, which are one of the choices that fulfill that design brief, and allow pedaling on any kind of footwear. These have a fairly large platform area and orange reflectors on the pedal body. The SPD mechanism stands proud of its side.

At 392 g, these are a fair bit lighter than the Saint MX80 pedals.

One slight downside is that the T780s don’t have 15 mm wrench flats. They mount to crank arms only via an 8 mm hex key instead.

As with most SPD pedals, the T780s come with a set of cleats – Shimano’s silver SH56 multi-release units. Compared to the black, single-release SH51 variety, the multi-release cleats can unclip in ways other than the standard outward heel twist. If you slide your foot sideways off the pedal, the cleat will disengage. Coupled with the tension adjustment bolt on the pedals’ retention mechanism, adjusted via 3 mm hex key to the loosest setting, this should make it a little easier for beginners like me.

Riding Hyro shod with sneakers while pedaling with the T780s, I find the platform is a decent size and width. It’s not far from what the Saint MX80s felt like. Despite some large, blocky, raised “teeth” on the pedal body, the platform side is still rather slippery when wet, since there are no traction pins.

Since this pair of pedals is both SPD and flat, half the time, I inevitably found myself pedaling on the SPD side with plain sneakers. While functionally fine, the retention mechanism does feel like a large hard lump underfoot, and isn’t particularly comfortable for longer spells.

To use these pedals to the fullest, I will eventually need proper footwear. Tellingly, the T780s have a very slight bias in rotating SPD-side up. I’ll discuss that in the next installment. Stay tuned.

Don’t judge a saddle by its appearance

Hyro’s stock saddle was a Giant-branded unit made by Velo.

Now, saddles are very personal items; what fits my, uh, undercarriage may or may not work out for yours. That stock unit was a decent saddle to start riding a road bike with. It even looks rather good; I’ve heard people compare it to Fizik’s Arione, and I’ve seen people pay more money for these original-equipment items compared to their counterparts when other riders immediately replace with something else.

Compared to even Bino’s stock saddle, though, it was always a little behind in the comfort stakes.

I always found it a little slab-sided. Not enough to chafe my thighs on long rides, but it could have had a slightly better shape and less material on the sides to better accommodate my pedaling motion.

It also, quite literally, gave me numb nuts on longer stints. Its relatively flat shape, combined with the road bike seating position, meant that there was impingement on what saddle makers call my “soft tissues,” specifically to the perineal arteries and nerves.

Finally, I had also ridden it long enough to wear through the corners of its nose. At this point you can’t say I didn’t try to make it fit my physique. It’s still a serviceable saddle, but it’s seen better days.

Fizik Antares Versus (2016)

For a long time, I had been looking at more ergonomically designed saddles. Many of them have a “pressure relief channel” (basically an indentation in the foam running down the length of the saddle) or a physical cut-out, in an effort to solve the numb-nuts problem.

None of them comes close to what some would call the abject craziness of a certain Italian saddle maker’s designs, though. That saddle maker is Selle SMP.

SMP prides itself on having 100% Italian-made saddles with a full-length cutout, very long saddle rails, and an eagle-beak nose that dips downward at the end. These features, supposedly, are to reduce artery and nerve impingement, even when the hips are rotated forward in aggressive riding positions.

They also look very strange. I see lots of comments joking about the family jewels going through the cutout and getting snagged on its edges. In contrast, acquaintances of mine who ride on SMP’s perches swear it’s like sitting “on a miniature toilet bowl” – supposedly, such is the absence of soft tissue pressure – and report comfort even after riding 200- or 300-kilometer randonnees.

I picked up their Hell saddle.

That name…is facepalm-inducingly unfortunate, to say the least. But “Hell” it is called, so “Hell” we shall refer to it. SMP’s garish detailing doesn’t do its saddles any favors, either. Branding aside, the markings and visuals make it look a little childish and over-the-top.

Beyond appearances, how is it to sit on? I’ve ridden the Hell on commutes, long rides, and through the mud of Heroes Bike Trail. It rides nothing like hell; it has been very comfortable through all of them. I had concerns about the Hell being a one-position-only saddle due to its wavy profile, but it doesn’t matter where you sit along its length – neutral, front, rear, all positions just work.

The Hell is 140 mm wide and 280 mm long; a little shorter than stock. Its sides are also shapelier and more sculpted, less likely to get in the way of my thighs.

SMP’s “crazy” design features mean that no matter how much you rotate your hips forward on the saddle – when riding in the drops, for example – your genitals are almost guaranteed not to get squeezed by your body weight. The only way I’ll get numb nuts seated on the Hell is after doing ten full-power sprints of Daang Reyna…by then my fingers would have gone numb much earlier from all the road vibration.

For all the praises I sing about the Hell, there are downsides.

  • Saddle cutouts are an effective shortcut into your cycling shorts for mud or spray thrown up by your back wheel; not a problem for me since I run full-length fenders almost year-round.
  • The distinctive shape means setting your saddle angle and layback is slightly different. The saddle rail position that yields level on an SMP saddle will result in a nose-up position on anything else.
  • The saddle rails are set very wide at the rear edge. Many mounting brackets for quick-release saddlebags or rear lights will just not work; they’re just not long enough for the wide rail spacing on this or other SMP saddles.

Along with my SKS fenders, the Selle SMP Hell saddle is proving some of the best money I’ve spent on bike parts. Actually riding a randonnee on this won’t be a hardship.

Update: Selle SMP have renamed this saddle in the middle of 2016. It’s now called the “Well.” Personally, I liked the Hell name better.