When stiffest isn’t always best: Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4 gravel shoes

After searching for cycling shoes that fit my feet and address all their issues, I lucked out and got a great deal on Specialized’s S-Works 6 XCs. The experience has been largely very, very positive.

They are not perfect. Big, burly tread blocks pepper the underside, but they are hard things with surprisingly little grip on polished floors. As such, walking indoors with them is hard on the ankles. The unyielding stiffness baked into those shapely carbon fiber soles is a boon for power transfer, but gets progressively less friendly on longer sustained stints in the saddle. With 2020 being the year it was, I tried taking them on indoor trainer rides lasting three to four hours – on both virtual climbs up the Passo dello Stelvio and 100 km on virtual desert flats – and my feet were positively cooked by the end either way.

As vain a hope as it is – for various reasons – I am still holding on to the hope of repeating the 200 km Subic-Masinloc-Subic audax ride one day. Suitability for that event, I find, has become a good benchmark for my equipment reviews. For all their many merits, I don’t think the S-Works 6 XCs make that particular cut. Like their name suggests, they seem ideal for cross-country mountain bike races or even the pedaling-and-running combination of muddy cyclocross events. Neither of those goes past two hours per instance, in practice.

Back in 2015, I rode the audax on Shimano’s RT33L “road touring” shoes. They weren’t the stiffest things around, but kept my feet comfy as I pedaled kilometer after kilometer. Only in the final ten kilometers did I feel the discomfort of my feet contorting around the very small SPD cleats. Also, unlike the S-Works 6 XCs, the RT33Ls were much easier to walk around in, their outsoles’ lower-profile rubber still providing decent grip on floors, and the tongue having enough thickness to avoid digging into the ankles with each step.

I wonder if there is a shoe out there that fits this same bill?

Fizik may have the answer. After winning a Black Friday 2020 discount voucher on Strava, I waited five months to use it, shaving off quite a chunk of cash while ordering their Terra Powerstrap X4 gravel shoes.

It’s striking how both it and the RT33L share raw materials and design traits. Both bind to feet via two Velcro straps. Both shoes use nylon outsoles and are rated midpack on each manufacturer’s stiffness scales. Both shoes’ outsoles are even shaped in such a way to rock back and forth for easier walking. Finally, both keep the svelte, sleek road cycling shoe silhouette I adore, and eschew the bulk of a typical mountain bike shoe.

The top strap does most of the tightening.

They diverge from that point on. Fizik certainly offers more flair with the Terra X4s. Somehow, they’ve taken two humble Velcro straps, looped and arranged them to control volume up and down the shoe, similar to a BOA dial and cable arrangement…and made it look not-cheap and quite handsome in the process. That certainly takes some doing.

Let’s not pretend that the Velcro is there for any reason other than simplicity and cost savings. And that’s fine. My old RT33Ls never relinquished what grip they had on my feet just because they used Velcro straps instead of ratchets or BOA dials. Velcro is a known quantity at this point; it just works. That’s not to say its use cannot be innovated upon, though.

This “mud and caramel” colorway on my pair is pretty nice. The outsole reminds me of all the gum-soled badminton shoes I used to dart around the courts in. Perhaps calling the upper’s color “mud” is a bit “gravel cycling, bro,” but whatever; the color contrast next to the black straps is just right. Fizik offer these shoes in a few other colorways as well.

The outsole measures about 5.7 cm at its narrowest.

These are the first shoes of any kind I’ve ever bought online; I was not able to try them on to get a better idea of how they fit on my feet. Stories abound of Fizik’s earlier shoes offering a stereotypical “Italian shoe” fit and feel: narrow to the point of constriction. I felt slightly apprehensive, not sure if this was still true.

Using my S-Works 6 XCs as a basis, and trying to play it safe, I ordered a size 45.

With about 3 cm of extra length from my big toe to the end of the toe box, these are just a bit longer than the S-Works 6 XCs. Every other fit characteristic, though, was spot-on, and proves Fizik listened to its customers. The Terra X4s don’t have the locked-in heel hold of the S-Works, feeling just a bit slacker even with grippy silicone dotting the heel cup, but they sufficiently prevent heel lift in sprints and are roomy in the toe box – even at a more “correct” size 44 pair, I suspect. Fizik has a winner with the layout of the Velcro straps here, and how well they control shoe volume and fit, without BOA dials. The upper material is even decently ventilated despite the lack of mesh.

Potential clumsiness of extra toe length considered, the Terra X4s are a lot more pleasurable to walk in than with the S-Works 6 XCs. They one-up the RT33Ls by having an actual pattern etched into the tread, which should improve grip on both polished floors and dusty gravel trails. There’s also something to be said for cutting down on ultimate sole stiffness as a solution for better walking off the bike. The “Goldilocks” stiffness should also help long-haul comfort on all-day bike rides.

I’ve put these shoes to the test with some extended indoor trainer sessions, one of them covering a relatively “flat” 50 km in just under two hours. They held up very well, with little in the way of forefoot pain, and it felt like I could easily go on another 50 km stint after a bit of rest. One thing I did notice in the closing minutes of the ride was the angled overlap of the forward Velcro strap. It felt like a rather large knot on the upper and I could feel it just around my big toe. That may have been due to the strap being pulled tight, but it was not uncomfortable or painful at all.

Having gone through many pairs of cycling shoes, as longtime readers may have known, I realize I’ve spent quite a bit of coin chasing a balance that at times is tough to nail down.

Specialized S-Works 6 XC

While I am grateful for how far the S-Works 6 XCs took forefoot support with their aggressively shaped carbon midsoles, I’m also learning first-hand that there comes a point where added shoe stiffness gets diminishing returns. True to its brand name, this is a more specialized pair of shoes than I initially gave it credit for – almost to a fault. For all its many merits, it just isn’t a great all-rounder.

Shimano MT5

These Terra X4s are perhaps as stiff as I’d want a shoe to be if I’m expecting a long day on the saddle. At the same time, they’re usefully stiffer than my Shimano MT5s, which admittedly score low on Shimano’s stiffness scale. I find them just too soft for the kind of riding and training I do these days.

Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4

The Terra X4s are exactly what I expected the Shimano XC5s to be. Both are gravel shoes, but Shimano’s change to its shoe fit did not agree with my feet. Fizik nails the fit and forefoot support much better, even without resorting to swapping insoles, and I can clearly see myself reaching for this pair first for most of my riding. At US$150 direct from Fizik or PhP7,700 from local retailers, the comfort comes at a premium, but if it means getting to ride in better comfort, on longer spells on the saddle, I’d say it’s worth it.


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