The Gear Junkie: The Do-all Bike Shoe

The NorthWave Mission shoe (above) clip in for efficient mountain bike pedaling.
A common question I get from first-time multisport athletes revolves around the versatility of footwear in sports such as adventure racing and off-road triathlon. Namely, newbies aspiring to speed transition times or cut back on the quantity of gear carried in a race, wonder whether one pair of shoes might make it through multiple legs during an event, including cycling, trail running, and potentially paddling and off-trail navigation in an orienteering section.

The do-all shoe concept has long been a pipe dream for footwear designers, and a couple companies have pushed shoe products to market advertised as hybrids that'll clip to a bike pedal and grip on a trail. The Northwave Mission, one example I tested, is a shoe made for biking with a recessed pedal cleat and a Vibram sole for traction.

The Mission shoes ($99.99, www.northwave.com) clip in and spin for efficient pedaling on a mountain bike. For hiking and trail running, they grip on dirt and stone for adequate traction, and the contoured outsole and comfy footbed is fine for many miles of off-the-bike motion.

But the shoes are heavy--about 1.25 pounds per foot with my size 13s--and they are too stiff for running any long distance. Typical of hybrids I've tested over the years, the Mission makes compromises to acquiesce with two very different activities. A bike shoe needs to be stiff in the sole; a hiking or running shoe needs flex. The Mission meets at a middle ground that accommodates both activities, though neither with great success.

Pearl Izumi Another entry, Pearl Izumi's X-Alp Enduro ($110, www.pearlizumi.com) shoes, have a nylon plate in the sole to provide the stiffness needed for pedaling. But off the bike a cushioned EVA foam midsole similar to that seen on the company's running shoes makes the X-Alp feel almost like it's not a bike shoe in disguise.

Further, the company designed a beveled heel on the X-Alp and a "flex groove" on the sole just behind the toes. These features accommodate a running stride and a toe-off spring while hiking.

In my test, the X-Alp -- which comes in men's and women's models -- gripped rocks and dirt while hiking on a trail. At just more than a pound per foot, they were a couple ounces lighter than the Northwave Missions. For running, the X-Alp passed the basic exam but I would not mark them as capable of the performance needed for adventure racing or off-road triathlon.

Keen Commuter A final hybrid I tested, the Keen Commuter ($115, www.keenfootwear.com), appears to be a normal sandal from above. But a hollowed area under the forefoot accommodates a pedal cleat to let you clip in. Like the Missions and the X-Alp, the Keen shoes are heavy (1 pound 2 oz. per foot) and stiff in the sole. For casual use the Keens are fine, but in the woods--or even for a long walk around home--I'd wear something more specific to the activity and more suitable for the terrain.

Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eight U.S. newspapers; visit thegearjunkie.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog and an archive of Regenold's work.

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