07 December 2009

bikefix Initial Review: Louis Garneau Montana XT2 shoes

It's a well-worn (even tired) saw: If your feet aren't happy, you won't be happy. Not that feet are the only gatekeepers between riders and cycling nirvana, but anyone who's endured hot spots and numbness on even a short ride can attest that unhappy feet can really take their toll on one's mood. With so much riding on their products (and countless ways in which they can go wrong), shoe designers might well have the hardest job in the industry.

When Louis Garneau sent out their new mid-range ($130) Montana XT2 for us to try, I approached them with caution. I'll be the first to admit that I have hard to fit feet. Over the years, I've tried on countless brands' shoes- and only managed to make peace with one. My low arches (if the term can be applied to a straight line from the big toe to heel) but normal foot width lead to what are called "low volume" feet, which make getting shoes' top straps snug enough difficult- and that's just for starters. I was excited to notice when, pulling the Montanas on for the first time, that the overall length of the ratcheting top strap is adjustable by way of a hidden Velcro strip. Also, the inside of the heel is lined with what Louis Garneau call "one-way stretch Lycra," which looks like a fine metal mesh and feels like extra strong velvet in that it is smooth in one direction (when pulling the shoes on) and grabs in the other direction (when pulling up on the pedals). The toe bumpers, while not large, are sturdy plastic. The shoes' uppers weren't exactly glove soft in the way that high-end road shoes' can be, but the fit seemed good and the shoe not heavy but certainly substantial. Altogether, the Montana XT2's come across as a solid and handsome (though not flashy) mountain shoe. It was time to mount up some cleats and hit the trail.

At least south of the (Canadian) border, we really don't see much Louis Garneau gear. The pieces I have owned (jerseys, shorts and toe covers) have ranged from good to excellent, but it wasn't until we spent some time with Heidi at the company's Interbike booth that I realized the breadth of the line. Even without the bikes that are sold in Canada or their ski or running lines, the company's cycling catalog runs to 140 pages- covering clothing to helmets and shoes to gloves and luggage. Garneau make a lot of gear- and many of their soft goods are sewn in Canada and the US. When we ask companies to show us the gear that they're most proud of, it almost never includes reasonably-priced mid-line pieces. The fact that Garneau is particularly proud of their mid-range suggests that they pay as much attention their as they do at the top end- and my experience so far with the Montana XT2's supports this impression.

When I first clipped in while wearing the Montanas, I thought that I might have mounted the cleats incorrectly. The shoes' soles are noticeably and (at first) oddly canted toward the outside. I believe that Specialized do something similar and Lemond's LeWedge shims can be used to do the same thing. The idea from those companies is that most people's feet don't naturally land flat (either under- or over-pronating). By canting the soles so ever so slightly, the shoes' stiff soles are able to more completely and evenly support the feet (though I couldn't find any claims along these lines from Garneau online or in their catalog). It certainly felt weird for the first few pedal strokes, but the oddness went away within a mile or so. Though I hadn't zeroed in on the problem before, when wearing the Montanas, it feels like I'm able to pedal with my entire foot, rather than putting a good deal of pressure on the outside of the foot. I can't say that everyone will benefit, but the canting was certainly an unexpected bonus and felt great in my case.

Also unexpected (but less pleasant) was that the cutout on the inside of each heel seemed too far back and rubbed my ankle bones. Notice the Swiftwick logo on the socks in the first photo- it sits right over my inside ankle bone. This lead to some uncomfortable rubbing to start, but after a week or two, the shoes broke in and, while I do notice the shoe rubbing there on occasion, it's no longer uncomfortable. Moving the inside heel cutouts forward 1/4in would provide my bony ankles more than enough room to do their thing.

Over the past five weeks, I've managed to log over 60 hours in the Montana XT2's and am extremely impressed. They've seen 4-hour mountain bike rides, 50-mile road rides and, after 15 years, my triumphant return to cyclocross racing. They've shrugged off a rock impact that left one little toe bruised and purple. The nylon soles give up very little stiffness to my personal shoes' carbon soles- and probably save a good deal of money in the process. While I haven't done any proper epics, I have to say that the Garneau's have me rethinking my old standbys. When I switch back to my old shoes, the outsides of my feet are uncomfortable by comparison and it takes several miles to readjust.

The only dark cloud in this sunny picture is the wear that the ratchet strap is showing already. It doesn't seem to be getting any worse and a spare pair are included with the shoes (which is appreciated), but it really is too early for that sort of thing. The top strap's ratchet seems a bit fiddly at first, with pressure needed on two independent levers to release the strap. My best guess is that this is to prevent unintentional strap releases, but they can be a bit hard to release a click or two while riding.

Since first pulling the Montana's on, I haven't chosen my old shoes for any rides over an hour or so- they're just more comfortable. For the first time in 10 years, I'm questioning my shoe brand loyalty. The fact that a $130 shoe has done that is a huge testament to the Montana XT2's fit and construction. So far, they're not showing any wear outside of the ratchet strap. If the ratchet and strap don't deteriorate any further, I think that Louis Garneau have every reason to be very proud of these shoes. We're coming up on 24-hour race season, so these will see a lot of miles between now and my final review next spring. Stay tuned.

marc

www.louisgarneau.com

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Marc, what is the brand of shoes that worked for you in the past? I have low volume feet too, and I haven't found one yet...

bikefix said...

Anon,

I've been a Shimano fan for *years*- though the Garneaus definitely fit me better. Good luck,

marc