It used to be that choosing cycling shoes for off-road riding meant one thing: compromise. Stiffness and efficiency often came at the expense of traction and walkability (and vice-versa). Rarely could you have your proverbial cake and eat it, too. Thanks to Pearl Izumi’s X-Alp Launch II shoes, however, gravel and adventure riders don’t have to sacrifice performance for off-the-bike comfort and durability.
At first glance, the X-Alp Launch II ($160 MSRP) may not look that different from many other recreational cycling shoes. Don’t let the subdued graphics and clean lines fool you, though, because the Launch II shares technology found on Pearl Izumi’s more expensive X-Project 1.0 shoes. And in case you’re wondering if the X-Alp can handle your local trails, the X-Alp just happens to be the shoe of choice for world-champion racer Brian Lopes.
Constructed from a mix of synthetic leather and mesh, the X-Alp’s are available in men’s sizes 39-49 (half-sizes: 39-47) and women’s sizes 36-43 (including half-sizes). A well-padded tongue helps reduce pressure on the top of your foot, and the reinforced toe box offers protection from rock strikes. The shoes’ carbon fiber-injected shanks provide the necessary stiffness for pedaling efficiency, while the EVA X-Alp outsole/midsole offers cushioning and comfort on and off the bike. Bi-directional BOA closures and hook-and-loop straps enable quick and easy adjustments.
Slipping on the Launch IIs for the first time revealed a comfortable, yet supportive fit. The size 45 Pearl Izumi shoes were spot on length-wise, and the toe box was roomy but not sloppy. I have relatively narrow heels, and often have a difficult time finding shoes that can be tightened enough to prevent heel slippage without affecting medial and forefoot comfort. On the X-Alps, I was able to secure my heels by cranking down the BOA closures, leaving the hook-and-loop straps loose for comfort.
The Launch II’s carbon rubber outsole features tightly spaced knobs around the perimeter, with more generous spacing near the cleat pocket. That tread pattern proved to be extremely effective on dirt, mud, and even snow and ice. I tested the shoes with clipless pedals from Crank Brothers, iSSi, MKS, Speedplay, and Time, and had no problem dialing in my preferred cleat position. Thanks to the X-Alps’ removable cleat hardware cover, riders who haven’t made the jump to clipless pedals can use the Pearl Izumi shoes with clips-and-straps.
Balancing walkability and pedaling performance isn’t as simple as slapping tread on an ultra-stiff racing shoe. Some flex is needed to maintain a natural gait when walking or portaging the bike. Pearl Izumi took advantage of the University of Colorado’s biomechanics lab to dial in the optimum position of the sole’s flex points. The result is the X-Alp’s carbon shank that’s tuned to offer effective power transfer and walkability. The Launch II’s won’t replace my favorite hiking boots, but I no longer dread extended hike-a-bikes or convenience stores’ slippery floors.
During the X-Alp Launch II’s testing, I would occasionally switch between the X-Alp and Pearl Izumi’s top-of-the-line $320 X-Project shoe. Using the same pedals, on the same bikes, I came to prefer the X-Alps’ additional comfort. And while I might have detected slightly more flex with the Launch II shoes when pushing hard (such as climbing steep grades out of the saddle), I never experienced any hotspots or soreness with the X-Alps. After several months of winter riding (both on- and off-road), the uppers show virtually no signs of wear.
Pearl Izumi may have designed the X-Alp Launch II for the MTB trail and enduro crowd (where it performs beautifully), but it’s also an excellent shoe for gravel and adventure riders (as well as commuters). Cyclists who value pedaling efficiency, all-day comfort and the big one; walkability, will be well served by the X-Alp Launch II.
Disclosure: Pearl Izumi provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.