Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Great 2011 Sneaker Shootout, Part 1

I'm lucky enough to have the stereotypical "IT guy" dress code at my day job, despite the fact that I'm just an IT guy wannabe. Combine that with a very short commute between The Cycle World Headquarters and the corporate Borg cube, and I'm fast becoming a real snob when it comes to biking-compatible sneakers. With the collection of aging-hipster-slacker-footwear growing at an embarrassing rate, I figured it was time for an EPIC SHOE REVIEW in MULTIPLE PARTS! (tah-dah!)

Some baseline information before I begin: All shoes are being tested on the budget VP platform pedals I raved about recently, mounted on the Swift folder I refuse to shut up about. The test protocol is "ride a short distance in the quasi-urban jungle of Des Moines, IA, do a desk job all day (with the occasional walking jaunts around the downtown Des Moines human ant farm/skywalk system), then hop back on the bike for the ride home." This is not a test of normal looking shoes that work with clipless pedals -- I feel astonishingly dumb using clipless for my around-town bike. It's just a side-by-side comparison of regular old sneakers (some made for biking, some not) as used on the bike.

One other bit of weirdness that will make this test far from useful for normal humans: I usually wear custom podiatrist-crafted orthotics in my shoes (one benefit of dating a podiatrist's daughter in a previous life), so the fact that most of these sneakers have ZERO support (and aren't supremely stiff) makes little difference to me. You could replicate these results with your own orthotics (our staff graphic designer likes SOLE footbeds). I also have mutant-wide feet, so your results may vary. You've been warned.

The benchmark sneaker that everyone knows is (of course) the Converse Chuck Taylor. I don't even have to provide a link. Fashion icon, been around since dirt was new (my DAD wore them in GRADE SCHOOL, for Pete's sake), freaking ubiquitous. Here's my last pair, at the end of their run as a test shoe:
Bias alert: I love these things. But as a daily commuter shoe, they are far from perfect in their current incarnation. The aluminum eyelets (while iconic) will leave black aluminum oxide schmutz on light-colored socks, and seem to let the laces loosen up a bit over time. The more damning criticism of Mr. Taylor, though, is in the sole. The old (U.S.-made) Chuck had a very soft, grippy sole compound right out of the box. The new (Chinese-made) sole  has a plasticky "skin" over the rubber (not unlike what you'd find on overcooked pudding) that has next-to-zero grip in the dry and less-than-zero grip in the rain. My suspicion is that this is a layer of mold-release compound that keeps the sole from sticking to its mold in the factory. You have to wear these things on concrete for a while to scuff through that before they're really ideal for pedals.

The other issue that knocked Chuck down in my test protocol is the failure mode shown here:
 See that little gap? That's the spot where repeated flex (combined with the insane width of my feet) opens up the connection between the sole and the upper. In its early stages, it just makes a little opening to let in (more) rain. Over time, it becomes a terminal condition. These haven't reached full-blowout failure yet, but they're headed there. 

But I keep coming back to Chas for one simple reason: They feel good. Despite looking painfully narrow, my wide dogs love 'em. The cotton canvas (which, warning, does NOTHING to keep out weather) forms itself to the bizarre shape of my feet like nothing else. A worn-in pair of these is like socks with soles. Still, since this was a test shoe I bought with my own cash, I wish they lasted longer and cost less. Grumpy old man mode: I remember when the U.S.-made ones were $30. Now, suggested retail on the Chinese-made ones is something like $45 (though they can be had for as cheap as $25 if you do some hunting and can live with last year's colors -- which would indicate to me that they've become a fashion item rather than a functional shoe, thus answering the question of why they cost so much for so little durability). 

Oh, one other upside (geez, I'm in a rambling state of mind today)... when these get dirty, you can throw them in the washing machine (but not the dryer, obviously). Not sure if this is manufacturer-recommended (or if it's contributing to a shortened lifespan), but it does help keep them compliant with a corporate-extra-casual dress code after a particularly messy ride.


Steve Fuller said...

I'm looking forward to these reviews. With NBIF (Newest Bike In the Fleet) sporting platforms with no clips, I'm on the hunt for a comfy pair of "do it all" shoes as well. I've been using my Keen Commuters, but the cleats do get in the way occasionally.

bikelovejones said...

Jason -- I've loved the Cons for a long time myself, but they wear out too fast to make sense.
For something eerily similar but made of much stouter stuff, try the Chrome Kursk shoe. Uppers of cordura and rubber, bottoms are rubber but include stiffeners for more support while pedaling.
I bought a pair 18 months ago, wear them almost every day to and from work, and they're still going strong.

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

BLJ... funny you should mention that, as I just got back from a ride in a pair of Kursks. Review forthcoming. Steve F's gonna love them, as the color scheme would go perfectly with his blinged-out Big Dummy. :-)