Bontrager RL road shoes

Promising race shoes with issues

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High hopes

Bontrager's second-tier RL Road shoes pack in nearly all of the same features as the top-end RXL model but at a significant cost savings. The ventilated Silver Series full-length carbon fiber outsole is indistinguishable underfoot from the RXL's Gold Series plate, the similar Derby-style upper construction (whereby the split for the tongue runs all the way to toes) is snug-fitting and remarkably accommodating of a broad range of foot widths, the same novel semi-customizable eSoles eFit footbeds are included, and the RL shoes are even a tad bit lighter at 602g per pair (a comparable pair of RXLs weighs 616g).

Differences are decidedly minor: the upper isn't as well ventilated as the one on the RXL – but feels more supportive – and the main strap isn't adjustable for length nor is it quite as padded. Both are reasonable trades for the US$50 cost savings, especially if your foot is of average width and/or volume anyway.

Low times

However, while the RL shares most of the RXL's features, it also shares most of its drawbacks, too.

The plastic buckle lever is easy to easy to grab but bulky looking and there's no partial release mechanism if you just want to loosen things up a bit on the road. Once the buckle is cinched down, another pair of Velcro forefoot straps does a good job of keeping your forefoot in place but there's noticeable slip out back as the heel cups are curiously wide.

The included eSoles eFit insoles should be a bright point as they're highly supportive and their interchangeable arch sections let users customize the footbeds to best suit their anatomy – except for the fact that you can't actually get alternate inserts from either Bontrager or eSoles (!), at least online. Bontrager shoe owners can, however, apparently get them at certified eSoles dealers but they're few and far between.

As a result, what you see is what you get – at least for now – and while it's good value to include a pair of US$69.99 insoles with a sub-US$200 shoe, there's little point if you can't take advantage of them anyway. To add insult to injury, the red top sheet also bleeds color on to the bottoms of your socks if you get stuck in the rain.

Flip the shoes over and it unfortunately just gets worse as an incorrect sole curvature results in warped cleats, especially if you tend to run them further back. It's not so bad as to actually prevent you from clipping in – or unexpectedly eject your foot out – but the twisted interface does make pedal float less fluid and entry/exit a bit less precise. We tried our test shoes with Shimano SPD-SL, Look KeO and Speedplay Zero cleats and all were affected to some degree. Not only that but we had the same issue with the RXL pair we also had in for test, too.

Bontrager's solution? A shim kit, which is now apparently included with each pair. Sure, that'll admittedly fill in the gap but it's still just a Band-Aid on what is otherwise a fundamental error. Should you really have to do a semi-custom cleat installation on a pair of high-end road shoes?

Pros: Novel Derby-style cut works for a wide range of foot shapes and sizes, stiff full-length ventilated carbon plate, highly breathable and comfortable upper
Cons: Improper sole curvature results in twisted cleats, sloppy fit around heel, clumsy plastic buckle lever

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