Ultra-stiff well-vented shoe with a refined fit that may not work for long-time Shimano wearers
Vastly improved ventilation
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When Shimano launched its original Shimano S-Phyre RC9 road shoes, they were the lightest shoes the brand had made to date. Not only did it possess a new fit, but it was also stiffer than previous models and introduced Boa dial retention.
Now in its third generation, the latest S-Phyre seeks to continue as one of the best cycling shoes bringing with it quite a few changes beyond the usual claims of improved stiffness, less weight and new colour options.
The previous two versions of the S-Phyre were almost universally well-received for their fit and overall performance on the road, but, some of the updates may leave current S-Phyre wearers feeling like their feet have been bound.
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Design and aesthetics
Shimano says the update to the S-Phyre can be distilled into three areas, 'function-specific zones,' power transfer optimisation and engineered fit.
Shimano says it analysed the pedalling dynamics and foot movement of its sponsored pro riders to inform design choices that would offer the best possible combination of support, movement and comfort. This is how the brand landed on the new upper, made from a mix of synthetic leather and TPU-reinforced mesh, layered to stretch in some places and provide support in others while maximizing breathability.
On the front of the shoe, the toe bumper comes up and over the shoe's tip to prevent lasting marks and wear from tyre rub.
Carried through from the previous version is the 360-degree surround upper that wraps your foot up like a burrito, with the upper anchored under the carbon sole. So as you tighten the shoe it pulls even from both sides. There is also noticeable improvement here in the way that the halves overlap, and the materials move in an unrestricted manner as you chinch the Boas without any folds or wrinkles. Shimano has also continued mounting the reels opposite to what's found on most shoes, preventing the hard plastic base of the top reel from digging into your foot.
Speaking of the Boas, the S-Phyre have the latest Li2 dials. Boa says the Li2 are lower profile and lighter than the IP1 dials, but I wouldn't say there is much difference in function. They offer micro-adjustment in both directions, have a pop release, a rubberised edge for grip and look nice, too.
The carbon plate on the base of the shoe is rated 12 out of 12 on the brand's stiffness scale and works in combination with the new anti-twist heel cup. During the design process, Shimano looked at forces transmitted through the shoe during significant changes in pace and saw lateral stiffness could be improved by beefing up this area of the shoe.
With a lot of shoes, I have long believed vents in the sole really on only serve as a drain for moisture as you can rarely feel any airflow coming into the shoe — that's not the case with the new S-Phyre there is, without a doubt tangible cooling on offer. Working in kind with the mesh on the shoe's front third, the RC902s are quite a bit cooler than their predecessors.
Shimano says it's made a few minor tweaks to the shape of the new S-Phyre, including a more gradual taper on the toe box, and improved heel hold when it comes to the engineered fit. On the inside of the heel cup, Shimano has changed over from the silver cat tongue-like one-way fabric to printed silicone grippers and, combined with the new beefed-up heel cup and sculpted padding, offers a tangible improvement in heel hold.
Shimano has always offered its shoes in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. The S-Phyre RC902 is available in sizes from 36-48 in having size increments and is available in a wide last. The shoe comes in the traditional white, black, Shimano blue and a new for this version red.
Our size 45 samples weighed 512g without cleats, including the Silverdur, treated insoles with the yellow mid-height arch wedge installed.
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As you'd expect from a top-of-the-line shoe designed to be worn by WorldTour racers, the Shimano S-Phyre are uber-stiff and are among the most unflexing race shoes money can buy. That said, Shimano has done well to tune the base plate to dampen the majority of the road buzz that would otherwise be transmitted to your foot. The stack height isn't quite as low as something such as Bont shoe, but keeps the pivot point close enough to your foot for a natural pedalling motion.
The cleats nuts have 11mm of adjustability but to take advantage you’ll have to remove the red chip under the waterproof tape on the interior of the shoe. It’s a fiddly process but does allow for a rearward cleat position.
Even in the previous version of the S-Phyre, the external plastic heel cup did well to stave off undue lateral flex at the rear of the shoe; the new version offers a palpable improvement. The shaping of the heel cup is more aggressive too, which in collaboration with the silicon grippers creates a vice-like hold. The one-way silver fabric used in the previous version of the shoe worked well to prevent your heel from slipping but also shortened the life of your favourite riding socks. I do wonder if the silicon will peel away eventually as it does on the palms of gloves, but at the end of my three month testing period, there are no signs of wear.
I mentioned earlier that the vents in the sole pulled in an appreciable amount of air, but the mesh front of the shoe also lets a gale of cooling air into the shoe compared to its predecessor. It's not quite to the level of something like the Giro Imperial road shoes but it keeps your trotters comfortable even when you can see the heat pulsating off the tarmac.
The aspect of the S-Phyres that was quite a surprise was the fit. While brands often make minor adjustments to the last and silhouette, the overall shape of a particular shoe usually stays more or less the same — which is why riders are brand loyal once they find a shoe that plays nice with their feet.
Until recently, the previous two versions of the S-Phyre were my shoe of choice, and I would still rank both close to the top of my list as far as comfort and performance. They were what I would classify as medium volume, in a similar vein to Giro — bar its lace-ups which were narrower for a few generations — the shape just worked with my feet.
The latest version of the shoe has caused me some grief. As I mentioned, the heel cup is more aggressive, which I like, the arch and midfoot are a bit more snug, which I like too, however, the change to the to box does not mesh well with my feet.
Shimano says the major change to the toe box is a more squared-off profile to prevent the shoe from forcing your toes to point inward. This change is visually apparent when you look down at the shoe from above, but it seems Shimano has also narrowed the last in the process.
It seems the shoes have narrowed quite a bit and I experienced a hot spot in the sixth toe area on both of my feet after about 45min to an hour of riding. I had hoped as the shoes began to break-in that it was simply caused by a bit of stiff fabric and would work itself out, however it still persists.
Considering how well the previous versions of the S-Phyre meshed with my feet, this was a disappointment and I am keen to try on a pair of the wide last in the same size.
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There is no question the Shimano S-Phyre are a top-end shoe and come with a matching $425/£319.99/AU$549 price tag. As with most shoe updates, they retain that vast majority of their predecessors' feel and features, shaving off a few grams and refining the closer and fit.
When it came time to collect my thoughts and apply a star rating to the S-Phyre RC902 I really struggled. They are lighter, apply for appreciable more airflow, provide oodles of heel hold and lateral support. The sole is race stiff but doesn’t leave your feet like they’ve done eight rounds in the octagon with road buzz, and they are great looking shoes, too.
But I also can’t overlook the changes in fit, especially when it’s so vastly different from the previous version and at the same time, feet are weird and shoes that work for some people simply don’t work for others. I’m torn, and more than anything a little disappointed that shoes that meshed so well with my feet a generation ago, don’t any more — I predict I won’t be the only one.
Tech spec: Shimano S-Phyre RC902
- Price: $425 / £319.99 / AU$549
- Weight without cleats: 512g (actual, size EU45)
- Outsole: Carbon fibre
- Stiffness index: 12/12
- Retention: Boa Li2
- Colours: Black, white, blue, red
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Based on the Gold Coast of Australia, Colin has written tech content for cycling publication for a decade. With hundreds of buyer's guides, reviews and how-tos published in Bike Radar, Cyclingnews, Bike Perfect and Cycling Weekly, as well as in numerous publications dedicated to his other passion, skiing.
Colin was a key contributor to Cyclingnews between 2019 and 2021, during which time he helped build the site's tech coverage from the ground up. Nowadays he works full-time as the news and content editor of Flow MTB magazine.