Shimano’s XC50N strikes a great middle ground, offering good resistance to wet and cold weather without the bulk commonly associated with winter mountain bike shoes, which should make them popular with racers.
It looks similar to Shimano's race-inspired shoes, with two offset Velcro straps and a mechanical buckle (both the buckle and ratchet strap are replaceable), but it’s constructed with thicker, more element-resistant materials, which make it warmer, dryer and much slower to saturate than a traditionally built summer shoe.
Paired with a thick wool sock, this shoe would be our go-to for wet cyclo-cross racing in the 30° to 50°F (-1° to +10°C) temperature range and it's also very comfortable for dry weather or even snowy mountain biking in that same range. When we say the XC50N would be our go-to, there's a caveat – its fit.
For one, the XC50N is only available in whole sizes from 36 to 48 (US). We’ve used Shimano’s half sizes to perfectly fit our feet for years, and we miss that option. We sized up to a size 43, from a 42.5, and made up the difference using a custom orthotic insert and a thicker wool sock.
The stock insoles provide zero arch support and just a slight bit of metatarsal support, which forced them out of our shoes after just a couple short rides. Unfortunately, this is par for the course in all but the most expensive shoes these days; the insole is all but forgotten under the US$200 mark.
We raced ’cross and rode mountain bikes in our XC50N shoes
Compounding the fit issue is Shimano’s Volume+ last, which is so wide, especially around the ball of the foot, that we double-checked the box after our first ride in the shoes, just to make sure we hadn’t been shipped an extra wide version. The shoes contacted our crank arms when set with our preferred cleat position.
Shimano took the first, size 43, pair back and supplied us with two more pairs to try, this time in a 42 and 43. We stuck with the 43, and the new shoe seemed slightly narrower. If you're thinking of buying a pair, pay special attention to the fit and outside of the shoe, as there seem to be slight inconsistencies.
Shimano put our shoes through a barrage of tests and measurements, and weren’t able to recreate our rubbing issue. But Walter Lockhart, Shimano's footwear and lifestyle gear manager, said he'd take into consideration our comments about needing half-sizes.
“That’s something I’m looking at for the future,” he told BikeRadar. “Especially within that popular range from 42 through 45. I’m looking at doing more half sizes in that area because I do believe that you need to have that fit dialed in. On some shoes it definitely makes sense, especially a shoe like this.”
As for the shoe's width, Lockhart told us: "The concept is to offer an 'all-season' shoe that allows the rider to wear thicker socks. This is the same last as the SH-MW81 winter shoes."
The shoes rubbed on our cranks, presumably due to the Volume+ last and added forefoot protection
The crank rub issue we experienced will be more of a problem for 'crossers than mountain bikers, as the latter are less likely to be affected by, or hung up on, the wider cleat position required to avoid this.
"The model has a multi-density outsole, design to work in a variety of conditions," said Lockhart. "Stiffer lugs at the front for pedaling efficiency, softer density pad in the center for pedal stability and medium in the heel for comfort/traction. The protrusion you're feeling is the added 'armor' protection inlays, a little added protection."
Aside from the fit, we can only praise the performance of the 373g (per shoe) XC50N. We raced cyclo-cross in them and we rode mountain bikes in the snow with them on. The thick sealed synthetic leather and woven synthetic upper are surprisingly warm, and the shoes remained admirably leak-free, unless water was allowed to enter through the top of the shoe. When submerged, the fabric seems to absorb less moisture than usual, but they don't drain well.
The fiberglass reinforced shank in the polyurethane sole makes it stiff enough for the violent efforts of a ’cross race, but it's not in the same class as the uber stiff carbon soled Shimano M315. Shimano list the XC50N as a five on their stiffness scale, with the M315 (which is for all intents a road shoe with some tread and toe spikes) being 11; the XC50N feels more like a seven or eight, to us.
Walking, barrier hopping and hiking are all reasonably easy in the XC50N. For ’cross the instep tread is much appreciated and works well enough to catch a slippery CrankBrothers Eggbeater pedal in most cases; this isn't a feat the M315 has yet mastered. The ball and heel treads are aggressive enough to deal with the mud and snow we tested in, and the shoes accept toe spikes. The sole is PU but soft enough to offer adequate traction on rock and concrete.
The vent holes are filled with a synthetic weave, which we found very resistant to the elements