Shimano SH-XC90 mountain bike shoe review

Long-term review of XTR-level racing kicks

BikeRadar score4/5

The XC90s landed in BikeRadar's Australian headquarters back in September 2014. They've since ploughed through marathon races, hiked up countless rock ledges to find better camera angles and taken in a long walk home after double flatting a test bike with only half the required spares on hand.

Sitting as Shimano’s top-level off-road SPD race shoe, the XC90s boast a long list of features. They’re impressively stiff, while a customisable fit ensures high comfort for even the longest races. Where their sibling XC70s sit as an excellent lower priced option that delivers 95 percent of the performance, the XC90s are there for the XTR user seeking the best.

  • Buy if: You’re seeking an ultimately stiff and fast pair of cross-country or cyclocross race shoes. That said, if you don't need custom fit or ultimate running traction, the XC70s are a wise way to save some money

Fit: secure and supportive as standard, with optional heat moulding

When it comes to fit, it’s worth stating that I’ve been a Shimano shoe-user for a long-time. My personal kicks are a pair of previous generation M-315s (my secondary pair are Bontrager RXL’s), and prior to that it the M-300s did their stint. The XC90 is the latest evolution in the line.

The heat molding starts with the shoes placed in an oven for a few minutes. it's hot enough that you need not worry about the fit changing if you leave your shoes in a hot car : the heat molding starts with the shoes placed in an oven for a few minutes. it's hot enough that you need not worry about the fit changing if you leave your shoes in a hot car
The heat molding starts with the shoes placed in an oven for a few minutes. it's hot enough that you need not worry about the fit changing if you leave your shoes in a hot car : the heat molding starts with the shoes placed in an oven for a few minutes. it's hot enough that you need not worry about the fit changing if you leave your shoes in a hot car

Cooking your shoes is a true luxury. Bing!

Like the previous two generations, the XC90s offer ‘custom-fit’ heat moulding in the inner sole and uppers. With the choice of two widths and half sizes, I’d previously never felt the need to have this fitting done. However, for the sake of the review, I underwent the approximate 20 minute heating and vacuum packing process.

The process is available through Shimano dealers who have invested in the appropriate oven, air vacuum and Shimano shoe fitting kit. It’s certainly not something you should try at home, as you may end up cooking your shoes, especially without the appropriate reinforcing plastic cup pieces.

I’d ridden with the XC90s for five months prior to having them fitted and was content with the stock fit. Following the fit, there's a minor difference in the height of the shoe, where the upper is now flatter in its shape, resulting in less vertical freedom of movement.

In addition to being heat moldable, the inner soles include interchangeable arch inserts : in addition to being heat moldable, the inner soles include interchangeable arch inserts
In addition to being heat moldable, the inner soles include interchangeable arch inserts : in addition to being heat moldable, the inner soles include interchangeable arch inserts

Fancy inner soles allow for a greater of customisation

I didn’t notice a huge change from the heat-malleable inner sole either. With interchangeable wedge heights included, most of the fitting is done without the need to raise the temperature.

Where fitting didn’t change much for me, the custom moulding process remains valuable to riders with weirdly shaped feet. Perhaps you have a bunion or a wonky toe (or a sixth one) – it’s in these types of common pain-inducing cases that the heat moulding can work more strikingly.

Looking past the custom fit, the supple Rovenica synthetic leather upper helps in surrounding the foot without hard and uncomfortable points.

The cross over strap design really does make a difference in how it lets the upper wrap your foot : the cross over strap design really does make a difference in how it lets the upper wrap your foot
The cross over strap design really does make a difference in how it lets the upper wrap your foot : the cross over strap design really does make a difference in how it lets the upper wrap your foot

Most designs pull the upper across to one side, but not this one

The ‘Cross X’ strap design – which has the middle Velcro strap running in an opposite direction to the other two – helps to pull the upper around your foot, as opposed to across it.

Finally, a deep heel cup with a two-way material holds your heel secure. Pulling up on this material feels a little like the effect of Velcro, although it’s not so harsh to socks.

On the bike: flex-free connection and great stability

Built with Shimano’s recent Dynalast sole shape, the XC90s are claimed to provide a more neutral and efficient pedaling action, which also results in less foot fatigue. Personally, I can’t vouch for such claims, but can attest to them always feeling supportive and efficient.

A stiff carbon plate sits ready for an spd-type cleat : a stiff carbon plate sits ready for an spd-type cleat
A stiff carbon plate sits ready for an spd-type cleat : a stiff carbon plate sits ready for an spd-type cleat

Thanks to a stiff carbon plate, there's no noticeable flex in the mid-foot

The carbon midsole and outersole construction leads to a massively stiff connection to the pedal. Here, power is delivered direct to the crank without any feeling of compression or flex – a feeling more commonly experienced with pro-level road shoes than with off-road kicks.

Stiffness is one thing, but shoe stability is something less commonly spoken of. No matter how stiff a sole is, if your foot is flailing around on top, you’re wasting energy – and it’s here that the XC90 really has me impressed. The cross over straps, deep heel cup and generally supportive upper all combine to hold your foot in place, where putting weight onto the edge of a pedal, or pulling up hard in a sprint is all met positively.

Off the bike:

The xc90's are just as good in frantic runs as they are when hard on the pedals : the xc90's are just as good in frantic runs as they are when hard on the pedals
The xc90's are just as good in frantic runs as they are when hard on the pedals : the xc90's are just as good in frantic runs as they are when hard on the pedals

The XC90s give an advantage on loose run ups

A mountain bike shoe is all about how it behaves when on foot. The tread on the XC90s may not be as plentiful as that found on the XC70s, but in my opinion it’s more effective. Where the XC70s get a block tread just past the cleat, the XC90s use a far softer stud-like layout that won’t hold mud and certainly aids in desperate run-ups.

After many months use, the xc90's still show plenty of life left : after many months use, the xc90's still show plenty of life left
After many months use, the xc90's still show plenty of life left : after many months use, the xc90's still show plenty of life left

There's some cosmetic wear, but we're sure these will last a long time

These softer plastic studs first appear to be replaceable, but unfortunately aren’t. Despite my concerns over durability, though, they've remained intact with minimal wear – and that’s after completely annihilating the original replaceable toe spikes.

From wearing down the resin toe spikes, I did lose the rubber toe protector from one shoe and have since been putting wear on the exposed microfibre beneath. As a result I can attest to the material durability – and although the shoes show obvious cosmetic scuffs, they're far from being structurally compromised.

Run-ups can be further aided by fitting the included metal toe studs. As you should with your cleat bolts, it’s worth checking the tightness of these studs from time to time.

Clambering around rocks with the harder plastic heel grip can be a little slippery, but so are most pro-level race shoes. The XC90’s are grippier than previous generation Shimano race shoes, and certainly make a great choice for cyclocross. Adding to this, the sole stiffness seems to soften up at the heel, which further aids in the off-the bike comfort.

Weight is one area where Shimano shoes have never been a leader, and at 736g (EU43), the XC90s aren’t making history. (Compare that figure with Bontrager’s XXX shoes at 644g (EU42) or Specialized’s S-Works XC at approximately 620g (EU42).) Despite this, the connected feel they offer is certainly worth a lot, as is the durability experienced.

For an in-depth look at the XC90 shoes, take a flick through the gallery up top

David Rome

Former Editor, Australia
Dave was the editor of BikeRadar Australia until early 2016.
  • Age: 28
  • Height: 173cm / 5'8"
  • Weight: 68kg / 150lb
  • Waist: 79cm / 31in
  • Chest: 89cm / 35in
  • Discipline: Mountain, road and cyclocross
  • Preferred Terrain: Fast and flowing singletrack with the occasional air is the dream. Also happy chasing tarmac bends.
  • Current Bikes: Trek Fuel EX 27.5, SwiftCarbon Detritovore, Salsa Chilli Con Crosso
  • Dream Bike: Custom Independent Fabrications titanium, SRAM Etap and Enve wheels/cockpit
  • Beer of Choice: Gin & tonic
  • Location: Sydney, Australia

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