The Mountain Bike Life

I admit it. I am a gear snob. I like everything I have to be a very particular way, perform exactly as I expect, and to be everything it is advertised to be. This is my standard. Anything but this standard will drive me insane. It will not be usable. Many of my rides have been obliterated by the intolerable minutia that would normally be excepted as standard deviation. I am susceptible to drivetrain noise, untuned suspension, inappropriate tire pressures, misplaced or unaligned brake levers, and the slightest degree of deflection from straight in my handlebars.

Photo | Chad P. Christian

Photo | Chad P. Christian

This is especially notable in areas of the bike to which I directly connect. Saddle. Grips. Bar widths. Socks. Shoes are the worst. I am a persnickety sonuvabitch when it comes to shoes. Any why not? Few other pieces of cycling kit contribute in as significant a way as footwear. One of the most painful rides of my life was suffered due to a form of torture known as Shimano’s SH-M230 Custom Fit Mountain Bike Shoe. It was if the shoes each contained a live bee that would emerge from the sole and sting the ball of my foot about 30 minutes into a ride. I was suckered into them with the lure of “Custom Fit” and the closeout pricing. In the end, it just meant that I paid an extra $118 premium to get into my next pair of Sidi Dominators.

In terms of long term testing, this review covers more time that most riders have even been riding. I am on my 7th pair and I will, at some point, probably cave and buy number 8. This little hot-n-cold love affair began in 1999ish when I scored my first pair via my girl-friend’s access to a pro-deal. I think I paid about 100 bucks, which was pricey enough then, when I was living on a steady diet of mac-n-cheesy dinners I got for 10 cents a box and various sponsor-swag power foods, notably Jog-Mate and expired Clif-bars.

As a disclaimer I think I should note that Sidi Dominators and I have been real serious about each other for fifteen years. In that time my riding has evolved and changed and though I now pedal with some big gnarly Crank Brother Mallet DH’s on my Santa Cruz Nomad and some squishy-hikey Pearl Izumis, I still bang my head against my Independent Fabrication Single Speed with Time ATACs or Crank Brother’s Candys on an even more regular basis. Though I can appreciate the benefits of a flexy, gummy-soled shoe designed by my local juvenile delinquents at the skate park, at my core as a all-around mountain biker I like efficiency, perfect fit, and all-day pedalability better than whatever huckster style happens to show up at the Redbull Rampage.

Photo | Chad P. Christian

Photo | Chad P. Christian

The Fit:

Beyond a couple minor updates and changes in the buckles and straps, this cycling dinosaur has evolved very little in the years since it’s inception. And for good reason. It was already almost perfect. The Italians know shoes. These shoes are part ballet slipper, part moto boot. They are utilitarian in function but elegant in design.

I have struggled against this perfect Sidi fit, and their curse is that in all the ways that another shoe might be superior to the Dominator I can never forgive them for being lesser than these when it comes to fit. These shoes got me through several 24 hour races and a number of 100 milers when my feet were probably the only thing left that didn’t hurt. They are truly amazing in this regard and it is the overwhelming superiority of the fit of this shoe that makes any of its possible faults insignificant.

Fit wise, shoes can be very subjective. Sidi offers standard “euro” sizing (mine have always been 43s), and offer regular and wide (Mega) widths. These shoes require a subtle break-in period, but this is a good thing. The lorica “molds” to your feet with use. The “micro-adjust” buckles provide “half-step” ratchet increments and the double hook-n-loop straps have a hidden set of interlocking teeth to prevent any premature release.

Photo | Chad P. Christian

Photo | Chad P. Christian

Sole:

Love it or hate it. For the money, a carbon-fiber sole is conspicuously absent. Personally, I find this to be a good thing. In the pursuit of the ultimate power transfer too often things like comfort and walkability are left on the design table. The sole is a goldilocks balance between stiff and supple, and compared to stiffer shoes I have never experienced the vibration-induced hotspots or tingly-toes that I associate with carbon soles.

If these shoes have a weakness, it’s in the lugs of the outsole- the rubber meeting the road. They are made of a hard plastic material which is non-compliant, and traction-resistant. In muddy conditions; cyclocrossing or slogging through the eastern/midwestern springtimes of my youth, these intransigent blocks dig into and shed mud well. The Dominators come with removable toe studs for those rides when you need four-wheel drive, again suggesting their dominance in muddy conditions. I tend toward the type of riding that inevitably steers me into a hike-a-biking over boulders and scree. In these situations the Sidi Dominators are absolutely terrifying. One false step and you’ll be doing the twenty-one-skidoo in the bastard offspring of wooden clogs and tap shoes. It’s this one complaint that spurred me into a set of Pearl Izumi Alp-X Launches last year. But… where the Pearl’s were excellent hikers off the bike they required the addition of a beartrap style pedal like the Crank Brother’s Mallet DHs to compensate for their flex and roll. Also, that chewy-rubber outsole on the Pearls, as useful as it is, was no match for some of my bike-assisted hikes. The inside lug completely delaminated and tore off somewhere north of 13,000ft leaving me with a wildly over-pronating and knee decimating cant for the descent. The Sidis, on the other hand, are almost indestructible. They get chewed down over time but they are predictable in their degredation. Indeed, I look at the gnarled soles of my various pairs and think of all the riding etched there, the record of my trips and solos, thousands of miles in rock-worn hieroglyphs. The eventual total disintegration of the sole is the only reason I break down and buy the next pair.

Photo | Chad P. Christian

Photo | Chad P. Christian

Build:

The lorica and the stitching, weathered and worn as they are have never failed me. My Pearl’s and Northwaves, even those god-forsaken Shimanos, never seemed to hold up as well. Blown toes, ripped straps, separation of outsole. In all my Sidis, the worst of their failures have been related to the buckles being smashed or ground off by ill-timed pedal strokes. A malady easily remedied with cheap replacement parts and the turn of a single screw.

The Price:
Astronomical. About $250USD. With the exception of ski boots these are the most expensive footwear I have ever owned. Seven times over. There are so many cheaper options out there but I have learned my lesson the hard way. I have deviated from the Sidi formula and have regretted it every time. As expensive as these shoes are, they are cheaper than the $400 I generally end up paying once the amount I paid for the intermediate pair of lesser shoes is factored in.

Conclusion:
These are classic mountain biking shoes for a reason. Their design has served multiple generations of mountain bikers well. Lots of other brands have come and gone. Design trends have surfaced and subsequently sank. But the humble Sidi dominator remains the standard by which every up-and-comer in the XC/Race market is measured.

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