What's Cool In Road Cycling

Pearl Izumi PRO Leader III: Cool Kicks!

There’s not much better for the motivation than a new pair of cycling shoes at the start of a season. Chuck Peña in Washington DC has been giving a pair of PRO Leader III by Pearl Izumi, the top of the line shoe from the clothing manufacturer. Don’t just take Chuck’s word, he joins Tejay van Garderen of BMC in the Pearl Izumi footwear.

I have to start by saying that I love my Fizik R3 Uomo shoes. They are the older version without the BOA that use sailcloth Velcro straps and a ratchet closure. It’s a classic and classy look – especially in white with blue accents. The combination of kangaroo leather and mesh upper were a comfortable fit right out of the box with no real break in required. And the cut – while Italian – was just a tad wider in the toe box than my previous Sidis, so a just a little more comfortable for my flat-ish but not otherwise wide feet. And the carbon sole was plenty stiff enough for me but never uncomfortable and I never experienced any hot spots.

But my beloved R3s are now three seasons old and – while still perfectly capable of being ridden more miles – I had been eyeing a variety of newer shoes with BOA closures. This is the part where we all admit that even if we’re perfectly happy with the equipment and kit we have now, real cyclists can’t help but be tempted by newer eye candy. If n+1 applies to bikes, it probably applies to everything else too.

Enter the Pearl Izumi PRO Leader III shoes that are the newest addition to my cycling wardrobe. These are definitely a move up for me in that the R3 was Fizik’s second tier shoe behind the R1 and the PRO Leader III is Pearl Izumi’s top of the line road shoe worn by BMC’s Tejay van Garderen in the pro peloton. Before going further, I need to say that as with my reviews of Sugoi Zap shoe covers and Gore Windstopper bib knickers and vest, these shoes were purchased for personal use so this isn’t a typical review where a manufacturer provides a product. Instead, it’s more like a consumer review.

I actually looked at a lot of the other top shelf shoes from other manufacturers such as Bontrager, Fizik, Shimano, and Sidi, and one big difference between all of them and Pearl Izumi was price – not an unimportant consideration if you’re shelling out your own hard earned currency. Almost all other manufacturers’ top of the line shoe retails for $400 or more. The PRO Leader IIIs retail for $320, which also includes a nice shoe bag. Not that you should shop for shoes based on price alone – fit is the most important consideration for me – but it’s hard to ignore the price difference.

Also, a good riding buddy had been raving to me about his Pearl Izumi PRO Leader IIs so I decided to give the next generation PRO Leader IIIs a go.

The PRO Leader IIIs will definitely stand out in a crowd

Speaking of fit, pay close attention to Pearl Izumi’s sizing for the PRO Leader III. I’m a US size 9 and my Fizik R3s were Euro size 42. According to the Pearl Izumi shoe sizing chart on their website, a US size 9 is a Euro size 42.5 for their shoes. But Pearl Izumi says to go up a half size for the Pro Leader III. I can tell you from experience that you need to follow their advice, especially if you’re buying web/mail order and can’t try on before you buy. I originally ordered a pair in size 42.5 (mostly because I failed to read the part about sizing up a half size) and they were too small. Pearl Izumi let me exchange them for size 43, which fit perfectly. In fact, the PRO Leader III fits me better than my Fizik R3s. I think that’s because the toe box is just a scooch roomier and maybe a little rounder.

In terms of styling, the PRO Leader IIIs are a bit of a walk on the wild side in what Pearl Izumi calls true red/lime punch color scheme. If that’s too loud for your taste, they also come in a basic black/white colorway. But even in black, these aren’t the subtlest of shoes. And if you want a pair of white PRO Leader IIIs, you need to ask Tejay van Garderen if he’d be willing to give you a pair that were custom made for him for last year’s Tour de France. The PRO Leader III was also made in a limited edition blue, but you’ll have to hunt around for the precious few left in random sizes.

So fit and style aside, how are the PRO Leader IIIs any different from all the other top shelf road cycling shoes? They certainly share a lot of the same features found in other shoes.

Dual BOA closures … check. The one difference being that the BOAs on the PRO Leader III are on top over the tongue of the shoe – which is padded where the cables/laces run so they don’t dig into the top of your foot when tightened – rather than on the side. Interestingly, Sidi has done the same with their ratcheting dials (not BOAs) on their top line Shot shoe worn by the likes of Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali, amongst others in the pro peloton. But putting the BOAs on the top is more than just something stylistic to set the PRO Leader III apart from the rest of the crowd. Having them on top makes it easy peasy to get the shoes on and off because when you lift up on the BOAs to release them you can pull the tongue up at the same time. There’s also a part of me that says putting the BOAs on top makes common sense – after all, that’s where you tie shoelaces.

Getting in and out of the PRO Leader IIIs is easy with top mounted BOAs

Like most other shoes with BOA closures, they micro adjust in both directions and release by pulling up on them. One thing that took me a little getting used to is that the BOAs on the right shoe are traditional righty-tighty/lefty-loosey. On the left shoe, it’s the opposite. But this actually makes sense and works well in practice – especially making any adjustments on the bike – because you are actually rotating the BOA in the same direction relative to your hand. So to tighten the left shoe with your left hand you rotate the BOA dial away from you (and towards you to loosen), which is exactly what you do with your right hand.

And the BOA dials do exactly what they’re supposed to do. You can dial in (pun intended) the fit so that it’s comfortably tight. The front dial is for forefoot fit and the back dial is for the rest of your foot and your heel. Speaking of the heel, instead of a more traditional heel cup, the PRO Leader III uses a T-shaped external heel counter – but it’s not an adjustable device like the heel retention device found on many Sidi shoes. I probably have an average to slightly narrow heel and didn’t feel any heel lift or movement.

Pearl Izumi uses an external heel counter

Stiff carbon fiber sole … check. Every manufacturer claims their carbon sole is the stiffest and Pearl Izumi is no different claiming a stiffness of 13 on their index that maxes out at 13 (by way of comparison, Bontrager claims a maximum stiffness of 14 on a scale of 14 for its XXX road shoe). Absent of any independent testing and measurements, all I can tell you is the PRO Leader IIIs are stiff. Not that I’m capable of massive power output, but I certainly felt no flex or twist when I pushed hard on the pedals.

Replaceable heel bumpers to protect those covered carbon soles when you click out your pedal and put your foot down at a stop, as well as for puttering around at coffee stops … check. Plus toe bumpers, but they’re not replaceable.

Two screws accessible from the inside of the shoe allow the heel bumper to be replaced

An upper with venting for air flow to help keep your feet cool during the dog days of summer … check. It’s not kangaroo leather, but the synthetic web material Pearl Izumi uses is supple, form fitting, and very comfortable. Plus the PRO Leader III has two vents on the on the underside of the toe box. You’ll definitely want shoe covers once the temperatures dip. And you may want to tape up the bottom vents in cold or wet weather.

Standard 3-hole cleat mount plus two vents under the forefoot

Lightweight shoes … check. The PRO Leader IIIs aren’t the lightest full on road racing shoes you can buy, but they are in line with other manufacturers’ premiere models. Pearl Izumi claims 235g for a single size 43 shoe. My scale – which I admit isn’t calibrated to the nth degree but I know is reasonably accurate – registered 259g. Still very light and competitive with other shoes in the same category.

Almost 25g heavier than Pearl Izumi’s claimed weight

So what’s different about the PRO Leader IIIs? Construction. With stiffness in mind, most cycling shoes are made using board lasting construction. The upper of the shoe is formed then pulled tight around and glued to a lasting board, which is the bottom of the shoe and the shape of your foot. The outsole (carbon fiber in the case of high end cycling shoes) is bonded to the bottom of the last. A removable insole covers the last on the inside. Instead, Pearl Izumi uses the carbon sole itself as the lasting board, wrapping the edges of the upper around the bottom of the carbon sole and covering them with a thin-ish polyurethane material – that neon lime punch color on the bottom of my shoes – which is why the bottom of the shoe isn’t exposed carbon fiber. But if you pull the insole out of the PRO Leader III, you’ll see carbon fiber instead of a cardboard-like material last.

All that blackness is pure carbon fiber instead of a lasting board on the inside

The result is a claimed 1.5mm reduction in stack height. As with carbon sole stiffness, I can’t verify this claim. However, I will say that the PRO Leader IIIs feel ever so slightly more in touch with the pedals. But the real effect of the 1.5mm reduction is that getting rid of the lasting board means there’s less between your foot and the carbon sole. In theory, that should mean more direct power transfer. In marketing-speak, Pearl Izumi calls the net result 1:1 Integrated Power Plate and claim that you’ll be able to “transfer every last watt of power to your pedals.” In a world of marginal gains, the 1.5mm reduction in stack height might be the marginal-est of gains.

The insoles are a little bit different too. They can’t be custom form fitted, but Pearl Izumi provides two different sets of inserts that can be slipped into pockets of the insole. One set is to adjust arch height/support to mid or high. The other set it to adjust forefoot varus angle – yes, I had to look it up – 1.5mm or 3mm. Since I have flat feet, I thought I’d experiment with the inserts. I found that adding even the smallest amount of arch support was uncomfortable, which wasn’t a surprise. I also know from being a distance runner before becoming a cyclist that I over pronate and found the 3mm insert seemed to keep my feet from wanting to roll to the inside on the downstroke, especially on out of the saddle efforts.

Arch support and varus angle inserts allow you to adjust insole fit to your foot

As it’s winter for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, I’ve yet to get PRO Leader IIIs out for an extended ride. But on short-ish rides of ~20-25 miles they’re very comfortable with no pressure points or hot spots. BTW, even with shoe covers that covered the bottom vents, I could still feel some air flow – so I’d definitely tape the vents for cold weather riding. Warmer weather and longer rides will be the true test, but my guess is the PRO Leader IIIs will pass with flying colors. I mean, if they’re already comfortable it’s not like they’re likely to get less comfortable, right?

So are the Pearl Izumi PRO Leader IIIs for you? As with all cycling shoes, fit is first and foremost the most important thing so try before you buy to make sure they fit comfortably. If you’re more of a traditionalist, style-wise they may be a little much – even in black. But function wise, the PRO Leader IIIs are right up there with all the other top shelf shoes from other manufacturers. In other words, these are high end road racing shoes with all the bells and whistles. If you’re in the market for new kicks, the PRO Leader IIIs should be on your short list for consideration. Certainly, Tejay van Garderen wouldn’t be riding them if they weren’t up to snuff. All I can say is that I’m liking the PRO Leader IIIs. To paraphrase Dudley Moore in Arthur: they don’t suck.

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PEZ contributor Chuck Peña is a former weekend warrior racer who now just rides for fun, but every once in a while manages to prove Fausto Coppi’s adage true: Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill. He lives in Arlington, VA with his wife (who is his most frequent riding partner), his daughter (an aspiring junior golfer who can now beat him all the time), and their dogs. You can follow him on Twitter @gofastchuck

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