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Tech review - May 18, 2004
On test: Carnac Quartz shoes
As the bike contact point that transmits all your effort, shoes have to be right. John Stevenson finds that in some respects Carnac's Quartz shoes are spot-on, but in others, they're... eccentric.
Talk about your love-hate relationships. The four months I've spent using Carnac Quartz as my main road shoes, logging up to 350km per week of commuting and general riding, have seen me blow hotter and colder than I ever have about any cycling footwear. More about that in a moment, though; first, let's look at the Quartz shoes' features.
The second-from-top model in Carnac's extensive line of road shoes, Quartz features a kangaroo leather upper; a four-strap Velcro closure with neoprene lining and an unusual footbed with a plastic 'skeleton' under a foam lining that conforms with wear to the shape of your foot. The carbon-reinforced sole features Carnac's adapter system that uses interchangeable, bolt-on plastic plates to provide a platform for just about every cleat attachment in existence. Adapters are available for Look, Time, Speedplay, and Shimano's three SPD variants. The sole also has a bolt-on insert that can be swapped to vary the stiffness.
The straps are reinforced with fibreglass for stiffness and near-elimination of stretch and a reflective band around the heel takes care of night-riding visibility. Major seams are all double-stitched, as you'd expect with shoes of this price, and the construction is generally excellent with fine stitching and tidy seams.
The shoes' biggest upside is incredible comfort. As any long-time user will tell you, this is Carnac's claim to fame - nobody does comfort like these French shoemakers. Slipping into the Quartz shoes for the first was slightly odd as the shape of the footbed over its plastic frame is very obvious. But after a couple of rides, the foam shapes itself to your feet and the shoes are as comfortable as a pair of slippers.
The four-strap closure at first looks excessive. If three straps are enough for just about every other shoe maker, is this just a case of one-upmanship? No, it turns out. I've never been completely comfortable with three-strap shoes, preferring laces for the finer tuning of the tension across the top of the foot that they provide. Quartz' four-strap closure is as versatile as laces, in terms of the fine-tuning of the fit. You can reef down on the top straps to lock yourself in and leave the lower straps a shade looser for circulation on hot days; you can crank down all four for races or hard rides where you know you are going to be playing silly buggers sprinting and climbing against your ride buddies; or you can set them all snug-but-not-silly for cruising. Your choice.
Less pleasing, though, is the design of the sole. The adapter plates mount using four countersunk M5 fasteners with 4mm hex heads. Three insert at 90 degrees to the plane of the forefoot sole and one goes in at a slight angle. The stiffener has a tongue that slips into the sole at the front and a similar fastener at the back. Your cleat then mounts to the adapter with its own screws, in some cases, or with the screws Carnac provides, in others including my preferred Speedplay cleats. The practical upshot is that there are as many as nine screws per shoe holding everything together.
For starters, that makes initial assembly fiddly. The angled screw at the back of the adapter is awkward to get into its thread because there's nothing to visually align it. Everything has to be Loctited into place and because the adapters are made from plastic you can't just tighten the screws as hard as you would a fastener holding metal parts together - if you do, you can easily deform the adapter. I'm a reasonably skilled mechanic but there were times when I was putting the Quartz shoes together that I wanted to just throw them across the room. They're shoes, for heaven's sake, not Swedish self-assembly furniture.
The objective of all this complication is to make sure you can fit any cleats imaginable to Carnac's sole. This might have been necessary ten or fifteen years ago when there were lots of different cleat attachment patterns, but we're now basically down to two: three-bolt for road shoes and two-bolt for MTB. Every other road shoe manufacturer manages to accommodate the possibilities with a bunch of threads in the sole of the shoe - it's unimaginable that Carnac couldn't do the same thing and in the process shed some weight, sole thickness and - most importantly - complication.
The Carnac design really bites you in the bum if anything goes wrong. Case in point, using Quartz with Speedplay pedals. Carnac's Speedplay adapters come with a set of cleat-mounting screws that are longer than Speedplay's screws. At cleat-replacement time, a damaged screw head means you need to obtain replacement Carnac screws; you can't use the ones Speedplay supply. This is just daft.
However, while I was figuring out how to work around this problem (a bodge that involved the Carnac Time adapters I also had kicking around, which have the same pattern as the Speedplay but are thinner) I went for a ride in, well, let's just say they were Another Manufacturer's shoes. Yuck! I used to think these shoes were pretty comfy but compared to the Quartz they were like walking barefoot on gravel. So I sorted out the Quartz shoes and the next ride was like the return of an old friend.
Ultimately, I'll put up with the Quartz' idiosyncrasies for their comfort, because they really are very, very comfortable. Of course, shoe fit is a very personal thing, but plenty of other riders also swear by Carnac's fit - and also by the impressive durability these shoes are known for. These Quartz shoes are showing a few scuff marks, but no signs of serious wear and tear and based on discussions with other Carnac users, I expect to get several years' use out of them.
Recommended retail price: US$250