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On test: Northwave Aerlite SBS MTB, December 4, 2008
What Tomeke would wear... if he rode mountain bikes
Northwave's new Aerlite SBS MTB melds its road-going Aerlite SBS upper with a more trail-appropriate sole. Cyclingnews technical editor James Huang straps up and heads for the hills.
The Northwave Aerlite SBS MTB is a faithful adaptation of its successful road-going cousin, with an exceptionally well ventilated upper, a secure and supportive fit, a reasonably stiff sole plate and excellent durability that has held up well to the rigours of mountain bike trail duty and plenty of 'cross racing.
As the name suggests, airflow is a key feature of the Aerlite SBS MTB with liberal helpings of open mesh littered throughout the microfibre upper in key locations such as the front and outer sides. The open metallic mesh exteriors are mostly for show (they're backed by conventional mesh) but the vents are impressively effective nonetheless: our feet stayed noticeably cooler than usual in warmer temperatures and there was so much air coming through in colder temps that we had to use shoe covers when we normally would have gone without.
Like many shoes these days, the Aerlite SBS MTB uses a semi-rigid 'cage' that envelopes the rear of the foot and a grippy 'cat's tongue' lining inside the heel cup - only in this case, it all actually works as intended. Heel hold is superb and we experienced no slip whatsoever, whether on foot during hike-a-bike sections of the trail or during 'cross run-ups.
Moreover, Northwave manages to achieve this level of hold along with long-term comfort that was wholly free of pressure points. The adjustable-length main strap is backed by a meaty foam pad, the tongue backed by its own thinner pad and heavily slotted up top for more flexibility against your tendon, and the upper materials are pleasantly supple.
In general, there are no stitches or hard points where you wouldn't want them to be and the overall feel is - dare we say it - almost Sidi-like but with even better heel hold.
The heavily-lugged outsole offers a very secure and stable grip on a variety of surfaces and it even sheds mud pretty well - optional toe spikes can be fitted if things get really ugly. Though the carbon-reinforced nylon sole to which it's all attached is noticeably softer than full-carbon units, it's still rather stiff overall and the modicum of extra flex was nice to have when running the barriers in 'cross or when longer days on the mountain bike involved more time exploring on foot.
Long-term durability has been top-notch, too, as neither the lugs nor upper have shown any unusual signs of wear during our test period which has encompassed blazing-hot high desert summer, frigid Midwestern early winter, abrasive rock, soupy mud, and water.
However, two major flaws mar the otherwise spotless performance. First, the shoes are rather heavy at a substantial 844g per pair (size 43.5) and finicky racer-types will still undoubtedly balk at the extra mass. Even Shimano's comparably robust SH-M225 shoes - which are no feathers themselves - are a bit lighter.
We can partially overlook the weight issue as these things have proven to be so durable but the unusually high-volume fit is impossible to ignore. We had to adjust the main strap to its shortest position and ratchet it down to the very last stop in order to get a properly secure fit on our average-sized feet - and that was with slightly thicker socks and our preferred thicker insoles fitted, too.
Unfortunately, that means that many riders that might otherwise benefit from the Aerlite SBS MTB's laundry list of positive attributes might never get these strapped on tightly enough to enjoy them. The last volume itself seems reasonable enough but Northwave would be wise to move both the strap anchor point and the buckle a little further down the sides of the shoe - or at least provide a secondary buckle mounting position. Even the highest-arched of riders aren't likely to ever use the maximum girth afforded.
Otherwise, the Aerlite SBS MTB is a very good choice for an all-around off-road shoe - as long as your foot is big enough. It's not the lightest, stiffest, or cheapest, but it's exceptionally durable, comfortable and well made and should appeal to those that are looking to get more than a season of hard use out of their shoes.
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Images by James Huang/Cyclingnews.com