Shimano RC901 Versus RC701

I’ve been in Bont road shoes for 7 or 8 years. I beat… them… to… death. Which shows the longevity of said shoes, and the same Speedplay cleats that stayed on them from the beginning. But it became time to retire those Bonts to pasture.

Of all the tri shoes I've ridden (I don’t like tri shoes, and only wear them when in triathlon and only to speed up my woeful transitions), nothing was as good as the Shimano S-Phyre TR9. Alongside that, I noticed that really good athletes, when they didn’t appear to me to have a shoe deal, kept showing up with the RC9 (like Daniela Ryf).

Because I am currently rotating between Speedplay Zeros and Garmin Vector 3s, I really needed now 2 pairs of shoes. And because I never screwed up the courage to plunk down for a pair of RC9s, I kept writing about them but without the firsthand experience of owning them. I thought it might be interesting to test this shoe against Shimano’s RC7, to see if there was a meaningful difference, to know if you need to spend the extra money for the top model. The RC9 retails for $425, and the RC7 for $225. (If you see these at lesser prices it’s likely they’re not the 2020 shoe.) I mounted the Garmin cleats on the RC9, and the Speedplay cleats on the RC7.

I’m not the first person to write about this, to compare these shoes. I note that my contemporaries have come up with some pretty divergent views on this, though one insightful reviewer noted what I did: that this isn’t Dura Ace versus Ultegra. The RC7 is not a dupe with some features removed, or built in a less-technical material or construction. It really is a different shoe.

Vintage: These shoes are technically designated the RC901 (just above) and RC701, with the black accents (just below).

They each appear to have received their update for the 2019 season. You can tell the difference in the RC9s upper, for example, where it became seamless and creaseless. If you see these shoes priced at a much lower level, you may well choose to buy them if you find them in your size, but they’re unlikely to be of this newer vintage. One area where, in my experience, the bike industry falls down is in its failure to move old product out, making room for new product. Because of this, the industry is quite bad at identifying for you when you’re buying a discontinued or older-vintage model. These are referred to as RC9 and RC7, but if they’re now technically referred to as the RC901 or RC701. If you don't see that, then you may be looking at a shoe from 2018 or prior.

Specs and sizing: The weights of these shoes are almost identical, at right at 500 grams a pair in size 42.5. The difference between the two models is perhaps 10 grams. That surprises me, because the RC7 seems like a bigger shoe, more material, as you’ll see in the images. I’m not weightweenie enough to spend the extra $200 for 10 grams.

I appreciate that sizing is individual. But Specialized, Bont, Shimano, this is the profile of shoes that fit me, and I don’t have particularly wide feet. Cycling shoes are not running shoes. I need more volume in my cycling shoes. Tight shoes will give you trouble when riding. My run shoes can’t be uncomfortably tight, but need to smother my feet like a baby in a pappoose. Not so my cycling shoes. While they need to be snug and secure in the heel, my forefeet need some room when I’m cycling. These brands give it to me. I cannot ride in a Sidi shoe (for example). Great shoe! Just, not a great shoe for me.

Shimano shoes used to be moldable, once upon a time. This was a big thing. Stores carried little ovens, or heat guns. This still is a thing if you’re a Bont user, and I have a heat gun, and I’ll use a heat gun on a Bont. (And just to demonstrate how beat my old Bonts were, here they are, and the heat gun.)

Power Transfer: Cue my jaundiced eye whenever this topic is raised. Remember those tests on crank stiffness once upon a time? There was so much flex in the frame, wheels, tires, stem, handlebars and shoes that a stiff crank never got much of a chance to exhibit that attribute.

That said, I make a claim when I write about pedals, that you don’t need to worry about the size of the base of support, because today’s cycling shoes are sufficiently stiff, and the size of the engagement surface, or the surface area of the pedal, are not of consequence. (Time Sport’s XPro pedals and cleats are huge; its ATAC pedals and cleats are tiny; but they are equally able to withstand the force you place onto your shoe.)

That notwithstanding, the RC9s and the RC7s aren’t equally stiff. They’re each adequately stiff. I would be happy with either as my everyday shoe. The RC9 is a little stiffer. What you’ll notice when you ride is that the RC9 does not change or lose shape at all during the pedal stroke. The upper on the RC7 puckers, a little, on the medial side (inside), between the arch and the ball of the foot. It’s minor, but it’s in contrast to the RC9.

Ventilation: As opposed to one reviewer, I felt the RC9’s ventilation was very slightly superior to the RC7. There’s a flip side to that. I felt the RC7 slightly warmer in colder temperatures. I might be dead wrong on that, because I rode both shoes often, and in various weather and temperatures. Both were comfortable. Neither was a winter shoe by any means.

Comfort: Did you know there were different kinds of BOA closures? I didn’t. I’m a big fan of dual BOAs on my shoes, and I have them on a set of Bont Vaypors I use for gravel. BOAs work in both directions, clockwise and counterclockwise, when they’re pressed down and engaged. This is the case with the BOAs on the RC9. But not on the RC7. They are unidirectional. This means that if you want to loosen the shoe – which happens to me later in a longer, hotter ride – I have to pop the BOA when riding the RC7, reengage it, and retighten the BOA to where I now want it. This is not a big deal, but the idea of it is a little irksome. How much more does BOA charge for the bidirectional closure? This is where I have a problem with manufacturer strategies. Was a feature taken out of the RC7 to justify the price of the RC9?

That said, the RC7 is in some ways the more comfortable of the two shoe models. The upper is softer, as is the material inside the shoe. When cycling shoes are made by companies that also make, say, Nordic ski boots, or inline skates, the cycling shoe can feel more like a boot. The RC7 feels more like a shoe. Your foot is a civilian in this shoe, not a soldier.

The RC9 is mighty comfortable as well, but your foot stands at attention in this shoe. There’s a form to this shoe that your foot and your downward force won’t deflect, misshape, break down. Whatever it is that causes this shoe to hold its shape – both in the upper and in the sole – makes this, to me, a marginally more high performance shoe. I hate to say “faster” but, honestly, I guess that’s what performance means. Yes, this is a very slightly faster shoe. Not necessarily aerodynamically. It’s not appreciably lighter. I just routinely perform slightly better in this shoe.

Heel Engagement: While the RC7 is a very comfortable shoe – maybe slightly more so than the RC9 – it’s not at the expense of heel engagement. My heel remains rock solid in place with both shoe models.

Adjustment holes: Both shoes are made to accept 3-hole pattern cleats (e.g., Shimano SPD-SL or Look KEO). When I have trouble with a shoe, it’s always that I can’t get the cleat back far enough. I don’t have that problem with either of these shoes I'm writing about today. As long as I use a 3-hole cleat! When I place the cleat as far back as I can on the shoe, and place the Speedplay adapter plate on it, I am very close to the edge of acceptability. I don’t know anybody who pushes their cleats all the way forward on their shoes. Therefore, that is not a usable position. Therefore, move the darned holes back!

This has been a cycling shoe problem for a generation. Shift… these… holes… back! Back! Back! Not just Shimano. Virtually all cycling shoe makers. It’s not that I can’t get the cleats where I want them. I can, the great majority of the time. It’s that I’m always placed in the position of having to move the cleats all the way back. And then I just hope that the placement is correct. It’s like buying a bike with the front end slammed as low as it can go, and hoping that’s low enough. Why am I forced to one edge of adjustability? Reliably? Routinely? Industrywide? I do not want to engage my calf, other than as a stabilizing muscle. Please – industry – either change where the holes go in the shoe; or change the design of the cleat.

If I Was the Grand Decider: Exactly two years ago I wrote that your best triathlon shoe is a road shoe, if you’re racing 70.3 and up. The performance of a road shoe surpasses that of a tri shoe, because road shoes have features tri shoes lack. The same feature set that makes a shoe quick to enter make it less high-tech, with Velcro straps replacing BOA closures.

I discovered how comfortable Shimano shoes were when I got myself a set of Shimano TR9 tri shoes. But they aren’t road shoes. They lack the highest-end road features. This is why you see so many top riders at Ironman using a dual BOA closure shoe rather than a tri shoe (top-15 men and top-15 women), and when you don’t see a BOA – such as with the Bont Vaypor Plus – there is a BOA hidden down there where you can’t see it.

Therefore, the ideal shoe for me, for racing in a tri, is probably a hybrid shoe, that has an easily-grabbed heel loop for quick entry, and a double BOA closure. Yes, I’d lose a little time in transition, but I’d have a fully-featured shoe, and I could buy one shoe to serve all my road cycling purposes.

Upshot: So, is the RC901 worth the extra $200? Regrettably, yes. It is simply a terrific shoe. I say regrettably because it’s always nicer to save $200 rather than to spend it. The one consolation: I get a lot more hours, miles, months, out of a cycling shoe than out of a run shoe. If it had to spend this much money on a run shoe, well, I wouldn’t do it. Whatever the performance benefit, I’d pass it by. And, I would have no problem with the RC7 as my everyday road shoe. Honestly, were I not to have ridden in the RC901, I wouldn’t miss what I never knew.

This is Shimano’s page for cycling shoes. It's an irksome time to purchase a product like this, because it’s hard to find a local store that’s open for browsing. That said, I don’t know that you’d have been any better off 6 months ago. The treasure your local bike shop would need to spend to inventory full size runs of either of these 2 models, in their current production iteration, boggles my checkbook’s imagination. Depending on who's your local LBS, you may have been forced into a remote or special-order purchase anyway. I would therefore scrutinize the seller if you do buy this remotely, as to the return policy, and the likelihood that the seller has a half-size up or down if the shoe doesn't fit.

As opposed to at least one reviewer, I find these shoes to be sized identically. I fit each of them in a size 46.5, and that is my typical size. This is about a size-12 in men’s run shoes. Wait! (You might say.) That’s not true! A size-12 run shoe is a size-46 in European sizing! Yes. But I have to buy my cycling shoes about a half-size bigger than I buy my run shoes, and you probably should to (refer to my comments above in how shoes for run and cycle need to fit). In fact, in most of my HOKAs I have to size down a half-size (I normally run in size-12 shoes, but I run in size 11.5 in most HOKAs.) Point being, Shimano’s cycling shoes run true to size, and I buy these shoes in the size in which I would normally buy cycling shoes, which is a half-size bigger than I buy my run shoes. I offer this in service of your quest to buy the right size the first time if by mail order.