Carnac the Magnificent

I was fitting a young man to his flash new Specialized Crux the other day when I noticed that he had a wobble in his left ankle, right at the bottom of his pedal stroke.

"Have you sprained your left ankle before?" I asked.

"I actually broke it in college playing rugby." he said. "It doesn't hurt, but I know about the wobble."

In the end, it wasn't the ankle that I was worried about so much as his shoes. He was wearing a pair of shiny new carbon-soled digicamo lace-ups. Which appeared to be at least 1.5 sizes too large.

"Did you buy them as winter shoes?" I asked.

"No… these are the limited edition ones, and it was the only size left." he said. "I'll probably just buy another pair in a smaller size closer to cross season."

Well, that's a new one, I thought to myself. But I kind of understood where he was coming from. Although I've never had $600 to spend for one season's worth of cyclocross shoes (and believe me, that's about as long as they'll last) - I share the Imelda Marcos impulse when it comes to cycling footwear. On the other hand, I've generally been either too poor or too frugal or both to do anything other than obsess about having a walk-in closet full of cycling shoes. My first true cycling shoes were a pair of Onitsuka Fabres that I found in the locker room trash can in 6th grade. They weren't bad, but the soles were a bit flexy and (much like Mr. digicamo's kicks) they were too large. That summer, one of the older kids in my cycling club outgrew his Bata Bikers, and I won them in a coin toss. The Batas were pretty sick, and fit perfectly. They were easy to run in for cyclocross, but had a semi-stiff sole for decent power transfer… insofar as a 39kg junior needs to worry about power transfer.

The Batas lasted a couple of years, and would have probably lasted even longer, had I not forgotten them at a race in Oregon.

My favorite shoes of all time were my beloved TIME Equipes in the Indurain colorway. The shoes were actually made in the Carnac factory in the Pays de la Loire region of France. Carnac was founded in 1949, and built a reputation for meticulously crafted cycling shoes, with quality that rivaled the finest luxury cobblers of Paris or Milan. Their shoes were not cheap (A pair of Carnacs could easily run $300 in 1995.) but like so many traditional European artisinal manufacturers, the company refused to outsource even in the face of daunting pricing pressures from a globalized marketplace. Carnac is now gone, and with it an important part of cycling history, as well as a piece of my heart.

I wore my Equipes for nearly a decade. They fit like a glove right out of the box, and were made to wear ever so slightly on the interior of the shoe (to increase comfort and improve fit) while holding their exterior shape perfectly for many years. The straps never failed. All the stitching remained instact, and the upper never even hinted of becoming delaminated from the (resin) sole. Alas, while visiting a friend in Virginia, the Equipes finally met their maker, in the form of a friendly Rottweiler named Hank.

Today's shoe marketplace mystifies me no less than any other segment of the cycling marketplace, I suppose. There are $1400 custom shoes available, and from more than one vendor! There are perfectly capable $25 shoes from the venerable Nashbar marquee. And there are any number of (mostly poorly made, mostly hideously ugly) shoes in between. Traditional laces have mysteriously mounted a comeback, although I have a feeling that the trend is borne of fashion and competitive advantage, and does not signal a shift away from the larger trend away from Velcro & buckles towards Boa-style lacing. I've heard actual, heated conversations between educated adults over the relative merits of the different enclosure systems. And while sartorially speaking, I find Velcro straps to do little more than further infantilize a sport that already smacks of superhero cosplay, the notion that Boa, complicated buckles, or traditional laces improve upon the system's reliability and longevity is myopic at best, and delusional at worst. Have you ever had a buckle break in a race? Because it will happen, my friend!

And so every few months, I sit down and think about shoes. I think about what shoes to carry, and then I remember how stupid an idea that is, and think instead about how to talk about shoes, and what to recommend. I think about where and how they are made. I think about how (much like bikes) the obsession with weight has resulted in a dramatic reduction of product lifespan and reliability in many cases. I think about $600 Sidis selling on Wiggle for $300. I think about the poor kangaroos. I think about Bonts in toaster ovens. I think about companies claiming to manufacture in Italy when they really import their shoes from Romania. I think about my Marresis. I think about all the shoes I'd like to buy, but don't, because the ones I wear most often are so well made that six years later, they look good as new, and have outlasted eight sets of cleats. They are very nice shoes, but they're not Carnacs.