Pearl Izumi X-Alp Launch SPD Review
Cons: Single boa closure, limited traction in wet conditions
Manufacturer: Pearl Izumi
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Our Analysis and Test Results
Pearl Izumi gave the longstanding X-ALP Launch a facelift in 2020. The redesigned version we tested isn't a huge departure from the old model, but a few key updates and a style makeover put it on par with the best trail riding shoes we've tested. Now featuring an easy-to-use Boa closure system, a reinforced toe box, and a durable upper in a walkable package, the X-Alp Launch is one of the most versatile models we tested, and it doesn't look out of place at the coffee shop.
The X-Alp Launch doesn't provide the same snappy power transfer as the XC-oriented race shoes we tested, but among its trail and enduro-oriented counterparts, it certainly holds its own. The 3/4 length composite shank in the shoe's sole provides a solid platform with similar stiffness to its direct competitors. When the time comes to stomp on the pedals and punch up a rise in the trail, the sole feels rock-solid under foot with no hint of folding or bending. Like most gravity/trail-oriented shoes worth their salt, the Launch has a little bit of extra cushion in the insole for those bottom-out moments. This helps to mute trail vibration, but also means a slightly less crisp power transfer when you really get on the pedals.
On the whole, we were very happy with the X-Alp Launch's power transfer. Riders looking to capitalize on every ounce of power they have should certainly look towards the racier shoes we tested that offer full-length carbon soles, but those models won't provide the same protection and comfort when things get rough on the downhills. On your average trail ride, the Launch won't let you down.
For an all-around trail riding shoe like the Launch, we think comfort is hugely important, and the designers at Pearl Izumi seem to agree. When donning these kicks, the protective padding and Boa closure system feel like they're wrapping your foot in a warm hug. The Boa pulls tension evenly across the top of the foot, ensuring that you don't develop any hotspots or chafing on long rides, and—as previously mentioned—the insole cushioning helps to mitigate foot and calf fatigue from vibration on long descents. The fit is fairly neutral compared to the typically-narrower "race fit" of XC shoes and should work for a variety of foot shapes and sizes. Despite the reinforcement, the Cordura upper breathes as well as any enduro shoe we tested, and we didn't have any problems with overheating feet on hot days.
We noticed a few minor issues in testing that held us back from giving this model a perfect comfort score. While we like the Boa closure system for its speed and ease, the single Boa doesn't allow for much tension adjustment across different areas of the foot. Our favorite shoes have either double Boas or at least a velcro strap in the toe area—some even have both for a huge range of fit adjustment. The extra cushion in the upper helps the Launch conform to your foot and mitigates the single-boa issue, but riders with less-common foot shapes might have trouble finding the perfect fit. Additionally, we noticed that the tongue can easily slip to the side when tightening the Boa. Regardless, we still think that most foot shapes will find this shoe very comfortable.
Traction and Walkability
The 3/4-length composite sole shank that provides a sturdy pedaling platform stops just forward of the cleat mount plate and allows enough flex in the toe box to make the Launch reasonable for long off-bike excursions. While testing, we did a fair amount of riding, hiking, and re-riding trail sections, and we found that these shoes make walking feel as natural as the best trail shoes out there. The flex in the forefoot combined with the toe box's slight rocker allows for a natural gait that doesn't fatigue your calves as much as the board-like, hard-soled XC shoes.
Paired with the shoe's walkable design is a Vibram ECOSTEP outsole that sticks to the ground admirably in dry, dusty conditions. The rubber of the small, chevron-shaped lugs is soft enough to conform to most surfaces and keep you firmly planted despite the large, minimally-textured patch around the cleat box. On wet days these shoes aren't quite as confidence-inspiring when hiking up steep, slick terrain, but with a little bit of extra care about our foot placement, we managed to get through. Unless you're frequently riding in slick, muddy conditions this shouldn't be a concern.
For a fairly beefy trail shoe that inspires full confidence on the descents, the X-Alp Launch is deceivingly light. We were pleasantly surprised when our size 45 test pair tipped the scales at just 436 grams per shoe. It is one of the lightest gravity-oriented shoes we tested and not far off some of the dedicated cross country shoes.
Typically weight is a less important metric for trail shoes like the X-Alp Launch, but this model's low weight, impressive pedaling performance, and protective construction make it a legitimate option for enduro and downhill racers. When you're racing the clock, weight savings help save energy, and more energy means faster times.
Like any good trail shoe, the Launch has a robust construction, and it held up well to the punishment we dished out during field testing. The upper is made from recycled Cordura fabric that doesn't scuff or snag easily, and the reinforced toe box feels almost like a light-duty steel toe. Over the course of testing, we did our fair share of rock kicking—mostly accidentally—and saw no signs of separation between the upper and the sole. Additionally, the sole is thick enough that we weren't worried about it being punctured by a wayward stick or sharp rock.
Along with the durable construction, the Launch's upper should be relatively hassle-free to keep clean over the long haul if you're worried about maintaining the clean and casual styling. After a couple of wet rides, we were able to wipe them clean fairly easily using a damp rag.
The Launch is very competitively priced considering what it has to offer. The other top gravity-oriented shoes we tested both retail for a chunk of change more than the Launch and the performance gains are minimal. Considering that the Launch is one of the lightest all-mountain shoes of the bunch while offering comparable pedaling performance and comfort, we think it's a great value. Riders looking for a daily driver for trail and enduro rides that won't weigh them down on the climbs won't find many better options.
We were impressed with the X-Alp Launch's performance in our field test. Over the course of hundreds of miles and countless hours with these shoes on our feet, we didn't find much not to like. While they didn't blow us away in any single category, they consistently performed alongside the best shoes in the test in many of our metrics. For that reason, we think they're a great option for anyone looking for a versatile everyday trail shoe.
Other Versions and Accessories
Pearl Izumi has a wide range of models in its X-Alp line. The X-Alp Elevate and X-Alp Summit both feature heavy-duty Vibram outsoles for backcountry adventure riding, and the Launch is also available in a mid-top configuration for more protection.
— Zach Wick