Innovative, rigid and comfortable. These three words come to my mind after a full season of riding in the Northwave Ghost XCM. This MTB shoe is a top-tier offering from an industry leader in cycling footwear, with matching price tag. On the other hand – as long as you have compatible foot anatomy – it’s unlikely to disappoint.
The Ghost XCM is my fourth Northwave cycling shoe in succession. Having a clear-cut historical perspective, I can attest that these models were certainly not made from the mold. The previous three had some good and some not so desirable attributes. I suspect the marked differences in design is due to the fact that all four came from a different era, both in terms of cycling trends and the manufacturer’s priorities. In any case, the Ghost XCM is by far the most desirable of all, which brings back a new zeal for the Northwave brand.
In 2000, when I first became acquitted with the Northwave brand, almost all Italian cycling shoes had a narrow fit. Later on, even the traditional brands started to offer wider designs with more room inside. Fast forward to 2010, almost all performance-oriented Northwave models had a wide design with plenty of toe-room. The recent decade saw a rebound from this approach, indicated by the quite slim shape in case of the Ghost XCM. This is a property I can embrace, as I don’t have wide feet, and my other hobby – rock climbing – has literary transformed my concept of shoe width. I’d say my feet are more or less average in width, and this new Northwave model fits snugly, holding my feet tight and secure. This I believe is a great thing in case of a shoe meant for riding fast.
This other secret of this Northwave model is the snug but not overly tight fit is the Xframe® upper. It draws inspiration from the ski boots, lacks a tongue as such, instead one side simply folds over the other. In ski footwear they call the design “overlap boot”, and it’s used almost exclusively in top-quality ski boots. It’s well-known that Northwave is quite dominant in the world of winter sports.
The Xframe® is a space age material that are only 0.5 mm thick, transferring every watt of power while providing a snug, even fit with no pressure points. The other element of the perfect fit is the SLW2 lacing. It joins each of the plane straps, and closes the upper with a fine, step-by-step dial. As usual, you have full and partial release with a single button. Northwave hence created a well-designer, coherent system, where all the elements serve the same purpose: stability, efficiency and comfort, with no pressure points.
The good news is, that the promises by the Italian footwear specialist are completely fulfilled. No matter how tight I pull the laces, I feel no pressure in any point on my foot. It’s much better in this respect than on my previous three-point closure cycling shoe from the same brand. Setting each of the three straps optimally, I still feel some pressure, while the single dial on the SLW2 lacing system immediately disperses the pressure evenly over the top foot. Another myth dispelled!
I only had one gripe with the fit of this shoe. Unfortunately there is an edge to the Xframe® upper, just where a conventional tongue would start. Since my foot arch is quite high, it sits a little too low, I’d like the edge to be a bit higher. Then the lace would offer even better support. Of course no manufacturer is able to design a shoe that fits all foot anatomy perfectly, there has to be some form of compromise. In this case the problem is something I can live with. Another solution may be the Pro version of the Ghost model, which has two “zone” lacing, or alternatively I could buy a custom foot bed, which would position my foot a little differently inside the shoe.
The SLW2 lacing system is quite ingenious. While it employs a Boa-like ratchet mechanism that’s widespread in adventure sports footwear, it omits some of the hard surface elements, like the steel wire and the hooks. Instead, an abrasion-resistant, high tensile strength Dyneema lace is attached to the Xframe® upper in order to provide a soft and secure attachment. If you are concerned about the strength of a string resembling a “sawing thread”, I can assure you that this unique material is widely employed in rock climbing, where a failure might have even more serious consequences, than in cycling! Actually, the manufacturer of Dyneema has a demonstration, where they hang a car by the 5mm wide piece! Another advantage of using a more supple material than the usual steel wire is to protect the hooks, which is this case experience much less wear, avoiding failure of this crucial contact point.
Tightening the shoe is an easy affair: by twisting the dial, the Dyneema lace stretches evenly along the upper. This happens gradually starting from the dial down to the toes. The process can be accelerated by moving the foot inside the shoe to equalize tension along the lace. The end result is the same, only the process becomes a bit more comfortable. Using two movements on the dial to pull the lace may also work. If you feel you need more or less tension during the ride, the dial is positioned perfectly in reach. Loosening is achieved by tapping on the button, thereby moving the ratchet by a single notch. A longer press opens the closure completely, then you have to turn the dial to a desired tension. In my experience the SLW2 lacing system has the tendency to loosen during the ride. It’s unlikely that the Dyneema lace is responsible for the shift, rather the upper is taking the shape of the foot. Anyway, all you have to do is to turn the dial one notch.
Taking off the shoe is much more simple than with other three strap closures, the release lever fully opens the lace. I usually move the lace by hand after the lever is released, but pulling on the shoe does the same thing. Unfortunately the closure has the tendency to pull more of the lace towards the bottom half of the SLW2, which leaves too little portion at the top for easy shoe removal and foot entry. Then it’s a good idea to manually move a part of the lace towards the top. Once you get a hang of it, this “rewind” takes no more than half a minute per shoe. I usually do this once a week, or after every 5th ride.
The Xframe® is made of stretch-resistant synthetic material and a high density protective layer is laminated to its outer surface. Furthermore, synthetic Amara padding is added at the heel and the closure to offer the best possible protection against wear and tear. The perforated surface allows for some ventilation. I expected much worse, and was pleasantly surprised by the effective cooling the shoe can provide. Naturally this is not the best shoe for the hottest of days in the summer, on the other hand it’s plenty warm for chilly spring mornings, and offers a degree of waterproofing. Sprays from road puddles rarely get inside the shoe, there has to be quite a lot of water from above to penetrate the upper. The black color unfortunately attracts dirt, but the synthetic coating makes cleaning the shoe a breeze.
The XC 12 sole is one of the stiffest in the Northwave lineup. The sole is not full-carbon as in the case of the XC 14 and the Hyperlight XC models, merely the mid-sole has some carbon reinforcement. This might actually be a good thing, as it facilitates walking. Another cost saving is the conventional rubber tread instead of the special Michelin compound. This is something to keep in mind if you hike a lot on rocks, since the Ghost XCM offer very little traction on hard surfaces, making strides rather precarious. On the bright side, the space between the rubber blocks are quite large, so even Time pedals are easily accommodated in the mid-section. I haven’t tried any larger platform clipless pedals, but I don’t think the manufacture intended this model to be used in this way.
The Ghost XCM is a slightly more forgiving version of the Ghost XC. The “M” in the model name stands for marathon racing, and for this disciple a little more flex and long-term comfort has priority over outmost efficiency. The Ghost XC and PRO variants get stiffer construction, but why bother? The XCM is still plenty stiff, I can’t imagine any rider other than top-level professional XC racers who would find any fault with this shoe’s stability. I had an older generation Northwave shoe with full carbon sole, and it’s not any stiffer. The XCM may not even have enough flex for some, since long walks are a pain. An occasional short hike-a-bike section may be manageable, but nothing more. On the other hand, pedaling in the Ghost XCM could hardly be more efficient and biomechanically perfect!
The Ghost XCM is a first class cycling footwear, which I’d recommend for MTB marathons and training. Moreover, even if you’re not much of a racer, but like to ride on trails for longer distance, do some off-road touring, this might be the best pair of shoes you ever owned. But keep in mind that the Ghost XCM is less than ideal for walking or tackling long hike-a-bike sections, especially on hard surfaces, like rocks: it wouldn’t be the model I’d choose to ride enduro-type trails. For this type of riding the Italian manufacturer offers the Outcross 2 Plus, which we’ve previously tested on this site.
Recommended retail price is HUF 79900.