New Version Offers Improvements, But Not Quite There Yet
A while back, Pearl Izumi’s P.R.O. Leader III was my first venture wearing a road shoe. I was amazed at the added power and stability I had going from a MTB style shoe and SPD cleat to a road shoe and SPD-SL cleats and pedals. But the fit of the Leader III wasn’t ideal for my narrow foot, and it seemed to run small, requiring me to go up a full size.
Fast forward to fall of last year, when John Marsh and I started testing v4 of this shoe. (John also has tried a couple of previous versions of Pearl’s top-line shoe, including the III.) I immediately noticed a change in the fit. With v4, the shoe runs bigger than the previous version, so I was able to order my normal size. Unfortunately, Pearl Izumi only offers this shoe in men’s sizes, and in one width, which is still an issue with my narrow foot. Interstingly, John noted that these shoes (in a 44) are longer than previous Pearl shoes (and not just the P.R.O.-level) of the same size. (More on this later in the review.)
Light Weight and Stiffness for Enhanced Power Transfer
The Leader v4 offers a 1:1 integrated carbon Power Plate that provides light weight (265 g/size 43) and a stiffness rating of 13. While I definitely felt the stiffness in the sole, there was some twisting/flexing on the upper body of the shoe.
The sole and upper portion of the shoe are joined using unibody construction. This eliminates the cardboard-like material lasting board and reduces stack height by approximately 1.5mm. The Leader v4 comes in at only a 5 mm stack height. (Be sure to check your saddle if your previous shoes had a higher stack height. You may need to raise the seat just a touch to keep the proper leg/foot position.)
Unlike some high-end road shoes, the Leader v4 seems designed not just for racers, but for everyday cyclists, too. The larger/thicker heel bumper (which is replaceable) provides protection when off the bike. Also, the strategically placed rubber toe plate extends onto the sole and protects the shoe from scraping as you push off and clip in. Both features are a step in the right direction, in our minds, as Pearl continues to improve the line. (We’ve had high-end shoes with virtually no heel-toe protection, allowing them to easily get scuffed up.)
Fit Features Boost the Comfort Level
PI has designed the P.R.O. Leader v4 with rider comfort in mind. If your feet are happy, you can bike longer and stay stronger. The v4 is constructed of a seamless upper that minimizes pressure points through elimination of stitching. I found the synthetic fiber upper did not mold to my foot like leather. An issue John and I both had was when we tightened down the BOAs there was a wave/ripple in the shoe material on the arch side of the foot (the area in the photo, below, behind the black fore area of the shoe). It did not seem to effect the overall fit of the shoe, but it was odd that the material did not lay down against the foot as you would expect.
The upper part of the tongue is notched, allowing for more flexibility and movement for the front of your ankle. I’ve had issues with tendon bruising at the front of the ankle on shoes with stiffer tongues. John liked the roomier toe box, which is more squared off than pointed, like many cycling shoes.
The asymmetrical closure and off-center BOAs avoid undo pressure on the top of the foot (an issue more prevalent with riders having high arches). The BOAs used are the top-end IP-1 dials with 1 mm micro-adjustments. They work extremely well.
Overall, the breathability is good. The vents on the sole seem to help a bit, but the upper has a Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) coating that reduces the venting ability of the mesh.
Insole Inserts Help Customize the Fit, Mechanics
When I first received the shoes and opened the box, there were a variety of wedges and arch supports enclosed, but no instructions. I remembered that the vIII had these same wedges, but I never used them. So I searched the PI website looking for instructions, but with no luck. Only after contacting PI directly, they sent me a video link that showed how their 1:1 Insole System works.
There are pockets on the side of the insole into which you slide the wedge/arch support. Thus, you can adjust the left and right arch and forefoot varus canting for optimal pedaling mechanics.
There are different height arch supports depending on how much you need. The video suggests you start with the lowest arch support and move on from there. The varus wedge slides in by your forefoot to help with the tracking of your knee.
In addition to the arch supports and wedges, the shoes come with a bag, which is always nice for travel or storage.
Styling Adds a Cool Factor
We both tested the black/lime version of the shoe, which is more of a neon yellow and definitely increases visibility on the road. Both of us received multiple comments from our riding buddies on the looks and “coolness” of the shoes. (You also get a good view of the heel and toe bumpers in the photo.)
Upping that cool factor even more, Pearl Izumi added electroplating on the bottom of the shoe for a pop of color. There’s no performance benefit, and it’s seldom seen. But it’s there.
Cleat Placement Difficulty, Odd Material ‘Wave’ are Drawbacks
Despite all that Pearl has gotten right with these shoes – including looks and styling, goodfit system and long-ride comfort, super-stiff sole and customizable insoles, roomy toe box – a couple of drawbacks were consternating.
In addition to the odd “wave” of material that we both noted on the arch side of the upper when the shoes are tightened down, and the fact that these shoes are for some reason longer than other Pearl Izumi models of the same size, we both had a helluva time finding the correct cleat placement. (We wonder if that somehow is related to the length.)
The shoes are 3-hole cleat-compatible; I use SPD-SLs, and John uses Look. It took both of us 3-4 tries to finally dial in the correct postion. Normally, one post-installation adjustment is all it takes for a new pair of shoes, so the fact that we both experienced this was certainly atypical.
Going from Pearl Izumi’s P.R.O. Leader III to their new v4 model, John and I both saw nice improvements. The stiff carbon sole and asymmetrical closure combine for a comfortable cycling shoe with good power transfer. The two offset BOA closures really allowed us to dial in the fit and easily adjust on the bike.
The black/neon yellow upper caught the attention of other riders but more importantly made us a bit more visible to drivers. And the more robust heel and toe bumpers are nice touches that improve these shoes’ durability.
The P.R.O. Leader v4s hold their own against other high-end road shoes when it comes to quality and price, but there is still room for improvement in terms of those consternating drawbacks.
Sheri Rosenbaum regularly contributes articles and reviews products for RBR. She’s an avid recreational roadie who lives in the Chicago area and a major advocate for women's cycling, serving on the board of directors and volunteering with the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club. Click to read Sheri's full bio or visit her web site sunflowersandpedals.com.