As the coolest kid on the block atop a cherry-red, fully-rigid Trek 800 mountain bike in the mid-90s (not that there were any mountains to ride in northwestern Oklahoma), I maintained a steady stream of cuts and bruises. It’s not that I was a daredevil but rather that I was (and am) a clumsy, long-legged mess, without grace, flexibility, or much bodily awareness.
My mother’s one dead-if-you-break-it rule for bike riding: always wear sneakers. Helmets were a nice-to-have. Clothes beyond a bathing suit were completely optional. But flip-flops drew the wrath of Linda. Under her ever-watchful eye, I escaped childhood with all of my toes.
As an adult cyclist and fledgling mountain biker, my feet have become increasingly important and a source of consternation. Simply put, I don’t quite trust them. Slipping off of the pedal — or the dreaded bounce off during an ineffectual pedal stroke, landing in nothing but air until I’m sitting on the crossbar and sequentially eating dirt — is a real fear and one I’ve held dearly for years.
I tried for one whole day to adapt to clipless pedals and shoes. After multiple bouts of adult crying (the ugliest of cry faces), a skinless shin, and more bruises than I could count, I decided maybe it wasn’t for me. I would stick to my luridly-colored sneakers, thank you very much.
So when the opportunity to review a pair of Ride Concepts mountain biking shoes came up, it felt like the perfect time to try flat-pedal shoes without mustering up the resources for another potential gear failure. Stoked, I immediately slipped into the Ride Concepts Women's Hellion Elite when they arrived in early summer. Time to put them through the wringer, I thought — or a gentle test ride from the Missoula office.
Walking around, the stiffness of the shoes was immediately felt. The microfiber synthetic upper bent rigidly across the top of my foot but with use, the upper soon relaxed and conformed well to my step. Being abrasion and weather-resistant, the shoe felt well-made, protective, durable, and nicely padded, features that have kept their promise through months of hard riding without the typical signs of wear of a regular sneaker.
The one review left on the Ride Concepts website for the Hellion Elite at the time of this publication refutes RC’s claim that the shoe has a “women’s specific fit and flex for tailored performance and comfort.” I have no idea what a women’s specific fit and flex should feel like but I do know that ski boot fitters have gathered around my foot in a flock of young, long-haired snow-chasing testosterone to murmur in awe at the extreme narrowness of my appendages. In short, I’m difficult to fit, especially in shoes. It’s a practical miracle that RC’s Hellion Elite do not feel like a pair of Lincoln Continentals underneath me. Granted, they’re not snug like a narrow trail running shoe but they don’t have to be. They just have to be stiff, comfortable, and stick like hell to my pokey pedals — which they do. I also like the way they look with their urban matte black and white color scheme and a build reminiscent of early-aughts skater shoes (loved me a boy in skater shoes).
All summer I put the Hellion Elite through tougher and tougher challenges. I didn’t slip once with the DST 4.0 MAX GRIP Rubber Outsole, and my confidence on the downhill soared even if my brake pads produce evidence to the contrary. While flat pedal shoes aren’t known for their hiking prowess, the few hike-a-bikes I encountered didn’t have me missing my trail runners; the shoes walked well enough on short sections of steep, loose dirt. With local trails dotted here and there with a hidden ponderosa stump, the anti-abrasion protective layers on the heel and toe of the Hellion Elite would make my mother proud as would the elastic lace tuck for pesky laces (or for those of us who lack double-knotting capabilities). For day rides on the mountain bike, RC’s Hellion Elites have become my go-to shoe.
The real test came in September when I wore them on a four-day, hot and dusty gravel tour in Oklahoma. As the meteorologists forecasted 100-plus temps for the entire tour, I eyed the thick, black shoes warily. I considered cycling in sandals but premonitions of rattlesnakes, goat heads, and sunburnt toes made me pack the Hellions.
On tour, every part of me was hot and dirty. The wind covered me in red dust that I could chew between my teeth and wash down with bottle after bottle of Gatorade. But you know what, over four days and nearly 200 miles of pedaling my gravel bike, I almost never thought about my feet. Compared to my week-long tour of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route a few years earlier when my sneakered feet would ache at the end of the day and become noticeably muscle sore by the end of the trip, the stiff-soled Hellion Elite was a happy home. The shoes walked well, rode well, and kept my feet going without the aid of Ibuprofen. It’s another practical miracle that all my sweating didn’t forever leave the shoes with a penetrating stink but maybe that’s the anti-bacterial mesh lining at work. While I was as happy to take off my Hellion Elites at the end of each day as I was my sports bra and chamois, the shoes performed marvelously on tour. (Granted, I have yet to test the shoes in a downpour.)
Ride Concept’s Hellion Elite retail for $140, around the same price I’d pay for a trail runner; being more durable, however, I expect them to outlast my runners by years. Obviously, I’m a flat pedal shoe convert for day rides and tours, for mountain, gravel, and even road if I’m forced to ride it. And I’m happy to say that my foray into flat pedal shoes hurt a lot less than previous experiments. A win-win. And a win for moms everywhere, too.