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Road Racing

First Ride: Udog’s Distanza Shoe

The gravel shoe has laces and a breathable upper; a carbon sole and tensioner wrap system keep it snug on the the foot.

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After 15 years in the bike industry, working in marketing strategy for brands like Fizik, Kask, and Pinarello, Alberto Fonte wanted to do his own thing. And he knew that his own thing was shoes.

“I always had a dream and passion to start my own brand,” Fonte says. “The product I liked the most, the one closest to me has been the shoes. At the end of 2020, I decided ‘it’s now or never.’”

Launching a business during the height of the Covid pandemic may have seemed like a fool’s errand at the time, but for Fonte, that was the moment. He dove deep into a year of heavy product development (although his idea had been well-marinated), and in early 2022 he launched Udog and its first product, the Tensione road shoe.

Today, Udog is bringing its third shoe to market with the Distanza gravel shoe.

In a market flooded with stiff uppers, BOA dials, and carbon everything, Udog is doing things differently. All of the brand’s shoes are lace-up, have a knit weave upper, and a generous toe box paired with a narrow and deep heel cup.

It’s a bold move for homogenous times, but Fonte isn’t worried about taking the long shot.

Udog stands for underdog, he says, “the sport expression that identifies an athlete in competition who is not expected to win, but still captures the passion of the fans. That someone, with a drive to succeed and hard work, can surprise us and win.”

Going the Distanza

While the Distanza is Udog’s first foray into the globally growing gravel market, the shoe bears all of the same characteristics of its forebears (the Tensione and the Cima).

First, the laces. While it’s hard to imagine that a shoe closure system would cause much consternation, for an Italian, well, you can imagine.

Fonte knows that BOA is all the rage, but “we wanted to present a product that would stand out from the crowd and work with new materials and new system,” he says

He lists several pros and cons to using laces, mostly functional and some having to do with fashion.

“You can use softer material on the upper because you don’t have to attach hard parts [like a BOA dia],” Fonte says. “There are no pressure points. You can have a nicer fit on your shoes because in between the upper and your foot, you have 18 points of contact with the eyelet for the right amount of tension.

“In general it’s a lighter shoe because you don’t have BOAS. And, it’s nicer in terms of design. In normal life, we use lace-up shoes, we don’t go to restaurants or bars in BOAs.”

The cons, he says, are significant but not insurmountable for certain riders. 

Laces can’t be adjusted on the fly like BOA dials, so a rider can’t tighten their shoes before a sprint or fiddle with them while riding. The look, as mentioned, is more fashionable and less technical. 

However, the type of laces Udog uses aren’t an afterthought. 

“We work hard to find the perfect laces that work well for this application,” Fonte says. “They’re not like normal laces, which is like a tube that has air inside. They are flat and pressed with no stretch. They stay where they are.”

Another standout characteristics of Udog’s shoes, including the new Distanza, is the tension wrap system.

Two tensioners pass through the upper of the shoe, underneath the insole, over the outsole to envelope the foot from the bottom to the top. The system is designed to enable a more controlled transfer of power from foot to pedal, “allowing the shoe to follow your feet when pulling up,” Fonte says.

The Distanza has a knit upper and carbon sole. The combination — soft and stiff — provides flexibility, breathability, and support where they’re needed.

As for more marriage of function and fashion, the Distanza’s outsole features a molded sticky rubber that wraps over the toe and around the heel. Fonte says this is for increased durability and protection on the most rugged terrain.

Both models of the Distanza have carbon in the sole; the $240 version is reinforced with it, while the $334 pair has a fully rigid carbon outsole.

“I wanted to bring some of the Italian style into the shoes, into the market,” Fonte says. “Even though in term of performance and shape, the shoes are really America or international-oriented. The large toe box was inspired by American brands. The style is very much Italian, but function wise, it has an international or American flavor. The high heel cup that’s very snug creates a great grip.”

First look

I wore the Distanza on a few rides in Patagonia, Arizona, a place where the terrain provided opportunities to test all its features. The gravel roads around Patagonia range from fast and rolling to chunky and technical.

As a BOA dial convert I was very open to having my mind changed. And, the Distanza really does have the best lace-up system I’ve tried. With other lace-up shoes, I’ve found that I can’t get them snug enough, or at least snug to my liking. The soft knit upper of the Distanza really allowed me to cinch the laces tightly. And, they stayed taut throughout the ride.

But would the flex of the knit upper come to haunt me while mashing the pedals? No!

The combination of the stiff carbon sole and the knit upper is truly pulled together by the tension wrap system. As I pushed on the pedals, I didn’t feel like my foot was coming out of the shoe; rather, I felt like my foot was moving with the pedal. It was a cool feeling.

Regarding the rubber outsole, I imagine that these would be great shoes for hike-a-bike terrain and could totally be used for some mountain biking. They’re certainly nicer to walk around in than other full-carbon bike shoes I have.

In terms of fit, I wore my normal size 40 and found that they fit a bit long. This might have been the impression I got because of the deep-heel cup. However, I used the shoes with my custom insoles, and I suspect that I need to try them with the factory inserts to get the intended result.

In general, though, the overall fit is nice, almost understated — and, the “large toe box” doesn’t feel that large at all.

The shoes drew a lot of attention from the other cycling journalists I was with down in Patagonia, which I think Fonte would appreciate. Those Italians and their shoes.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.

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