Philipp Hympendahl has recently finished the Paris-Brest-Paris randonée. Six months earlier, he stood in Rouleur Towers with publishing partner Tim Farin, co-author of Beyond The Finish Line, a well-received book of race photography and commentary; two Germans in London preparing for its launch at the Look Mum No Hands café.
Around the same time, Martin Scofield was searching the Corbis photo library for images of professional cycling that spoke to him, rather than merely recorded the outcome of a race. Hympendhal’s images were the only ones that consistently “nailed it,” Scofield recalls. “As it turned out, Philipp was going to be in London for the launch of his book, so we hooked up.”
The result of their meeting was an agreement that Scofield’s Dromarti company, a small brand producing modern incarnations of the classic leather, lace-up cycling shoe, would support Hympendahl in his attempt to ride the 1200km route as a man in his mid-40s.
“He’s the ultimate renaissance man, in many ways,” Scofield chuckles. “He does his photography, which is his artistic expression, he’s obviously a fantastic athlete too, gets to ride his bike an awful lot, and one way or another, earns a living from it. Who wouldn’t like that?”
Of greater importance to Scofield, however, is that Hympendahl is “a fantastic guy as well.”
“All those things come together. These things are really difficult to do if someone isn’t a nice bloke. Especially with something in the artistic realm, if people aren’t happy in what they’re doing, and therefore nice in what they’re doing, you don’t tend to get things that are very nice, so that all came together perfectly.”
It’s a synergy that will interest anyone with an eye for cycling who sees deeper than the faster-lighter-stiffer refrain routinely posted by the industry. A decent chap riding 1200km in leather lace-ups in an event with no winner? His backer supporting him on the basis of his artistic talent and personality, rather than any prospect of reflected glory?
It's an interesting illustration of Dromarti's philosophy. Scofield does not deny technological evolution (he describes the leather soles on the Detto Pietros he grew up adoring as “pants”), but questions whether it always delivers greater ultimate performance. He ushers in the tubular tyre and valve amplifier as exhibits to support an argument that loses nothing from running counter to prevailing wisdom.
World of leather
Scofield sets out his stall: he is a fan of product design and an admirer of innovation. Cycling’s denial of the final word to any philosophy (wider tyres were, until recently, universally regarded as slower, for example) is one of the aspects he enjoys most about the sport. Scofield still owns a pair of range-topping synthetic shoes, bought from a major manufacturer a decade ago, and which he belives will still be usable in 30 years time.
There was only one small problem. His feet slipped inside them. He discovered, unwittingly, the great flaw in a modus operandi of designing a shoe to fit the greatest number of people: that it fits no-one perfectly. Furthermore, by using a material unable to adapt to the foot, it offers no prospect of improvement.
“The one thing that leather does is that it surrounds your foot. With all the synthetic shoes, I’ve found that they’re relying on these sticking plaster solutions of ratchets and velcro and BOA systems to keep your foot in place and provide the support you need.
“If you’ve got a proper lace system, it has by comparison a huge number of adjustment points - maybe ten times the number of adjustment points across your foot in some cases - all pulling across a material that is moulding to your foot.”
Scofield laughs when he considers his own shoes, and how they have become mirror images of his feet. “They’re a totally different shape from when they were new. They literally do reflect [my feet]. My foot doesn’t move from side-to-side in my shoe; the shoe is like an extension of my foot. That is best achieved, I think, by using leather.”
Scofield’s quest was to find a shoe that offered the comfort of the Detto Pietros of his youth, a brand endorsed by the great Beppe Saronni, when as a rider in his early teens, Scofield competed in club 10s with Southampton’s Crabwood CC.
A return to serious cycling in his forties, and a couple of Etapes du Tour later, Scofield set about finding his perfect footwear. His research took him to Italy and to a dormant manufacturer with whom he recommenced production.
More recently, in a move that Scofield admits runs counter to perceptions of small scale, high-quality manufacture, he has moved production to Taiwan. The results, he says, have far exceeded his expectations. “If you have something made by somebody, you’re always slightly disappointed, so to be more than pleased is a rarity.”
David Millar has adopted the Race shoe, having emailed a skeptical Scofieldout of the blue ("I’d never spoken to David in my life. I had an email one day: ‘Can you tell me about the shoes, please? David Millar’.") - quite a departure given the closeness of Millar's association with Fizik throughout his racing career, culminating in a range of custom shoes for each race of his final season (see Issue 54).
Scofield offers the comparative performance of clincher and tubular tyres as his closing argument. One is convenient, easy to fit and replace; it has largely swept aside the other, but tubulars are still considered superior: more supple, more comfortable and, ultimately, faster. Newer isn’t always better.
A carbon-soled leather shoe is next on Scofield’s agenda: the development of a platform in which the composite material’s greater stiffness is deployed only at the small area between the ball of the foot and pedal platform. A leather upper, however, is likely always to remain Dromarti’s calling card.
“Leather, in terms of how it connects your foot to the pedal platform, is a much better thing, I believe," Scofield says. "It just is. It’s as simple as that.”