Test Location: Washington, Oregon
Test Duration: 4 months
Reviewer: 6’, 170 lb / 183 cm, 77.1 kg
Size Tested: EU 44
Blister’s Measured Weight per shoe: 464 and 466 g
Upper: Synthetic leather
Closure: Speed lace + velcro strap
Pedals used: HT X2 SX, Shimano Saint, Shimano XTR Trail
- Massive instep strap securely holds foot to support aggressive pedaling over any terrain.
- Armored lace shield tongue cover provides extra protection from debris.
- Speed lacing system allows fast, secure adjustments and it can stay easily under the tongue cover with hook and loop.
- Pedal Channel for stable shoe to pedal platform when not clipped in.
- 18 mm rearward cleat adjustment for improved bike control.
- Asymmetrically raised padded ankle collar and sidewall sole for added protection.
- Shimano original compound and outsole pattern maximizes grip and durability.
- Robust toe cap for additional toe protection.
The original Shimano AM9 was the first Gravity clipless shoe that I really loved — the fit was excellent for my feet, and unlike a lot of the other options from nearly a decade ago, they didn’t feel like a skate shoe that someone had just slapped a cleat plate into and gone to lunch. They offered good protection without weighing a ton; the sole, while not super stiff, was stout enough to be comfortable to pedal in all day; and they weren’t complete sponges that felt like they absorbed gallons of water at the first sign of a puddle or light drizzle.
The AM9 has gone through a bunch of iterations since then, culminating in the new AM903 (which, confusingly, is the fourth generation of shoe to bear the AM9 name). With it, Shimano has done a good job of carrying over what was good about the earlier versions while finding little details to improve here and there.
Features and Construction
The general features and design of the AM9 haven’t changed a whole lot since the original version — Shimano has definitely been refining the recipe rather than starting from scratch. Probably the biggest change over the years was the addition of a speed lace system in the second-generation AM901, replacing the standard laces on the original AM9. That system has stuck around through the new AM903, as has the velcro lace cover flap and additional strap over the instep to help secure things. The clasp on the speed lace still sits underneath the upper velcro strap (unless you take care to fold it out, which is possible) but as compared to the version used on the AM901 and AM902, the AM903’s clasp is thinner, flatter, and puts noticeably less pressure on the instep. The tongue on the AM903 also feels slightly thicker and better padded, which helps as well.
There’s also a new velcro patch on the top of the tongue to secure the tail of the speed lace before you close the cover over it. It wasn’t ever a big deal on the AM901, but that new feature (the AM902 didn’t have it either) does make putting on the AM903 slightly easier. The instep strap has also been shortened considerably compared to the AM901, which I think is a good thing — my instep is pretty high, but the AM901’s strap is still way longer than it needs to be for my feet, and leaves quite a bit of tail flapping around; I, unfortunately, can’t remember how the AM902 compared on that front.
The cuff is still very asymmetric, with a high, padded section over the inner ankle bones to protect against banging them on the crank arm and/or frame, and a much lower cut on the outside for better mobility and breathability. The upper is primarily constructed of synthetic leather, with a bunch of perforations over the top of the toe box and outside of the midfoot to offer a bit of ventilation. Those perforations have grown slightly since the earlier models, and the ventilation of the AM903 does feel notably improved as compared to the AM901.
Shimano calls the stiffness of the AM903 a “5” (the Trail-oriented ME7 is an 8; the flagship XC9 goes to eleven) but it’s notably stiffer than the AM901, which they also labeled a 5. The AM902 also felt considerably stiffer than the AM901 (based on hand flex), and if anything the AM903 is another small step up. That said, they’re still not especially stiff in the grand scheme of things — the Specialized 2FO DH is a bit stiffer, as is the Ride Concepts Tallac, for example.
Shimano calls the AM9 a Gravity shoe, but it’s not super heavy — check out our measured weights for a variety of Trail and DH-oriented options for reference. And, as always, note the slight differences in sizing throughout.
- Pearl Izumi X-Alp Launch: 406 g (size 43.5)
- Shimano ME7: 423 g (size 44)
- Specialized 2FO DH Clip: 428 and 434 g (size 44)
- Shimano AM901: 439 and 443 g (size 44)
- Shimano AM903: 464 and 466 g (size 44)
- Endura MT500 Burner: 476 and 476 g (size 43)
- Five Ten Kestrel Pro Boa: 456 g (size 9.5)
- Ion Rascal Amp: 493 and 508 g (size 44)
- Ride Concepts Tallac: 538 and 539 g (size 10)
- Leatt 5.0: 535 and 542 g (size 10)
- Five Ten Hellcat Pro: 546 g (Size 9.5)
- Ride Concepts Transition: 556 and 558 g (size 10)
I owned the original AM9 for a long time, and still have a pair of the later AM901s in semi-regular rotation; I’ve only ever tried on the AM902, but haven’t actually ridden in it. In short, the fit of the AM903 is still quite reminiscent of the earlier models, with some minor tweaks. Overall, the toe box and forefoot are moderately wide, tapering down to a more secure heel pocket. Compared to the AM901, the AM903 has a slightly more squared-off toe box with a little more room for the fifth toe (i.e., it doesn’t taper narrower as quickly) but is otherwise very similar in terms of fit; I’m running off memory here, but I recall the AM901 and AM902 feeling virtually identical.
At least on my feet (which, granted, feature pretty wide forefeet and comparatively narrow heels), the fit is outstanding. But I also think that the speed lace system that Shimano uses does a very nice job of snuggling things up evenly and effectively, so folks with narrower feet and/or lower insteps (mine are somewhat on the high side) shouldn’t necessarily write off the AM9. I find a little extra room in the toe box to be helpful on more gravity-oriented shoes for comfort when taking a lot of heavy impacts through the feet. Especially on those sorts of shoes, where I’m generally running my cleats more rearward for descending control and comfort, I don’t find a little extra room up front to be particularly detrimental to feeling like I’ve got a secure fit in the shoes. That’s not to say that I’ve got a whole bunch of extra room in the AM903 — they’re comfortably roomy, but reasonably so.
Compared to Shimano’s flagship Trail shoe, the ME7, the AM9 is substantially wider through the forefoot and toe box. In a size 44 for both, the Specialized 2FO DH is very slightly narrower, but significantly longer; the size 43 2FO DH is maybe a better size comparison to the AM903 in a 44 on the basis of length, and it’s appreciably narrower than the AM903 through the fore- and midfoot, but if anything the heel pocket in the AM903 is a touch more snug. The Ride Concepts Tallac and (especially) the Endura MT500 Burner are also significantly narrower overall. It’s also worth noting that Shimano’s European sizing runs somewhat on the small side — their size chart calls the EU 44 a US 9.7, which I’d say is accurate, and definitely the right size for me (typically a US 10), but I often fit better in an EU 43 or EU 43.5 from a lot of other brands.
On the Bike
The AM903 has worked really well for me on everything from all-day Trail rides to shuttle laps — as discussed above, the fit is great on my feet, but I also think that the speed lace system does an especially good job of securing the shoe evenly and comfortably throughout. It’s also super quick and easy to take on and off and has stayed put for me, without any need for re-tightening or adjusting mid-ride.
The AM903 works best with clipless pedals with a bit of a platform — Shimano lists the Saint pedal as their main recommended pairing — but (somewhat unlike the older, softer AM901) they’re now stiff enough that I’m pretty happy running them with pedals like the XTR Trail that feature a more modest platform, too. Softer-soled shoes tend to be nicer to walk in and do a better job than ultra-stiff options of flexing and engaging the platforms on pedals that feature them but can also lead to foot cramping and soreness if the pedals aren’t providing enough support to keep your feet from getting wrapped around the pedals as you hammer through rougher terrain.
And, at least for my preferences, the AM903 is essentially perfect for using with bigger DH-style platforms (they work great with both the Shimano Saint and HT X2 pedals), while still being pretty comfortable with mid-size Trail pedals, too. I don’t have much interest in trying them with a platform-less XC pedal, but that’s really not what they’re meant for. As you’d hope, the interface between the AM903 and Shimano’s own pedals is especially dialed, but they work really nicely with the HT X2 as well — a pedal that I like a lot, but one that can be a little fiddlier to dial in with some shoes, due to its slightly more concave profile and fairly aggressive traction pins. On other shoes, I’ve often had to shim the cleats up a bit to get the X2s to interface with the outsole cleanly, but had no such issues with the AM903.
The cleat slot on the AM903 is about average in terms of length and positioning for a DH-oriented shoe, which is to say, a bit more rearward than more XC-focused options, but it’s shorter and farther forward than a few of the super-rearward new shoes that have started popping up recently (the Endura MT500 Burner and Ride Concepts Tallac being by far the biggest outliers that I’ve tried to date). I’m pretty happy with my cleats positioned all the way back on the AM903, but I think the overall range would be more useable for this style of shoe if it went a bit farther back.
One of the things that I’ve long appreciated about the AM9 series is their velcro lace cover, which does a really good job of keeping dirt and water from getting into the shoe through or around the tongue, while still offering a bit of breathability. The AM903s are certainly far from waterproof, but the level of water resistance that they offer is great for a lot of days in western Washington where it’s either drizzling lightly but not really raining all that hard, and/or the skies are clear but there are some lingering puddles dotting the trails. The tradeoff is that breathability is only okay, but it’s by no means out of the ordinary for this sort of gravity-oriented, more protective shoe; lighter, more XC-focused models are definitely much cooler in general.
Off the Bike
Hiking is rarely a strong point of clipless bike shoes and the AM903 is essentially fine, but not outstanding on that front. I haven’t had much trouble with heel lift, and the portion of the sole forward of the cleat slot softens up significantly to help the shoe bend with your foot, but the stiffer portion of the midsole is still a hindrance there (per usual in clipless shoes) and grip from the outsole is only okay. The tread around the cleat slot also feels very slightly shallower than some other shoes I’ve used recently (the Ride Concepts Tallac, in particular), which can feel a little sketchy on big off-camber rock slabs and the like, when the cleat hits the rock and stops the rubber around it from sinking in and gripping.
None of that stuff is out of the ordinary for this sort of shoe, and given the AM903’s on-bike performance, I’m really not complaining — it’s not a shoe that’s designed with a ton of hiking in mind, and the sorts of changes that would make it nicer to walk in would almost certainly detract from how it works in its primary role as, well, a bike shoe. Just be honest in your assessment of what sort of shoe is really the best fit for your needs.
I’ve worn the AM903s a whole lot over the last four months, and they still look and feel pretty much new, apart from being a bit dirty, and two small spots where the forward traction pins on the HT X2 pedals have chewed the tread up a bit (as they have on every pair of shoes I’ve ever tried them with). Between that and how well my trusty old AM901s have held up to years and years of regular use, I’ve got very high hopes for how the new AM903 will fare on that front, but I’ll report back if anything crops up as I spend more time in them.
The Shimano AM903 is a super well-built shoe that’s marketed for Gravity use but is totally appropriate for all-day Trail rides, too. They offer very good protection in a comparatively lightweight package; their sole stiffness hits a great middle ground between being supportive while still having a bit of give; the speed lace system works great; and the fit (at least on my feet) is excellent. Their looks are arguably a bit goofy (though the black version is a lot more subtle than my blue ones), but if you’re willing to look past that or happen to like the aesthetic, they’re excellent.