'Matter'

Matter: Horst Cross Spikes

The devil is in the details, not least in cyclocross. In a discipline that offers endless opportunities to learn and progress, there are three distinct dimensions any aspiring racer must strive to master: bike handling/skills/race craft, training, and material (equipment and kit). Each dimension presents its own progression curve, depending on what each individual brings to the discipline in terms of experience, talent, and means.

On the material side, there are countless adaptations rider must make to kit and bike, with outcomes ranging from enabling peak performance to simply making finishing a given race possible. When conditions get epic, we often find ourselves wishing for something utterly simple, basic, fundamental: to keep moving forward. When we find ourselves off the bike, hoofing it, having or not having toe spikes in our shoes can make the difference between scaling a muddy wall or floundering, losing hope with each foot-plant that fails to find traction. And sometimes having the right toe spikes can make the difference between nailing it and falling flat, literally.

Tested: Horst Engineering Pro Kit – $90.99 USD

This isn’t a flashy, sexy, buzz-creating niche in the bike business: shoe spikes. This is the space occupied by unsung heros, folks who care about the details, the unseen, the matter: Horst Engineering. Horst manufactures the spikes sought out by riders in the know, from amateur to pro, because their attention to detail is unsurpassed, their passion shines through their product, and, well, they get it. This comes across in their Instagram posts, which cover a broad variety of the manufacturing the Horst folks do in their Connecticut machine shop for a variety of industries. As someone who appreciates industrial design and skilled manufacturing, I find their feed impressive and interesting.

Horst’s high-precision standards permeate everything they make, so their patented Cross Spikes™ are made from either aerospace grade stainless steel (tested) or titanium, with rolled threads. A video on their feed captures the process of hand-feeding each stud into the roller; not everything is automated these days!

We get a lot of questions about how we make #crossspikes and are happy to share our passion for #manufacturing The rains have finally come, so this morning we were making more Long’s on one of our 18 Citizen CINCOM CNC Swiss Screw Machines. That’s the sister company to @citizenwatchus The renowned Japanese watchmaker adapted Swiss machine tool technology in the 1930’s to build their own watch parts, and are now the world leaders in producing this type of equipment, also used for the #aerospace #medical #automotive AND #bicycle industries. After cleaning and tumbling, these toe spike blanks will go to roll threading. We might catch up to them later… #horstspikes #cyclocross #lifedeathcyclocross #precisionmachining #machining #instamachinist #cncmachining #horstengineering #madeinconnecticut #madeinnewengland #madeinusa 🇺🇸

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Did you notice he mentions Canadian Championships being very muddy? They were, big time. The fact that these folks know this speaks to their passion for the sport and the degree to which they are tuned in.

You’d probably guess that one or two machines make cross spikes, robotically. Well, some of the process is automated, but thread rolling is not. Anyone who’s ever used a thread roller will know that the machines are quite nuanced, and required well-honed technique to use properly. There’s a lot of feel that goes into this work. I love that Horst provides a window into their manufacturing processes, all of which are underpinned by skilled labour.

Having only ever used stock spikes included with various pairs of shoes I’ve owned, from Shimano to Specialized and Giro, I knew I was missing out on what Horst had to offer in terms of specificity, detail. When ground is frozen, for example, I’ve never had spikes that work. Horst has spikes for that.

When a course mixes paved running and greasy run-ups I’ve never had spikes that were the right depth; Horst has spikes for that.

I’ve also never been able to run different spikes on two pairs of shoes and make the best choice after course inspection. Horst has spikes for that, subtly different depths and profiles to tune in for course conditions.

Is everybody going to care about splitting hairs this way? No. Do I? Yes, obviously.

Horst was kind enough to send me a kit of their spikes for testing. The nice thing here, a rare case, is that threads in cycling shoes for spikes are standard. Phewf, right?! Imagine they were like bottom brackets? Horst spiked will fit into your shoes, whatever they are, and they come in six options: two lengths for ice, the rest for not-ice. Each shoe will have its own geometry, making shorter spikes more manageable on hard surfaces on some shoes than others.

I anticipated two, maybe three sets of studs, covering a broad range of conditions, so was surprised and impressed to unbox a well thought-out kit that included not just 4 sets of spikes but a specific installation tool, thread-lock, and stickers, all in a perfect case. This package reinforced my impression that the Horst folks get it: riders need a spectrum of spikes they can easily access and swap while at the races, ready to go out of the box. Nice.

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By the time I received the spikes it was early November, with three races left. North Gower came first, a dry affair with just a short run on grass, so I opted to go without spikes.

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North Gower, a fast course with lots of momentum. Photo: Mike Downey

Two races, remained: Perth and Almonte. Unfortunately, Perth was cancelled due to freezing rain, leaving Almonte as my remaining opportunity to test the spikes.

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Well below freezing overnight and snow on the ground, I chose two spike options to cover my bases. If the ground was still frozen by the time we raced around 12:30, I’d use the pointy ones. If it was thawing, I’d go for the blunt, medium-length studs, which would give me a little extra volume to push against.

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Photo: Mike Downey

It ended up being a muddy gong-show in Almonte, the kind where bike changes are a must if you want to avoid stopping to remove mud from your frame every lap. I was able to ride the steepest climb in the woods, but it was too slow getting going after running over the barrier at the bottom, so I hoofed it. Traction was 100%, flawless. Since I’d installed the spikes with threadlock, I wasn’t concerned about losing one, and didn’t.

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Coming out of that race, it was evident which details really mattered. I’d nailed it with my shoe set-up, including waterproof socks that allowed me to run through a boggy section each lap without freezing. My bikes were less dialled, for different reasons: detail devilry. My 55mm deep rims collected more freezing mud than my 45s (duh…oops), and my rear mechanical brake cable froze. I was able to secure third, but the race was far more about maintaining forward momentum than shredding at speed.

Cyclocross is a discipline of detail, refining, honing, and perhaps. . . mastery. On the quest toward realizing that ‘perfect’ race, we all find our way to certain details, on our own time, when we’re ready. Not everyone is ready to care about which spikes are in their shoes, or whether they have spikes at all. Perhaps that day will come, perhaps it won’t. For those who are ready, Horst stands ready to proffer refined spikes, manufactured to high tolerances, driven by passion.

There’s no substitute for the confidence of being prepared for the rigours of cyclocross racing as we stand on the line, awaiting the signal to unleash our aspirations in a melee of bodies, bikes, mud and sand. If you’re there, ready to dial your shoe game in, Horst has you covered. If you’re not yet there, that’s ok, Horst will still be doing their thing when you are. They’re in this for the love of the sport, not a quick buck.

Lake Cycling's MX331 cyclocross shoe. © Cyclocross Magazine
Lake Cycling’s MX331 cyclocross shoe. © Cyclocross Magazine

What’s next? While Horst offers what I can only consider a ‘perfect’ solution for existing shoe designs (Matter Rating: 10/10), I think there’s progress to me made system-wise. For courses featuring off-camber running, shoes with ‘rails’ along their side-edges (similar to the metal ones on the toes of the Lakes above) could make the difference between falling and a shot at the podium. Lake has produced a shoe that takes us a step closer to this design, but only partway.

Modular tread designs tend to add weight to shoes, but are otherwise great for tuning shoe-pedal interfaces, and extending the life of each pair, so I hope others – especially Giro – will take up the challenge and offer an option that affords riders the ability to mount ‘paddles’ on their shoes for those ‘special days.’ Assuming standard threads were used, I could see Horst getting into the game and offering great options. Time will tell!

You can check out all Horst’s cross spikes here.

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