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In-Depth Shoe Review of La Sportiva’s Theory, The Olympian

La Sportiva's Theory is one of the brand's three Olympic-level climbing shoes. It's the world's softest and most aggressive slab shoe

Photo by: Pia Graham

Modern bouldering shoes tend to blend together. A downturned shape pulls back from the big toe, while the last cranks the foot into a state of pseudo-asymmetry that makes heel hooking a breeze, at least by comparison to sport climbing shoes. The rubber is either soft or it’s hard, the midsole is either a medium stiffness, or non-existent, and all together, the newest model of one company is alike to another. Tensioning bands are tensioning bands, is there still progress to be made in aggressive shoes?

A Bicycle – photo by Pia Graham

According to La Sportiva, yes. The La Sportiva Theory joins the Solution Competition and the Cobra 4:99 as one the brand’s competition focused climbing shoes. While the Cobra and Solution are intended to service Speed Climbing and Lead Climbing respectively, the Theory is designed to boulder hard on whatever the Olympic routesetters are able to throw at them. It’s an indoor climbing shoe, but that is not all it’s.

The variable thickness of the sole is 4 millimetres at its thickest, thinning to around 1.9 millimetres at its softest: somewhere behind the hook of the big toe. This thinner portion extends back to the ball of the foot creating a hook between the tip of the shoe and the furthest extent of the ball making for ease of use on any sort of nob or protruding foot hold. Within the context of indoor climbing, it’s important to remember that every foothold is a nob sticking out of the wall, unless it’s a hyper-flush paste or smear on a pancake or some volume.

Though it undoubtedly succeeds on footholds, it’s difficult to make a point of this as most any competition climber is not going to have difficulty using relatively positive foot holds. Where the Theory shines is on the high-taper climbing holds and low-angle volumes that have come to define our sport.

Upon purchasing the Theory, the climber will notice a few things. For one, it’s weird looking. It’s cool, for sure, the black-dominated designed is sleek with shots of colour down the spine and detailing of the shoe, but the hybrid-sole creates a unique profile, while the exceedingly hooked toe protrudes at least half a centimetre from the end of the toe.

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There is a reason for this protrusion. This little bit of distance is formed in such a way that it becomes easy for a climber to stick their foot on holds, especially when they are swinging around in an overhang. The high-tension of the shoe works with the downturn to latch onto literally nothing. It’s the best smearing shoe our editor has ever used inside. What is the point of this? Well, in the large shapes of modern competition climbing, almost everything is a smear. Whether you are walking on volumes, climbing on slab, or swinging your foot over to a faraway chip, you need your shoe to grab onto any friction-giving material the routesetter leaves you.

The supple design allows for the foot to hug onto the various shapes that define indoor climbing while the high tension gives the climber something to push against as they become further extended form their feet. To that effect, the hybrid sole of the Theory allows for a lateral softness following the crook of the big toe. This creates a little pocket along the edge of the shoe, just before the no-edge, giving the climber space to twist further and further away from the foot-hold all while maintaining the same contact patch of rubber to hold.

This is significant as it’s common for the large shapes of competition climbing to require a squeezing form of foot work, either between two holds or between one hold and a flag. This hook at the end of the toe allows a climber to twist over their hip and hang off of the hold as opposed to having to core up super hard to keep the placement.

Theory by the wall – photo by Noah Walker

This might appear like super specific footwork, but most climbers do this any time they are climbing in an overhang while try to keep their feet low. To that effect, the more downturned the shoe, the less core a climber has to use to keep their foot on in an increasingly overhung angle. Though everyone’s core should be strong anyway, a climbing shoe that does the work for you is preferable in competition.

All of this is well and good, but how does this shoe perform on slab if it’s so soft? Competition climbing is just as much slab as it’s overhang so a shoe that only does one of these two things is not really all that useful. This is where the Theory shines. It’s the best slab climbing shoe for indoor competition.

At first this does not make sense. Conventionally, slab climbing shoes are stiff, allowing the climber to push against the construction of the shoe to progress of the wall. The Theory modifies this concept and instead asks the climber to stand against the tension of the foot. This does mean that the climber needs to get the shoe in a tight size for the greatest performance, but the leather insole of the shoe allows enough stretch that this is worth it anyway. In fact, the way the leather is paired with the synthetic material is interesting.

Quickly digressing, the leather wraps from the heel of the shoe, along the bottom of the foot and sutures to the synthetic upper just above the knuckle of the big toe. That means that there is leather everywhere there is high tension on the foot. Unlike the all-leather construction of the Python, the synthetic upper keeps the stretch in check, ensuring that the shoe does not become baggy 20 sessions in. This stitching is beautiful and worth looking at if you do pick up a pair.

In any case, returning to slab, the Theory is without a midsole for the foot to stand against, and, as such, need something else for the shoe to be able to hunker down on small slabby feet. The Theory sports a D-Tech band the runs along the front edge of the shoe, sucking the toes back toward the heel. As such, when a climber pushes into a foot-hold, the P-3 band of the downturn’s tensioning system stretches and pulls the toes to the front of the shoe, while the D-Tech band pulls the toes to the heel of the shoe, and a midsole made entirely of tension appears to be made.

The downside of this design is that it places your foot under some stress, but if you are used to soft shoes, it will not feel any different than wearing any other soft design on slab. The difference will simply be in the performance. The Five Ten Team, for example, cannot handle slab climbing because the shoe deforms too much under the high foot-pressure of slab. The Theory is bound so tightly that deformation cannot occur. Add to this the 4 millimetres of edge, and the sole itself resists deformation even for a larger climber.

The ability to have a soft shoe as well as a slab climbing shoe in a single package cannot be overstated as modern competition climbing often features both overhangs and slabs in the same climb. Volumes are a great reason for this as’ they can modify a feature into whatever the routesetter desires.

With all of this said, we return to the more conventional aspects of the shoe. For example, it’s running Vibram’s XS Grip 2 rubber, a tried and true classic that feels stickier on the Theory due to its aggressive downturn.

Extended – photo by Pia Graham

The heel of the shoe locks the climber in with a durable single strap. The heel itself is actually one of the best parts of the shoe because it marries the stiffness of the Solution heel with the precision of the Futura heel. To that effect, it’s stickier than the solution heel and fits narrowly. Furthermore, though we tested the high-volume model, a lower volume model also exists. Though the coloured rubber might look like rand, it’s actually very sticky and does not slide on urethane.

The toe-patch has gone in the favour of friction over construction. As such, the rubber will latch easily to whatever feature you are placing it on, but it will not do the work for you. It’s excellent at heel-hook to toe-hook conversions, but it’s weaker than the knuckle-box-baring Solution on jugs. With that said, it’s stronger than the Solution on jams and cams in overhangs.

As a board climbing shoe, it’s good. The high tension really helps with the overhang while the slabbier components of the shoe help it get up on the kickboard. It’s an edging monster.

The greatest problem with the shoe is that the heel tabs are a little uncomfortable out of the box, but these break in. In that vein, give the shoe a few sessions to break in. Unlike the Evolv Phantom, this shoe is leather through the insole and is therefore designed to crush after a few sessions. Though it will work well from the onset, it’s unreasonable to expect it be on its best behaviour out-of-the-box.

For outdoor climbing, this shoe is fantastic depending on what you are working on. If you are climbing on thin little edges, get a different shoe. If you are climbing on foot holds, this thing will dominate. If you are setting high-tension heel hooks, break out the Theory. If you are sitting on your heel, the high-tension platform will ensure that your foot doesn’t “walk.”

Overall, this shoe is a excellent addition to any climber’s arsenal. Its high-performance design is transferable between styles and disciplines, while the sleek look of its exterior will have the climber psyched to move each and every time the place it on their foot.

Footwork – photo by Pia Graham

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Lead photo: Pia Graham