The idea for Bontrager to expand into "on-body" gear ultimately grew out of the end of the relationship between Trek and Nike which dated back nearly a decade. As a part of the "Best in Class" initiative Trek did not want to just replace Nike, but wanted to improve upon what they learned and deliver truly different products. They hired away a footwear designer from Adidas, Chris Funk - and the current model shoes are a great start. You may have seen some photos on a variety of websites of prototypes that Travis Brown has been testing. The photos seemed to be pretty late-in-development test samples, because they looked a lot like the nearly-finished shoes I saw at the show.
So what's different? Well, you'll have to try them on to really understand. They're noticeably different once you get them on your feet - very light and very stiff. Not uncomfortably stiff - but supportively stiff. The uppers are very light, minimalist, but durable mesh and synthetic leather which feels pretty weird at first because they've forgone a lot of the padding that you'll see in an upper merely for comfort. The mesh and synthetics are soft enough that the shoe conforms well to your foot and is quite comfortable; but takes some getting used to when compared to shoes with more padding.
The construction of the upper is ultimately designed to fit a variety of foot widths without having to have multiple shoe widths available. The footwear industry calls it 'derby' construction (you may be familiar with it from some Pearl Izumi running shoes) and it uses a flexible mesh tongue which extends nearly to the toe and allows the shoe to easily be adjusted to accommodate different foot types. Good idea - we'll see how well it works in the real world. Trek does a good job of testing and evaluation - but you just can't be everything to everyone.
The other big difference is the new, included eSoles custom insole. Much like Specialized's Body Geometry footbeds, this is designed to offer cycling-specific arch support and stabilization which will accommodate different arch types. This, again, feels very different from what you are used to. The footbed is very stiff - but in a supportive fashion and not to an uncomfortable degree. Aftermarket availability for the footbeds is still being worked out. They're quite likely to be available through eSoles; but hopefully through Trek too. The footbed is a $70 retail value - so considering it comes in all the Bontrager shoes, they're packing a lot into these shoes for what they're asking. The pricing is very competitive, and in the case of the Race Lite and Race X Lite shoes; which both get full carbon fiber soles - it is clear than Bontrager has taken direct aim at major shoe players Specialized and Shimano.
There will also be a full clothing line headlined by the Race X Lite level (of course) which will feature a really nice short sleeved road jersey and a great new bib short (and regular short) with a different take on the chamois. Basically, they've flipped it upside down - so it still has all the contouring of other high-end shorts to get you the padding you need where you need it - but without it right next to your skin where it can cause irritation. Instead, the top layer is smooth for a better feel. Good idea. I can't wait to try them out.
In other news, The Aeolus ACC is back (see here for background) with a redesign. The Race X Lite Aero wheels are gone (much to my chagrin). There is a new aluminum version of the clip-on aerobar at the Race Lite level (very nice). Lots of new MTB wheels - including carbon rim wheels. And new graphics and colors for a lot of the stems, seatposts and handlebars - namely silver and white. Ultimately, it all looks great. Many accessories which have appeared with the Trek name on them will also get redesigned and re-badged. Bags were the most recent - and they look great with some nice, thoughtful touches.
Bontrager has definitely grown into a brand you can use with or without a Trek bike. All good stuff for '09.