Matthew Ralph has created functional masterpieces for celebrities, pro cyclists, and many people in between, including his virtual cycling friends.
I estimate that I spent a few hundred bucks a gram. That’s when I knew I hit rock bottom. The flawed logic that I could solve my problem by throwing money at it had become a ‘problem.’
A flatlander with the body of a billy goat, I was forced to travel to faraway lands in search of racecourses that suited me. Each year the gap between myself and the top of the ‘big climb’ grew larger, selecting me off the back. The diet option was no longer a healthy and sustainable one. In my eyes, there was only one choice.
With every lightweight component purchase, the weight of my rig decreased in drastically skewed proportion to my wallet. Frustrated, slow, and broke is not the secret to Cat 4/5 Masters road race success. Nor is it a formula for marital bliss.
Things changed when I transitioned to become an Indoor Specialist. Once I made the initial financial commitment, there were few places to throw money I didn’t have. I solved one problem, according to Mrs. S., but one large one remained.
I isolated myself in my basement Gain Cave without the laws of physics to soothe my w/kg woes. Still questioning my abilities while I watched the back of my avatar foes ride away. I turned to the thing that always seemed to help. I needed some retail therapy.
What does the virtual cyclist that has everything need? A pair of custom-painted cycling shoes, of course! Judging from the response I received to this recent post on Cycling-Specific Shoe Inserts featuring pictures of my customs, I’m not the only one.
Introduction to a True Folk Artist
I first found out about Matthew Ralph and From the Feet Up Customs several years ago from a teammate. Jason Stern, an avid virtual cyclist and co-founder of Team DIRT, was given a pair as a gift from the guys on Saris (as everyone knew the team then). I was blown away. Sterny’s shoes were the coolest thing. I never dreamed I would own a pair. Too expensive, impractical, out of my league were my thoughts. I was wrong.
How Matthew Got Started Painting Customs
Matthew Ralph first had the idea in 2018. He doesn’t consider himself an artist and lacks any formal background in art. Matthew recalls how he got started, “I had seen a cycling shoe customizer pop up on my Facebook feed and thought, I could do that.”
His first creation was a pair of Nike Air Max 90 sneakers in the Louis Vuitton colorway. He gave them to his sister for Christmas. “They turned out so well I wanted to do more,” Matthew states, “but I didn’t have an endless supply of sneakers.”
Modest Beginning Painting for Zwift Mates
So he approached the guys he knew had shoes to paint – his Zwift team cycling buddies. Matthew got onboard with Zwift early on and remembered: “the only course being Watopia Hilly Forward and the first organized races being meet at the start line, and we will set off on the world clock at 6 pm.”
The first pair he painted for someone other than himself was for a Team TFC mate. “I put out a post on our Facebook page saying, if you cover the cost of postage and materials, I will paint your shoes for free,” Matthew describes his modest start.
Matthew Credits a Virtual Cycling Pro With His Success
“I can 100% assure you that if it were not for his faith in me, I would not be customizing shoes now,” Matthew graciously recalls. Matt Gardiner of Indoor Specialist that became Saris and the Pro’s Closet (as racers knew the team then) and now Saris-NoPinz answered Matthews’s post on the Zwift Riders group page.
Gardiner humbled Matthew, who stated, “I have seen enough of your work to know that you deserve payment for your efforts.” Matthew painted a pair of donut shoes for Gardiner that he calls “the first pair of shoes that got me noticed.”
Celebrities Began to Take Notice
It was late at night around Christmas time in 2020 when Matthew noticed an Instagram message pop up from @followgustavo. He was going to disregard it until the morning but noticed that the request had 500 thousand followers. Gustavo Menezes is a Brazilian-American racecar driver and winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2016.
Matthew recalls saying to Gustavo, “I will customize your shoes for free if you send me some cool stuff.” The offer paid off with some cherished merchandise and an invaluable introduction. You see, Gustavo and Michael Matthews are friends.
Several Pairs of Customs Are on the Feet of Famous Pros
“The first pair I painted for Matthew was the first for a rider in the pro peloton,” Matthew remembers why they are special to him. Also noteworthy is that Michael Matthews is the first rider that Matthew was a fan of, finding his “bling” and tattoos interesting. “It stuck with me, so doing a pair of shoes for him eight years later was great!”
Matthew has painted two pairs for Michael. “The first pair he wore for the Tour of Flanders 2021 and proceeded to destroy them as he hit the deck three times. The second pair he saved for La Vuelta,” Matthew remarks proudly.
Michael Matthews Has a Few Pairs
Micheal gave Matthew free reign of design as long as they matched his team kit and bike. “The Flanders pair were a thing of beauty and personally one of my favorite creations to date,” states Matthew, continuing, “the design was intricate, and they took me about 15 hours to complete.”
It took Michael only one race to destroy them.
So Does Christina Burch
The first professional cyclist Matthew painted a pair of customs for was Christina Burch of the USA track team. Matthew approached her with the offer. “She agreed to it and wanted a pair of space-themed shoes for a gravel race,” Matthew recalls her answer.
The Four P’s of Shoe Customization
The factory finish is removed from the shoe (usually with acetone on a makeup remover pad), which allows the paint to bond to the shoe’s surface. However, some shoes need a primer applied which creates a bond between the uppers and the paint. The preparation is by far the most tedious part of any customization, and you have to tell yourself not to skimp in this area because if you do, the paint won’t last.
90% of my work is done with an airbrush because I prefer the smooth finish it gives. I want my work to look as close to a factory finish as possible. Spray work does require more preparation as I need to mask off the areas because I don’t want to be sprayed with painter’s tape. However, I feel it is worth the extra effort.
A finisher needs to be applied to the shoe to help protect the paint in all weather conditions and make it last as long as possible. If I do a poor preparation job, however, the finisher isn’t going to save the day. It is a step-by-step process.
There is an unofficial 4th P, according to Matthew.
I aim to make every custom better than the last. I want to improve each time, and after 2.5 years, I like to think I have the process nailed. Sneaker customization is a multi-billion dollar business. There are always new products coming onto the market that transfer across to cycling shoe customization to improve the look and finish of the shoes. My most important tool is a vinyl cutter, which allows me to create perfect stencils for airbrushing. I would be lost without it.
His Favorite Pair of All-Time
Matthew has refined his process and estimates that he averages about a pair per week. Matthew’s favorite of the 100 or so pairs he has painted is a pair of Velokicks that Mapei commissioned him to create.
“They were 22 hours plus work, and I got my price completely wrong”, Matthew admits sheepishly. “But the pain was worth it in the end because they turned out great!”
Vision For the Future
Matthew loves creating customs and sharing his art with fellow cyclists. “If I could take this full-time, that would be great,” he admits “it is a nice side hobby that gives me extra money for holidays and bike stuff.”
Matthew fears that if it became a 9 to 5, he would lose the enjoyment because “painting shoes is a place to escape from the real world for a while.” If his side hustle was to get real, he envisions branding his creative talent and branching out.
If the next 12 months are anything like the last, Matthew may need to re-evaluate his plan. “But for now,” Matthew resigns, “I will just let it keep growing organically. It seems to works so far.”
Conclusion - The Thing That Sets Matthew Apart From the Rest
Matthew’s answer to this question was interesting and honest from his perspective. “You can come to me for almost anything, and if I can’t create your exact vision, I will create something very close to it,” was his modest reply. From the perspective of a client, however, it lacks the true essence of his brilliance.
The talent and creativity that Matthew possesses are undeniable. It is the things he does that he doesn’t have to that set him apart. My shoe customization experience was a highlight. I enjoyed every second of it. I’m not sure that can be said for all shoe customizing encounters.
I felt as if I was part of his team. We collaborated on ideas, and he translated my fragmented mental images into something tangible. He made what I had a hard time saying look easy. It was fun witnessing it take shape and become more than I had hoped.
Matthew has a gift. What’s more, he gets it! The virtual cycling community is full of exceptional and unique individuals that selflessly work together to enhance the experience. Matthew is one of those ‘colorful’ extraordinary ordinary people.
I’m still frustrated and slow, but I have the coolest kicks in the Gain Cave, thanks to Matthew and From the Feet Up Customs!
What about you?
Are you going to pull the trigger on your own pair of one-of-a-kind customs? What design ideas do you have? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
For more great stories highlighting the extraordinary ordinary members of the virtual cycling community, check out the Community Page on The ZOM!
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!