Photo: Ben Herndon/TandemStock

Cycling Shoes Guide

A shoe that fits you well will have you enjoying yourself mile after mile

The world of road cycling can be intimidating, often unnecessarily so, as enthusiasts can go on about the number of teeth, the weight in ounces, the style of bars. For someone new to the sport, technical details can quickly overwhelm. Don’t get discouraged in your attempt to pursue the simple act of exploring your area in a new way, moving quickly under your own power, and getting a great workout without much impact on your joints. 

Let’s start the simplification of road cycling with shoes: These are what attach you to the bike. Cleats on the sole clip into pedals to create a mechanical connection between foot and bike. The pedal-shoe connection allows you to exert power on the down pedal stroke as well as the up pedal stroke. A shoe that fits you well, and that serves your needs at a price you can afford, will have you enjoying yourself mile after mile. Here’s how to find the right road bike shoes.

First, Ask These Questions

Before you buy a pair of road biking shoes, try to determine how much you want to put in and get out of them. 

How much money am I willing to spend?

This big one will help you select everything from shoe materials and overall weight to how you tighten them on your feet. Knowing your budget will also keep you in check as cycling apparel can quickly become expensive.

How will you use your shoes? 

If you’re new to the sport, you’ll likely favor comfort and ease of use. If you’re ready to up your game, look for something more race inspired. Don’t forget usage off your bike, too. Factor if you will walk much on the journey (see: gravel/trails) or at your destination.

What is my weather?

Know what the road will look like when you’re on it. Riding in cold, wet weather requires different materials than sunny summer days.

Do I want comfort or speed?

Many shoes lie somewhere between the compromise of speed and comfort. Know what you value before you buy. A casual rider just looking to be a bit more efficient will be ill-served by an ultra-lean, unpadded, lightweight and stiff race shoe.

Type of Shoe

The right type of road biking shoe depends on the type of riding you do—and the type of rider you are.

Casual 

An increasingly popular choice for riders who want to use their bike to commute or run around town for errands. These bike shoes clip in, but have a more casual look that allows you to walk around without people knowing they're riding shoes. Though resembling normal shoes or sneakers, they still have a concealed sole cleat that connects to your pedals. For folks looking to improve in the sport and move quickly these will be too casual of an option.

Traditional  

The sweet spot for most road riders. Streamlined and great for a variety of uses, these shoes balance comfort and speed while shaping well to the foot. The trade-off is they often lack great traction—you’ll only want to walk on the cleat and heel in short stretches, like into a café, but certainly not on a full grocery store run.

Race 

Super stiff, super light, and super expensive. Road cycling race shoes are best only for the most enthusiastic cyclists who don't mind a bit of discomfort in pursuit of speed—and who have the money to make a purchase that makes no compromises. Supremely uncomfortable off the bike, you’ll be lucky to walk for a cup of coffee in them.

Gravel

Great for riders who are taking their bike on off-road and dirt road rides in addition to rolling across smooth asphalt. These shoes often have a lugged sole for a bit more traction but still maintain a road bike silhouette for fast pedaling. Some riders prefer this shoe type as it’s often softer, more comfortable, and easier to walk in—though they might look out of place on a sleek aero road bike.

Specialty

Usually necessary if you're doing cycling-specific events like a triathlon or a time trial. Buy these only for their intended event; otherwise they’re likely to be uncomfortable and perform poorly.

Photo: ssuaphotos/Shutterstock

Cleat System Considerations

Road bike cleats, which attach your shoe to your pedal, come in two main styles. Make sure you get a shoe that is compatible with your pedals. 

Three-hole cleat

The most common cleat for road biking is the three-hole cleat. This looks like a large plastic triangle coming off the bottom of the shoe. These give you a strong connection to your bike that distributes pressure across the pedal. The large size of the cleat makes it more difficult to walk, though. Plus, if you frequently ride through mud or dirt they are liable to clog, making it harder to get the shoe and pedal to connect. 

Two-hole cleat

A two-hole cleat is less common for road shoes. These have a smaller metal cleat that can be set inside the sole, which makes it easier to surround with rubber on more comfortable, walkable shoes (why you often see a two-hole system in more casual shoes). They are also popular for mountain biking and gravel riding as they are easier for walking the trail, simpler to unclip, and harder to clog. However, these pedals are not as great for distributing your pedal stroke across your shoe and pedal. 

Outsole

The outsole, or what is under your foot on the exterior of the shoe, is often fairly minimal. Road shoes, by design, are purpose-built for riding a bike rather than walking. So, many road biking shoes will be nearly flat with an outsole made of plastic or some other material that’s hard to walk in. The large three-hole cleat at the front of many shoes makes it even tougher, though some shoes will add two small rubber lugs on the heel to make the shoe flatter, and a bit more comfortable, for walking. 

If you need to walk in comfort, consider a robust road bike shoe outsole that’s more typical on recreational or off-road riding shoes with a two-hole cleat system. Many road cyclists pass on these more treaded shoes in order to cut weight on the bicycle, judging the discomfort of minutes spent walking as worth the gains of hours spent pedaling in a lighter shoe.

Closure System

When it comes to securing your cycling shoe, be certain that it fits your foot well, locking you in place without creating hotspots that can lead to blisters. There are a few systems to choose from, with some models using a combination of these technologies.

Laces

The classic (and least expensive) way to secure your shoe. The many eyelets also allow you to tighten parts of your shoe more than others to provide an individualized fit. Some road riders don't like the idea of loose laces becoming stuck in a bike’s fast-moving drivetrain—or that laces become difficult to untie if weather conditions sour.

Hook and loop (or Velcro)

This system has also been time-tested and can also, depending on the number of straps, provide a customized fit. It works extremely well in wet conditions and is durable, easy to adjust on the fly, and fast, though there are limits to how tight you can pull the straps. You'll need to be careful around your expensive cycling gear as the hooks have the potential to stick and cause a tear or broken stitch.

Ratchet

Some high-end cycling shoes use a small plastic ratchet, much like you’d find on a ski or snowboard boot, to get them seriously tight. They're great for a supremely secure and customized fit, but these systems can be expensive. 

Dials 

Dial systems like Boa’s use a plastic, ratcheting dial connected to a line that wraps around the shoe. Twisting the dial tightens the filament that runs through the shoe and pulls the upper securely down on your foot. Favored in the road cycling community, this system is fast, streamlined and effective at getting a tight fit, though they cost more than a standard closure system.

Final Key Factors

Waterproofness 

Most road shoes prioritize weight and breathability. Because of this, the uppers on your shoe will be made of lightweight breathable materials like vented plastic, leather, and composites. On a long road ride, your foot is likely to get hot. To avoid having your sweat accumulate within the shoe, most road shoes promote ventilation rather than waterproofing. If you are someone who loves to ride on the nasty days, consider an over-the-shoe cover.

Weight

The weight of your shoes will likely have the greatest correlation with the cost of your shoe. Road cyclists can obsess about trimming weight—lighter gear often requires more expensive materials like Kevlar and carbon fiber. If you are new to cycling, however, you can trim on cost with slightly heavier materials—you likely won't notice the nominal differences in the weight. Most affordable road biking shoes are plenty light enough to get the job done; spend money to cut those ounces when you get deeper into the sport.

Stiffness

The stiffer the sole, the better at transferring power from your pedal stroke into forward momentum and speed. Rather than the push and pull of your legs flexing your shoe, all of that energy makes it into the pedal. That stiffness is often achieved by the shoe’s shank, which lives between the outsole and the insole to provide rigidity and structure.

The lighter and stiffer the shank (often made of nylon, composite plastics or even carbon fiber), the higher the performance and higher the cost. While you do want a stiff shoe, more affordable options will often still provide plenty of stiffness for new cyclists, and a touch more comfort. If you want comfort over efficient stiffness, look for more casual cycling shoes which are better for walking and offer some flex. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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