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BWCC: Cycling Shoes 101

Cycling Shoes

Many new cyclists have questions about bike shoes: What is the point? What advantages do they provide? How can they be so stinking expensive? This article will answer all of these questions and more.

First off, let's describe what makes a cylcing show a cycling shoe. In general, what sets a cycling shoe apart from a regular shoe is its stiff sole, which increases comfort and efficiency when pedaling. This distributes the pressure of the pedal more evenly across the bottom of your foot. Generally, the stiffer the sole of a cycling shoe, the more efficient it is. Additionally, most cycling shoes allow you to use cleats that secure your feet to the pedals.

Bike shoes also generally use Velcro or buckle closures, as laces have the propensity to get caught in the gears while riding (not a fun prospect). However, some cycling shoes do use laces for maximum comfort and adjustability of fit.

Clipless shoes

Some cycling shoes have a standard rubber sole and rely on stiffness and other design features to be more comfortable and efficient, but most cycling shoes are "clipless." This means that they attach to specialized pedals on the bicycle by way of a cleat, which allows greater efficiency and power since the rider's shoes stay firmly in place and do not slide off the pedals (and yes ... 'clipless' is a confusing moniker).

One warning: while clipless shoes do provide a smoother, more powerful ride, there is a definite learning curve. Clipless shoes attach directly to the bicycle, and in order to disengage the locking mechanism, the rider twists the ball of the foot sharply to the side. This motion is unnatural at first, and to avoid the danger of falls should be practiced in a safe environment before embarking on more serious rides.

After a short time this motion becomes easy and natural, and at this point clipless shoes are no more dangerous than any other. The learning curve is the primary reason why clipless shoes are not recommended for novice or young riders.

Clipless MTB shoe sole

Road vs. MTB shoes

Generally, bike shoes are divided into two categories: mountain shoes and road shoes. Mountain bike shoes generally have durable designs, recessed cleats, and lugged rubber soles that provide good traction on steep, muddy terrain. Some mountain bike shoes even allow for screw-in traction spikes for maximum grip. These designs are generally more comfortable for hiking and walking around the trails.

Road bike shoes tend to be lighter and more aerodynamic. They use a stiffer sole material to provide even more efficiency. Most road shoes are not designed for walking and do not have rubberized soles. If you’ve ever heard someone clacking loudly as they walk, it could well be their road cycling shoes -- as opposed to the recessed design of mountain shoes, the cleats of road shoes are larger and more prominent. This provides greater stability and efficiency but makes walking in them uncomfortable, at best.

The last standard difference between road and mountain shoes is the cleat style they use. Most road shoes use a three-screw mount compatible with Look-style cleats and pedals, while mountain bikes typically use SPD-style cleats that mount using two screws. More on that below.

Clipless road shoe sole

Other cycling shoes

There are some specialized models of bike shoes on the market. These include comfortable and versatile models designed for bike touring; triathlon shoes designed for drainage, sockless use, and quick entry and exit; urban cycling shoes that look like regular casual shoes but feature a cleat interface; and insulated shoes for wintertime riding.

If you spend a lot of time riding in the rain or snow, you may want to consider overshoes, also known as shoe covers or booties. These are thin, waterproof coverings for your bike shoes that are sized generously to slide over your shoes and close with a zipper. Most overshoes have a hole on the bottom for the cleats to meet the pedal. Overshoes are not designed for walking, and even a short walk can ruin them by wearing through the thin material of the sole. Take them off when you get off your bike.

Cycling booties

Features and price

In general with bike shoes, as with most bike parts, you get what you pay for. While low-price models are available for as little as $70, these tend to be moderate-performance shoes with basic construction. Luckily, even entry level cycling shoes will feel like a big improvement from cycling in your street shoes.

More expensive and higher performing bike shoes generally use carbon fiber soles, which are lightweight and very stiff. These provide the best power transfer and thus make riding easier and more efficient. High quality shoes also tend to provide a nicer fit, higher durability, better quality of construction, and lighter weight. The top cycling shoes on the market can cost over $400.

Match your shoes with the right cleats and pedals

As mentioned above, there are multiple cleats and pedal interfaces out there. Your shoes will typically allow for the attachment of one style. Some allow for mutliple styles, but it is something you should be aware of when purchasing a new pair of kicks.

There are primarily two styles of cleats out there: 2-hole (usually called 'SPD') and 3-hole (often called 'Look,' 'Time,' or 'SPD-SL'). Most often, MTB shoes and urban shoes use SPD cleats, while road shoes use a 3-hole cleat. These styles are shaped differently and interact with the pedals differently. So you need to make sure that if you get SPD shoes, you also have SPD pedals. These will be listed in the descriptions of cycling shoes, so make sure you pay attention when purchasing. New pedals will usually include compatible cleats.

Bike Pedal Cleats

Cycling Shoe Fit

As with most shoes, cycling shoes should fit snugly but not too tight. A day of riding in too-tight shoes will put you in a bad mood. Most riders size cycling shoes generously so that they can accommodate minor foot swelling that naturally occurs over the course of the day. If you plan to ride in the wintertime, it is also a good idea to size generously to allow for thick socks.

Cycling shoes tend to be somewhat narrow and pointed in the toe to increase their aerodynamic performance. If you have wide feet or find this design uncomfortable, look at some of the wider mountain bike shoe designs. Some cycling shoe manufacturers also feature custom designs for folks with bigger or wider feet.