Why Consider Purchasing Cycling Specific Shoes
High quality shoes and pedals are some of the simplest and most cost effective upgrades you can make to your bike. A stiff and efficient shoe leads to better control and power transfer, meaning the watts of power you are throwing down are directly translated to faster acceleration, better top speed, and less fatigue. If you think this is hyperbole or overhyped marketing speak, try it for yourself. Once you try a pair of cycling shoes, you will never be able to go back, the difference is immediately noticeable. It is well worth the investment. After all, why spend thousands on a bike and then ride with flimsy shoes that don’t let you take full advantage of the bike?
Now that you are convinced as to the merits of cycling shoes, you need to decide what shoes are best for you. Luckily, we’ve got you covered. We have divided the selection criteria into five steps, so read through this guide then check out our specific reviews to decide which shoe is right for you.
1. Determine Your Riding Style
The type of riding you plan to do will dictate the type of shoes you should consider. While there are many different types and styles of riding, there are really three major types of shoes: road, clipless mountain, and flat mountain. Within those three types, there are numerous substrata of more specialized shoes with small but distinct differences. For example, triathlon shoes are essentially road shoes with a different closure system and more breathability. Cyclocross shoes are little more than a standard mountain biking shoe, and an enduro mountain biking shoe features a more flexible sole that is designed to be comfortable to walk in. There are also insulated cycling boots for extremely cold weather riding that allow you to still clip into your pedals.
As the name implies, these shoes are for using on road bikes. They have no lugs on the sole since they are not designed to be walked in more than a very short distance. They do not have a recessed area in the sole for the cleat, and will have different mounting patterns depending on the type of shoe. Road pedals use a wider cleat for a larger base at the critical contact point of the pedals and better power transfer.
Mountain biking shoes are the more all around versatile type of cycling shoe. They feature a lugged bottom for traction while walking hike-a-bike sections of trail, a recessed area in the sole for the cleat, and use the same two bolt mounting pattern regardless of pedal type. Some also have a place for optional mud spikes. There are numerous varieties of mountain biking shoes, but they all share these common features. Some will be better to walk in, while some will be stiffer and therefore more uncomfortable to walk in. Whether riding cross country, racing cyclocross, racing enduro events, even indoor spin classes (spin bikes generally have a two bolt SPD pedal), mountain bike shoes can do them all equally well. You can even use mountain bike shoes on a road bike!
Flat mountain biking shoes are not meant to be ridden with clipless pedals and have no interface with which to attach a cleat. Flat pedals feature serrated teeth to increase friction between the pedal and the rider’s flat shoe to help with foot retention. These shoes are also significantly less stiff and are designed to be walked in. They are often favored by riders that do more aggressive downhill riding or that do not like being clipped into the pedals. Some riders feel that they actually get better foot retention with a flat pedal since their feet do not become unclipped when they least expect it. At the end of the day, it really comes down to personal preference.
2. Choose your pedal interface
The type of pedals you use will determine, to some extent, which shoes you can use. This is because clipless pedals have different cleat mounting patterns. The term “clipless” is a bit of a misnomer, as the shoes actually clip into the pedal, keeping the shoe attached to the pedal. Before the invention of clipless pedals, riders’ feet were attached to the pedal with an actual toe clip—a strap or cage of sorts—that was tightened over the toe box of the shoe. Clipless pedals do away with that strap and were thus called clipless as a matter of differentiation. Road riders nearly always ride with clipless pedals, where mountain bikers ride either clipless or flats, depending on riding style and preference. If you already have your pedals, then check the cleat type and read on. If you haven’t gotten any pedals or are looking to upgrade, then hop on over to some of our pedal reviews to decide which one is right for you.
A Quick Primer on Pedal Types
As mentioned, there are different pedal types, and we will quickly give a run down of the different kinds for those that are unfamiliar. If you already have pedals or know which ones you plan to get, feel free to skip over this section.
Three Bolt Road
Road pedals come in different cleat mounting patterns, either a three bolt or four bolt pattern. Road specific pedals feature a wider platform and larger cleat to give the rider a larger base through which to transfer power to the pedal. Since there is little no walking involved in road rides, re-clipping is not a concern, neither is the ability to shed mud and debris. Thus, with a three bolt clip pattern, the rider can only clip into one side of the pedal. The cleat is a large triangle that is not recessed in the shoe and makes walking difficult.
Four Bolt Road
The four bolt road system is used with Speedplay pedals. The pedals are small and very lightweight, with the cleat clipping around the pedal itself rather than into the pedal. These cleats are also large and not recessed in the shoe. There is not a large advantage performance wise between a three or four bolt cleat system, it is mostly a matter of preference.
Mountain Pedals- Two Bolt
All mountain bike specific clipless pedals use a recessed two bolt cleat mounting pattern. Since mountain biking requires more frequent unclipping and walking, these pedals are two sided, meaning you can clip into either side and are better suited to shedding mud and other debris. This system of clipless pedal is more beginner friendly as they are simpler to clip into and out of.
Some shoes will be able to mount either the three or four bolt pattern, and others have separate models for Speedplay compatible shoes. They are identical performance wise, but make sure to check prior to buying!
As mentioned, clipless mountain biking pedals use a two bolt mounting pattern, so shoes designed to be used with clipless pedals will be compatible with any brand pedal you choose to use. One of the hot button issues in mountain biking is deciding between flat pedals or clipless pedals. That will dictate the type of shoes that you should consider. While there are merits to both, jump into a discussion forum covering this to see where your allegiance falls.
3. Choose your closure system
The closure system of a shoe has a massive impact on the feel and efficiency of the shoe. It is what keeps your foot connected to the pedal and aids in delivering power from the shoe to the pedal. A well designed closure system keeps your foot locked in place while not creating any pinch points or hot spots. There are a few different main types of closure systems.
Velcro straps are generally used in conjunction with other methods, usually with one Velcro strap over the toe box, but sometimes a second strap over the midfoot. Velcro is cheap, simple, and functional, but is not as effective as other types of straps, which is why it is generally used over the toe box where the least amount of compression is needed.
Ratchet straps are a step up from Velcro and are featured on many mid level shoes and “enduro” style mountain biking shoes. They provide more granular adjustment and hold the adjustment better than Velcro straps. Mid ride adjustments are easier as well, just reach down and grab the ratchet mechanism and your shoe is tighter. Ratchet straps are often at the top of the shoe, and occasionally utilized at the midfoot as well.
BOA dials are the closure system of choice for most high end shoes, and for good reason. They offer much more adjustability than a ratchet strap while holding their adjustment just as well or better. There are different models of BOA dials, each with their own purpose. Some have micro adjustability of one millimeter and others feature a quick release mechanism, but they all function essentially the same. The dials utilize thin wires that can be laced in any pattern the manufacturer sees fit, allowing for even more fine tuning of the fit in the design phase of the shoe. All this means that you get an excellent fit with easy and quick adjustability. BOA dials are sometimes used on their own and sometimes paired with an additional velcro strap over the toe box.
The original (and only option for years) closure system for cycling shoes has made a comeback in recent years. Laces have the advantage of a fully customizable fit depending on your riding styles and fit preferences. The shoes that feature laces have been designed to hold the adjustment with minimal stretching as it is nearly impossible to adjust them while riding, unless you have incredible bike handling skills. Laces give a very comfortable fit and have a certain style that is unmatched by any other closure system.
4. Determine your desired stiffness
This will be somewhat dictated by your predominate riding style, but is an important consideration. Buy shoes that are too stiff for your riding style and level and your feet will hate you, not stiff enough and you are sacrificing precious watts and efficiency.
Since walking during a road ride is rare, road shoes can be quite stiff while retaining comfort. Combined with a wider pedal/cleat interface, you can get a very efficient pedal stroke. If you are a racer or just a competitive club rider that loves to beat your friends, a stiffer shoe is going to be a better fit for your riding style. If you are just getting into road riding or just upgraded to clipless pedals, a more flexible shoe will give you more comfort to progress in your riding.
It gets slightly more complicated with mountain biking shoes depending on your main riding style and preferences. As previously mentioned, there are flat pedals that utilize different shoes, but we are going to focus on clipless shoes. Since mountain biking often requires much more walking (aka hike-a-bike, for sections of trail either too steep or too technical for your riding ability—sometimes you roll the bike next to you and sometimes you need to carry it), shoes need to be more flexible and comfortable to walk in for those situations. If you are a serious cross country racer, a stiffer, more race oriented shoe is going to be your best bet. Most cross country races are not going to feature many hike-a-bike sections, and the increased efficiency while pedaling is worth the trade off to many. On the other hand, if you are a more casual rider or participate in enduro style races, a less stiff shoe that is easier to walk in may be a better option.
5. Determine price range
Finally, once you have decided on the other factors above, determine your budget. As a general rule, stiffer shoes will have higher end closure systems and will be more expensive, while an entry level shoe will be much more flexible and likely feature a velcro strap closure. As with every rule, there are exceptions. Below are some general guidelines on various price points and what features you can expect at each.
Shoes under the $100 threshold are going to be very basic shoes. They are not going to be very stiff and feature very simple closure systems. These shoes are great for those that don’t want to spend very much money just to try clipless, or for those looking for shoes to use for spin classes. Most of these shoes will feature a 2 bolt cleat pattern.
Shoes in this price range are going to be a basic entry level shoe. They are a good introduction to the world of clipless cycling shoes. They are not overly stiff and will be plenty comfortable for beginners and longer days in the saddle. Generally, the closure system will be velcro straps, although some towards the top end of the range may include one ratchet strap. Road shoes will most likely be three bolt cleat pattern in this price range.
These shoes are going to have a wide range of features. Towards the higher end of the range, shoes can be found with BOA dial closure systems, and most will feature some sort of ratchet/velcro closure system at the least. Stiffness is going to be increased, particularly in the road shoes. Depending on the discipline of mountain shoes, they may prioritize stiffness, or walking and hiking may be more important. XC oriented shoes may feature removable mud spikes as well. In general, these shoes are going to be the best bang for the buck for all but the most serious riders.
These shoes are going to be the best of the best. They will be the stiffest, feature the most advanced and sophisticated closure systems, and be made to the highest standards. Shoes in this range are made for the serious athlete or those that demand the highest performance from their equipment. Shoes in this range can top $400, so there is still a lot of variability in price in this range.
If you realize that your shoe desires don’t fit your budget, ask yourself what the most important features are an readjust. Try on as many different models as possible to see what fits you best. Most importantly, enjoy the process of selecting a new pair of shoes and then get out and ride!