No matter the level or price, cycling shoes can have a profound effect on any given ride, considering not only the pressure the foot is under with constant pedaling, but also because it’s the main contact point between rider and machine – and the only point where your power is transferred directly to the bike. Therefore cycling shoes must balance comfort and efficiency, while also providing a reliable closure system and overall durability. This is a delicate balance to be sure, and often the higher you go in price/level, the more you sacrifice comfort and vice versa. However, this test shows the two can be well balanced, assuming you’re not looking for the extreme on either side. Pure racers who care only about grams, seconds and podiums – especially those who race shorter events – should look at lightest and stiffest shoes in this review to maximize the stiffness-to-weight ratio. On the other end, those who simply ride for fun and rarely push the pace should consider the more comfortable of these shoes or check out our other cycling footwear reviews.
The standout in this group was quite clear, with the Bontrager XXX offering superb stiffness in an impressively light package at 220 grams. No matter how we torqued on the XXX, it simply offers no give. As Bontrager’s stiffest offering, one would wonder if it eventually becomes uncomfortable, but not so. We thoroughly enjoyed the Bontrager XXX through our testing, and truly appreciated the stiffness of the sole in such a light package. In fairness to the others, all shoes in the class were absolutely stiff enough to race on. Further, we couldn’t discern much flex in any of them.
Fit & Comfort
Once upon a time the question was, do you want efficiency or comfort. They were different shoes. Not so anymore. You can absolutely have your efficiency and your comfort in the same footwear. It comes down to trying different shoes to observe the subtle differences and how they accommodate your foot. Narrow or wide? Stiff upper versus more flexible? The contours of the carbon sole? These distinctions will impact your impressions of the shoe. All that said, the lighter shoes with the more flexible materials tended to be more comfortable. Examples include the Garneau, Giro and Specialized.
Every shoe we tested used a Boa system to close the shoe, sometimes combined with another technology like Velcro or other lacing systems, and in all instances they were reliable across our testing. They were not attempting to be overly clever simply to encase the upper around the foot, binding it against the sole with comfort. The Garneau Course Air Lite had the best closure system for our testers, featuring two Boa dials and a lower lacing system attached to the bottom dial. The Giro Factor Techlace also has a great closure system with a Boa and two Velcro pull tabs.
Construction & Durability
Specialized has long been among the best producers of high-performance, lightweight shoes that are also well built and highly durable. Given our limited ability to test these shoes over time, we aren’t able to put enough miles on them to really find their breaking point. The Specialized S-Works 6 is a more complex shoe than some, featuring a mix of materials in the upper as opposed to some shoes that simply use a single material. However, that complexity does not necessarily negatively impact longevity, and could actually enhance it.
Breathability & Drainage
Again, at this level, shoes are expected to vent and drain well, as riders who put in serious miles – and likely also race – need to keep their feet cool and dry or all sorts of issues can affect performance. The Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Leader III had the best air movement, owing to it’s largely perforated upper, allowing air to freely move through the shoe. Of course you may feel the cooler weather in the Pearl, and the drainage was average. The Garneau Course Air Lite has large mesh components in the sole, which enables water to freely escape, making it a good shoe in wet weather, and also good for air movement. The Bontrager XXX gets an honorable mention here with nice ports for water and air to escape as well.
The shoes in the class were tested on both road and gravel bikes in the wild, and on trainers in the house. The reasoning for this is to try them in a variety of diverse circumstances. Shoes were often ridden side by side, with one brand on one foot, a different brand on the other. This would enable us to zero in on subtle differences between the shoes, and to identify their unique characteristics. These shoes were pushed to their limits doing huge climbs and descents, sprinting, and the occasional race. Wearing the shoes in a variety of weather conditions from hot to cooler/cold, dry to wet, and even in the snow is our effort to understand how they perform.
Nice road biking shoes, like most competitive sports footwear, have transformed from the days when the number one criteria of an effective product was that it hurt your feet. Ski boots, ice skates, even running shoes have undergone a technological revolution where comfort no longer has to be sacrificed in order to achieve optimal efficiency. In fact, if your feet are uncomfortable, your performance will suffer. Every shoe we reviewed in the High-End road shoe category was very comfortable once we got into it. Years ago that would not have been the case. To boot, they are all very stiff, and very much designed to give your foot a proper hug.
All the shoes we viewed in this category used carbon soles, which are fabulously light and stiff. They are also durable. Synthetic materials were the most common for the uppers, though we do have one company using kangaroo leather! The Boa dial system for closure was the most common, we also saw various lacing systems, typically tethered to a Velcro tab. There are still laced shoes in the market, however none were available at this price level.
A good shoe is somewhat subjective, however less so than was once the case. Ensuring a good fit from a width perspective is likely the most important thing. If you have wide flippers, you will need to seek out a shoe to accommodate that. Beyond that, focusing on what will provide you with the most pleasure while riding is key. Is light weight the priority? Maximum stiffness? Comfort? In the High End category, you likely don’t have to choose, you can get them all in a single shoe.
How We Tested Them
Multiple test rides on road and gravel bikes, generally between one and four hours, on varied terrain including short power hills, sprints, and extended climbs. Testing also included multiple rides on stationary bikes while swapping brands regularly for comparison. We rode in shoes with the included insoles, but also tested with our own insoles for consistency.