How to Choose the Right Road Cycling Shoes
A pair of cycling-specific shoes can give a massive boost to your riding performance. Using cycle shoes that clip into a pedal rather than using flat pedals and trainers is a much more effective way of delivering power through the pedals, chain and gears to the back wheel.
As the interface between your foot and the pedal, you could almost consider a cycling shoe to be part of your bike’s drivetrain – so, like the other elements of the system, the stiffer it is, the smaller the losses through flex will be. However, cycling shoes tread a fine line between stiffness and comfort: a shoe must be comfortable or benefits will be lost.
As long as you find the right shoe for your foot shape, and most crucially the right size, a good pair of cycling shoes will transfer your pedalling power more efficiently from your foot to the pedal as well as boost your comfort.
Let’s take a look at the different types of road cycling shoes, how they work, what they offer and what sort of riding or rider they’re best suited to.
The cleat is a small plate that bolts to the bottom of your shoe and clips into the spring-loaded retention mechanism of the pedal. The sort of cleat you choose depends on the type of cycling you plan to do, which in turn determines what sort of shoe you need. It’s not as complicated as it sounds because there are only two generic types of pedal/cleat:
Two-bolt SPD pattern
SPDs are small, double-sided pedals that use a small steel cleat that fastens via two bolts into a recess in the sole of the shoe. They are most commonly used by mountain bikers and were developed by Shimano, but the standard has since been adopted by many pedal manufacturers. They’re easy to clip into and release. As the cleat is tucked away, walking in an SPD shoe is easy.
If you plan to walk further than the distance from your front door to your bike in your road cycling shoes, a shoe compatible with the two-bolt SPD cleat is your best bet.
Although originally developed for off-road riding, shoes and pedals of this type are also ideal for commuting and touring.
Three-bolt delta pattern
Delta-shaped cleats are bigger than SPDs, are made of tough plastic and use a standard three-bolt pattern to clip into a wider and longer type of pedal for better power transfer.
Pure road cycling shoes with stiff soles and three-bolt cleats are not designed for walking in. They might help you pedal like a pro, but they will make you walk like Daffy Duck. So only go for the three-bolt type if you’re doing absolute minimal walking.
A shoe such as the Van Rysel RR 900 is a high-end pure road shoe that’s only compatible with the three-bolt delta cleat.
However, you’ll find some mid-range shoes, such as the Shimano RP3 SPD-SL that are compatible with both SPD and delta cleats, but in these cases the SPD cleat will not be recessed so walking will not be significantly easier.
Soles designed for walking as well as pedalling can’t be as stiff as cycling-only soles for a number of practical reasons. That’s why more flexible materials are used for the soles of SPD shoes. The Triban RC 100 SPD shoes have a semi-rigid rubber sole that’s comfortable for all-round wear and is even suitable for flat pedals, making them perfect for beginners or returning cyclists.
For a performance booster, you’re looking at stiffer fibreglass-reinforced polyamide soles such as those of the Van Rysel Sportive Road Cycling Shoes 500.
The Van Rysel Sport Cycling Shoes RoadR 520 introduce carbon fibre into the mix with their nylon composite soles, while for ultimate stiffness and lightness the Van Rysel RR 900 has a 100% carbon sole that gives it pro-level power transfer and responsiveness. A carbon sole can be made very thin, reducing the stack height of the shoe over the pedal axle to provide a lighter experience and increased efficiency.
The experienced racer might go for a stiff carbon sole for its performance, but riders not at that level might find carbon soles unforgiving – the fit has to be exactly right for them to be comfortable – and although power transfer might be excellent, they can also transfer more vibrations than a softer sole.
Also, think about when you’ll be cycling: vented soles can keep your feet cool in summer but in winter they’ll let in cold draughts – so have a good look underneath the shoe.
Uppers can be made from natural or synthetic fabrics. A supple upper made from leather can be more comfortable for long rides, but polyamide and polyurethane can make uppers stiffer and lighter, holding your foot more rigidly for sportier riding.
The 100% leather upper of the Triban RC 520 SPD Road Cycling Shoes combines all-day comfort, good breathability and a natural fit, while the Van Rysel RR 900 has a technical synthetic upper with an interior 3D mesh for efficient ventilation and fast drying.
As with soles, different uppers are better for different times of the year: mesh can help your feet breathe in summer but will let in cold air and rainwater in winter.
Laces, Velcro, ratchets and dials are all used to fasten road cycling shoes. Laces have made a comeback in the last few years due to the infinite amount of adjustment they offer and the amount of pressure they exert across the top of the foot compared to other systems. There are many benefits to lace-up cycling shoes including a nice traditional look. Perhaps the only downside is that they can’t be adjusted on the fly.
Velcro straps are easy to operate, including mid-ride, and they hold the foot firmly. You’ll find shoes that rely solely on Velcro, but more often it’s combined with laces, ratchets and dials.
Usually, only one ratchet is used as part of a closure system – as the top fastener around the top and outside of the foot. Ratchets are great for a very secure fit and can be found on many mid-priced shoes including the Shimano RP3.
Dials are found on high-end shoes and offer a very secure hold that complements a carbon sole. The dial operates a cable that tightens and loosens. They are very quick to operate, are lightweight and supply an extremely precise fit that can easily be fine-tuned mid-ride.
Triathlon shoes such as the Shimano TR5 use a rip-tab Velcro closure system that makes it fast to take them on and off while on the bike, speeding up the transition between the swim and the run. They have loops to help pull them on and also have a large vent in the sole that as well as taking in plenty of air, allows water to escape after the swim.
Pay very close attention to the fit of your cycling shoes. It’s best if you can try them on in-store with your cycling socks. The right width is important so that the closure system can work effectively, and the heel cup must hold your heel firmly. Any heel lift and you’ll risk throwing away the benefits of cycling-specific shoes. The importance of a good fit can’t be overstated and is more important in the long run (or ride) than the stiffness of the sole or fanciness of the closure system.
Whether you’re planning on getting back into cycling with the family, building up your fitness level for your first sport or are already an experienced racer or triathlete, there’s a road cycling shoe for you.