Do I Need Cycling Specific Shoes?

By Tom Jow

The short answer is yes, because cycling shoes are designed to make riding easier. The unique feature of cycling shoes is a very stiff sole. This stiff sole allows the rider to apply power to the pedals without straining the muscles of the foot. In addition, the shoes are designed for specific clip in pedal systems. Together, this makes riding more efficient, more comfortable and more fun. There is, however, a wide range of shoes available; how do we choose? Some riders, racers for example, will want the lightest, stiffest, highest performing shoes available. Others, such as mountain bikers or cycle-tourists need a shoe they can walk in. Once we find a shoe that suits our needs, how should it fit? When selecting shoes, many features are common to both mountain and road shoes so it is important to consider if we want a shoe for a single or multi-purpose.

Take mountain bike shoes, for example. These are shoes which can be used on both road or mountain bike. A top of the line mountain bike racing shoe will have a lightweight, stiff carbon composite midsole to transfer all the riders power to the pedals. This shoe is also very light. Weighing in at approximately 350 grams, these shoes are nearly the same weight of a sport road shoe.. Other features of top of the line shoes include supple mesh and durable reinforced leather uppers fastening with a buckle and Velcro straps. The ratcheting plastic buckle provides excellent adjust-ability and good foot holding security. Finally, an aggressive knobby tread and the option for toe spikes allows the rider to walk or run on a variety of surfaces. Sport level mountain bike shoes, at a lower cost, will have a nylon or fiberglass composite mid sole and 2 or 3 Velcro straps. The soles on this level shoe will also be a little softer flex in the toe which adds to walk-ability. This can be a good choice for recreational road riders or tourers who may be spending time off the bike having lunch, coffee, or aid station breaks on century rides. The most basic mountain bike shoe is sometimes referred to as the “hike-a-bike shoe.” The heaviest in the category, not only does it look like a hiking shoe, it walks like one too. These shoes still have a stiff midsole for cycling, but in front of the ball of the foot the sole is flexible to allow for walking. The outsole also has a rubber tread for traction on all surfaces. This used to be one of the more popular choices for touring riders until the introduction of dedicated touring road shoes.

The entry level road category starts with lightweight road touring shoes. Weighing less than all but the highest end mountain bike racing shoes, touring road shoes are the best choice for the recreational cyclist that wants a shoe with a walkable sole( great for spin class). The best features of this category of shoes are lightweight Velcro straps, a stiff, yet walkable midsole combined with a rubber outsole and recessed cleat area similar to mountain bike shoes. This allows the rider to walk with a normal step. As in the mountain category, higher level shoes become lighter and stiffer. Keep in mind, now, these shoes are not designed for walking. The difference is a smooth outsole with an exposed cleat mounted on the bottom. The absence of the traction tread greatly reduces the weight of the shoe. The smooth sole also allows a pedal system with a larger area to distribute pedal pressure under the foot for comfort and power. Another unique feature of road shoes is air vents in the sole. Sport and performance category road shoes begin to incorporate fiberglass and composite carbon fiber in the mid-soles. Also, the fastening system becomes more secure, offering three Velcro straps or 2 straps and a ratcheting buckle.

For the highest performance nothing beats a top of the line road shoe. As with most cycling equipment, the lighter it is the better. At this level shoes will weigh approximately 250 grams or less, with the lightest coming in right around 200 grams (each). To reach this lightweight, nothing is held back. The soles are now 100 percent carbon fiber. The plastic ratchet buckle is replaced with a lighter third Velcro strap. The lightest, most supple materials in the uppers to save weight and achieve the best fit. One thing they don’t scrimp on at this level is fit. Some of these top level shoes have heat moldable footbeds and in some cases, heat moldable uppers. This customization is the ultimate in shoe fitting. Which brings up the question, how do we size a cycling shoe?

As with most sporting footwear, we want to have a snug fit in the forefoot area, which is from the ball of the foot to the ankle. When shopping for shoes, try to visit the store in the afternoon (well before closing time) because feet tend to swell a little throughout the day. Bring the socks you intend to use or purchase some there. If you use a supportive footbed, be sure to install that in each shoe also. Keep in mind that sizes are not the same across all brands so it may take a few minutes to find your range. As you try on each shoe, begin adjusting the straps from toe to heel. Then, stand up and level your foot as if you are pedaling. Try to get a sense for where the toes are. They should be close to the end. If the shoe fits well there is little risk of toe bang. Many people have one foot longer than the other and those of you have to decide for yourself if you want one loose shoe or one tight shoe (I personally opt for one tight shoe). Sit back down, grab the shoe and wiggle it on the foot. Test the heel. A little slip is fine. Readjust the straps and repeat. A proper fitting shoe will have a snug forefoot, room for the toes and a snug heel. When you’ve found a pair you think fits, try a smaller one. It’s the only way to tell.

With so many brands and models of cycling shoes available, it’s easy for every cyclist to find a shoe to suit their needs. In fact, there is really no longer a need to have shoes do double duty. Good shoes are available for every budget and fit. For women there are low volume (forefoot height) shoes with a narrow heel. For men there is now both a regular and wide fit. There are lightweight, flexible soled shoes for tourists. For mountain bikers there are a full range of shoes from hike-a-bike style to stiff racing shoes with traction tread and spikes for mud. Road riders get the best of the lot ranging from basic to the most advanced with the lightest, stiffest carbon fiber soles, advanced fastening systems and custom fitting capability. For all cyclists, the best shoe is a cycling shoe.

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