Your cycling shoes are a major player in 2 out of the 5 direct contact points you have to your bicycle, and therefore merit careful consideration in their selection to suit both your feet (pun intended) and the style of cycling you do.
The purpose of cycling shoes is to efficiently transfer force to the pedals while at the same time supporting your feet appropriately and distributing (rather than concentrating) the pressure your feet experience, as well as being practical for the totality of your cycling experience. Other than cycling, this may entail walking your bike, negotiating stairways, or frequent stops. In next month’s article I’ll explore pedal systems, as the selection of a pedal system has direct influence on cycling shoe selection and vice versa.
Numb feet, hot feet, pressure points, blisters and other discomforts could be symptoms that your shoe choice needs re-evaluating, but the total interface of foot, sock, insole, shoe and cleat choice and position, and well as saddle height (too high can cause feet issues) should be considered as well.
In this article I’ll take a brief look at: the types of cycling shoes; what they are used for; a few things about your feet that may influence your choice; salient features, and how to buy them.
Type of Shoes
Cycling shoes fall into 3 broad categories based on intended use and pedal system:
- Flat: for use on “flat” pedals which relies on direct foot pressure and sole friction. No “cleat” is attached to the sole of the shoe. The shoes will be somewhat stiffer than regular running / gym/training shoes, but do not have a fully rigid sole and will exhibit good toe flex for normal walking.
- Mountain: for use in situations when off bike walking is expected, so the outsole features lugs for traction, and the cleat that attaches to the pedal is recessed flush with the lugs. As well as mountain bikers this style of shoe is also a popular choice for commuters and tourers who are on and off the bike regularly. Shoe stiffness will vary from semi flexible for more casual use to race-stiff where the emphasis is on light, strong, and stiff for competition with little off-bike functionality.
- Road: these shoes have a rigid sole with minimal traction and the elevated cleat under the forefoot makes walking awkward in a reversed stiletto kind of way. Intended for riding only, not perambulating. Triathlon shoes are modified road shoes with fewer straps and increased ventilation designed for ease of on bike entry when pre-attached to the pedals, to save seconds in the transition zone.
- Efficient power transfer: in general you want as much of your energy expenditure as possible to provide productive forward motion, and not have it lost in the transition from body to bike via a floppy, flexible shoe. This is why most cycling shoes have a rigid sole. You don’t require the flex needed for walking or running because cycling is not a natural foot activity but relies on the conversion of biomechanical energy into mechanical energy.
- Pedal Cleat attachment options: there are 3 main types and some variations, the choice of which will dictate your pedal options.
- Flat (no cleat)
- 2 hole side by side (common for mountain bike, commuter bike and spin bike pedals)
- 3 hole triangular pattern (common for road bike pedal systems)
- 4 hole rectangular pattern (specific to the Speedplay brand of road pedal systems)
- 2 hole / 3 hole combination (have it both ways – your choice)
- Off bike practicality: a dedicated and devoted road cyclist will minimize the amount of off bike walking they need to do in their cycling shoes, because its awkward to walk in road shoes and accelerates wear on the cleats. But if you need or want the versatility to do a bit of walking around in your cycling shoes because you are commuting, gravel, or mountain biking and may have “hike-a-bike” sections to contend with, a lugged outsole will be desirable. Commuters with frequent stop signs or traffic signals requiring frequent cleat disengagement and foot down time or stairs and elevators to negotiate need to think about ease of pedal engagement when getting going again, as well as traction when walking.
- Fit: There is tradition and there is reality. Tradition says your cycling shoes should be narrow and tight. Reality says your shoes should be comfortable and functional. Let’s go with reality. Comfortable doesn’t mean big and sloppy. Cycling shoes should be snug (not tight), both around the heel and side to side at the wideset points of your forefoot, without creating unnecessary pinching and side compression. They should offer ease of adjustment to tighten or loosen the shoes depending on your insoles and sock thickness, and to accommodate any foot swelling in hot weather. The shape of the shoe should accommodate your foot shape, rather than the other way around, and you should have a little bit of toe clearance at the front, but not as much as is needed in walking or running shoes. In summary, they should feel like a nice fitting glove on your feet: not too tight, not to big. Just right. But maybe you have hard-to-fit-feet, which leads to…
Most cycling shoes will fit most people, but if you are reading this it could be because you are an exception, and there are a lot of exceptions which may be due to:
- Width: If you have narrow (A, B) or wide (E+) feet, particularly 2E or above then finding well fitting cycling shoes can be a challenge, but let me assure you they do exist. Shoes that are too narrow or mismatched in shape to your feet can be a contributor to foot numbness.
- Volume: This is how much 3D space your feet take up. Low volume feet are often narrow and flat, and high volume feet are high, wide, and bulky, at least for cramming in cycling shoes. Some brands and models do a much better job than others of scaling up or down to suit your feet.
- Bunions: If you have them you’ll know it – the first metatarsal head is displaced outwards which presents as a big bulge on the side of the big toe ball of the foot. Bunions can also occur on the little toe side. Bunions make otherwise normal width feet present as wide, and need accommodating for either in the width of the shoe or in stretching the shoe to create some extra space.
- Feet length discrepancy: A half size difference between left and right is normal; a full size difference is common. More than that and you may be a candidate for a different shoe size for each foot unless an appropriate insole keeps the length discrepancy in check.
Let’s take a brief tour through some of the key features and materials of a cycling shoe.
- Outsole: i.e the bottom. Usually nylon on lower priced shoes and composite (carbon fiber and resin) on higher price models. Stiffer is better will be the marketing tag line but this depends on the application. There can be issues with shoes that are too stiff for your feet. Flat shoes will have a grippy rubber outsole, and mountain bike shoes will have nylon or rubber lugs and possibly toe spikes, all for traction when walking or running off the bike.
- Cleat bolt pattern: As previously discussed, there are 2, 3 ,4 or combo holes for different type of pedal systems.
- Uppers: Genuine leather (yes, still an option), synthetic leather (most common) or one of the above plus mesh. Genuine leather is long lasting with care, will mold more to your feet, and can be stretched to accommodate bunions. Synthetic leather is cheaper but not as malleable. Mesh is more breathable, and can be integrated with stretch panels to accommodate bunions or wide feet, but may lack durability.
- Closures: How you do them up. Lace is back in vogue. Velcro straps are common. Boa closures (ratcheting lace system) have largely replaced ratcheting strap systems. Many shoes will feature some combination of closures. Personal preference and ease of adjusting tension over the top of your feet are what you want to think about, and whether you can do that on the move. Yes with boa closures, no with normal laceup. In between with Velcro.
- Last and Width: The shape and width of the shoe where your foot contacts it. Feet are different shapes. Some are widest in the forefoot, some are widest at the mid-foot. Some are narrow. Having a shoe that conforms to your feet instead of expecting your feet to conform to the shoes will result in a happier cyclist.
- Other Features:
- Color options
- Heat moldable forefoot to suit different widths
- Heat moldable heel counter to snug the heel
Buying Cycling Shoes
The most common buying mistakes I see are cyclist’s settling for shoes that are too narrow, or addressing that by upsizing to get more width. The latter is the obvious workaround when you can’t seem to find what you really need, but has downstroke consequences as this often makes it harder to position the cleats in a suitable position relative to your foot structure. Another common error is expecting them to feel like running shoes. They wont. Don’t test them by walking around, as your heel is going to be leveraged out of the shoe due to the rigid sole. To choose a shoe consider these factors.
- Function: for the intended cycling use and purpose
- Fit: for your feet
- Features: materials, closure system, color
- Price: that you are willing to pay to achieve the above 3.
Note that choosing a brand first, or what the pro’s are wearing, or what the gear magazines are reviewing (on behalf of paying advertisers) do not feature in the selection criteria! The best cycling shoes for you could be ones you haven’t heard of yet.
Try them on if possible. Feel for snugness, not tightness. Check for toe clearance. Test out the closure system. Use the sort of sock that you would use for riding. Do you have custom insoles that need to go in the shoes? Remove the stock insoles and try yours out in the shoes. I recently solved a “shoes too tight” issue by discovering and removing a second set of insoles that were in the shoes!
Where to buy
- Bike shops: If you have average, easy to fit feet with no special needs, your local bike or outdoor equipment store will likely have a range of brands, models and price points with something to check all your boxes. You will rarely encounter wide models on offer in a bike shop, just the most heavily marketed brands like Shimano, Pearl Izumi, Fizik and Garneau, along with bike house brands like Bontrager (Trek), Scott and Specialized.
- Online: if you already have shoes that work, and you just need to replace them, and you are shopping for the best deal, you will usually (but not always) find what you need online.
- Specialty suppliers: If you are a skier with hard to fit feet you wouldn’t go anywhere other than a well regarded ski boot fitter to get your ski boots. Fitting cycling shoes doesn’t require the same experience and art but some bike fitters like myself see a lot of cyclist’s feet, hear about a wide range of feet issues, and work hard to resolve these. As well as setting or adjusting cleat position this may involve recommending a different cycling shoe and often times an insole as well. Recently someone who found their way to me after doing the rounds of bike shops and podiatrists said ”I should have come here first!”
If you have struggled to find well fitting and suitable cycling shoes, know that there are options available that should work for you, and that sometimes it is not just the shoe but other elements of the foot-pedal interface that may be causing problems.
In full disclosure I am a dealer for Lake Cycling Shoes, Rocket7 custom shoes and G8 Performance insoles, and I have selected these brands because they give me the ability to help solve foot related cycling issues. Other bike fitters may use and recommend other brands that they have found work well.
[Editor's Note: Check out John's “A Guide to Cycling Pedals Article” as well.]
John Higgins is a professional bike fitter and purveyor of unique and boutique bicycles and fit-related components and accessories in Salt Lake City. More info on bikefitr.co