Get yourself the right pair of cycling shoes and your riding immediately becomes both more comfortable and more efficient. While you can cycle in a pair of trainers, we’re going to assume for the sake of this article that you want to ride in dedicated cycling shoes. Cycling shoes are designed to be light and stiff for efficient pedalling, usually with mesh panels to keep your feet cool in the summer, and with a sole that's designed to be compatible with clipless pedals.
Practical clipless pedals first appeared in 1984, an idea borrowed from the world of skiing. A small metal or plastic cleat is attached to the sole of the foot with two, three or four bolts, and engages with a specific type of pedal. This allows for more efficient pedalling because your feet are held in the optimum position.
If you want to choose some cycling shoes, first you need to decide what type of riding you do, because shoes are available in a huge range of styles to suit different demands. They can largely be split into performance road shoes (stiff soles, external cleats) and leisure/commuting/touring shoes where comfort and practicality are important considerations. In this guide we're focusing on performance road shoes, whether it's for general road riding, racing or sportives.
These are your typically recognisable cycling shoes. They have a nylon, composite or carbon-fibre sole. Generally speaking, the more you spend, the stiffer and/or lighter the sole. These are designed to offer the maximum efficiency and power transfer, getting all your energy through the pedals into the transmission to propel you forward. Shoes at the top-end will be extremely stiff, while at the other end of the price spectrum shoes they will often have a higher degree of flex. You might actually find this more comfortable, especially if you're just starting out or you're not trying to emulate Sir Wiggo.
The soles typically have a three-bolt pattern to accept Shimano’s SPD-SL, Look or Time cleats, or a four-bolt drilling that's compatible with Speedplay’s pedal system. You really don't want to be walking too far in these shoes. The large external cleat, in combination with the stiff sole, makes even the shortest walk a hobble, and can be downright precarious on the wrong floor. You've been warned! The pedals are one-sided and they are usually designed with more weight at the back so they hang in such a way that clipping in is easy. Even so, sometimes you have to flip the pedal the right way in order to clip in.
Shoes have synthetic or leather uppers designed to be as light as possible, and often have many mesh panels to keep your feet ventilated in hot weather. Having hot, sweaty feet is very uncomfortable, especially on a hard ride. Some shoes have a lot more ventilation, which is fine in California, but with the typical British summer it's perhaps worth looking for a shoe with less mesh panelling, depending on how hot your feet tend to get. That's not so easy as most shoes aren't really designed with the British summer in mind. For the winter, you can get Gore-Tex lined shoes to keep out the rain and cold.
Various closure systems are available: Velcro straps, a ratcheting buckle and dial-tightened wire systems are all popular. Some shoes use more than one system. Lace-up shoes have made a return at the top-end with Giro’s Empire shoes harking back to the olden days. Whatever the closure system, the shoe needs to stay in place on your feet; you don't want your feet slipping about in the shoes when you're pedalling. That leads to discomfort and power loss.
The last few years have seen the development of heat mouldable shoes from the likes of Lake, Shimano and Bont. You can heat up the shoes in an oven and sometimes mould the soles and sometimes the thermoplastic uppers. While not cheap, heat mouldable shoes are slowly becoming more affordable.
The more you spend, the more you get, naturally. With shoes, the more you spend, the lighter the shoe is likely to be. The difference can be anything up to 350g or more between entry-level shoes and the most expensive.
Expensive shoes will use carbon-fibre soles to reduce the weight, which also impacts on the stiffness of the shoe, another factor that increases the more you spend. Stiffness is important for transferring your power to the pedals, and the stiffer the shoe the better it is at doing this. If you’re racing, you’ll want a stiffer shoe, but if you’re not into racing, then you might want to choose a shoe with a more flexible sole.
The system used to secure the shoe to the foot is another key difference between £80 and £200 shoes. The former will likely use a simple arrangement of Velcro straps, while the more you spend the more elaborate the closure is likely to be. From micro-ratcheting buckles to rotary dials to a combination of buckles, ratchets and Velcro, every shoe brand has their favoured approach.
Materials used for the upper get lighter, more breathable and more supple the more you spend. Kangaroo and other leathers tend to be expensive, while there are all kinds of synthetic alternatives. The upper can have a big impact on how comfortable your shoes feel.
Getting a comfortable shoe that fits well is absolutely essentially so it’s really worth heading to a well-stocked bicycle shop to try them on before you buy. Don’t assume that all brands are sized the same. Some are narrower and some come in wider fits.
Some brands, such as Shimano, cater for different foot widths with a ‘wide’ version of their regular shoes. There are brands that are known to suit narrower feet, an example being Sidi.
For this reason it’s really worth trying on a few shoes from different brands to find the ones that best fit you. When you do try on a pair of cycling shoes in the shop, remember to wear the same socks that you would on the bike.
Heat mouldable shoes, as the name implies are shaped by heat. You warm them up in an oven and then mould them around your fit. This offers a degree of custom fit without the expense of having shoes handmade, which is good for people who struggle to get regular shoes to fit comfortably.
If you’re put off by the prospect of clipless shoes, then clips-and-straps, which are still available, might be more suitable. You can even buy shoes, some retro inspired, designed for toe clips.
15 shoes from £30 to £300
Now you know the options and differences between the shoes and pedal systems, you can make the right choice for you. To give an idea of the available shoes, here's a broad selection from the road.cc review archive.
Not long ago we tested the Shimano RC7 road shoes and found them to be excellent (see below). Turns out that the XC7 mountain bike shoes are excellent too. They're roadie-looking enough for the tarmac with enough versatility for the dirt too; cyclo-cross, gravel riding and mountain biking are all within their remit. As such, they're almost one pair of shoes to rule them all. You can pretty much do anything with these.
At first glance you might be forgiven for thinking the XC7s are road shoes: with Boa closures and an unfussy, shiny upper they have a pretty racy look. Unlike the RC7s, which have a very stiff full-carbon sole, the XC7s have a carbon-reinforced midsole that's a bit more forgiving. That means if you're off the bike jumping the hurdles in a cyclo-cross race or pushing up an off-road climb that's defeated you, there's enough flex to make walking feel pretty normal.
There's a full Michelin rubber outsole, too, to aid off-bike grip, and you can fit two studs at the front for extra grip. The SPD cleat is recessed enough into the sole that you get plenty of purchase from the rubber on cafe floors, although the XC7s are still a bit click-clacky.
Comfortable, light, airy and lairy – the impressive CX301s from Lake are great performers as long as the temperature is up and the sun is out.
Straight out of the box I was impressed. They stunned first with the luminous yellow glow, and then by just how remarkably light each shoe was minus cleats, bolts and insoles. Tipping the scales – barely – at 402g for the pair, that's an impressive figure. As a lightweight warm-weather shoe for days out in the hills or when pinning on a race number, they are a winner.
The B'Twin 500 road cycling shoes are designed for regular road riding and entry level racers. They hit the mark nicely when long, steady miles or competitive stuff's involved.
As the price would suggest, the materials are tried and tested, rather than particularly exotic but they're made in Italy to a decent standard and come complete with the brand's two year warranty. The rigid outer sole is a polyamide/thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) 60/40% mix. These are drilled for Look Delta, Keo and Shimano SPD-SL cleats.
Giro's Trans Road Shoes offer phenomenal all-day comfort with a carbon sole and stylish design. These are so versatile, they'll appeal to beginners and racers alike.
The Trans is a very impressive shoe indeed. Within the modern design, features of the more expensive Factor shoes can be found. The upper is made of microfibre, which moulds around the mid-foot and heel; the lack of breaking in that these shoes need is astonishing – they really are super-comfy from mile one.
The price above is the full 2017 RRP, but shop around: there are 2016 shoes in white still available in some sizes for £106.99 and if you have wide feet there's a wide version for £119.99.
Great value for money for stunning-looking, well-featured and genuinely comfortable women's performance shoes.
The R5B BOA Donnas are some of the most instantly desirable cycling shoes we've had the good fortune to slip our feet into. First off, they mark a departure from the usual solid black or white/silver colour schemes, being a slatey grey with hot pink accents that some will doubtless hate and others love.
They also have a raft of performance features to keep even the most demanding rider satisfied. The BOA system and single Velcro strap are designed to optimize both comfort and performance, while the overall lightness of the shoe and stiffness of the carbon reinforced nylon outsole also contribute to enhanced power transfer.
These Gaerne G.Winter Road Gore-Tex road shoes offer the sort of protection you need if you're determined enough - or should that be mad enough? - to keep cycling through really bad weather.
As the name implies, there's a Gore-Tex membrane inside the shoe. This delivers impressive rain and road spray protection, and feet stayed dry even in prolonged downpours, or riding through flooded roads. Our tester didn't find himself in any conditions when the G.Winters couldn't cope with the rain and water.
Shimano's RC7 shoes are a favourite at road.cc. They're comfortable, stiff and incredibly quick to put on and take off. And they look pretty good too.
They're a step down from the top-end S-Phyres, with one Boa closure and a Velcro strap in place of the pair of Boas used on the S-Phyres. Neither shoe is heat mouldable, unlike previous top-end Shimano shoes. Despite that, we found the fit with the RC7 was excellent, nigh-on perfect in fact.
Shimano's RP9 shoes are a really excellent race and performance shoe that brings much of the quality and fit of the pro-level 300-series shoes down to a much more affordable level. It's less of a trickle down, more of a flood. They're great.
The RP9s use a very similar carbon fibre sole to the top-end shoes, with Shimano rating its stiffness as 11/12 on their own scale. Certainly it's plenty stiff enough for racing, but it's not uncomfortable for it. That's got a lot to do with the insole, which is excellent, and also features an adjustable instep section with two different heights to tailor your support. The sole is drilled for a 3-bolt cleat only, and there's plenty of fore-aft adjustment available. There's a vent at the front and decent rubber bumpers that do a good job of keeping the sole free of scratches.
Beautifully crafted shoes that combine retro style and the best of modern technology. The natural leather upper and lace closure conform exactly to the shape of your foot after a few hundred kilometres of riding, while the carbon fibre sole efficiiently transfers power to the pedal.
Impressive comfort, low weight and stunning looks — as close to a pair of slippers as you can get in cycling shoes. At just 408g for a size 45 pair, the Giro Empire SLX are among the very lightest shoes available. This low weight is backed up by incredible comfort from the lace-up uppers and a super stiff carbon fibre sole that doesn't waste any of your power when sprinting for the line.
These S-Works 6 shoes from Specialized, the latest in a long line of top-end carbon fibre-soled race models, are among the best performing and most comfortable we've ever tested. They're very light, very stiff and, I repeat, really rather comfortable. They're not cheap, but if you can find the money, they're among the very best performance/race shoes currently available.
The shoes feature a new FACT Powerline one-piece carbon fibre sole, completely redesigned from the previous S-Works shoes. The profile is lower, so less stack height, and the rear section is tapered in a way that sees it providing better support for the back of the foot, with a new moulded heel cup that Specialized calls the PadLock heel. It really does work, they cup and support the back of the foot extremely well. There's no heel lift at all.
As well as the redesigned sole, there's the all-new upper. Specialized has used a fabric called Dyneema Cubic Light. A fancy name, and apparently it's the same stuff used by NASA for its space shuttle parachutes. Certainly an impressive fact for the club ride.
If these high-end mountain bike shoes look familiar, it's because they're the two-bolt version of the S-Works road shoes above. In effect, they're the uppers from those shoes combined with a walkable sole that's nevertheless very stiff. Specialized say it has their stiffest and lightest FACT plate with a Stiffness Index of 13.0. This differs from the road shoe that has a FACT Powerline carbon plate but still has the same Stiffness Index, although there's no mention of how high the Stiffness Index actually goes, or what it actually means in the real world. Rest assured, it's a stiff sole.
The grip on the sole isn't actually very, um, grippy. It feels very solid and not overly confident, and that's not aided by the stiffness. There's still a certain degree of clumpy ballerina stepping required when walking around in the 6 XCs.
The S-Works 6 XCs pretty much need to be treated as if they're road shoes that happen to have two-bolt cleat mountings and a bit of tread on the sole. They're stiff, efficient and uncompromising, designed to be clipped in, ridden (hopefully fast as...) and then clipped out at the end. If your mountain biking or gravel biking involves lots of getting off and hiking across rugged terrain, or you walk up hills a lot, or you kick around in the dirt then these probably aren't the shoes for you; these are performance shoes for the off-road roadie. They're equally applicable for a cyclo-cross race, as long as there's not too much scrabbling up muddy banks, and they'd make a very good long distance gravel ride shoe, if gravel shoes are a thing.
The 6 XCs are also excellent for the road rider, tourister or audaxer who wants performance shoes but likes or needs to saunter about a bit. If you want top-end shoes but actually get off your bike during a road ride then these could be the shoes for you.
The Giro Factor Techlace shoes are lightweight and comfortable, and the novel closure system – a hybrid lace and Velcro strap, plus a Boa dial – makes it easy to adjust the fit on the fly.
Bont's Vaypor S shoes are super-stiff yet they provide an excellent level of comfort... but you do have to stump up a whopping great wad of cash if you want to enjoy them!
The soles are handmade from unidirectional Toray carbon fibre and they just don't flex. There are quite a lot of stiff-soled shoes out there these days if you're prepared to pay top-end prices, but the Vaypor S takes things to another level. For what it's worth, Bont claims that the sole boasts the highest strength to weight ratio of any cycling shoe currently available. I don't know if that's true, but I can detect absolutely no flex at all.
No round up of go-faster shoes is complete without Mavic's staggeringly expensive Comete Ultimates. Almost everything about the Comete Ultimates is outside the shoe-box, from the ultra-stiff carbon fibre sole and shell, to the two-part construction to the low ankle that makes for an easier, more fluid pedalling action.
Tester Dave Arthur was impressed: "They're incredibly stiff, stiffer than any other shoe I can recall testing in recent years. Press down on the pedals and there's no hint of flex from the one-piece carbon shell, and that translates into a phenomenal feeling of speed and acceleration. You feel like you have any extra 80 watts at your disposal.
"Ankle movement is the other big factor and a key differentiator to almost all other high-end shoes. Ankle movement is unhindered compared with other shoes. Because of the low cut ankle of the carbon shell and the flexible tongue of the bootie, my pedalling stroke – which does have a reasonable degree of ankling – felt freer and less restricted than with other high-end shoes that wrap higher and closer to the ankle. This freedom of ankle movement is the biggest takeaway for me of the Mavic shoes and goes some way to supporting Mavic's claims for 'rounder' pedalling."
That enormous price tag is the big issue, though. You can get two or three pairs of most manufacturer's top-line off-the-peg shoes. Heck, you can get a pretty decent bike for that. But if you must have the latest and greatest, and the fit and shape suits your feet, then the Comete Ultimates are the shoes for you.
[This article was last updated on August 31, 2017]
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.