Performance road cycling shoes buyer's guide
How to choose the right clipless performance cycling shoes, including six pairs from £50 to £400
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.
Clipless pedals came about a couple of decades ago, 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. Evenso, 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 for keeping the rain and cold out, so there are options.
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.
The last couple of years have seen the development of heat mouldable shoes. The likes of Lake, Shimano and Bont produce shoes with uppers that you heat up in an oven and then mould around your fit. This offers a degree of custom fit without the expense of having shoes handmade. This 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.
Six shoes from £50 to £390
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 are six from the road.cc review archive.
Shimano R320 shoes £299.99
Light, incredibly stiff and, oh, so comfortable.
Lightweight and comfortable, stiff soled women's road shoe with a simple design
Bont Zero shoes £390.00
Very light, mouldable race shoes that are as stiff and efficient as any we've ever used.
Dromarti Race shoe £145.00
A beautifully crafted shoe, that combines retro style and the best of modern technology
dhb R1.0 Road Cycling shoes £49.99
Light and comfortable road shoes, perfect for training, sportives and entry-level racin
Northwave Celsius GTX boots £139.99
Smart winter boots that'll keep you riding through even the coldest UK temperatures.