Performance road cycling shoes buyer's guide

How to choose the right clipless performance cycling shoes, including six pairs from £50 to £400

by David Arthur   July 30, 2013  

Bontrager RXXXL Limited Edition Road shoe

road.cc reviews

Bont Riot shoes £100.00
8/10

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.

http://road.cc/sites/default/files/imagecache/lightbox-large/images/Bont%20Zero/Bont%20Zero%20-%20sole.jpg

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. 

http://road.cc/sites/default/files/imagecache/lightbox-large/images/Rapha%20Grand%20Tour%20shoes/Rapha%20Grand%20Tour%20shoes%20-%20ratchet.jpg

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.

Features

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.

Fit

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.

Specialized BG Spirita Women's Road Shoe £69.99

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.

11 user comments

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Larger road cleats can give you less hot-spots and better stability on the pedal... But I've always found the mountain bike style shoes and SPD pedals far more practical for 90% of road riding, touring and commuting. The performance difference is negligible, and the ability to walk around normally is a big plus!

posted by jackh [105 posts]
30th July 2013 - 13:28

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each foot is different - I struggle to stay comfortable
in mtb spds for more than an a couple of hours or so,
but 6 or 7 hours in road shoes is no problem at all .....
And as for walking ... well bike to counter to table ... Smile

still on the 3rd switch-back of Bwlch !

posted by therevokid [663 posts]
30th July 2013 - 13:46

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I've never had an unintentional release with regular SPDs, no matter how hard I am pulling up a hill. I moved to SPD shoes I can walk in from cleats and toeclips, and you'd have to make a very convincing argument for me to go back Smile

posted by DrJDog [77 posts]
30th July 2013 - 13:53

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I use varus wedges and arch supports (Spesh Body Geometry+++) to the tune of about 4mm to prevent knee pain. I look with interest at mouldable shoes/insoles, but surely they would just mould to the pattern that my feet make when they are flat on the floor (i.e. wrong)? I need them to resist the force of my forefoot wanting to roll inwards, would mouldable products be any good?

If I could have, say, 6 bikes, would it stop me drooling over others that I don't have?

posted by notfastenough [2879 posts]
30th July 2013 - 14:21

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lots of incorrect pictures with the links...

posted by spasypaddy [15 posts]
30th July 2013 - 14:30

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Two incorrect headings there, sorry about that, had some extra images in the draft, but chopped them out at the last minute. All good now

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posted by David Arthur [1379 posts]
30th July 2013 - 14:53

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notfastenough:

Essentially no, although you may be able to hold the position you need your feet to be in while it cools and get the required angle but that'll probably end up as a pretty hit and miss approach. What the mouldable soles are good for is shaping around prominent areas of the foot and cupping them, spreading the load as it were so heel bones, toe joints and metatarsals are given a bit of support.

posted by Nick T [727 posts]
30th July 2013 - 16:23

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Try on shoes late in the day due to most peoples feet swell up as the day progresses.

Shut up legs, you don't get a vote.

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posted by ridein [47 posts]
30th July 2013 - 21:41

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Good comment by Notfastenough. A bit of knee pain is blighting my riding too, to the point of considering investing in new shoes, or arch supports/inner soles. I'd like to see a Road.cc article on ways to cope with knee issues - someone feel free to point me in the right direction if there's one in the archives.

posted by billsdon [28 posts]
30th July 2013 - 22:59

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Hi Billsdon. Bikeradar have a couple of good articles on this:

http://www.bikeradar.com/fitness/article/take-care-of-your-knees-17010/

http://www.bikeradar.com/fitness/article/take-care-of-your-knees-part-2-...

To clarify, I don't have knee pain these days, I am merely nitpicking the fact that use of an assortment of wedges and bits and pieces is a little agricultural.

What sort of knee pain are you getting? Have you seen a bike fitter or anything to get your pedalling technique looked at?

I know a pair of good sports therapist types (they work as a team) in Lancashire if that's somewhere you can get to?

NickT, thanks for the clarification, sounds like I should just stick with what's working for me.

If I could have, say, 6 bikes, would it stop me drooling over others that I don't have?

posted by notfastenough [2879 posts]
31st July 2013 - 8:40

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I think il pick up the 49.99 ones a lot cheaper thanks!

posted by phiillip [0 posts]
24th March 2014 - 18:38

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