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.
With stiff soles and a snug fit, performance cycling shoes are designed to help direct all your effort into the pedals
Carbon fibre soles are common, and most manufacturers have some way of rating sole stiffness; these shoes are usually at or near the top of the scale
Dials, usually from the idea's inventor Boa, are now the dominant closure, but you'll also find ratchet buckles, Velcro straps and laces
Most shoemakers now use synthetic materials for their uppers; they're tough, durable and easy to care for
We've included a few pairs of shoes that take two-bolt SPD cleats for walkability; great for fast commuting and gravel riding
Shimano's highly impressive race-orientated RC7 shoes had a significant redesign in 2019, gaining dials and losing Velcro completely. They're still a very comfortable, secure and well-vented option (with a great fit), but while the carbon soles are stiff and vibe-free, they could be stiffer still without sacrificing comfort.
The new RC7s – technically RC701s – are easily distinguished by their twin dials. The mid-foot one allows you to tune security very precisely, creating a fit that's both firm and unconstricted in seconds. I never missed the ability to cinch the toebox with a Velcro strap, which the older style had, and I appreciated the extra room it leaves around my toes for thick socks.
Following on from the release of its GRX groupset, Shimano has continued down the gravel route with these new RX8 SPD shoes. A stiff, lightweight yet rugged shoe perfect for performance riding away from the road, or on it for that matter – especially for those who like to be able to walk off the bike.
Now I know plenty of you will be thinking that this is a marketing department's dream, but what Shimano has created with the RX8 is a shoe that really benefits your riding on the gravel, especially if your aims are at the racier end of the scale.
Unlike heavier mountain bike/trail shoes that many of us use, the RX8 is based on Shimano's top end road race shoes, and that is exactly what they feel like when you put them on.
Overall, I'm a big fan of the RX8s. I love the fit, and the shape throughout the sole and upper is spot on. Their lack of weight is also really noticeable over many mountain bike shoes. If you take your gravel riding seriously, these are an excellent option. They're comfortable, light and stiff like a road race shoe but with the ruggedness and durability for dealing with gravel trails
The Bontrager XXX Mountain Bike Shoes are incredibly comfortable and supportive, stiff enough for efficient pedalling – even on the road they don't kill your feet on long rides – and their durable TPU upper means they should stay looking like new for ages.
The XXX Mountain Bike shoes share the same top half as their XXX Road Shoe siblings; this makes them impressively lightweight but not to the detriment of robustness or durability. After a month of soggy trails, they're looking almost identical to when they came out of the box.
A lack of mesh sections means they're less likely to stain, and the TPU upper is impressively resistant to scuffing and easily cleaned with a blast of the hosepipe or a quick wipe. The integrated 'GnarGuard' on the toes protects particularly vulnerable areas yet is flexible enough that you don't notice it while riding.
Overall, the Bontrager XXX Mountain Bike shoes are impressively light yet comfortable with a racing pedigree. They’re not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but they compare favourably with some.
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.
Le Col's Pro Carbon Road Shoes are the company's first attempt at bringing a pair of race shoes to its lineup and if these are anything to go by then it should keep going: they're impressively stiff with a great shape and a soft, supple upper. The only potential drawback is that they are currently only available in whole sizes 41 to 45.
Yanto Barker, ex-pro and the man behind clothing brand Le Col, says on the website, 'Your shoes are not only the principle point of contact with your bike, but some of the most personal items in a cyclist's kit. Stylish, well made shoes have been something I've always sought after, and knowing what's needed, I decided we would make our own.'
For some riders, function over form is the way to go but on a warm sunny day when you've got your best bike out and your favourite kit on, watching a pair of bling cycling shoes turning the pedals over is a thing of beauty.
These Pro Carbon models offer exactly that.
Bont's Vaypor S shoes are super-stiff yet they provide an excellent level of comfort.
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.
The Quoc Mono II shoes are light, comfortable and minimalist go-faster slippers with extremely stiff soles. If you're looking for high performance, super-modern kicks, they've got to be on your shortlist.
The Mono II shoes are admirably simple. The upper is made from two pieces of microfibre synthetic leather, with hundreds of tiny perforations for ventilation. It's held closed by a pair of ratchet dials, which look like Boa dials, but aren't. The sole is uni-directional carbon fibre. It's extremely stiff and quite thin (Quoc says it's just 4mm thick); you might have to move your saddle down a couple of millimetres if you're very sensitive to bike position, and you're replacing cheaper shoes with thicker soles.
The Quoc Mono II shoes are really nicely thought-out, with all the details you need, and very few that you don't.
The Fizik Vento Stabilita Carbon road shoes are one of the most innovative, adjustable, and comfortable pairs of shoes Iou can buyon sole, for excellent power transfer. The price is high, putting them at the top end of the market, but the performance is excellent.
The USP is the clever and very effective adjustable arch support, which substantially improves comfort for people like out tester George who need a bit more support underfoot. They’re also very stiff, and impressively light.
George writes: “Overall, I was very impressed with these shoes. Yes, they're expensive, and they let water in freely around the adjustable area, but they are also comfortable, stiff, light, and have excellent ventilation. But it's the arch support that is truly innovative and a real game changer for people like me who need it.”
Shimano's S-Phyre RC902 shoes are stiff, comfortable and hold the foot securely during big power efforts. There are changes over the previous model, the RC9, but the basics stay the same. This is a comfortable, well-thought-out pair of race shoes.
Boa's Li2 dials have easy tension adjustment that’s micro-adjustable both ways, allowing you to crank the dials down tight for town sign sprints and then release them a bit once you've beaten your mates. The upper dial pulls on a wide strap which spreads pressure very well and the lower dial relies on a criss-cross pattern to spread the retention pressure perfectly comfortably. A brilliant new heel cup comprising two rubberised pads sitting on either side of the Achilles tendon absolutely clamps the heel in place.
For a race shoe, they deliver on the stiffness front, the heel retention is excellent and comfort is good for long rides.
Specialized's flagship S-Works 7 road shoe offers outstanding performance with superb comfort, fit, foot retention and power transfer. Yes, they are spendy – and if you opt for custom insoles (more on them below) rather than standard that adds another £110, but they're about the same as other top-end shoes and are easily a match for the best shoes in this class.
If you're interested in the lightest shoes Specialized makes, check out the S-Works Exos and Exos 99. Unless you're a weight weenie, for all-round performance, outright stiffness demands and durability, the S-Works 7 is the shoe to plump for.
You don't need us to tell you just how important fit is to cycling happiness and performance, whether it's the bike or shoes. You can have the spangliest shoes but if the fit is wrong, you're not going to extract your best performance and you risk injury. Specialized has always focused on fit and its Body Geometry tech, developed over a decade ago, has seen its shoes become incredibly popular even with brand conscious types.
With scores from our testers that don't quite put them in the top 10, these shoes nevertheless are all highly rated and the four in particular will appeal to folks who don't want to drop two hundred quid on a pair of kicks.
Boardman has delivered an absolute belter of a spec list for the sub-£100 price tag on their latest Carbon Cycle Shoes. They offer decent stiffness, are well vented and the upper gives a supple feel for comfort too – plus the adjustment of the ratchet dials allows you to tweak them on the fly.
The full carbon sole found here isn't the stiffest but 95% of the time it’s absolutely fine. The twin dials pull the soft and supple synthetic upper smoothly around your foot with a uniform pressure and no hot sports. Should your feet swell or shrink due to the weather conditions, a quick tweak on the dials while in the saddle is easy.
Boardman has continued the theme of delivering uncomplicated, high quality products for very sensible money. The most powerful riders may find the sole a little flexy, but for the majority of us they're going to fit the bill for all kind of riding styles.
Giro's Trans Boa shoes update the excellent Velcro-secured original design to create stiff, comfortable and thoroughly modern shoes. They'll please everyone from keen amateurs to sportive riders and occasional racers with their stiff carbon soles and easily tweaked comfort, though they're not the lightest available.
These Trans are broadly similar to the version that scored an impressive 4.5 stars back in 2016, meaning an Easton EC70 carbon sole, a very breathable microfibre and mesh upper, and an attractive mix of matt and gloss panels. Two of the three Velcro straps are now gone, replaced by a quick-release Boa L6 dial that tightens in 1mm increments.
The Shimano XC5 (XC501) SPD shoe is a mid-pack mountain bike design that is incredibly comfortable, easy to walk in, good for more than just cross-country riding and punches above its weight performance-wise.
Closure is taken care of by a single Boa L6 ratchet dial which tightens a wire crossing in a figure of eight over two hooks across the top of the foot which does its job with aplomb. The synthetic leather used for the upper feels supple yet sturdy enough for off-road scuffles. It's incredibly comfortable as the shoe wraps over the entire foot with no pressure points or seams to rub.
The XC5s are comfortable and dependable shoes for pretty much any off-road or bike-related shenanigans you might want to get up to – you can ride cross country in them, or across a country, use them for mountain bike racing or cyclo-cross, go gravel riding in them, commute in them, or just ride in them. For a mid-range SPD shoe that can be ridden hard and then be happy to be walked about in, they're great.
The Rapha Classic shoes are a superbly comfortable design with a novel lacing system, good sole stiffness and durability, and – shock, horror! – a not-outlandish price.
They're comfortable, with a stiff and durable sole, though they're not the lightest and the lace closure won't be to everyone's taste.
Compared to Rapha's previous Grand Tour, Climber's and Cross shoes, made in collaboration with Giro, these designed-in-house kicks use a last with a little more volume in the forefoot. My feet are a middling width and I found them to have plenty of room up front – certainly enough to wiggle my toes freely. If your feet are narrower, you can always cinch the sides in via the Velcro forefoot strap. I guess you might struggle if your feet are particularly wide, although the supple upper offers a bit of leeway.
Rapha's race-orientated Pro Team shoes come with woven uppers, a dual Boa dial closure system, and stiff carbon fibre soles, and they do a great job of mixing a high performance with plenty of comfort.
Rapha released a couple of new shoe models last year – the Classics and the Explores – but the Pro Teams are very different in that the uppers are made from Powerweave rather than microfibre, and feature a Boa dial closure rather than laces.
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 road cycling 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.
Want even more choices? Explore the complete archive of reviews of cycling shoes on road.cc
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John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.