BUYER'S GUIDE

5 best cycling shoes for beginners — find the secrets of comfy feet

Everything you need to know about soles, uppers, ratchets and buckles

Proper cycling shoes help keep your feet comfortable, improve power transfer and let in air to cool your feet on hot days. They’re an under-rated part of the cycling wardrobe and needn’t cost the earth.

  • Used with cleats, cycling shoes hold your foot in the best position for efficient pedalling, but even on their own their extra stiffness improves comfort

  • Cycling shoes intended for some types of mountain biking don't take cleats but use sticky rubber to grip flat pedals

  • Inexpensive cycling shoes are usually closed with three Velcro straps, or laces

  • You don't have to spend big; there are cycling shoes for over £300, but very functional and comfortable shoes can be had for around a tenth of that

5 great entry-level cycling shoes

The key to the function of cycling shoes is the sole. Cycling shoes have soles that are substantially stiffer than those of regular shoes or trainers. They don’t need to bend for walking, so they can be very stiff. That spreads the force you’re putting on the pedals around your foot and stops your foot uncomfortably bending at the edges of the pedal.

Let’s take a look at cycling shoes from the sole up.

Soles

A cycling shoe sole is stiff because it’s made of some sort of rigid plastic, often reinforced with fibreglass or carbon fibre. Most cycling shoe soles have threaded inserts so you can attach cleats for use with clipless pedals, though there are a few retro-styled shoes with smooth soles for use with clips and straps.

Pearl Izumi M Elite Road IV Shoe Sole

Pearl Izumi M Elite Road IV Shoe with three threaded inserts for a cleat and ventilation holes

There are two types of soles for clipless pedals. Road racing-style shoes have three threaded inserts for a cleat that sits on the outside of the sole. Mountain bike style shoes take a two bolt cleat that sits in a recess in the sole tread so that the shoes are easier to walk in when you have to get off the bike.

Shimano MW7 winter boots - sole

Shimano MW7 winter boots with a recess in the sole for a two-bolt cleat. (Only one pair of bolt holes is used at a time.)

Shoes for three-bolt cleats are great for rides where you don’t get off the bike for more than a cafe stop. If you want to walk around in between periods on the bike, go for two-bolt shoes.

Three-bolt soles usually have a couple of lumps of rubber under the heel and toe to make it slightly easier to walk in them, but they only improve things a little.

Quoc Pham Fixed shoes - sole.jpg

These Quoc Pham Fixed cycling shoes are intended for use with clips and straps and so don't have fixings for cleats

Uppers

Bontrager Classique Shoe.jpeg

Bontrager Classique Shoes have a synthetic leather upper and laces for a retro look.

Cycling shoe uppers are made from many materials including real leather or suede; synthetic leather or suede; and nylon mesh. They are usually stitched together from various panels of material, but some high-end shoes have the upper moulded in one piece, which saves weight. Look for seams reinforced by double lines of stitching at the edges of the panels.

Vittoria Road Shoes - heels
Shaped heel cups keep your foot securely in place in the shoe

The main body of the upper will have padding, reinforcement and stiffening in various places. The most significant stiffening is usually around the heel. This heel cup is shaped to hold your heel down in the shoe so it doesn’t slip on the upstroke as you pedal. The toes are usually reinforced against scuffing, especially in shoes intended for mountain biking. There’s usually padding at the heel and top of the shoe for comfort.

Shimano RP900 shoe.jpg

Shimano RP900 cycling shoes have multi-panel construction with mesh and a rubber toe bumper

Some high-end shoes have uppers that can be moulded to more precisely fit your feet. Your dealer warms them, usually in a special oven, and then you put them on and buckle them up. As they cool they’ll take on the shape of your feet.

Closures

Giro Petra VR Shoes
Laces can still be found on more casually-styled cycling shoes like these Giro Petra VRs

To keep them on your feet shoes need to be fastened. The old school way of doing this was with laces, but most cycling shoes now use Velcro straps, buckles, dials or some combination. Laces have made a bit of a comeback in the last few years, though, with some very high-end models using sophisticated string to keep them snug.

Shoes with laces will usually have a Velcro strap to cover the knot or some sort of ‘speed laces’ with a buckle to hold the laces in place and a place to tuck the free end. Either way, you don’t want any dangling string that can get caught in your chain or wrapped round the pedal axle so be sure to there are no loose dangly bits to get snagged. They may be a bit fiddly, but laces allow you to spread the tension evenly over your foot, which can make lace-up shoes very comfortable.

BTwin Road 5 Mens Road Cycling Shoes

B'Twin Road 5 shoes are a very typical three-strap shoe

Velcro straps are the cheapest option. There are usually three along the top of the foot and you simply pull them tight and cinch them down. They’re quick and easy and they hold the shoe firmly im place, but as there are only three of them it’s easy to overdo tightening one and end up feeling like part of your foot has been clamped. Tighten them gently.

Vittoria Speed road shoes

Vittoria Speed shoes each have a pair of Velcro straps and a ratchet buckle

On more expensive shoes you’ll find a ratchet buckle replacing the top strap. The advantage of a ratchet is that it’s very easy to adjust the tension as you ride, either to tighten it for a big effort or loosen it off if your feet are getting tired.

Bontrager Specter Road Shoe - BOA dial

Bontrager Specter shoes combine a BOA with a single Velcro strap

On some high-end shoes you’ll find one or two dials that tighten very fine plastic-covered steel cables. In effect this is the high-tech answer to laces, spreading the tension around the top of the foot. The idea first appeared as the Boa closure; several shoe manufacturers now use it or their own versions. Like ratchets, wire-dial closures allow you to adjust the tension while you ride.

Insoles

CurrexSole Bikepro Performance Insoles - underside

The underside of these CurrexSole Bikepro insoles shows the different regions for support and shock absorption

Inside the shoe you’ll find an insole that cushions your foot and spreads the loads around. These vary in sophistication from a simple layer of foam to liners with multiple densities and adjustable support to heat-mouldable insoles that can be shaped to fit your foot. You can also buy new insoles to improve the fit and comfort of your shoes.

Ventilation, warmth and waterproofing

GAERNE EPS LIGHT WEIGHT FULL CARBON SOLE.jpg
Vents at the front and in the middle of this Gaerne sole let cooling air fow through.

All that pressure through your feet can lead to them getting hot on warm days. As well as weight reduction, that’s why some shoes use lightweight mesh to let air in and cool your feet. Many shoes also have ventilation holes in the soles, though these can make you too cold in the winter. A strip of duct tape fixes that.

Gaerne G.Winter Road Gore-Tex road shoes
Winter cycling shoes ward off the cold and wet

Speaking of winter, you can get shoes specifically-designed to keep your feet war and dry during the cold and wet months. They usually have a breathable, waterproof Gore-Tex liner and a layer of insulation. That means they’re not cheap, but they’re worth it if you want to carry on riding through the winter. Pro tip: buy them in the spring when they’re heavily discounted and put them away for winter.

Women’s shoes

Fizik R5B Donna Womens shoes 2

In general, women have narrower ankles than men and smaller feet. Women’s shoes are therefore a slightly different shape, and some models are available in smaller sizes than the 36 that’s usually the lower limit of men’s ranges.

What do you get for your money?

It pays to shop around; shoes are rarely sold for full RRP. At actual prices of around £50 you start getting ratchet buckles for easy tension adjustment.

Want something stiffer and lighter? The cheapest shoes we’re aware of with carbon fibre soles will set you back £65, and you don’t have to pay much more for heat-mouldable soles.

From there on up shoes generally get more orientated toward racing, with a few exceptions like winter boots and expedition mountain bike shoes. That also means soles usually get stiffer and the whole shoe lighter. The light, high-strength materials needed to achieve that are expensive, which pushes up the price of the shoes. Won the lottery? Check out the handmade Assos G1 shoes with carbon fibre soles, kangaroo leather uppers, Boa closure and every clever detail you can think of. A snip at £370.

Five great shoes for beginner cyclists

Triban RC 100 shoes — £29.99

B'Twin RoadC 100 shoes

Shoes with two-bolt SPD cleats are great for riders who are new to cycling shoes because they're easier to get into and allow you to walk around off the bike. These cycle touring shoes from Decathlon are a bargain, with a Velcro strap to stop the laces getting tangled in your bike and a reflective insert in the heel for visibility.

FWE Pitch Sport — £40

FWE Pitch Sport shoes

For £40 these SPD shoes from the Evans store chain look like a very decent deal. There's also a road-specific version for the same price.

There are plenty of other shoes for under £50 at the moment in Evans' sale.

dhb Dorica — £56.00

dhb dorica mountain bike shoes with laces black

This is the mountain bike version of some shoes we tested and liked a couple of years ago. Those shoes required a bit of bodging to work with two-bolt cleats; these don't, which makes them a far better choice for general riding. The Dorica shoes hark back to yesteryear with their laces and lack of high-visibility or reflectivity. Coming in black or white, these are the cycling equivalent of a Little Black Dress or black polo-neck sweater, and will pair with just about any cycling apparel.

Giro Petra VR — £69.00

Giro Petra VR Shoes

While there's always going to be a time and a place for super-stiff lightweight road shoes, sometimes that's not always what's required, or desired. The Giro Petra VR Shoes are designed for those times when there's going to be a fair bit of walking as well as riding, and when a more low-key looking shoe may be the thing. But they're still technical.

Officially in Giro's 'dirt' section of the company's website, the Petra VR is more a touring or casual shoe, rather than a technical mountain bike shoe. They lace up, have a Vibram sole, and feature a removable plate under which lurks SPD attachment points, but they are styled much more casually.

The men's equivalent is the £64 Rumble VR.

Read our review of the Giro Petra VR

Find a Giro dealer

Shimano ME2 — £34.99 | more sizes £39.99

Shimano ME2 shoes

Happy customers report comfort on three-hour-plus rides from these three-strap mountain bike shoes which have fibreglass reinforced soles for comfy pedalling. A rubber outsole provides grip when you're off the bike, so these can be used for strolling around as well as riding.

Find a Shimano dealer

Fizik R1 Infinito Knit — £249.95 - £359.99

Fizik R1 Infinito Knit Road Shoe

Only kidding!

Explore the complete archive of reviews of cycling shoes on road.cc

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Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson 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.

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