Off-bike convenience and comfort at the expense of on-bike power transfer? Not necessarily. Here’s how to choose the right flat shoes to suit your cycling.
High performing flatties for commuting, leisure and urban cycling from £89.99
Decide how much non-cycling time you’ll be spending in your shoes – stiffer flatties are great for power transfer but might not have enough give for comfortable day-to-day life
Sticky rubber soles and clever tread design can offer excellent grip on and off the bike
Combine with pinned flat pedals for ultimate performance
There are a few reasons why you might decide you’d rather use flat shoes instead of cleated cycling shoes. The most obvious is that you either don’t like the idea of clipping in and out, or you find the whole cleated shoe and clipless pedal business a bit of a faff. If you’re hopping on and off your bike all day, especially in an urban environment, that’s a perfectly valid point of view.
Add to that the often significant comfort of flat shoes – it’s not always the case, but there are certainly some flat shoes that offer fantastic plushness compared to more sports-orientated shoes – and the convenience of being able to ride and go about daily life without too much of a compromise, and you’ll find that flat shoes and flat pedals might just have something going for them.
“When cycling journalists write about flat shoes and pedals versus clipless pedals, the accepted wisdom is that clipless pedals are more efficient. It gets repeated so often, but is it true?” says road.cc tech editor Mat Brett, who has looked in some depth at the differences between pedal and shoe choices.
“For example, people will say that you can put in power on the upstroke with clipless pedals when sprinting, for example. But efficiency is a measure of work performed compared with the energy you’ve put it. If you’re pulling up on the pedal, there’s a physiological cost to that. It’s not free power. So my point would be that we might say we’re better connected to a bike with clipless pedals - your foot won’t slip off - but I don’t think we can say that clipless pedals are more efficient.”
As Mat points out, there is a directness about cleated shoes that makes the pedalling motion feel particularly secure. However, choose wisely and you’ll find that the right flat shoe and flat pedal needn’t be a huge disadvantage when it comes to power delivery or even surety in connection. It's also worth remembering: switching to flats is about making your bike work better for you, not just about making you work better on your bike.
So here we’ll examine some of the most important factors you need to consider when choosing your flat shoe, and then we’ll look at some of the best examples on the market.
Let’s start with the requirements of daily life. Although many flat shoes are designed for specific purposes such as downhill mountain biking, the big benefit they have for the rest of us who aren’t planning on taking on North Shore challenges is that you can walk about in them off the bike without the slip-sliding and clippety-clop of rigid sole, cleated cycling shoes.
As we’ll see when we look in more depth at comfort, power delivery and grip in a moment, that doesn’t mean all flat sole shoes are fab for spending the day on your feet. These are still cycling shoes, after all. However, some flatties absolutely could become your daily shoes. As a trade-off, that might mean that they’re not quite as effective in the saddle, but that’s where your own personal preferences and requirements come into play, and they'll still be better than a pair of trainers.
If you’re coming from performance-focused carbon road shoes, the amount of cushioning and general all-round plushness found in some flat shoes might just leave you speechless. There’s no way these could be ‘cycling shoes’, you’ll think, as you study the box looking for an Airwalk logo or similar.
From the cushioned sides, tongue and in-sole, some flat shoes take cycling away from the realms of self-flagellation and towards a luxurious experience. And as flat shoes often feature reinforced toe boxes and heel guards, this isn’t just blind comfort – there’s a helpful dose of cycling-specific protection there too. We should also point out that some more performance-led flat shoes, which seem a little underwhelming in terms of relative comfort when standing and walking, can be fantastically comfortable on the pedals.
As we mentioned earlier, off-bike comfort can come at a small cost: namely efficiency or power transfer. The flat shoe sole is often made up of three separate layers: the inner sole immediately underneath your feet; the mid-sole; and the outer sole. If all of these three elements are too forgiving, your pedalling performance will be compromised. If all three of these elements are supremely stiff, then on-your-feet comfort might take a hit.
Ideally, the obvious answer is to start with a relatively stiff outer sole. The good news is, with stiffness optimised, flat shoes can feel almost as effective at power delivery as cleated shoes. Yes, stiff soles can make walking and prolonged standing a bit of a chore, so decide what you need. But if it’s all-out power in the saddle that you’re after, there are flat shoes that can supply that more effectively than you might imagine.
Of course, power is nothing without a decent contact patch. Part of the attraction of flat shoes is that you don’t need to slip and slide when you’re on your feet and some flats have specific tread at toe ad heel to help walking traction. But they don't all feature the sort of grip you’d expect from a pair of chunky trainers – the soles of flat cycling shoes are often designed more specifically to be used with pinned or studded flat pedals. To augment this, manufacturers even use dedicated sections of particularly grippy rubber in the outer sole.
So, as has become something of a theme here, weigh up how much grip you’ll want off the bike and how much you’d like on the bike. Again, though, the good news is that with the right sole tread design and the right pedals, your contact patch might be more secure than you’d expect. OK, you won’t be able to pull up on the pedals, but there should be no reason for pedal slippage.
One word of warning though. Be aware of your flat shoes’ limits when it comes to other daily activities - in particular, driving. Assuming you drive a motor vehicle at least some of the time, understand that flat cycling shoes which offer great grip on pinned bicycle pedals are not always quite so reassuring on the relatively smooth brake, throttle and clutch pedals. So don’t drive in flat cycling shoes unless you’re totally happy they provide the right levels of grip.
As we’ve mentioned already, to really get the most out of a pair of flat shoes, you’re going to want to team them with an equally awesome pair of pinned flat pedals. Thankfully, there’s a huge range out there, with products that will do the trick starting at pocket money prices. To find out more, read our flat pedal guide.
For people who want flat shoes that they can wear all day, even if they’re standing on their feet, but which offer more than just trainer-level performance on the bike, Pearl Izumi’s X-Alp Flows are the perfect answer. There aren’t super-plush levels of padding compared to some rivals, and the bit of give in the sole means pedalling rigidity isn’t as rock hard as others, but as an all-round daily shoe with added grippy rubber tread for bike-friendly ability, they’re hard to beat.
When it comes to all-out, luxurious comfort, Giro’s Jacket IIs have to be near the top of the list; we’re not joking when we say that slipping your feet into these is like putting on a favourite pair of slippers. Comfort aside, the Jacket IIs have other talents. Power delivery is pretty assured and, despite the multitude of air holes in the upper, they’re actually surprisingly water-resistant. Rain can play its part in another way, though – they’re not especially grippy, so you’d be wise to team them with well-pinned pedals.
Ion Raid's Amp offers decent grip, comfort and a stiff enough sole that supplies very effective power transfer. Although a bit firm for day-to-day life initially, once you’ve broken them in, you’ll be able to spend as long as you like in them whether on or off the bike. The variably-designed rubber sole will stick to pinned pedals pretty securely and keep you upright on your feet, too. A good all-round flatty.
At the other end of the performance spectrum from the Giro Jacket II or the Pearl Izumi X-Alp Flow, Giant’s Shuttle flatty majors on all-out pedalling performance. The dual-compound sole might not quite match a rigid carbon alternative, but it’s still supremely impressive in terms of power transfer. Add in Giant's proprietary GRIPR rubber pedal contact patch and good on-bike comfort, and you’ve got a flatty that out-performs expectations. Not great for spending all day in, though, and any walk longer than a hop from bike to bar or checkout can get a bit tiresome.
A bit of a shift up in budget brings Bontrager’s Flatline flatties into range. When he tested them, Jon at off.road.cc thought they were fab in a number of ways, not least fit, comfort, stiffness and feel. However, they did have one notable downside: “The Vibram Megagrip soles just aren't as grippy as the benchmark Five Tens despite costing roughly the same,” Jon said. So, great shoes if you’re not focused on absolute traction and they're well made, with the upside of the harder rubber being that they're also longer lasting than stickier rivals too.
Five Ten are the veritable kings of the castle when it comes to flatties, with a wide range of SPD-free shoes to suit any requirement. The Impact Pros show off all of Five Ten’s knowledge and expertise with class-leading flat pedal grip, comfy fit and a sole that manages to balance, traction, stiffness and comfort. The big variable-sized, dot-shaped tread engages with pedal pins super well. In fact, the only thing we can really find to criticise is the cheap-feeling laces – and that’s an easy problem to remedy.
If grip is your bugbear, Specialized’s 2FO Flat 2.0s is the answer to your dreams. Although the sole features an adjusted, deeper tread at the heel and toe for better on-foot performance, it’s on the pedals where these really shine. The soft and hugely grippy rubber in the pedal contact area makes for an assured connection, and there is excellent feel for better control. Specialized’s Body Geometry footbeds offer added comfort and noticeable cushioning. At £140, though, these are a pricey option.
For female riders, there are a few women-specific flatties on the market that feature more female-friendly styling and design. Ride Concepts’ Livewires are excellent all-day shoes that are comfortable, well-made, sturdy and even offer enhanced performance with a stiffer sole for pedalling. They’re not super grippy, and sizing comes up a little small, but for a flattie you can live with day-to-day, they’re a great option.
Finally, there is a middle way between flat and cleated shoes. Some options, such as these Gauges from Giro, are supplied with cleat mount covers that you bolt into place should you want to stay resolutely unclipped. These are stiff, comfortable and supply excellent off-bike grip with only weather protection being a let down. And if for any reason you decide at a later date that clipped-in is the way to go, well, you don’t need new shoes – just remove the covers and fit some cleats.
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