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What you need to know about choosing the perfect cycling shoes for your riding type

SAIL

April 01, 2022

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Cycling shoes

Many casual cyclists ride their bikes wearing ordinary sports shoes. So is investing in a pair of cycling shoes really necessary? If you cycle on a regular basis, the answer is yes. Cycling shoes are specifically designed to enhance your comfort while riding, as well as your performance level.

Unless you are an experienced cyclist, terms such as cleats, clipless and pedal systems can seem a tad confusing. That’s why we asked Winston Endall, bicycle mechanic at SAIL, to give us a few pointers on how to choose the perfect pair of cycling shoes for your needs. In this article, we’ll go through:

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How do cycling shoes work?

Cycling shoes are built with much stiffer soles than your average sports shoes, allowing for a more efficient energy transfer onto the pedal. In short, your entire foot is pushing down on the pedal at once, as opposed to only the ball of your foot. This makes your pedal strokes stronger and more efficient and gives your foot more support, thus making longer rides much more comfortable.

What types of shoes are there?

There are essentially two types of cycling shoes:

  • Clipless shoes (road cycling, mountain biking)
  • Platform shoes (commuting, cross-country mountain biking)

Clipless shoes, despite their confusing name, bind your foot to the pedal using cleats, which are bolted onto the sole for a more solid connection to your bike. These are mostly used by road cyclists, but some mountain bikers also ride using clipless shoes for some extra power on longer stretches of flat trails. It’s worth noting that road cycling shoes’ cleats protrude from the sole, making them difficult to walk in, while mountain bike shoes’ cleats are nestled into a recessed area of the sole, allowing you to walk more easily should you have to push your bike up a hill or carry it over obstacles.

Platform shoes do not have cleats and can be used with normal pedals, but have a stiff sole like clipless shoes. They provide a good compromise between clipless shoes (which do not allow you to walk easily when off the bike) and sneakers (which can be less comfortable riding after a while).

What should you look for in a cycling shoe?

The features that will make a noticeable difference to your cycling will largely depend on the type of riding you do. Here is a quick guide.

Road cycling (performance riding)

Road cyclists looking to increase the power of their pedal strokes should look for a rigid, treadless sole with a 3-hole cleat system. Many shoes feature mesh panels for easy ventilation. While they may look a bit alien, road cycling shoes are geared towards performance. They do not allow for easy walking, so are mostly used by cyclists who do not intend to get off their bike for more than a quick coffee run.

It’s also important to take the shape of your feet into account when selecting a road cycling shoe. “Where the ball of your feet falls may influence your choice of shoes,” says Winston. “The further forward your cleats are, the more you’ll be on your toes, putting more stress on your calves. Look for a model that fits right and one that offers more leeway in terms of adjustment for a more even push. The further back you can get the cleats for more you will use your butt muscles and the less you will tax your calves.” Have a look at some of Shimano’s selection for inspiration.

Road cycling (casual riding)

While cycling shoes are still better than sneakers for casual riders, especially those who enjoy longer rides, a mountain bike clipless shoe could be a good option here. The recessed cleats allow cyclists to get on and off the bike, while still providing a good connection to the pedal. If you’re touring and plan to stop often, have a look at brands GIRO and Garneau.

Mountain biking (jumps)

If jumps or more adventurous trails are what you’re after, a mountain bike platform shoe is really the best choice. They have grippier soles and are also easier on your feet when you land.

Mountain biking (cross country riding)

Mountain bikers looking for a more solid and secured connection to the bike can look for a clipless mountain bike shoe. These typically feature smaller recessed areas for (smaller) cleats, which helps avoid contact with the ground, and they use a 2-bolt cleat system. The goal here is to be able to go through rough terrain on foot if needed, but still have more power on the faster sections of the trail.

Commuting

Commuters have to stop more often than road cyclists or mountain bikers to navigate traffic, which renders the use of clipless shoes pretty tricky. Platform cycling shoes, on the other hand, offer a good balance between walking and riding. They should be more comfortable than the more rigid road cycling shoes, and have some grip on the soles.

Finding a compatible pedal system

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the shoes that have to match the pedals; it’s the cleats. Here, Winston recommends purchasing a compatible pedals and cleats combo first, and then focus on your shoe selection. Your chosen cleats should easily bolt onto your cycling shoes, which will have standard bolt holes (assuming you are sticking to a 2-hole or 3-hole system throughout). As an added bonus, this makes replacement easier as your cleats will usually wear out more quickly than your shoes. You can simply buy new cleats rather than replace your shoes altogether.

Fit, size and lacing systems

Your bike shoes should be comfortable, with a little bit of wiggle room so your toes don’t go numb during a three-hour ride. On the other hand, your heel shouldn’t be sliding around when walking either. The more adjustment points you have, the better you can fine-tune your fit, so look for a shoe with two or three bindings, whether these are straps, buckles or ratcheting cables.

How to care for your cycling shoes

You can simply clean your shoes with a rag and soapy water. If they are made of leather, treat the leather according to the instructions. Keep your shoes dry and pull out the insoles to let them dry out often. You should also check your bolts from time to time. If your cleats show signs of wear and tear (either they don’t work properly, the edges are worn out or they feel a bit sloppy), go ahead and replace them.

A few pro tips

  • If riding (or commuting) throughout the shoulder seasons, invest in good shoe covers to keep your feet warm.
  • Mountain bikers should also purchase shin pads as the pedal can (and will!) sometimes whack you on the shin.
  • When mountain biking through muddy or soft terrain, take out the bolts and screw in spikes. These will help your shoes bite into the ground to walk up slippery hills more easily.

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