Cycling shoes are worth it because they help improve a rider’s efficiency on a bike by allowing them to exert maximum effort and achieve optimum performance, without sacrificing comfort. The shoes are made of materials specifically combined to improve the cycling experience.
Cycling shoes may seem like “just another pair of shoes,” but there are different types, each with its own features. In this article, I’ll examine the characteristics, benefits, and types of cycling shoes to help you decide if you should invest in a pair. Read on to learn more.
1. Cycling Shoes Aren’t Like Other Shoes
You might be wondering why you can’t just wear a regular pair of sneakers to your spinning class or while you’re out riding on your bike. The truth is, you can—but you’re unlikely to maximize your performance without these specialty shoes.
Explicitly designed for cycling, the anatomy of the shoe helps riders stay comfortable and reach their peak performance while riding.
Unlike traditional athletic shoes with flexible soles, cycling shoes utilize stiff soles to allow for greater power transfer. The soles are typically made from nylon or carbon fiber, whereas most athletic shoe soles consist of natural rubber, polyurethane, or PVC compounds. Athletic shoes are flexible for running and tend to have quite a bit of weight, whereas cycling soles are rigid and light.
Like athletic shoes, cycling shoes also use different tread patterns for various purposes. However, cycling shoes also utilize other materials for the tread. For example, mountain bike shoes utilize carbon fiber and rubber tread for extra stiffness and traction in case the rider needs to walk steep hills or on rugged terrain.
The outer sole is the most significant difference between athletic shoes and cycling shoes, but each also utilizes different materials for the upper section. The upper part of the shoe is the area that wraps around the foot. Athletic shoes use leather or synthetic fabrics, but cycling shoes often use mesh for breathability (except mountain biking shoes, which use abrasion-resistant materials). Some brands even offer reflective material for night riding.
2. Cycling Shoes Make Bike Riding More Comfortable
There’s a reason why manufacturers design cycling shoes differently compared to normal walking or athletic shoes. The movement of the feet while riding a bike is very different from walking or running. Anyone who intends to spend a good deal of time cycling should consider making the investment due to the many benefits of these specialty shoes.
Manufacturers design cycling shoes with a “clip-in” mechanism. It’s also referred to as “clipless,” which often confuses beginners. The traditional way to secure cycling shoes to a bike was via a toe clip. Therefore, “clipless” refers to shoes that do not need a toe clip. Instead, they utilize cleats to clip into the pedal for security.
Clip-in cycling shoes take a lot of getting used to. Once you’ve mastered them, however, the benefits are worth it. They allow for better power transfer, let you use more of your leg muscles, offer more control, and keep your feet in the ideal cycling position to reduce fatigue.
Shoes designed specifically for cycling provide maximum comfort while riding. Even though stiff soles may sound uncomfortable, they actually prevent the feet from becoming fatigued. Wearing flexible shoes during cycling can cause muscle discomfort, as the foot tends to “wrap” itself around the pedal.
Smooth Ride and Maximum Power
The rigid soles and clip-in feature allow for a smoother ride with greater control and more efficiency. Every time you pedal, you create a more significant power transfer. In addition, the feet stay attached to the pedal, which enhances muscle engagement. Instead of using only the quads to push down, you also activate the hamstrings as you pull up. Over time, you’ll develop more stamina than if you were to use traditional athletic shoes.
When you combine stiff soles with high-quality cycling insoles, the result is a quality, supportive shoe. Flexible soles allow the foot to flex around the pedal, leading to pain, fatigue, and muscle cramps, all of which are incredibly problematic, especially on long bike rides.
Cycling shoe manufacturers utilize mesh material to create breathable shoes. Biking is a vigorous sport, and it causes the feet to sweat. There is little ventilation in regular athletic shoes, which could lead to a very uncomfortable, sweaty ride.
Whether you enjoy mountain biking or casually riding through your neighborhood, there’s a shoe for that. Athletic shoes have various purposes, from basketball to track, and cycling shoes are no exception. There are different cycling shoe designs, which I’ll discuss more in-depth in the next section.
3. You Need To Choose Activity-Specific Cycling Shoes
From mountain bike shoes to spinning shoes, there are different shoe designs for different types of cycling.
Some types of cycling shoes and their features include:
- Mountain Bike – Cycling shoes designed for mountain biking feature stiff, rugged tread that provides extra grip when on the trails. The cleats within the shoe are recessed, making them easy to walk in, which is beneficial for hikes or walking on gravel surfaces.
- Road Bike – These are the most common cycling shoes. Like all cycling shoes, they have stiff soles. The wide cleats make them uncomfortable for walking, but when riding, they offer maximum power transfer. If you’re a road rider, these are the best shoes (as long as you don’t intend to walk long distances in them). Triathletes prefer this type of shoe over the others, thanks to the power transfer alone.
- Cyclo-cross – Cyclocross is a bike race through trails, grass, and steep hills, which often requires riders to dismount, walk, run, or move obstacles, so traction is a must. These shoes are very similar to mountain bike shoes, except they offer the ability to add spikes for additional grip.
- Spin Shoes – Shoes for indoor cycling are comfortable to walk in and usually feature 2-bolt cleats to keep your feet snug on the pedal and allow for excellent power transfer. Before settling on 2-bolt cleats, check with your gym to determine what pedal system they use on their bikes.
- Casual Biking Shoes – These shoes are best for riders who intend to ride recreationally or for those who ride bikes to and from work. They provide the benefits of more advanced cycling shoes but maintain walking comfort and style. Like mountain biking shoes, casual cycling shoes feature recessed cleats.
- Triathlon Shoes – Yes, there are shoes specifically made for triathlons. Triathlon shoes are designed to attach to the bike before mounting. Having the shoes attached to the pedals beforehand allows riders to hop on the bike, get up to speed, and then slip their feet into the shoes. These shoes have straps for easy securing, and the loop on the heel allows riders to pull them on with ease.
If you partake in a few or all of these activities, then you may also need to consider investing in more than one pair.
4. They’re Ideal for Serious, Long-term Riders
For cyclists just starting, it’s best to stick with traditional athletic shoes—at least at first. Starting in shoes that you’re used to allows you time to become accustomed to riding. Clip-in shoes take time to get used to, and if you don’t know how to wear and use them properly, it could prove dangerous.
If you decide later that you want to incorporate biking more regularly, it’s probably a good time to invest in cycling shoes. The benefits are worth the purchase, especially for long-term riders.
You can practice in cycling shoes to become more accustomed to the feel. It’s best to start on a stationary bike for safety reasons. When practicing with your clip-in cycling shoes on a regular bike, stick to safe areas, like grassy surfaces. That way, if you fall, the impact won’t be as dangerous. The more you practice, the more you’ll get used to the feel of clip-ins.
5. Brands’ Sizing, Materials, and Stiffness Will Vary
Once you decide to commit to cycling, it’s time to buy your first pair. Before you settle on one, consider the following to ensure you’re getting a pair that works great for you.
Cycling shoes and pedals work together to ensure a smooth ride. Most clipless cycling shoes come equipped with 2-bolt or 3-bolt systems. Bike pedal systems are different across makes and models, so you’ll need to choose a cleat that works with your bike and is compatible with the shoe.
If you’re purchasing cycling shoes for cycling classes, check with the gym to determine which system they use. Manufacturers often sell shoes and cleats separately to ensure compatibility. Compatibility is essential for safety, so it’s a great starting point when shopping for cycling shoes.
The materials you choose for your cycling shoe depend on the length of your cycling trips and when and where you intend to ride. If you’re riding outdoors for long periods in a hot climate or indoors during a spin class, you’ll want breathable shoes made of mesh. For mountain biking or cycling in cold temperatures, you’ll need a more durable, abrasion-resistant material with plenty of upper perforations for breathability without sacrificing warmth.
The Right Sole Stiffness
As I’ve discussed in this article, stiff soles increase performance and allow for better power transfer. However, soles can be too stiff. While flexible shoes lead to wasted power, shoes that are too rigid can lead to pain, cramps, and general discomfort due to pressure. If you find that most shoes feel too stiff, try injection-molded nylon composite. It’s more flexible than carbon fiber but still rigid enough for good power transfer.
Choosing cycling shoes is a lot like picking out a pair of regular walking shoes. Don’t settle for the first pair—try on different brands to get a feel for the fit and comfort level. Cycling shoes typically use European sizing. Since conversions aren’t consistent across brands, ask for help if you’re unsure about what size to get.
It’s recommended that you get your standard size, but if you’re in between sizes, it’s best to size up. Try them on and choose a pair that feels comfortable and snug but not too tight.
Avoid purchasing ill-fitting cycling shoes. This can be potentially dangerous and cause pain or discomfort during a ride. Some signs of a poor fit include:
- Uneven pressure at the instep
- The heel slides up and down
- Toes hit the top of the shoe
- The shoe pinches
- It feels restrictive
- The ball of the foot feels raised
- Your foot slides around
Women’s vs. Men’s Sizing
When shopping for cycling shoes, you might notice that there are pairs marketed towards women—this isn’t specifically cosmetic. Women, on average, have smaller feet with more narrow soles in comparison to men. As a result, women tend to require a more shallow shoe. The shoes marketed towards women typically feature less space between the sole and the upper and come in smaller sizes.
High-end cycling shoes often feature quality insoles, but if you’re purchasing low to mid-range shoes, it’s best to buy a separate insole for extra comfort. Choose a cycling-specific insole, one that supports and aligns the foot during cycling sessions. If you’re willing to spend some extra cash, custom-made insoles are the best of the best.
Different cyclists have different preferences when it comes to shoe fastening mechanisms.
- Laces allow the rider to adjust the fit at the ankle, heel, and instep. They provide the most control over the spread of tension in the foot. The major downfall of laces is that they can come loose during a ride and end up stuck in the pedals.
- Straps are convenient and quick to fasten. You don’t have to worry about laces coming undone, so they provide more peace of mind. However, the fit is not nearly as customizable as laces, and the shoe doesn’t feel secure.
- The Boa System is a patented lacing system that utilizes wires and a knob for a snug fit. You turn the dial to tighten and untighten the shoe. The downside to The Boa System is that it doesn’t provide as much security around the heel and instep.
I recommend trying on a few pairs to get a feel for which fastening mechanism you’re most comfortable with before purchasing.
6. High-Quality Cycling Shoes Can Be Costly
“The higher the price, the better the quality.” This statement may not apply to everything in life, but it’s a good rule of thumb when it comes to cycling shoes.
Interestingly, as cycling shoes go up in price, they go down in weight. This is due to the materials used. Low to mid-range brands utilize nylon, whereas higher-end cycling shoes come with carbon fiber soles. Carbon fiber is lighter than nylon but stiffer, considering its weight.
If you’re purchasing cycling shoes for recreation, spinning, or non-competitive cycling, you do not need to spend much on a pair of cycling shoes. Low-range cycling shoes cost anywhere from $25 and up. Mid-range costs start around $50-150. These shoes typically feature nylon soles, and the fastening system usually consists of simple straps with a hook-and-loop closure. These shoes are perfectly suitable for casual riders.
If you’re into triathlons or other competitive cycling races, it’s wise to invest in a high-end pair of cycling shoes. These shoes can easily reach several hundred dollars per pair, but you get what you pay for. Some feature dial-system closures, lighter materials, breathable fabrics, and they tend to be more comfortable.
Speaking in generalities, cycling shoes are not necessary for biking. You can get around just fine in a pair of athletic shoes—and if “just fine” is what you’re looking for, then regular shoes should suffice. However, if you’re looking to maximize your performance, it’s wise to invest in a pair of quality cycling shoes.
Cycling shoes are designed specifically for biking and provide benefits that other shoes do not—better power transfer, comfort, security, efficiency, and safety. Cycling shoes are worth the investment for those who wish to cycle regularly. Anything else may prevent you from reaching your full cycling potential.