How And Why Road Bike Shoes Make A Difference

Road bike shoes are specifically designed for outdoor cyclists. They are light, have a rigid sole, and have little flex that allows for support and a more efficient and safer ride. Although it is possible to wear regular shoes while on a bike, it is extremely beneficial to choose road bike shoes.

How do road bike shoes make a difference? While cycling, you depend on your feet to support the rest of your body, so the rigid sole and stiff uppers in road bike shoes help support your body and prevent you from falling while providing more energy through the pedals.

Using cycling shoes involves three main parts; the pedals, the shoes, and the cleats. Putting these three elements together properly can give you a better riding experience. When cycling, it is a good idea to have an understanding of how the pedaling elements can work to your advantage, because they do make a big difference.

How Are Bike Shoes Different From Other Shoes?

Bike shoes are not built the same way other shoes are; they are made with a stiffer sole that helps optimize the rider’s energy.

Regular athletic shoes are made to be softer to allow the foot to move, but cycling shoes are made to keep the foot stiff so that power doesn’t become lost and so that all that energy being expelled from the legs can go directly to the pedals.

Running Shoes

Athletic shoes are okay for the gym and other athletic activities, except cycling, because they do not optimize the rider’s energy and can prevent the rider from reaching their full potential.

Here are some characteristics of running shoes that are different than cycling shoes:

  • They have a flexible bottom
  • They cushion, stabilize, and support the foot
  • They are designed to help the foot cope with the strain of running
  • The toe and heel are cushioned for the impact of the ground
  • Lightweight

When runners are looking for a running shoe, they want to look for a shoe that is flexible and light, and wide enough for the shoe to expand while running. A good cycling shoe is the opposite.

Cycling Shoes

Cycling shoes are not the same as running shoes, and they need very different qualities to be good at what they do. Here are the characteristics of a cycling shoe that make them different than other shoes:

  • They are made with a stiff thick bottom
  • They are able to attach to the pedal
  • Lightweight
  • Smooth outsoles
  • Good ventilation

When searching for cycling shoes, you want a stiff and rigid sole, and you want the shoe to be snug, typically a size smaller than your regular shoes.

Why Wear Bike Shoes

Choosing whether to wear bike shoes should depend on how far you are planning to ride. If you are only covering a couple of miles through town, it may be best to stick with your regular shoes. But if you are biking for a longer period of time for exercise, using bike shoes is beneficial.

  • Bike shoes are designed to give the rider a greater degree of control to make for a smoother ride.
  • Bike shoes are made to clip into the bike’s pedal in order to keep the foot in place while pedaling. This helps prevent the rider from having their feet slip and losing energy.

Shoes that do not clip into the pedal can overwork your quads because you are relying on the push action to create the power to the pedals. Bike shoes allow you to push and pull with equal force without exhausting your quads.

When shoes are clipped into the pedals, the downward strokes activate the quads while the upward motions activate the hamstrings. This allows for a more even exercise of the muscles while ensuring a more efficient ride that is faster with less energy used.

Types of Shoes For Different Rides

All types of cycling footwear will connect you to the pedals of the bike, but each shoe has different features depending on what your chosen ride is.

It is possible to crossover to different styles of riding using different pedal, shoe, and cleat combinations; however, selecting the right option for each style will help improve performance, comfort, and function. 

The four main cycling styles are:

  • Road
  • Mountain bike
  • Triathlon
  • Urban

Road

Road shoe’s main priority is sole stiffness, weight, and maximum cleat/pedal engagement. These elements are to provide greater performance to the rider.

Pedal engagement is how strongly the shoes are held to the pedals, and the pedal engagement in road cycling shoes are greater than any of the other options. Because road cyclists barely need to walk on their shoes, there is a small amount of tread on the heel.

Road shoes are lightweight, well ventilated, and provide a wide variety of closing options.

Mountain Bike

Mountain bike shoes will include a recessed cleat, have more tread, and a lugged outer sole because walking and dismounting is more common in mountain biking than it is with road shoes.

Mountain bike shoes need to be more versatile for walking, clearing debris, comfort, and ease clipping in and out of the pedal, so sole stiffness and weight are important, but not as important as a road shoe.

Mountain bike shoes also have a variety of closing options but will have a different upper to provide more protection from debris since riding off-road will likely create a buildup of dirt and mud.

Some mountain bike shoes will be almost double the weight as a road shoe because they have a pedal channel that sits behind the pedal in order to make clipping in easier. This channel is to also provide a more stable platform between shoe and pedal while not being clipped in.

Triathlon

Similar to a road shoe, triathlon shoes prioritize having a stiff sole, lightweight, and maximum cleat/pedal engagement in order to provide greater performance.

But the difference between them is that triathlon riders need to be able to easily get in and out of their shoes, so the closing mechanism is limited, mainly to single Velcro straps.

Triathlon shoes also provide a heel loop that allows the rider to easily grab the back of the shoes in order to slide in and out.

Another key factor of a triathlon shoe is that they are very well ventilated since it is a summer sport, and feet are very likely to be wet following the swim portion.

Urban

Urban shoes are similar to mountain bike shoes with a recessed cleat, more tread, and a lugged outer sole. This allows the rider to walk in the shoes with more flexibility and without walking on the cleats.

Pedals

When choosing shoes for cycling, it is important to understand how cleats and pedals work as both can change depending on the cycling style.

Pedals are the key contact point between your bike and your foot. There are three main types of pedals:

  • Platform
  • Clip
  • Clipless

Platform

Platform pedals don’t have any clip-in options. Instead, they are a flat platform that allows the rider to step on and start pedaling with any type of normal shoe.

These pedals are most commonly found on BMX bikes, mountain bikes, and urban bikes.

Pedals that are used for trail and gravity mountain bikes will have a slightly concave shape with pins that are for extra traction.

Clip

They are called clip pedals, but they actually do not have the clipping mechanism. Instead, they rely on a cage and strap that holds the foot in place.

This type of pedal is typically seen on recreational road bikes and not really on performance bikes.

The benefit of the clip pedal is that they allow the foot to be attached to the pedal, but the downside is that your feet can be harder to remove from the pedal and get stuck.

Clipless

Clipless pedals are the most popular type of pedals, especially on performance bikes. These pedals allow the rider to mechanically attach their foot to the pedal, locking the cleat into place easily while being able to unclip with a simple twist of the foot.

Mountain bike pedals usually have two sides and are made to handle mud.

Road and triathlon bikes usually have one or two sides with a larger surface that provides a greater power transfer. They also feature a shallow height that improves ground clearance while pedaling through corners.

Urban bike pedals are usually combination pedals, which has a platform style on one side and a clip in on the other. This is a good solution for riders who want to be able to ride in normal shoes, but also clip-in.

Cleats

The cleats are mounted onto the shoe and are what locks you into the pedal. This clip in setup is what allows the most efficient power transfer.

The characteristics of cleats vary depending on the riding style of choice. The three main characteristics are:

  • Types
  • Float
  • Recess and external

Types

There are two main types of cleats:

  •  Two-bolt system – Mountain bike shoes utilize the two-bolt system, which allows the rider to dismount easily from the bike and also easily clean debris that builds up from riding off-road.
  • Three-bolt system – Road shoes utilize a three-bolt system because they have a larger surface area that allows more power transfer and foot stability.

Float

The float is the range your feet are allowed to move laterally without restriction on the pedal surface.  This range is measured in degrees.

You should give yourself more float if you are less flexible, less experienced, or more at risk of knee or leg injury.

Each cleat system will state the amount of movement that is available, usually in a color-coded system that allows the identification to be easier.

Recess And External

Cleats can either be recessed into the sole of the shoe, which allows the rider to walk on the ground without stepping on the cleats. These are typically on mountain and urban shoes.

Cleats can also be external, which means they protrude from the shoe. These cleats are typically on road or triathlon shoes where they rarely have to be walked on.

Tension

The tension on your cleats helps you to engage and disengage your feet from the bike. Adjusting to a lighter tension while getting used to your cleats can help you disengage your feet without struggling, which prevents you from toppling over. The tension can be tightened when the feet need to be more secured.

Higher tension is beneficial for sprinting but can create difficulties if an emergency stop is needed.

How To Choose The Right Road Shoe

A good riding shoe can make a huge difference in the comfort and performance of your ride. Finding the perfect bike shoe for you should be based on a few different factors, including riding style and fit.

Once you have figured out what type of riding style you will be participating in, you can then consider the other factors that make up riding shoes.

Sole

How stiff the sole is plays the biggest factor in how much power is being pushed through to the pedal, it also plays a big factor in the cost of the shoe. Stiffer soles are made of a more expensive carbon fiber that allows for less flexion of the shoe rather than cheaper materials.

When finding the right shoe, you want a better quality of material that allows less flexion so that more power can be transferred to the pedals more efficiently.

But there is also a less expensive option that includes a nylon sole, or a nylon shoe that is reinforced with carbon fibers. These options will still have a stiffer sole than a regular shoe while providing an efficient pedal stroke.

A downfall of choosing a cheaper option of shoe is that they won’t be as light or stiff as a higher-end shoe. So, when deciding on which one to choose, you should consider the fit, the fee, and how serious you are about racing.

Upper

That material that is used on the upper part of the shoe can play a factor in comfort, fit, and price.

  • The more expensive option is typically made out of natural leather, which will be a softer material that will mold to the foot and provide more comfort. 
  • The other option will be a synthetic material that may not be as comfortable but have the advantages of being more lightweight and easier to clean.

Along with the material of the upper, ventilation is another factor to consider when choosing a shoe. Some cycling shoes have a mesh material with holes in the upper that allows the foot to breathe. Although this is an advantage for hot and humid climates, the mesh does make the shoe harder to clean.

Closure

There are four main types of closures on a cycling shoe; Velcro straps, laces, buckles, and boa dials.

  • Mid to high-end shoes will have the boa dials, which are lightweight and easy to adjust while on the bike.
  • Shoelaces are becoming trendy because of the retro look they give and are another lightweight option that can provide comfort, but shoestrings are harder to adjust.
  • Buckle and Velcro straps are used on a cheaper shoe, but they can be as comfortable and lightweight as the other options.

When choosing the right shoe for you, pick the one that best adjusts to your foot while providing a comfortable amount of pressure when tightening.

Footbed

The arch, width, and curve of the footbed of a shoe differ between types of shoes. Just like the footbed of a shoe can differ, each individual’s foot is different. So which shoe is the most comfortable is highly individual.

This makes it important to try on the shoes before buying so that you can ensure maximum comfort for your unique foot. 

Heel Cup

The back part of the shoe that hugs the heel is called the heel cup. Having a secure heel cup prevents the heel from sliding up and down as you pedal, which then improves the efficiency of power to the pedal.

If the heel cup is not secure, the friction from your foot sliding around can cause issues that lead to discomfort during longer rides.

When trying on a road bike shoe, make sure to lift your heel off the ground and press the toes into the ground to check to see if the heel cup is secure and comfortable.

Heel/Toe Bumpers

There are small rubber inserts on the heel and toe of the shoe that can make standing after unclipping from the pedal easier. Because these inserts do wear out, it is good to pick out a shoe that allows those inserts to be replaced.

Cleats

Road bike shoes use a clipless pedal-shoe combination where cleats are able to be attached to the bottom of the shoe to allow the shoe to attach securely to the pedal. This combination allows for greater performance and efficiency.

There are two kinds of cleats:

  • 3-hole cleats – Road bike shoes typically have three holes drilled into sole that accepts cleats and pedals from other manufacturers. A 3-hole cleat system offers the most stability and energy while riding.

Larger cleats reduce the pressure on the connection points and allow a more secure connection while pedaling. You’ll want a 3-hole cleat if you care more about performance

  • 2-hole cleats – Some road shoes will use a 2-hole cleat that pair with pedals from certain manufacturers. You’ll have to match a shoe with the compatible pedal

If you will be spending a lot of time getting off and, on the bike, you may want to opt for a 2-hole cleat.

How To Install Your Cleats

It is a good idea to bring your cycling shoes to a local shop to have a professional help you install the cleats to your shoes. But if you are not able to get there, here are some tips to help with attaching the cleats yourself:

  • For maximum comfort, performance, and movement, the cleat should be aligned just under the ball of the foot in order to create a fluid pedal stroke and to help prevent injury. So, you should try on your shoe and locate where that area would be.
  • The term, toe-in or toe-out refers to the position your feet will naturally point with no pain or twisting sensations in the hips, knees, or ankles as you pedal. You should make sure the cleats are mounted properly to allow for a natural toe-in or toe-out. While figuring this out, it is a good idea to start out with the cleats pointing straight on the shoes to see how that feels and then make adjustments from there.
  • Make sure the screws are screwed in as tight as possible. They should be tight against the sole of the shoe and should not shift or rotate while attached.
  • Once they are installed, clip into the pedals and begin pedaling slowly. The cleats on cycling shoes are adjustable and sometimes takes trial and error to find the right position.

Clipping In

The term, clipping in, refers to attaching your cleat to the pedal of your bike. To do this:

  • Move your foot towards the pedal, aiming for the front of the cleat to be at the top of the pedal while nudging the front of the pedal with the toe of your shoe.
  • Once the front of the cleat is in, you can press down through the center of the shoe until you hear that click, which signifies the cleat is fully engaged.

A lot of people prefer to clip in with their dominant foot to provide more support and balance when clipping on the other foot.

To unclip, twist the ankle of the chosen foot out away from the bike. There will be another clicking noise that notifies you that your foot is out correctly. Once you get used to it, you can feel that unclipping motion through the sole of the shoe.

Before Riding

Once you have decided your riding style and have set up your cleats onto your shoes, it is a good idea to practice mounting and dismounting from your bike before going out on a ride.

A good way to practice is to prop yourself next to a wall and practice clipping in and clipping out. This action should be something you feel comfortable with before hitting the road.

You should also make sure that your release tension on the pedals is appropriate. Some less expensive pedals won’t allow you to make adjustments to the tension. You should make sure that you will be able to remove your quickly when needed.

Best Road Cycling Shoes

The cycling shoe is the most important part of a good cycling experience. There are three contact points between your body and your bike; palms, pelvic bone, and feet. With the feet being the most important point because the feet are where you’ll transfer all the power from your legs to the pedals.

Because of that, choosing the right pair of shoes that suit your style of riding and the shape of your feet are important.

Best For Beginners

  • Giro Treble 2– Three wide Velcro straps that provide a snug and comfortable fit. This shoe comes with a universal cleat mount system that allows you to use a 2 or 3 bolt cleat/pedal system.
  • Pearl Izumi Select V5 The nylon sole has a stiffness index of 6, which is ideal for beginners. Better breathability in the uppers that is good for warmer climates. The material used is able to adapt to your foot shape to provide a snug fit.
  • Shimano RP-1– Features two tongue-in-loop Velcro straps that can be tightened to the right comfort level. They feature compatibility with two-bolt or three-bolt cleats that allows you to use them on your road bike or in a spin class. The shoe’s nylon soles are stiff enough to provide power.
  • Gavin Elite– Two Velcro straps and a top adjustable buckle that allows you to get a  comfortable fit that is as tight as you need it to be. Compatible with both 2-bolt and 3-bolt cleats.

Best Value For Money

  • Fizik R4B Uomo– Sole made from ejected carbon-fiber, meaning it’s a mixture of carbon and plastic. This material isn’t as good as a full carbon-fiber shoe, but it still provides plenty of stiffness.
  • Shimano RC- 701– Features a lightweight and rigid carbon fiber composite sole for maximum power transfer. Dual dials that allow you to make micro-adjustments for fit.
  • Giro Apeckx 2– Provides a stiff sole with composite nylon that allows for good power transfer at a reasonable price.
  • Specialized Torch 3.0– Carbon sole with a more relaxed fit around the toe and heels.

Best Performance Road Cycling Shoes

  • Fizik Infintino R1– Dynamic arch support, increased volume control; this is a shoe that is chosen by top pros.
  • Shimano S-Phyre RC901– Lightweight, rigid carbon sole. Fitted with sizing dials to allow micro-adjustments.
  • Giro Factor Techlace– BOA dials that allow for a precise fit through a 1mm increments.

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