The majority of cycle-specific shoes are designed to be used in tandem with ‘clipless’ pedal systems, which keep the rider’s foot attached to the pedal for improved power transfer and energy efficiency.
These shoes feature a recess on the sole into which is bolted a metal or plastic cleat that “clips in” to the retaining system on the pedal, and which is clipped out again when the bike comes to a halt.
When it comes to choosing the correct shoe, riders must take into consideration the type of riding they do, the type of terrain and weather conditions they are likely to be riding in, and whether or not they are likely to be walking for extended periods while wearing the shoes.
There are two main types of clipless pedal/cleat systems, with the choice being largely dependant on whether or not you wish to walk in the shoes.
Road clipless: Road racing clipless pedal/cleat systems feature large plastic cleats (for optimum stiffness and power transfer) and pedals with a clip mechanism on one side only (to reduce weight). Examples of this system include Shimano’s SPD-SL standard and equivalent systems used by manufacturer such as Look and Time. Because the cleats are large and not recessed into the sole of the shoe, walking is difficult in these shoes.
MTB/city clipless: MTB and city clipless pedal/cleat systems (e.g Shimano SPD) use smaller metal cleats that are recessed into the sole of the shoe so that you can walk in them. The pedals are double-sided so it’s easier to ‘clip in’.
See our ‘Pedals’ buying guide for more in-depth information on the different clipless pedal standards available.
Some of the most common types of cycle shoes include race shoes, trail shoes, winter shoes and flat pedal shoes.
Shoes designed for competitive road or MTB cross-country (XC) racing are designed primarily with light weight and stiffness in mind.
They feature an ultra-stiff midsole, offering optimum power transfer between foot and pedal and providing the most stable pedalling platform for quick acceleration and sustained speed.
Race-oriented shoes are also likely to make use of exotic materials to save precious grams and keep rotational mass to a minimum, with carbon fibre a common feature in high-end shoes due to its stiffness, strength and light weight.
Race shoes normally feature real or synthetic leather uppers, sometimes with mesh panels or a built-in breathable layer to allow warm, moist air escape and keep feet cool and dry. Closure is usually by means of Velcro straps on budget to mid-range models with a ratchet closure system often present on more expensive shoes. This provides solid and precise strap tension as well as a quick-release for easy exit.
Such shoes are also not the sole preserve of racers – many riders, especially touring cyclists, leisure road riders and others expecting to clock long hours and days pedalling, will appreciate the power saving that a good pair of stiff shoes can provide. There are many such shoes in the budget- to mid-range end of the market that use more everyday materials and offer and little more comfort for non-competitive riders.
Finally triathlon-specific shoes are super-stiff and featherweight, with one Velcro closing strap to allow quick removal in transitions.
The perfect balance of light weight and stiffness is the holy grail of the racer, but such shoes are very uncomfortable to walk in. Many other riders and especially mountain bikers therefore find that a better balance of comfort and forgiveness suits their needs better.
Trail shoes are designed with more flexible midsoles for those riders who may have to spend some time off the pedals and on their feet, whether it be a hike-a-bike across a mountainside or lunch in a trailside pub. Whereas race shoes generally have smooth soles, trail shoes will normally have a grippy tread, sometimes with removable metal studs, to give more traction across rough terrain.
While many trail shoes combine race stylings with more forgiving flex, others are designed to look and behave more like “normal” trainers or light hiking shoes, with heavier leather uppers, more padding for comfort and laces to close.
Trail shoes are more capable of coping with inclement weather conditions than most race shoes, keeping your feet warmer and drier for longer, but for proper all-weather comfort off-road you will need a pair of specially-designed winter boots. Heavier and bulkier than other cycling shoes with features such as neoprene ankle cuffs, these are not suitable for race conditions or summer cycling, but are built with thermal layers and microporous layers to keep your toes toasty in the depths of December.
It is also worth noting that most manufacturers offer a range of women’s-specific race and trail shoes taking into account the differences in female anatomy and stylistic tastes.
Flat pedal shoes
Although most “cycle-specific” shoes are intended to be used with clipless pedals, there are many areas where flat pedals reign supreme.
“Flats” are usually preferred for disciplines where rider and bike spend a lot of time airborne, and may be required to part company at a moment’s notice – flatland, street and freestyle BMX, Dirt Jumping (DJ) and Downhill (DH) racing (although it must be added that many top DH and BMX racers choose to ride “clipped in”).
Just as a special breed of flat pedals has evolved to cope with the demands of these sports – tough metal platforms with smooth reliable bearings and metal pins for grip – so too has a distinct style of shoe to match.
Shoes for flat pedals feature durable and water-repellant “skate-style” uppers and laces, with some important additions including ultra-tough and grippy soles that stick like glue to the pinned surface of flat pedals.
Such shoes – like the Five Ten Impact – are popular among riders looking for optimum on-bike grip and security with the ability to safely bail out when the time comes, while their street stylings also enable them to be worn as casual attire.