Like with every sport, wearing the right shoes when cycling will improve performance and comfort. With the right pair of cycling shoes, you'll be able to ride faster for longer and feel fresher at the end too.
Cycling shoes are also necessary if you want to experience the various benefits of clipless pedals. As with pedals, cycling shoes are generally categorised for either road or mountain bike riding. Road shoes and pedals are used exclusively for road and track riding but mountain bike pedals are popular with a diverse range of cyclists both on and off-road, so it is worth learning about both to find out what you need.
This guide will help you choose the right shoes to get the most out of your cycling.
Cycling shoes vary considerably for different disciplines and types of riding, but a few key concepts inform design amongst them all:
As with almost all cycling gear, light weight is a virtue for shoes as well. Lighter gear means faster acceleration, easier climbing and more agile handling on the bike. But while obsession with lightweight bikes and components is commonplace, the weight of clothing often gets forgotten. Light clothing is just as important and just as beneficial - after all, you have to carry you clothes up every hill as well. Light shoes are particularly important because you have to spin the weight of your shoes with every single pedal stroke. The energy saved by wearing light shoes quickly adds up. High-end shoes use advanced technical materials to keep weight as low as possible.
A stiff sole ensures better power transfer because it flexes less as you pedal. That means you can ride faster with no extra effort! Stiffness can come at the cost of some comfort, however. While racers will demand the stiffest soles for maximum pedaling efficiency regardless, more casual riders often opt for more flexible, comfier soles. Super-stiff soles are are also poorly suited to walking, both in terms of comfort and grip. If your rides are likely to involve substantial time off the bike you may want more flexible soles.
A tight, secure fit avoids the uncomfortable chafing that feet suffer when slipping and sliding around in loose shoes. This is particularly important when using clipless pedals. When your feet are attached to the pedals with a clipless system, you can pull up the pedal on the upstroke as well as pushing down on the downstroke. As such, cycling shoes must be designed to withstand forces in both directions, on the sole and the upper. Cycling shoes are equipped with extra-strong straps or buckles to withstand these forces as they close the shoe and maintain a tight fit. More expensive shoes have more advanced features for extra security which become a necessity for stronger riders who exert more force on their shoes.
Breathability is a key feature of all cycling clothing to help you maintain a comfortable body temperature when riding hard. Most cycling shoes include perforations or mesh sections in the uppers for ventilation and technical fabrics to wick moisture away from the foot. Some high-end models feature ventilation systems built into the sole as well. Vents can allow unwanted water ingress, however, and shoes with extensive ventilation are not always suitable for riding in wet weather.
Cycling shoes are designed for use with clipless pedals. The soles of cycling shoes have holes drilled into them to allow 'cleats' to be fitted. These cleats clip into the pedals as you ride for a secure connection between your feet and the pedals. These systems have various benefits, including improved bike handling and pedaling efficiency, that are explained in greater detail on in our Pedals Guide. You can only use clipless pedals with the correct cycling shoes. Road shoes are only compatible with road pedals and mountain bike shoes are only compatible with mountain bike pedals, so your choice of pedal will also inform your choice of shoe.
Road shoes have a minimal design that prioritises low weight and pedalling efficiency.
The soles are stiff, light and thin. The important of stiffness and light weight are explained above. A thin sole improves pedaling efficiency by reducing the 'stack height', the distance between your foot and the pedal of the axle. Road soles incorporate high-tech polymers to achieve the optimum balance of these three attributes, with high-end models featuring carbon fibre for the best strength to weight ratio. Another reason the soles can be this stiff, light and thin is because they are simply only designed for cycling. They don't have to be comfortable, grippy or durable for walking in. They only include small grips on the toe and heel to make walking around the mid-ride café a bit safer.
Similar minimalism is present in the uppers. Road shoes do not expect to see a great deal of wear and tear, unlike mountain bike shoes which are likely to scrape against rocks on a regular basis. Again, this means that the uppers on road shoes can get away with being very light and thin. Thin uppers are extra supple and conform to the shape of your foot for total comfort with fewer pressure points and reduced chafing. They also allow for improved breathabilty.
The soles of road shoes are drilled with three holes for use with road cleats and hence are only compatible with clipless road pedals.
The biggest difference with mountain bike shoes is the presence of a tread on the sole. Most mountain bike rides involve some walking and the tread is there to provide extra grip, comfort and durability at those times. The tread also protects the sole against clipped rocks and similar impacts while on the bike as well. The tread on some shoes is replaceable to help extend the lifespan of the shoe. Some shoes even feature optional, replaceable studs, not dissimilar to those on football boots, for extra grip in mud.
The sole itself above the tread is also designed with walking in mind. Compared to road shoes, the sole of a MTB shoe is thicker and more flexible. The cleat is recessed into the sole to protect it against damage and to stop it getting clogged with mud and dirt. The drawback is reduced pedaling efficiency and extra weight - remember that the tread adds extra weight as well.
MTB shoes are also designed for durability in off-road conditions. Thicker, hardier materials are used to resist impacts and scrapes, protecting your feet and improving the lifespan of the shoe. You are more likely to splash through mud and water when mountain biking and the shoes are designed with less ventilation and more water-resistant materials than road shoes for this reason. This does generally mean a heavier shoe with reduced breathability compared to road options.
There is considerable variety in the MTB shoe market. Outright MTB race shoes, for example, are not expected to be walked in as much and therefore have less tread for reduced weight and a stiffer sole for improved pedaling efficiency. The best MTB race shoes have carbon fibre soles and rival road shoes for weight and pedaling performance. The thickness and breathability of uppers differs as well so if you can enjoy a lighter, better-ventilated shoe if you are riding in less rugged conditions. There are plenty of options so you can chose the best shoe to suit your riding.
The suitability of MTB shoes for walking make them popular outside of mountain biking as well. Touring cyclists need to be able to walk around once they reach their destinations and they try to keep packed weight down, so one pair of shoes that is suitable for both cycling and walking is preferable to a second pair of shoes carried in a pannier bag. Commuters often have to walk for part of their journey and benefit from mountain bike shoes if using clipless pedals. MTB shoes are essential for cyclocross riders for numerous reasons, not least because a great deal of cyclocross racing is spent running through mud.
Some road cyclists opt for MTB shoes as well simply because of the extra comfort afforded by the flexible sole. MTB shoes might not be as efficient, but they are still a great way of enjoying the benefits of clipless pedals. They are a good all-round option so if you want one pair of shoes for riding on both roads and trails, MTB shoes are the ones to go for.
The soles of mountain bike shoes are drilled with two holes for use with mountain bike cleats and hence are only compatible with clipless mountain bike pedals. If you plan to use mountain bike shoes on a road bike, you'll still need mountain bike pedals.