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Basic Guide to Cycling Shoes & Pedal Types

Just like any other sport, having a proper shoe for cycling will greatly improve comfort and increase performance. While there are quite a variety of cycling shoes out there, they all share a few traits that are important to riding. The first trait is a stiff sole that allows more of your muscle power to turn into pedaling power. Another is some sort of improved interface with the pedal, for this reason shoe choice should be based on the pedal. Other features common to all cycling shoes is an upper that takes into account the circular motion of pedaling.

Pedal Selection

The selection of a cycling shoe is very dependent on the pedal used because of the bolt pattern of the cleat. Bolt patterns vary by intended use with good reason. It is important to select a pedal that is compatible with your shoes. In general, road shoes go with road pedals, MTB shoes with MTB pedals, and so forth. All new pedals include cleats and mounting hardware; cleats are not included with shoes. Confirm that the cleat mounting pattern matches the shoe you have selected.

Cycling Clipless Pedals
Road Pedals
For the long miles and extended hours of road cycling a large cleat provides more support and distributes pressure evenly across more of your foot.

Off-Road/Sport Pedals
For off-road and recreational cycling a smaller cleat that can be recessed into the sole of the shoe is important. The recessed cleat allows easier walking and most mountain bike pedals have some sort of allowance to clear out mud and debris.

Sport, Recreational and Touring Shoes

Most shoes that fall into this category have a semi-flexible sole that has a good tread for walking.

Cycling Sport Shoes Sole

Soles
The semi-flexible sole will still be comfortable for walking and off-bike side trips down the aisle of the 7-11 or quaint antique shop while providing plenty of stiffness and support for pedaling. Almost all of the shoes in this category have a recessed area for a 2-bolt cleat (commonly called SPD®).

Uppers
Look for an upper that will be easy to clean and keep looking good. Synthetic materials that look and feel like leather are easy to sponge off. Split leather and suede look-a-likes can be brushed free of dust, dirt and caked on mud. Nylon mesh panels improve breathability and speed dry time if you get caught in a rain shower or two.

Cycling Sport Shoes
Closure
For sport shoes, the closure can be laces, laces with a single strap, or double Velcro straps. Laces have the advantage of being easy to adjust to a comfortable spot on just about any foot. Add a single strap across the top and there is a handy place to tuck the stray laces in so they do not tangle in the drive train of the bicycle. A double Velcro strap closure still allows good adjustment across the top and middle of the foot is faster to get in and out of and can be easily adjusted during short stops to dial in fit.

Compatibility
As always double check with the exact pedals you are using, but most sport/touring shoes will be 2-bolt SPD Style compatible. Most come with a rubber or plastic cover over the cleat well in case you choose to use them with platform pedals or clips and straps.

Mountain Bike Shoes

Mountain bike shoes will have either a fully stiff sole like a road shoe or a sole with some flex to it like a sport shoe.

MTB Shoes Sole
Soles
Generally if you are racing or doing mostly XC riding where walking or foot dabs are rare the stiffest soles are best. Mountain bike shoes will have a very aggressive tread pattern on them for traction when walking on rough or muddy terrain. The cleat area will be recessed into the bottom of the sole. Entry level models may have a cover that must be either unbolted or cut out before the pedal cleat is installed.

Uppers
Mountain bike shoe uppers are all about durability and resistance to all the stuff that gets on them. Look for rubberized sections on the toes, heels and mid foot. Easy to clean materials like Poly coated leather, synthetic leather, rubber and plastic are the norm here. Some shoes may include nylon mesh panels for ventilation but frequently they are not included to keep water and other gunk out.

MTB Shoes
Closure
Similar to road shoes entry level models will have 2 straps. Good quality shoes will have 3 straps to allow finer tuning of fit. Top models may have 2 straps on the mid foot and a buckle or ratcheting mechanism at the top of the foot. Buckles and mechanisms are very popular here as they work well when wet and don't usually fill with mud.

Compatibility
For mountain bike shoes SPD 2 bolt drilling is the only common bolt pattern. Almost all mountain bike pedals use this bolt pattern. Entry level models will have a rubber cover or plastic plate over the cleat area so that they can be used with clips and straps if needed.

Road Shoes

Road shoes will have a fully stiff sole made of nylon, composite plastics, carbon fiber or any combination of these. Road Shoes Sole

Soles
For road cycling the whole goal is to make a light weight shoe that is very stiff for efficient pedaling. Road shoes are made to accommodate larger surface area road pedal cleats. Frequently there will be no provision for walking other than a small heel pad to put down at stop lights. Most top model road shoes will have a full carbon fiber sole for the ultimate balance of weight and stiffness.

Uppers
On road shoes uppers are designed to be comfortable on long rides, yet stiff enough to provide full power transfer. Nylon mesh panels can improve ventilation as can small holes in Lorica® top quality synthetic leather) uppers. Good road shoes will have a stiff heel cup for full support and a very comfortable thin tongue under the closure.

Road Shoes
Closure
Entry level road shoes will have 2 straps. Good quality road shoes will have 3 straps to allow finer tuning of fit. Top models will have 2 straps on the mid foot and a buckle or ratcheting mechanism at the top of the foot. The 2 strap and buckle configuration is very nice while riding because it is easy to crank down the buckle for a more secure fit during climbs and sprints.

Compatibility
There are several different bolt patterns for road pedals. You have to be careful that your preferred pedal system is supported by the shoe you purchase. The cleats that engage into the pedal are sold with the pedal or are sold separately. The most common bolt pattern for road shoes is LOOK (a 3 bolt pattern). Many pedal systems not produced by the LOOK company use this bolt pattern to attach to the shoe. Other patterns include the same SPD (2 bolt) pattern used on Sport and Mountain bikes, the nearly obsolete SPD-R (2 bolts front to back) pattern and the very outdated TIME (4 bolt).

Other Helpful Tips

Getting the most life out of your cycling shoes is not hard. A few simple steps can make a quality shoe last several seasons.

Shoe Sizing and Fit
Most cycling shoes are sized in European sizing standards. If you are not sure of your size, you can convert with a sizing chart. Keep in mind there is no industry standard for shoe size; fit can vary between manufacturers. A sizing chart just gets you in the ballpark for fit. You will need to try them on for size. Also, the European sizing standard applies both to men and women. For example, a 42 women’s shoe will be consistent in size to a 42 men’s shoe. Once you have selected a shoe, it is important to make note of the bolt pattern (three-bolt “Look”, or two-bolt “SPD”, etc)

  • Shoe fit is tough as everybody's foot is a little different. Generally you want cycling shoes to be snug but comfortable like any athletic shoe.
  • Many cycling shoes run narrow (about an American "B" width) so if your feet are wider look for "wide" or "Mega" designations.
  • Synthetic leathers and Poly coated leather do not stretch very much so shoes need to fit well from the very beginning.
  • Real leather and Lorica® will break in just a touch so size accordingly.

Care and Maintenance

  • Keep them clean. Dirty shoes have little particles of grit and grime sawing away at the stitching and seams. A quick brushing or wipe down can make a real difference.
  • Dry them properly. Do not use heat to dry your shoes. Open up the closures pull out the tongue to expose it to air and remove the insoles. Then lightly fill them with loosely crumpled up newspaper and set them in front of a fan on low. Usually they will be dry in a few hours no matter how soaked they were.
  • Take care when walking in cycling shoes. Road shoes are not designed for walking. Even a short trip across a parking lot can leave the soles scuffed and gouged.
  • Keep the pedal cleat lubed and maintained. Cleats eventually wear out. Dirty and un-lubed cleats wear out even faster. If your pedals begin to behave erratically check the cleats for wear and replace them as needed.