Road Bike Shoes: A Complete Buyer's Guide
It can be tricky choosing the right pair of clip-in cycling shoes for your road bike. Here's what you need to be thinking about before you buy.
Clip-in shoes are a vital piece of a kit for any road cyclist looking to get the most out of their riding experience. There are several key features to pay attention to when buying a pair; upper material and sole composition will both have a big affect on performance, while fastening systems and ventilation are important considerations for comfort and the wrong cleats will be incompatible with your road bike pedals. Here's everything you need to know to pick the right pair of road bike shoes for you...
Although at first glance road bike shoes and mountain bike shoes may look similar, they differ fundamentally in one key feature – cleats. MTB shoes use a two bolt system, designed for MTB pedals, allowing you to jump on and off the bike without too much trouble. The three bolt system used on road shoes (suitable for use with road bike pedals) distributes weight over a wider area, giving you more control and maximising power transfer.
When it comes to outsoles the stiffer the better. The stiffer the sole, the less it flexes, and the more power you transfer to the pedals. Generally speaking, the more expensive the shoe, the stiffer the sole will be, and the lighter too - so if you can it’s worth spending a little extra and investing in a good pair.
Plastic are they heaviest and flexiest type of outsole and typically feature on entry-level cycling shoes. If you’re a complete beginner they’ll do the job just fine.
A combination of plastic and carbon, these are a moderately stiff sole and tend to feature on mid-level shoes.
Full carbon soles are the lightest and stiffest type of sole used on road cycling shoes, and the most expensive too. Their rigid nature ensures maximum power transfer through to the pedals, but means that you’ll feel every little bump and bobble on the road surface - so some people may find them uncomfortable, especially on longer rides.
Top Tip: Hobbling about in your road cycling shoes will cause wear over time. Look out for a pair with replaceable rubber pads, which protect the heel and toe of the sole and prolong the life of the shoe.
Fastening systems are particularly important when it comes to road bike shoes because it helps to be able to make adjustments while riding, without having to stop and unclip. There are four types:
Velcro straps are used on almost all entry level cycling shoes. Although quick to fasten and un-fasten, they can be difficult to adjust while riding and, over time, their hold will weaken as the strips become clogged with fluff and fibres.
Dials offer the most precise adjustment of any fastening system and can be operated with just one hand. As with all things though, quality comes at a price, and dials are usually only found on shoes costing upwards of £100.
Often used in conjunction with, but offering more precise adjustment than Velcro straps, ratchets feature on most mid-priced road cycling shoes. They require two hands to fasten and un-fasten, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve got them just right before getting on the bike.
With their retro look, laces have enjoyed something of a resurgence over the last few years. Not the most efficient of fastening systems, but there's no denying how good they look. Perfect for riders who want to stand out from the crowd.
Uppers aren’t just about aesthetics, they affect performance too. As with soles, the stiffer the upper, the more power is transferred directly through to the pedals, but the more uncomfortable they can be on longer rides. So take a moment to consider what kind of riding you’ll be doing and choose your shoe accordingly.
Most entry-level cycling shoes are made of a synthetic material, which is easy to clean and care for. Premium shoes tend to use an organic material with the most expensive often being made of Kangaroo leather which, although comfortable and highly breathable, does take a bit of looking after. Again, take a moment to think about when and where you’ll be riding. If you frequently ride in poor conditions then a synthetic upper may be a better choice.
Ventilation largely comes down to personal prefereance but there are a couple of things to bare in mind.
Shoes designed for warm weather will often feature mesh panels, as well as holes in the sole and upper. These are great for keeping your feet cool during those long summer rides, but not so good in winter as they allow cold air and water in.
Cold-weather shoes have added insultaion and minimal ventilation. Combine with overshoes for extra warmth and waterproofing during the winter months.
A cycling shoe should fit tighter than any other - the idea being that they isolate your foot, reducing lateral movement and maximising power transfer. So don’t be worried if at first they feel a little constricting.
Poor fitting can lead to a number of problems including reduced performance and ‘hot foot’ - caused by the friction of your foot rubbing against the inside of the shoe. A great way of checking fit is to stand on tip-toes: if there’s a gap between your heel and the heel of the shoe, they’re too large; if your toes are touching the end, they’re too small.
Women's bike shoes are designed with a narrower sole, heel and ankle than men's shoes, in-line with the average foot-shape of a female rider. Other than that though there's no real difference between them. So if the shoe fits, wear it.
Cycle Surgery Clothing and Equipment Buyer Charlotte Keenan picks her favourite men's and women's road bike shoes...
"The S-Works 6 is a big favourite amongst professional riders. Specialized’s stiffest and lightest carbon sole ever gives you maximum power transfer through to the pedals and the upper fabric is one of the comfiest you’ll find on any shoe. Road cycling shoes don’t get much better than this."