bike-shoes-how-to-choose

You can ride a bike in just about any shoes, but anyone who rides regularly can benefit from shoes designed specifically for bicycling.

Shoes compatible with "clipless" pedal systems are a logical step up if you seek greater cycling efficiency. This article discusses your bike shoe options for road, mountain, touring and casual riding.

Shop REI's selection of bike shoes.

Why Bike Shoes?

If you ride using flat (platform) pedals, you've probably seen riders zipping by with their feet firmly anchored to their pedals. Are clipless shoes and pedals a wise choice for you? Fear not, bike shoes and clipless pedals are part of a natural progression to make your riding more efficient and less tiring.

Compared to typical athletic shoes, cycling shoes are designed with stiffer soles to provide more efficient energy transfer as you pedal away. These stiff soles also protect your feet while riding and offer support that reduces cramping and fatigue. The uppers are also relatively rigid for extra support.

Cycling shoes are usually paired with a compatible pedal to hold your feet securely on the bicycle. The so-called clipless shoe-pedal combination offers unmatched control with a minimum amount of your pedaling energy lost before it reaches the rear wheel.

Quick Overview

In a hurry? Here's an overview of the most popular shoe-pedal attributes:

  Road Biking Mountain Biking,
Casual or Touring
Outsole type Smooth Lugged
Outsole rigidity Very stiff Stiff
Cleat style Protrudes from sole Recessed into sole
Clipless pedal style 3-hole (Look style) 2-hole (SPD style)

For a closer look at your options, read on.

Types of Bike Shoes

If you're considering clipless pedaling but are unsure where to start, don't worry. Your choices can be quickly paired down by the type of riding you intend to do. We cover shoe shopping in this article, but you may want to shop for pedals first (see our Q&A discussion below for more information).

For pedal information, see the REI Expert Advice article, Bike Pedals: How to Choose.

Casual cycling shoes

Casual (Sport) Riding Shoes

If you ride casually (say, 5 miles or less) and walking comfort off the bicycle is your primary concern, you may not need a cycling-specific shoe at all. Consider a light hiking shoe or outdoor cross-trainer instead. While they don't offer stiffness in the sole or work with a clipless pedal system, they can be used with platform pedals outfitted with toe clips or straps.

An emerging category is the so-called hybrid cycling/casual footwear. These look like casual shoes (or even sandals) and allow easy walking, but their soles offer compatibility with clipless pedal systems. This versatile style is a great option for the casual rider or bike commuter.

Shop REI's selection of men's fitness footwear and women's fitness footwear.

Mountain biking shoes

Mountain Biking Shoes

These shoes have a fairly stiff sole for efficient pedaling, but one with enough flex and a rubber-lug outsole to allow good traction for walking on slick or rugged rails. They offer a lacing or hook-and-loop strap system (such as Velcro® brand closures) to adjust the fit of the shoe and offer a bit of protection for your toes.

As you move up in price, you get features such as stiffer soles, lighter weight, enhanced foot and/or ankle protection, waterproof liners, additional hook-and-loop straps or a buckle-and-ratchet-type strap for an improved fit and foot security. Some shoes also offer removable toe spikes for the ultimate in traction when dismounting your bike.

Clipless mountain-bike shoes use the 2-hole cleat system, described below, so you'll want to match it up with a compatible pedal. Check the "specs" tab on REI.com product pages to make sure the shoes you are considering can mount the proper clipless cleat.

Some mountain bike shoes have a flat sole and cannot mount cleats. These styles are meant specifically for use with platform pedals (and optional toe clips).

Road cycling shoe

Road Cycling Shoes

Road-biking shoes are distinguished by their exceptionally stiff soles to facilitate power transfer to your pedals. Though efficient for riding, they are not designed for extended walking due to their lack of traction on the sole and their inability to flex.

Virtually all road shoes offer lightweight construction and good ventilation. As you look at higher-priced models, materials such as carbon fiber are used to further increase sole rigidity and fit systems allow greater customization. On many styles, a small rubber pad on the heel provides the only traction.

Most clipless road-bike shoes use either a 3-hole or 2-hole cleat system, described below, so you'll want to match it up with a compatible pedal. Check the "specs" tab on REI.com product pages to make sure the shoes you are considering can mount the proper clipless pedal. (Note: Some Speedplay and Time models use a 4-hole cleat system.)

One notable road-cycling niche is triathlon-specific footwear. "Tri shoes" are built for race performance with maximum energy transfer and simplified foot entry/exit for transitions on and off your bike.

Shop REI's selection of men's road bike shoes and women's road bike shoes.

Shoes for Spin Classes

Spin classes at your local gym are another popular use for cycling shoes. Some cycling shoes are made just for this purpose. In addition, most mountain-bike shoes usually work fine. Check with your gym for specific cleat or shoe compatibility questions.

Comparing Shoe Features

Clipless Pedal Compatibility

Shoes that are designed for use with clipless cleats have that compatibility listed under the "specs" tab in the REI.com product description (look for the "Cleat Drill Hole Pattern" entry). Some road shoes are drilled to accept both 3- and 2-hole cleat designs, but most will accept only one or the other. Shoes made for use with 2-hole systems can not be modified to use a 3-hole cleat. The 4-hole Speedplay pedal system can be adapted to fit many shoe styles.

What's the difference in functionality?

  • The 2-hole system is commonly known as the SPD system (short for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics, which was the first such system and still the industry standard). This smaller cleat size offers a solid connection to your pedal. The cleat is recessed into the sole allowing you the ability to walk around comfortably, at least when compared to the 3-hole system. It is used on most mountain bike shoes and some road shoes (which may require adaptors).
  • The 3-hole system is sometimes known as the Look-style system (for the pioneering manufacturer of this system). It grants you the ultimate in stability, stiffness and energy transfer while riding. The downside is that it compromises your ability to walk normally due to the large cleat bolted to each sole.

Shoe cleat configurations

Other cycling shoes have the stiff soles for increased pedaling efficiency but come without cleats. These are intended for use with flat (platform) pedals.

Shoe Sizing

Bike shoes should fit comfortably from the get-go. Due to their stiff soles, shoes that are not comfortable initially have little chance to break in and become so later. All shoes should allow your toes enough room to wiggle slightly. Your arch should be snug and supported and your heel should not slide up and down.

When trying on cycling shoes, you may feel some slippage in your heel when you walk. This is due to stiffness of the soles which is designed to support your foot in a stable position while cycling. If you feel that a poor fit is causing the slippage, try a smaller size or a different shoe model.

Cycling shoes are sold in either US or European sizing depending on the manufacturer. Euro size conversion can vary by manufacturer; on REI.com product pages, click on the "Size Chart" icon (highlighted below) for the correct conversion info.

Closure Styles: Straps or Laces?

Cycling shoes come with one of several types of closures.

  • Laces offer the most customizable fit and comfort. They can, however, become fouled with water and grime in inclement conditions. When using a shoe with laces, be sure that the ends are short enough or are tucked away to prevent them getting caught in a chain without a guard.
  • Hook-and-loop straps (such as Velcro® brand closures) offer quick closure and remain usable in muddy, wet conditions. Straps stretch less than laces and are more likely to stay on securely. Most cycling shoes have either 2 or 3 straps; the more straps, the more you can adjust the fit.
  • Notched cam straps with buckles are more expensive but they offer the greatest clamping power and security.

Outsoles

As described earlier, outsole patterns vary widely by end use.

  • Casual riders and commuters do fine with basic rubber soles.
  • Mountain bikers require maximum traction for walking and need aggressively lugged soles. These soles offer grip on rocky, loose or unstable surfaces.
  • Road cyclists typically prefer shoes with smooth soles for minimum weight and wind resistance; some have carbon-fiber soles to maximize power transfer.

Cleat Compatibility

Cleats are bolted to bottom of your shoes but must also match the pedals properly if they are to engage and disengage safely. For this reason, cleats are supplied with the pedals and not the shoes.

To create a full clipless pedal system, you need 1) Shoes that are drilled to accept the kind of cleat you are buying, and 2) Compatible cleats and pedals (which are sold together). If you wear out your cleats, replacements are sold separately.

Proper positioning of the cleat on the shoes is necessary for the correct functioning of a clipless pedal system. An incorrectly positioned cleat and/or pedal-release tension can cause release issues and knee pain. If you have any questions, visit your local REI or other reputable bike shop for help.

Reminder: Be sure your shoes, cleats and pedals are designed to work as a system.

Bike Shoe Maintenance

Shoes should be kept clean by wiping them off with a towel or rag when soiled. For stubborn dirt, use a brush combined with warm water and a dab of soap.

Make sure to thoroughly dry your wet shoes. Do the best you can with a towel first, then remove the footbeds so they can dry separately.

The most efficient way to dry wet shoes is to use a boot/shoe dryer. This uses a warm, gentle airflow to dry your shoes in a couple of hours. Another method is to pack the shoes with newspaper. Let them sit overnight and remove the newspaper in the morning after it has absorbed the residual moisture from your shoes. Depending on the amount of wetness, you may choose to replace the paper after a few hours to speed up the process.

Shoe covers

Shoe Covers

When the weather turns cold or wet, it helps to slip on a pair of shoe covers over your cycling shoes. These booties are usually made of neoprene or a rubberized laminate to provide insulation and water resistance. Soles feature cutaways to accommodate cleats and/or lugged soles. Shoe covers are for riding only; take them off when walking since the soles are not designed for that.

To take the edge off of a slightly chilly ride, consider toe covers. These offer a less-bulky option to shoe covers and provide welcome warmth to your feet.

Bike Shoe FAQs

Q: What should I shop for first: shoes or pedals?

A: Either is fine. Shoes traditionally have been the first step, but pedal choices and features have expanded to the point where you can consider them first. Choose pedals based on your riding preference and type of bike. Choose bike shoes based on pedal compatibility, comfort, features and price.

Q: When do cleats need replacing?

A: Replace if they are worn to the point that disengaging from the pedal happens inadvertently. They must also be replaced if they break or crack since damaged cleats may not function properly or even fail unexpectedly. Avid riders may need to change cleats as often as once per year. Casual riders can have cleats last up to 5 years between replacements.

Q: How do I find a compatible replacement cleat?

A: This is easy. Cleats match the pedals, so just be sure to know which pedal you have before you go cleat shopping. There is often only one choice of replacement cleat for your pedal. If you're unsure how to identify your pedal, bring your shoes to REI or take a picture of the pedal and cleat and a bike specialist will be able to help you.

Bike Pedals

If you haven't done so already, consider your bike pedals.