How to Choose Bike Shoes

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

Compared to typical athletic shoes, bike shoes are designed with stiffer soles to provide more efficient energy transfer as you pedal.

Cycling shoes are usually paired with a compatible pedal to hold your feet securely on the bicycle. This clipless shoe-pedal combination offers unmatched control with a minimum amount of your pedaling energy lost. (For pedal information, see the REI Expert Advice article, Bike Pedals: How to Choose.)

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Video: How to Choose Cycle Shoes


Types of Bike Shoes

Quick Comparison of Bike Shoe Styles


Road Bike Shoes

Mountain Bike Shoes,
City Bike Shoes

Shoe outsole



Shoe sole

Very stiff


Cleat style

Protrudes from sole


Recessed into sole

Pedal style

Typically 3-hole (Look, Time or SPD-SL styles)

Typically 2-hole (SPD, crankbrothers, Time styles)


road biking shoeRoad Bike Shoes

Virtually all road bike shoes offer lightweight construction, smooth outsoles and good ventilation. They are distinguished by their exceptionally stiff soles to facilitate power transfer to your pedals.

Road bike shoes are not designed for extended walking due to their lack of traction on the sole and their inability to flex.

As you look at higher-priced models, materials such as carbon fiber are used to further decrease weight and increase sole rigidity, and fit systems allow greater customization. On many styles, a small rubber pad on the heel provides the only traction.

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.

Pedal compatibility: Most clipless road bike shoes use either a 3-hole cleat system (Look, Time or SPD-SL styles) or 2-hole cleat system (SPD, crankbrothers or Time styles), and you’ll want to match them up with a compatible pedal. They are not designed for use with non-clipless pedals. Ask an REI sales specialist or check the "specs" tab on product pages to make sure the shoes you are considering can mount to the clipless pedal system you will use.

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mountain bike shoeMountain Bike Shoes

These shoes have a fairly stiff sole for efficient pedaling, but have enough flex and a rubber-lug outsole to allow good traction for walking on slick or rugged trails. The cleats on mountain bike shoes are typically recessed into the soles, which makes for easier walking. This makes mountain bike shoes a popular choice for more casual road biking, touring and indoor cycling classes as well.

They may offer a lacing system, a rip-and-stick system or cam straps with buckles to adjust the fit of the shoe.

As you move up in price, you get features such as stiffer soles, lighter weight, enhanced foot and/or ankle protection, waterproof liners and additional rip-and-stick straps or a buckle-and-ratchet-type strap for an improved fit and foot security. Some shoes also offer removable toe spikes for traction in soft or loose ground conditions.

Pedal compatibility: Clipless mountain bike shoes use the 2-hole cleat system (SPD, crankbrothers or Time styles) and you’ll want to match them up with a compatible pedal. Ask an REI sales specialist or check the "specs" tab on product pages to make sure the shoes you're considering can mount to the clipless pedal system you'll use.

Some mountain bike shoes have flat soles that can't accept cleats. These styles are meant specifically for use with platform pedals (and optional toe clips).

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city bike shoeCity Bike Shoes

City bike shoes are best for urban cycling, recreational cycling and indoor cycling classes. A hybrid between cycling footwear and casual footwear, city bike shoes offer compatibility with clipless pedal systems, but they have rubber outsoles and recessed cleats to allow easy walking.

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Bike Shoes and Pedal Compatibility

Most bike shoes are designed to work with clipless pedals and feature holes drilled in the soles for attaching cleats. Cleats snap into the pedals to create a secure connection. Be aware that cleats are supplied with pedals, not the shoes, and that your cleats must match the shoes for compatibility. (You can check for cleat compatibility in the “specs” tab on the product descriptions or ask an REI sales specialist in the store.)

cleat drill hole configurations

Some bike 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 cannot 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.)  

The 2-hole system can be used for all types of riding, including road cycling, mountain biking, touring and commuting. When paired with some shoes, the recessed cleat design allows easier walking and less noise than other systems.

The 3-hole system is sometimes known as the Look-style system (for the pioneering manufacturer of this system).

The 3-hole system is most often used for road cycling, because it offers the most stability and energy transfer while riding. The large cleat is able to spread the force being applied to the pedal over a wide area. This reduces pressure on the connection points and allows a secure connection when you’re pedaling hard.


Bike Shoe Closure Styles

Cycling shoes come with one of several types of closures.

Laces offer the most customizable fit and comfort. They can, however, get wet and dirty 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.

Rip-and-stick straps 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.


Bike Shoe Sizing

Choose bike shoes that 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 bike 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.

Bike shoes are sold in either U.S. or European sizing depending on the manufacturer. Euro size conversion can vary by manufacturer; on product pages, click on the "Size Chart" icon for the correct conversion info.


Bike Shoe Accessories

Boot/shoe dryer: This is the most efficient way to dry wet shoes. It uses a warm, gentle airflow to dry your shoes in a couple of hours.

Bike shoe covers: When the weather turns cold or wet, it helps to slip 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 or lugged soles. Shoe covers are for riding only; take them off when walking since the soles are not designed for that.

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


Bike Shoe Care and Maintenance

How to clean your bike shoes: 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.

How to dry your bike shoes: 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.

When to replace your cleats: Replace cleats 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.

How to find replacement cleats: 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.




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