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How to choose cycling shoes

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

You’ve been on your bike for a little while now are you’re thinking about buying your first pair of cycling shoes but you’re not sure what to look for or whether it is worth making the switch?

Cycling shoes can be expensive, so you might be wondering whether it’s worth spending money on cycling specific shoes when you can just cycle in your running shoes (which is perfectly acceptable in triathlons too!)

A cycling shoe is designed to make each pedal stroke effective. You clip into your bike (although it’s called clipless), which, if your cleats are correctly fitted, would automatically place and keep your foot in the optimum position. The sole of a cycling shoe is designed to be stiffer than a normal shoe, which allows for even force distribution and ensures that you are not wasting energy as the majority of your power go into your pedal stroke rather than into the cushioning of the shoe.

So you’ve decided to take the plunge and go clipless. What is important and what should you consider when deciding which pair to buy?

  • Pedal type

The first decision that you will need to make is whether you want road bike pedals or mountain bike pedals.

Road cycling pedals have a 3 bolt system. You need to ensure that the company that makes your pedal also makes your cleats, i.e. if you buy Shimano pedals then you will also need to buy Shimano cleats and cleat systems. You will mainly see road cycling cleats being used during triathlons.

Mountain bike pedals have 2 bolts and the clip in system is on both sides of the pedal. Mountain bike shoes tend to be easier to walk in, however, for road cycling, they are not the most efficient pedal to use because the soles on mountain bike shoes are not as stiff as on road bike shoes (I talk a little bit more about this later on).

Whichever type of pedal you decide to go for, you need to make sure that you buy the correct type of shoe for the pedal of choice, as most shoes will only be compatible with one or the other. There are shoes that will work with both types of pedals however they tend to be less specialised as cycling shoes as road cycling and mountain biking require different things from the shoe.

For the purpose of this article, I will be talking about the most commonly used cycling shoes for triathlon – the road cycling shoe.

  • Stiffness of the sole

The stiffer the sole, the more efficiently you can transfer power into the pedals. However, a stiffer sole will result in you feeling more road vibrations and will be less forgiving to any misalignments in your shoe fitting. As the price of the shoe increases, the stiffness of the shoe generally increases. This is because more expensive shoes will use more expensive materials such as carbon which are stiffer in their properties. Carbon sole cycling shoes also are lighter in weight, and reducing weight is what most cyclists want. Cheaper cycling shoes tend to be made with nylon which is less stiff, however will do the job and can be a great pair to buy if it is your first pair of cycling shoes and you want to test the waters.

  • Upper of the shoe

The material that the upper of the shoe is made of can make a difference to how breathable the shoe is, which can alter how enjoyable your ride is. Lower end shoes tend to be made of synthetic materials and can be heavier than higher end shoes.

Another thing to consider is how stiff is the upper. Whether you go for a stiff upper or a softer upper should depend on the type of riding you are planning to do. If you are planning to do a lot of sprinting, you would be looking for shoes with a stiffer upper because as you pull up on the shoe, the shoe will hold its shape and not bend much. However, for longer riding, a softer upper can be more comfortable. I personally have two pairs of cycling shoes – my long distance cycling shoes which are the ones I wear for club spins and during half and full Ironman races, and a pair that have stiffer uppers which I use for Sprint and Olympic distance races. But, one pair of cycling shoes is sufficient.

You can also consider the colour of the shoes and how easy they will be to clean. Black shoes will hide a lot of the dirt whereas white will show off all the specks of dirt that you may encounter.

  • Preferred fastening systems

There are lots of different fastening types used on cycling shoes. You can get velcro, dials (such as Boa), laces etc. Thing about what will suit you and what you like the look off. Different fastenings types will give you different amounts of adjustability. Dials can give you the ability to adjust your shoe by mms, however, you are only likely to find these on mid to higher price ranged shoes.

Different fastening systems will provide different amounts of security for the foot to keep it in place. You want a fastening that keeps your foot in place as much as possible as this will reduce energy loss from having to readjust your foot and, assuming your cleats are properly positioned, will ensure that your foot stays in the place that will ensure maximum power efficiency. Velcro tend not to provide as much security as dials or laces.

For triathlon races, particularly shorter races, you might be more inclined to go for velcro or boa systems over laces as laces can take longer to do up and you cannot put laced shoes on whilst on the bike, as many triathletes like to do to save time.

  • Shoe fit

Consider whether you have a wide foot, narrow foot or normal width foot. Different brands tend to cater for different foot width and just like a normal shoe, if you get the wrong type, it can be very uncomfortable. I have a wide foot, and have found that Giro shoes work best for me.

My best piece of advice for your first cycling shoe is to go into your local cycling shop and try a pair on. If you’re unable to do that, or prefer to buy online, make sure to buy from a shop that offer refunds. Cycling shoes are meant to fit snug because you do not want your foot to move around. Make sure to try your shoe at the end of the day as your foot will expand as you are cycling.

  • Triathlon specific cycling shoe or road specific cycling shoe

Triathlon cycling shoes and road specific cycling shoes look very similar, however there are a few differences that you should keep in mind when deciding which type to buy.

Triathlon specific cycling shoes tend to be less supportive than road cycling specific shoes because they will use one of two big Velcro straps as they fastening system. This is to speed up being able to get your feet into the shoes, however, Velcro tends to be less secure at keeping your foot in one position.

Triathlon specific cycling shoes will be made with more breathable material than road cycling specific shoes and will be more ventilated than road cycling specific shoes as they are designed to be used with wet feet after coming out of the swim.

Triathlon specific shoes will also have a loop of the back of the shoes which gives you the option to attach your shoe to your bike if you are planning to do a flying start onto the bike. This can save you a little bit of time.

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