When it comes to cycling, whether road or time trial/triathlon, there are five essential pieces of gear: bike, helmet, pedals, shoes, and water bottle. That said, your bike may come with a pair of flat pedals and you can start riding in your running shoes. However, as soon as you are comfortable on the bike you will want to move to cycling shoes and clipless pedals as these add significant power to your stroke and balance the load across all the muscles in your legs rather than just the quads.
Having previously reviewed the variety of bike helmets available, this article will focus on considerations for purchasing a bike shoe, particularly ‘road’ shoes. Road shoes are a good all-around shoe, all season shoe, and many cyclists use them for spinning, triathlons, velodrome, cyclocross, and mountain biking as well. Unless triathlons are your sole focus and you’re in it for the long-haul, save the triathlon specific shoe for a future upgrade.
The shoe is composed of some form of material upper, a closing system, an insole, and a firm base. The material upper can have a variety of venting patterns, thicker or thinner fabric, and a wider or narrower opening. The closing system can be a boa dial, velcro, ratchet style strap, traditional laces, or even more inventive options. The shoe sole or base can vary from somewhat flexible plastics to rock solid carbon fiber. The base will have a variety of bolt patterns (see picture) that correspond to different types of cleats to attach to your pedal.
Ensuring that your shoe has the correct bolt pattern to match your cleat, which in turn matches your pedals, is essential. The three common patterns are a triangle pattern, as used by Look pedals and by Shimano road pedals; a narrow two bolt pattern used for most mountain bike pedals (this is often called an ‘spd’ cleat, however the matter is confused because Shimano has an SPD line of road pedals that require the triangle pattern, so safer just to call it a two bolt cleat); and the lesser common wide two bolt pattern for Speedplay pedals, as pictured in the image below the triangle bolt holes. If you are purchasing shoes before pedals and cleats, a triangle pattern and a narrow two bolt pattern will cover the vast majority of your needs. Chances are if you’re using a niche pedal like Speedplay, you already know what shoes you want.
Weight and stiffness are going to be the top considerations both in terms of what you want to look for and in terms of pricing variability. That said, venting, aerodynamics, and closure system may play a bit of a role. If you live in cooler climates and want to ride longer seasons, less venting can be ideal. If you are using the shoes for road racing or triathlons, aerodynamics can be a consideration. If you want to be able to adjust the shoes while riding, the closure system is important. And of course, there is also aesthetics, because there are some gorgeous shoes out there, and there are some that are an acquired taste.
Weight – A road shoe will vary in weight from around 300g to 212g (see the Northwave Extreme Aero pictured above). Using a mountain bike shoe can push you into the 350-400g range. Alternatively, the mad scientists at Giro look to be releasing a 138g bike shoe. Of course, these weights are usually provided for a 45.5 size shoe and will vary significantly by size. Just like bikes, weight tends to be inversely proportional to cost. An entry road shoe can usually be found on sale for around $60, whereas the lightest models come in around $400.
Stiffness – Where weight is a very objective measure of a shoe, stiffness moves into the slightly more subjective. Although many companies have a “stiffness index” it is important to note that these have absolutely no relation across brands but rather compare shoes within that brand. So, a Shimano RP9 with a stiffness index of 11 may be more or less stiff than a Northwave Phantom Carbon with a stiffness index of 10, which may be more or less stiff than a Bontrager Velocis with an index of 10 as well. Every shoe will claim to maximize stiffness as this is the goal, ensuring that power from the stroke is transferred into the pedal rather than dissipated by the shoe, and there is limited research out there to actually address these claims. In fact, I have seen brands where a shoe for a new year is advertised as more stiff than the previous year, yet looks absolutely identical to the previous year other than colouring. True, they may have made invisible changes with carbon layup, stitching, etc., but the issue is there is limited objective information for you the consumer. Similarly, many magazines or websites rank shoes yet offer no justification to ensure you that these ratings aren’t just based on advertising dollars spent.
Until someone does external testing using a power meter and a device to provide consistent force, claims around stiffness and power transfer are up to the manufacturer to make.
Sizing between shoes is incredibly variable. Check out this link and scroll down to the size chart. I wear a size 10 running shoe, which puts me in anything from a 42.5 to a 44.5. However, I even disagree with this chart as I wear a Shimano 43 sockless for triathlon, a Garneau 44 with thick sock for mountain biking, and a Northwave 43 with thin sock for road – only one of these sizes as recommended by their chart. Sock thickness and sock or no sock can easily make the difference by half a size. And, these sizing charts are quite suspect even if provided by the manufacturer as seen through countless forum discussions. Googling size charts can produce different ones for the same brand. All that to say, the safest way to get shoe sizing correct is to try them on in store or from a friend. I recently purchased a pair of shoes online due to an excellent sale price, but after paying the return shipping and customs twice, I saved nothing and ultimately regretted not just buying locally.
Insole is another factor best determined by trying things on. The provided insole may or may not comfortably fit your arch. Some shoes come with a heat moldable sole and even heat moldable upper, ensuring a better fit for your foot. Alternatively, some riders have a preferred aftermarket insole and simply remove the one provided in the shoe. The challenge with this is that the manufacturer insole is often designed to correspond with the shoe venting. Some manufacturers have a variety of shoe widths for each brand, or other comfort-related features such as heel design. Have a look at this Bont shoe description if you want an example of a company who is dedicated to comfort of fit.
The good news is that there are a whole lot of options out there, so you should be able to find something that fits all of your priorities.