While you can ride a bike with sneakers, using cycling specific shoes provide a greater connection to the bike, saves weight, uses more efficient closing mechanisms and improves overall performance. Purpose built cycling shoes are differentiated from sneakers by their increased rigidity and stiff sole, enhanced ventilation, a system of attaching the shoe to the bike's pedals, and a variety of closing mechanisms that allow for on the bike adjustment.
We've created this comprehensive guide to help you make an informed decision and understand the different types of cycling shoes, no matter your preferred discipline.
The differences between mountain, road, triathlon and urban cycling shoes
All cycling shoes connect us to the pedals in various ways but they have different features based on the chosen discipline. And while you can cross over into different cycling disciplines with various pedal, cleat and shoe combinations, selecting the right option for each will help improve performance, comfort and function. As such, we've outlined the differences for each of the four main cycling disciplines below.
- Road: Road shoes priorities performance elements such as sole stiffness, weight and maximum cleat/pedal engagement. Pedal engagement (how strongly the shoes are held to the pedals) is far greater than mountain and urban shoes that may require frequent unclipping. Road cyclists rarely walk in their shoes so the cleat is external (which we'll explain in more detail later), as opposed to being recessed, and there is a small amount of tread or rubber on the heel to provide some grip. Road shoes are also very lightweight, well ventilated, have a low profile, feature a wide variety of closing mechanisms and some also come with aerodynamic advantages.
- Mountain Bike: Mountain bike shoes typically feature a recessed cleat, more tread, and a lugged outer sole as walking and dismounting are far more common than when on the road. This mountain bike specific cleat also sheds mud and debris which are likely to build up while riding off road. Sole stiffness and weight are important but not to the same levels as a road shoe, as a mountain bike shoe needs to be far more versatile factoring in walking, clearing debris, comfort and ease of clipping in and out. Like road shoes, mountain bike shoes feature a variety of closing mechanisms but will generally feature a different 'upper' to prevent water ingress and a toe cap that provides greater protection from debris and obstacles.
Some mountain bike shoes will also have a pedal channel that sits behind the cleat in order to make clipping in easier as well as to provide a more stable platform between shoe and pedal when not clipped in. These shoes will be far heavier than road shoes, almost double the weight in some cases and have a much higher profile.
Of not, not all mountain bike shoes are designed for use with clipless pedals, instead, there are a number of 'flat pedal' shoes available too. These shoes often share many of the same features as their clipless brethren but instead feature a grippy rubber sole that's designed to mesh perfectly with platform pedals.
- Triathlon: Similar to road shoes, triathlon shoes prioritize performance features such as a stiff sole, lightweight construction, and maximum cleat/pedal engagement. The main difference is the closing mechanism as triathletes need to be able to easily get their feet in and out of the shoes. As such, most triathlon shoes have a single velcro strap and or a similarly simple closing mechanism to ensure quick transitions. Prominent heel loops feature to enable triathletes to easily get a hold of the rear of the shoes and slide their feet in and out. Ventilation is another key factor as triathlon is a summer sport, and feet are likely to be wet following the swim leg.
- Urban: Urban shoes resemble mountain shoes with a recessed cleat, more tread and a lugged outer sole, because people will be walking far more with an urban shoe. Greater flexibility in the sole is also required to make walking easier, and often these shoes will be similar to appearance to an urban walking or leisure shoe.
Before we delve into the specifics of cycling shoes and how to choose the right one, it's important to discuss cleats and pedals as both can change significantly depending on the cycling discipline. Pedals serve as a key contact point between you and your bike. Pedals thread into the crankarm allowing you to step on or clip in and start riding. There are three main types of pedals - clip, clipless and platform.
- Clip: Funnily enough 'clip' pedals don't actually have a mechanism for clipping in, instead they rely on a cage and strap to hold the foot in place. This retro option is rarely seen on performance bikes anymore and is more likely found on recreational road bikes. The benefit of these pedals is they still allow for the foot to be attached to the pedal without requiring special cycling shoes. The downside is your feet can get stuck and become hard to remove.
- Clipless: These are the pedals we are most familiar with, and the ones you're most likely to see on all but entry level, recreational and some mountain bikes. Clipless pedals allow you to mechanically attach your foot to the pedal, locking the cleat into position and improving pedaling power and efficiency. They work similarly to a ski binding. The cleat and clipless pedal lock into place easily with some pressure and unclips just as easily with a small twist of the foot to the side.
Mountain bike pedals typically feature two sides and are built to clear mud.
Road and triathlon pedals feature one or two sides and are built with a larger surface area for greater power transfer, they typically also feature a shallower height for improved ground clearance when pedaling through corners.
Urban pedals are often 'combination' pedals, the perfect solution for those who want to be able to clip in but also ride in normal shoes. These are versatile pedals which have a platform style on one side and clip in on the other.
- Platform: This type of pedal doesn't feature any clip-in mechanism, instead, providing a basic flat platform that lets you simply step on and start riding with any normal shoe. These pedals are commonly found on BMX, urban and mountain bikes. These pedals can also be used for trail and gravity mountain biking, in which case, they will typically feature a slightly concave shape and pins that provide extra traction.
Cleats are mounted to your shoe and are what lock you to the pedal. This ‘clipless’ setup allows the most efficient transfer of power and feeling of connection to your bike. The composition, shape, and properties of cleats vary depending on their purpose and the chosen discipline, and so we'll explain those variances below.
- Types: There are two main types of cleats; either a two-bolt or three-bolt system. Road shoe cleats have a three-bolt system with a larger surface area for improved power transfer and foot stability. Mountain bike shoe cleats have a two-bolt system designed for walking and clearing debris. The cleats must always be matched to your chosen pedal system, and while they are available as a replacement item, a set is always included with the pedals.
- Float: Float is measured in degrees, and is the range your feet are allowed to move laterally without restriction on the pedal surface. Generally, the less flexibility and experience you have, or the more at risk you are for knee or leg injury, then the more float you should adopt. Each cleat system will specify the amount of movement available, normally with a color coded system to make identification easier. For example, Shimano has three different cleats providing three different amounts of float - red provides no float, blue provides two degrees and finally yellow provide six degrees of float.
- Recess and external: Cleats can either be recessed into the sole of the shoe or sit externally. Mountain and urban shoes will typically have recessed cleats that make walking far easier; whereas road and triathlon shoes will have external cleats as they are larger and rarely need to be walked in.
Size and shape
Before you purchase the lightest, fastest, stiffest and 'best' shoe, it's important to get the fit right first. Simply comfort will enhance your riding experience far more than any specific shoe feature. For this, cycling shoes come in varied widths and shapes that will affect the fit of the shoe. Therefore, the 'best' shoe is going to be different for everyone.
When selecting the right shoe, size charts can be useful but the best practice is to go to a shop and try them on to make sure they fit in length, forefoot width, and provide a snug hold at the heel. And when trying them on, be sure to do so with cycling specific socks, or the sock you plan to ride in. As discussed in our article covering the Science of Cycling socks, they are generally much thinner than standard socks which improves contact with the shoe, reduces pressure points or hot spots, and provides better temperature regulation.
Each shoe will have a slightly different last, affecting the width of the shoe along its entire length. Some will be narrower in the heel to prevent slippage, while some provide a wider than normal toe box for wide feet or splayed toes. It's also an important consideration if you have particularly wide or narrow feet.
And to ensure a perfect fit, a number of companies have shoes that come with moldable or adjustable soles that can be customized to the contours and shape of your feet.
There are many different mechanisms manufacturers use to close or tighten shoes, all with their own pros and cons. As with most of the topics we've covered above, selecting the right mechanism will depend on your chosen discipline, goals and budget. Below is a summary of the most common types.
- Velcro: Velcro straps have been used for a long period of time due to their simplicity, strength and lightweight construction. They feature on entry-level to pro-level shoes and often work in collaboration with other mechanisms too. The downside of velcro straps is the potential for them to lose their holding strength over time.
- BOA: BOA's are the new kids on the block providing the lightest option, with great amounts of strength and largely avoiding uncomfortable contact points. The system works via wire laces that are tightened through dials on the shoe. The wires can be threaded throughout the shoe in any number of combinations allowing manufacturers to be creative with shoe design as well as eliminating pressure points.
- Laces: Laces have certainly made a comeback in recent times, and represent a cost-effective option with great strength and simplicity. They can also be replaced exceptionally easily and changing the colour can be a quick way to liven up your shoe game. The downside is the potential for the laces to get stuck in your drivetrain and the inability to change the tension on the go.
- Ratchet and buckles: Ratchet and buckles are another mechanism that have been used for a long period of time providing great strength and ease of use. Of the other three mechanisms, this option is the bulkiest of all and has largely been replaced by BOA's on top-tier options due to weight and functionality. Making small adjustments to increase the tension of buckles and ratchets is straight forward, however, the exact adjustment range is more fixed compared to the other options.
Just like a helmet, it's important for shoes to provide sufficient ventilation for your feet to breathe and remain cool but the amount of ventilation will depend on the climate you live in and the cycling discipline you choose. This is especially important for your feet as they will expand with heat and as blood pools over an extended period of time.
Cycling shoes can be well insulated, allow little airflow and be created to keep things like debris and water out. At the other end of the spectrum, some cycling shoes are made from highly breathable and lightweight materials to allow significant airflow and cooling properties.
Generally, road shoes will allow for more ventilation and be made from much lighter materials than mountain bike shoes which have to keep debris and mud out.
Triathlon shoes have high levels of ventilation as it's assumed you are competing during the warmers months and feet are likely to be wet after the swim leg. Most triathlon shoes will feature mesh panels or cut out sections on the top of the foot to allow plenty of airflow. And urban shoes feature limited ventilation as your not riding for as long and so cooling isn't as much of a priority.
Soles are typically either made from nylon or carbon fiber. Nylon soles are cost effective, allow shoes to flex making them ideal for walking, and are most commonly found on urban or entry level mountain bike shoes.
To improve stiffness and reduce weight, premium road, triathlon and some mountain bike shoes feature a carbon fiber plate that optimizes power transfer and overall performance. The downside of such a stiff sole can be discomfort, usually in the form of pressure points or hot spots if the fit isn't exactly right.
Road and triathlon shoes are generally stiffer than mountain bike shoes because there's no need to walk (so no need for any flex of the sole), and optimizing power transfer is at a premium.
As well as selecting the right amount of sole stiffness, be sure to check your shoes have the correct number and position of holes to suit your pedal/cleat system.
Heel cup: A purpose built heel cup is a premium feature that provides a rock solid hold of your foot. The heel cup comes into its own when pulling up on the pedals, pinching around the base of your Achilles tendon and preventing any slippage. Heel cups can be flexible or rigid depending on your budget and preference but if a super snug fit and performance is what you seek, be sure to check for this feature. Some manufacturers will also include a non-slip lining at the rear of the shoe for the same reason.
Toe cap: Much like a steel-capped boot, toe caps feature on mountain bike shoes to provide some protection from tree roots, rocks or any other type of obstacle that could damage your toes.
Reflective features: In the interests of safety, many shoes are equipped with or made from reflective material to enhance their visibility in all conditions. Bontrager’s collection of external studies suggested that flashing lights, highlighting moving limbs and wearing contrasting colours are the best measures cyclists can take to stay safe on the road, and so wearing bright and reflective footwear could provide significant awareness to other road users.
Footbeds: A footbed is an inner sole that can be placed in the shoe to provide various levels of arch support. For those with high arches, this support can help remedy hot spots and improve pedaling efficiency and comfort.
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