by Paul Langer, DPM
Selecting the appropriate cycling shoe isn’t as easy as it used to be. Like a lot of athletic shoes, cycling shoes have become increasingly specialized. There are multiple pedal systems, and different types of cycling from spinning, to cyclocross, to road, mountain and triathlon biking. Casual cyclists do not need to worry about purchasing cycling shoes but for those who ride 3 or more times per week, a cycling shoe and pedal system can improve your performance.
Much like the bindings attach the ski boot to the skis, performance cycling pedals attach the shoe to the bike via a clip-in system. These types of pedal systems are designed to improve the efficiency of the pedal stroke by allowing the biker to pull up as well as push down during a 360 degree pedal stroke. Most pedal systems snap the shoe cleat into the pedal as pressure is applied and the shoe is released from the pedal by twisting the foot outward.
As a word of warning, clip in cycling systems can be intimidating and it is almost a guarantee that you will fall once or twice while learning to use them. If not completely comfortable with the idea of being attached to your bike then hold off on a shoe/pedal system. For casual riders the increased pedal efficiency is negligible at best anyway.
Mountain and recreational biking shoes have a recessed cleat and a flexible sole. The recessed cleat and flexibility of the shoe make it easier to walk which is great for mountain bikers who may need to carry their bike over an obstacle or a recreational biker who wants to bike across town to check out the art fair.
For more competitive or performance-oriented road bikers, the shoes are much stiffer and the cleats are not recessed but instead are attached to the outsole of the shoe. These types of shoes are definitely not made for walking. In theory, the stiffer outsole of the shoe allows more efficient energy transfer to the pedal. The most expensive and stiffest shoes use carbon fiber outsoles while low to mid-range models use nylon or plastic outsoles.
Some models of cycling shoes are designed to combine the performance features of a competitive shoe and the comfort and flexibility of a recreational shoe. For example, a newer category of cycling shoe was born out of the popularity of stationary biking classes that are offered at many athletic clubs. These shoes fall somewhere between the casual riding shoes and competitive models. They tend to have more breathable uppers to compensate for the lack of airflow during stationary riding. Triathlon cycling shoes usually have one to three velcro straps to allow for easy entry and exit during transitions.
Fit and Comfort
The upper of a cycling shoe is, of course, the most important part of the fit. Casual cycling shoes have laces or Velcro. Performance shoes have ratchet-style buckles and/or Velcro. Most uppers are made from leather or synthetic materials. Tighter shoes translate to more efficient energy transfer but tight shoes can also restrict blood flow to the feet. For wide or difficult to fit feet some manufacturers are starting to make wide sizes. For example, Sidi offers some of their models in “mega” sizing. Also, a company called Rocket7 makes custom-made cycling shoes.
As mentioned above, performance shoes will be very rigid under the foot. A significant drawback to stiffer shoes is decreased comfort. Stiffer shoes have been shown to significantly increase pressure on the forefoot. For bikers who are vulnerable to forefoot pain, they may want to consider the stiffness of their shoe or modify the insole to decrease pressure on areas of pain. Those with sesmoiditis, neuroma, or metatarsalgia may either need to purchase a plastic soled model or have the forefoot modified either with a custom-made orthotic or changes to the insole. These changes inside the shoe can help distribute pressure over a broader area of the forefoot.
Once you know which category of cycling shoe you need, it is extremely important to evaluate a number of different models before making a purchase. Unfortunately, standing in a bike shop is not the truest way to test the performance or comfort of a cycling shoe and buying a shoe via the internet without ever trying it on or comparing it to another model is NEVER a good idea. While in the shop though, focus on fit and comfort. Be especially aware of the fit in the forefoot because most cycling-related foot discomfort is going to occur there. The small surface area of the pedal and the stiffness of the shoe combine to create high forces under the ball of the foot. Selecting a shoe that has a removable insole will offer greater opportunity to modify the shoe or add an orthotic if necessary down the road.
Finally, friends and bike shop employees are great sources of information but your foot is almost as unique as your fingerprint so do not buy a shoe merely on someone else’s recommendation. Trust your instincts on which shoe has the best fit and feel for you.