Cycling shoes look cool, sound silly and seem to signify membership in an exclusive club. But are cycling shoes worth it? At first glance, the price alone can be enough to put beginners off giving them a fair chance. But most experienced cyclists would respond with a resounding, “Yes!”
In this post we will go over the benefits and downsides, types of cycling shoes, and whether they’re right for your riding style. Then you can decide if a pair of cycling shoes is worth it for you.
Why wear cycling shoes?
Now you may be thinking you’ve been riding bikes since you were a kid and never had an issue pedaling with regular shoes. Are the added benefits really enough to justify the cost of a new pair of shoes that serve only one purpose?
Like most everything, it depends on the type of riding you do. In general, cycling shoes are designed with stiff soles to provide a more rigid platform. This enables you to transfer more power into each pedal than a shoe with more flexible soles would do. However this increase in power, which brings less fatigue to your muscles, is much more noticeable on rides longer than an hour. If you mainly use your bike for short zips around the city, you may not experience the full benefits of cycling shoes.
Before we go any further, let’s clear up some terminology related to cycling shoes, because it can be a little confusing. You’ll hear about three different kinds of pedals:
- Flat pedals
- Clipless pedals
- Toe clip
Flat pedals are the standard pedals on most bikes, and you can use your regular street shoes on them.
Where it gets really confusing is when we start talking about clipless pedals. You actually use clip-in shoes on clipless pedals, which makes no sense. This dates back to the original method of securing shoes to pedals: a toe clip. A toe clip is a little cage at the front of the pedal that you slide the toe of your shoe into, and it holds your foot on the pedal.
Most of the industry has since moved away from toe clips, but the vocabulary remains the same. “Clipless” refers to shoes that don’t need a toe clip. Instead, they fasten to the pedal by way of a cleat attached to the sole.
Disadvantages of cycling shoes
A few factors can make using cycling shoes less appealing to riders. The first one is the expense.
How much should you spend on cycling shoes? The shoes start at around $50 and can get up to around $400 for professional racers or hardcore mountain bikers. You should be able to get high-quality shoes that last a decade in the $150-$200 range.
Most new bikes come with flat pedals or no pedals at all, so you’ll have to purchase pedals and make sure they’re compatible with your shoes. These also cost upwards of $100 for a reliable set.
There’s an adjustment period when you start out with clipless pedals. If you aren’t used to them, there’s potential danger when you have to come to a stop and lower your feet to the ground, because it takes additional time to unclip your feet. The newer the cleats, the firmer they cling to the pedals. Almost every cyclist has a story of toppling over at a stop sign.
Advantages of cycling shoes
The upside of cycling shoes far outweighs any downside.
The first thing you’ll notice is how shoes designed for cycling are so much more comfortable. The soles of cycling shoes are usually made with nylon or carbon fiber which keeps them sturdy. While the rubber or polyurethane of most athletic shoes will easily bend and wrap around the pedal, putting more pressure on your foot and potentially causing problems for you.
By securing your foot to one stable spot on your pedal, you ensure that your placement is correct, aiming for the ball of your foot over the centre of the pedal. This prevents you from riding with your foot too far back and connecting with toes or too far forward and putting undue pressure on your ankle. Keeping your feet properly placed will help you avoid ankle, knee and hip injuries.
Stability and security
Cycling shoes that clip in actually enable you to better stabilize your bike while riding. Additionally, when riding in wet conditions you no longer need to worry about your foot slipping off the pedal. This will all keep you balanced and help you make the most out of each pedal stroke.
If it’s maximum speed with minimal effort you’re after, then cycling shoes are your best option. The stiff sole and correct positioning enables you to get the best power transfer from your feet onto the pedals.
The bonus is having your foot secured to the pedal through the upward motion. On traditional pedals you only have the momentum of the downward push, but with clip-in pedals you can gain power and speed with the pull-up at the same time. Professional riders specifically train this part of their pedal stroke.
Cycling shoes are great for engaging more leg muscles, specifically your hamstrings through the upward pull during the pedal rotation. If fitness is your main motivator for cycling, cycling shoes will help you get the most out of each workout. You’ll use each muscle group more effectively and put less strain on areas that can get over-extended when you’re not riding in an ideal position.
Types of cycling shoes
You didn’t think it would be as straightforward as choosing to cycle with or without a specialized shoe did you?
Nope, there are most certainly sub-categories within cycling shoes, based on the type of riding you do. Mountain biking, road cycling, cyclocross, triathlon and even indoor spin classes all have specialized shoes. For our purposes, we’ll look at the two main varieties: mountain biking and road cycling.
Mountain bike shoes
Mountain bike shoes are considered a better option for beginners and people looking for an all-around cycling shoe. This is because they have a thicker tread that helps increase stability on rough terrain and a recessed cleat that allows the wearer to walk around more easily—say if you hop off to pick up some groceries, or before you get into your school or office.
Mountain bike shoes, like most casual and indoor cycling shoes, are composed of a two-bolt fastening system.
Road bike shoes
Road cyclists prioritize light and breathable gear that minimizes any extra weight they have to carry that could potentially slow them down. Their road shoes are the same. Lighter material without tread that keeps them smooth but more difficult to walk in when you’re off the bike.
Typically road shoes use a three-bolt system, also referred to as SPD-SL.
By now you’ve likely narrowed down your options, but wait there’s more! Laces, straps and boa systems are used to fasten cycling shoes.
- Laces: Cycling shoes with laces provide the most flexibility to fit around your ankle, heel and instep. The highest control over spreading the tension out over your foot is a perk for some. But the downside of laces coming loose and possibly getting stuck in pedals is enough to deter many.
- Straps: Quickness, convenience and the absence of laces make Velcro straps the choice for many riders. However, with less customizability comes a little less security.
- BOA system: This patented lacing system is designed with wires and a knob that you can tighten and loosen with the turn of a dial. It eliminates the worry of shoes coming loose during a ride.
So there you have it—the pros, cons and most common design options for cycling shoes. Hopefully this has helped you figure out whether cycling shoes are worth it for you, and which type would best suit your style. If you’re still on the fence about making the switch, you can always try borrowing a pair from a friend to see if you like them. Or you could purchase a secondhand pair if you’re not ready for the full investment.
Keep in mind that riding with clip-in shoes requires a bit of a learning curve, so start off slow. When you approach a stop, try unclipping one foot as you slow down but before you come to a full stop. That way you’ll have a foot ready to catch you and you’ll avoid tipping over. Pick one side and stick to it. Soon enough unlocking your cleats will become intuitive, and they’ll also loosen naturally with wear.
For longevity, speed and working out muscle groups over long distances, cycling shoes are a worthwhile piece of gear, even essential. I think you’ll be happy with your investment in them. But don’t expect them to make you instantly faster. Nothing can replace constant training if speed is your main goal.
If you ultimately decide that cycling shoes are worth it for you, make sure you also invest in a few good pairs of socks to wear with your cycling shoes.
And see our post on how to clean cycling shoes when it’s time to do a little maintenance.