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Published Mar. 7, 2022

When I first started cycling, one of my first questions was, “Will I die if I wear those shoes?” My second question was, “What’s up with those shorts?” — but I suppose this guide isn’t about that. But those shoes. I was fascinated as I watched my wife, a cyclist of many years, lock her feet into pedals, and wondered how she didn’t break a bone whenever the rare but inevitable crash occurred. I mean, you have to twist your ankle to click out, and I wondered whether I would have the presence of mind to perform this task in time to prevent an injury if I crashed. 

It turns out, as I discovered much later than I should have, cycling shoes aren’t nearly as complicated as they look. With just a little practice, they become second nature. But more importantly, they transformed my cycling experience. I found my speed and efficiency improved significantly, and I didn’t have to fight so hard to keep up with my wife.

There’s a lot of brands out there to choose from though, and even if you’ve been riding a while, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what shoes are worth your time. So we’ve done the research for you to help you find the perfect shoes to help you up your game and blow past your personal records.

Specialized has been creating cycling gear for decades now, and is a leader in the industry. It’s impossible to find a “best of” cycling shoe list without at least one of their products on it, and that’s because they make some of the best shoes on the road.

The S-Works 7 is one of the most popular shoes on the market and features the best of Specialized’s Body Geometry, a design process that they’ve been perfecting since the 1990s. The shoe’s upper is made of Dyneema material (an advanced composite laminate that doesn’t stretch) layered within a four-way stretch mesh and TPU that results in a conforming yet rigid fit. The material is vented, allowing the shoe to breathe and to help keep feet from overheating.

The sole is made of Specialized’s FACT Powerline carbon plate. Rated 15 (from 1-15) on the Specialized scale, it is stiff, and clearly designed for racing. Casual riders may find these shoes too stiff, but to increase comfort, the shoe also incorporates special designs for the heel and molded arch support. If you’re looking for a shoe that maximizes power transfer and helps you take your cycling performance to the next level, this shoe is for you.

Product Specs
  • Sole: FACT Powerline Carbon plate
  • Upper: Dyneema mesh, TPU
  • Closure system: BOA 3-Snap Fit
  • Weight: 7.9 ounces/shoe
PROS

Carbon sole is lightweight and super stiff for maximum power transfer

Dual BOA S-3 enclosure system allows for micro-adjustments for best fit

Super lightweight and breathable upper

CONS

Expensive

Super stiff sole can be uncomfortable for casual cyclists, not for everyone

Fizik’s Tempo series proves you don’t need to take out a second mortgage to get some quality cycling shoes. The Tempo Powerstrap R5 shoes don’t just use a Velcro closure system to pare down the price, they take full advantage of it to create a way to help adjust them more closely to the foot. Rather than just pull two sides of the shoe together, the Velcro wraps around the foot, which allows you to better conform the shoe upper around your instep and midfoot.

The synthetic upper comes in a number of cool colors, and the fit is quite comfortable. Remember that stiffness in the upper and the sole potentially translates into greater power transfer, so comfort theoretically comes at a cost in performance. But for most riders who aren’t out to win the Tour de France, this is an easy swap to make.

Having said that, the sole is carbon-reinforced nylon, so while it does have some give, they compare well in terms of stiffness to other budget and even mid-range cycling shoes. At this price point (just over $100 for a size 9.5 at the time of writing), the Powerstrap R5 delivers fantastic value and comfort.

Product Specs
  • Sole: Carbon-reinforced nylon
  • Upper: Synthetic
  • Closure system: Velcro
  • Weight: 9 ounces/shoe
PROS

Wraparound Velcro closure enables comfortable, stable fit

Cool color choices

Great price

CONS

Adjusting Velcro straps mid-ride not as easy as BOA closure system

Tends to run narrow, so be careful ordering online

Editor’s Choice

Trek Bikes’ Bontrager makes great shoes, and despite being one of the least expensive, the Circuit provides a lot of performance and value. The first thing that jumps out about these (aside from the brilliant red, if that’s the color you go with) is that it uses a combination of BOA L-6 dial and a Velcro strap closure system. The L-6 only tightens by dialing (to loosen, you “pop out” the dial), which is not really a problem and is a minor tradeoff against more expensive BOA dials.

The Circuit’s upper is a synthetic PU/Nylon, which is well-ventilated. It’s not particularly stiff, so it is more comfortable for longer rides and more forgiving for those just getting used to cycling shoes. The sole of the Circuit is made of nylon (common for budget and mid-priced shoes) with fiberglass. Bontrager uses their PowerTruss design, which uses supports in the hollow beneath the sole to give extra stiffness without adding weight. This is definitely a shoe for new and experienced cyclists.

Product Specs
  • Sole: Nylon/fiberglass composite
  • Upper: Polyurethane/Nylon/Polyester
  • Closure system: BOA L-6
  • Weight: 11 ounces/shoe
PROS

Combo BOA and Velcro closure systems ensure comfortable fit

Comfortable, roomier feel

Great price

CONS

High cut ankles can rub

Sole may not be stiff enough for those looking to maximize power transfer

Best for Beginners

Shimano is another titan in the cycling world and makes some of the most popular and widely regarded bikes in the world. It makes sense then that the gear it makes is of high quality as well. Shimano cycling shoes range from reasonably-priced budget models to premium triathlete shoes. So if you’re just getting into cycling and want a quality shoe, but don’t want to spend a ton of money or worry about fidgeting with gadgets, the RC-100 is just what you’re looking for.

The upper of the RC-100 is made of synthetic leather, well-perforated to let your feet cool, but strong and durable. The closure system consists of three Velcro straps, which is typical for a beginner or budget cycling shoe.

The sole is fiberglass reinforced nylon, and on Shimano’s Stiffness Index it falls right in the middle (rating a six out of 12). That’s right where you want to be, in my opinion, as a beginner. That gives you enough power transfer capability without making your feet miserable, especially if you want to do long rides. You may just find that you like this shoe enough to use it even after you shed your beginner status.

Product Specs
  • Sole: Nylon/fiberglass reinforced
  • Upper: Synthetic leather
  • Closure system: Velcro
  • Weight: 8.4 ounces/shoe
PROS

Simple but quality design

Comfortable fit

Great price

CONS

Velcro closure system not easily adjustable while riding

Best for Mountain Biking

I like to think of mountain biking as road biking’s rugged cousin, exciting with a hint of danger about it. Mountain biking is a creature unto itself, and actually deserves its own “best of” guide, since there are a lot of great options out there depending on your skill level and the kind of off-road biking you plan to do. In this case, we’re presenting a great shoe, Giro’s Chamber II, that you can rely on to get you onto the trails and through the mud.

The Chamber II’s upper is made of a breathable yet water-resistant microfiber since you’re often likely to hit some mud or maybe some streams on the trails. For a little extra protection and durability, the toe and heel are rubber-reinforced. This makes for a heavier shoe than your typical road bike shoe.

Mountain biking soles are made a bit differently than road shoes as well. Since there’s a great chance you may be forced to pick up your bike and walk over unexpected obstacles, the last thing you want is a super-stiff and inflexible sole. Mountain bike shoes are typically made to have some give, which is great when you’re powering up inclines or when you need to hike a short distance. The outsole is made of Vibram Megagrip high traction material, so you won’t have to worry about slipping during these times off the bike. The Chamber II’s outsole uses a tri-molded shank, to give you that balance of stiffness to assist in power transfer, but flexibility is needed to sense changes on the ground during your ride and to walk when needed.

Product Specs
  • Sole: Tri-molded shank
  • Upper: Water-resistant microfiber
  • Closure system: Lace and Velcro
  • Weight: 18 ounces/shoe
PROS

Water-resistant

Combo closure system helps fit snug to foot

10mm cleat set back puts pedal under foot arch, enhances control

CONS

Lace and Velcro closure system not easily adjustable while riding

Size availability has been limited for a while, so you may need to shop around

Best Racing Cycling Shoes

If you’re looking to just go all out and buy something top-of-the-line, and spare no expenses to get a super high-quality racing shoe, then the Vento Powerstrap R2 Aeroweave may be what you’re craving. Fizik pulls together everything they know to provide a shoe specifically engineered for racing.

The Aeroweave’s upper is made of, well, aero weave, which is a woven fabric that the company says “interlaces lightweight nylon fibers with filaments of thermoplastic polymer.” This fabric utilizes a net-like pattern that is airy and breathable, but because of the characteristics of aero weave, the upper remains malleable while providing fantastic support. Like the Tempo Powerstap R5, the Aeroweave uses wraparound Velcro straps for its closure system, thereby helping keep the shoe light and simple.

The sole is made of engineered carbon fiber, and it is stiff. On Fizik’s Stiffness Index of 1-10, it rates a 10. But to help enhance comfort and further reduce weight, the sole incorporates a vent inlet and internal channeling to increase airflow. These shoes are pricey, but it’s pretty clear why.

Product Specs
  • Sole: Carbon fiber
  • Upper: Aeroweave nylon fiber and thermoplastic polymer
  • Closure system: Velcro
  • Weight: 7.23 ounces/shoe
PROS

Lightweight

Advanced materials provide incredible stiffness, efficiency

Powerstap system ensures a snug, conforming fit to feet

CONS

Expensive

Really for super serious cyclists

Best Alternative to Cycling Shoes

When I first started mountain bike riding, I was extremely nervous about the idea of wearing a shoe designed to clip into a pedal. As a novice trail rider, I knew I was going to run into unexpected stops, and I wasn’t at all confident I would be able to click out in time to stop a fall. But I also knew that using traditional flat pedals invited slipping when things got muddy. So, what to do?

Fortunately, there’s an intermediate step you can choose: the cage pedal. This isn’t a shoe at all, but a kind of stirrup attached to pedals that you can swap out on your bike (or some can be added to your existing pedals). Once connected, you slip your feet forward into the toe clip and off you go. The cage will keep your feet secured to the pedal, and although not as efficient as a traditional cycling shoe, it does allow you some additional power transfer. Plus, if you find yourself falling, it’s an easy matter to slip your foot out of the cage.

The YBEKI bike pedal and toe clip is a solid example of the cage-style pedal. It’s inexpensive, so you won’t mind setting them aside when you’re ready to graduate to regular cycling shoes. The pedal is aluminum, and the toe cage is a resin and comes with nylon straps to help secure them to your feet.

Product Specs
  • Pedal size: 9/16-inch spindle
  • Toe cage: Resin, with nylon straps
  • Closure system: Nylon straps
PROS

Great for the cyclist who isn’t ready for cleats and clipless pedals

Inexpensive

Easy to install

CONS

May be awkward getting a foot in while riding

Toe clip is durable but plastic, may be damaged if impacted

Why you should trust us

We are obsessed with all things gear-related, including fitness equipment. Our team lives to get our hands on everything our readers might be interested in to evaluate them and make sure they’re up to the task you need them for. I’ve personally been cycling for about a decade, and have transitioned from flat pedals to cage pedals, and then to cycling shoes and clipless pedals over the years. So I’ve managed to break a few things (no bones though) along the way. Now I can share some of those lessons with you.

Types of cycling shoes

Road cycling shoes

The purpose of the road cycling shoe is to connect your foot to the pedal in such a way as to not only maximize the efficiency of your downward pedaling, but also as your foot lifts so you have a near-continuous transfer of power propelling you down the road. To this end, the more stiff the sole, the more efficient you can be (but also the more uncomfortable, at least until you get used to it).  

Mountain biking shoes

Although it has a similar mission to the road cycling shoe, the mountain bike shoe achieves it in quite a different fashion. These cycling shoes are made to take more abuse, are more durable, and are often water-resistant. The outsoles, while stiff, are by necessity made to flex. This is partly because your feet need to be able to sense changes in the trail that you can feel while riding, and then to be able to respond. It also helps when you have to stand and shift your weight as you take corners and navigate technical trails. Plus, when you have to stop and pick up your bike, you don’t want to “Frankenstein walk” over a fallen log. Also, these shoes use a different cleat system (two bolts vs the three bolts used by road shoes).

Indoor cycling shoes

These shoes are made to maximize your stationary bike workout and are usually like regular road or mountain bike shoes in most respects. Most of your outdoor shoes will work fine, so long as you have the proper cleats to match the pedals. Specialized indoor shoes do exist, of course, and are made to provide enhanced ventilation for those hot inside rides. 

Key features of cycling shoes

Everything about a cycling shoe is ultimately about “power transfer,” which means making your pedaling as efficient as possible. This is done largely through the design of the upper and sole. Ensuring a secure and comfortable fit is a large part of the shoe closure system.

Upper

This is the part of the shoe that covers the top of your foot and connects to the bottom (sole). A good upper will be well-ventilated because cycling is hard work and you want your feet to breathe. Cycling shoe uppers are generally stiff, and increasingly so as you scale up to more racing-style shoes because this helps keep your feet ideally placed for maximum efficiency. 

Sole/outsole

The sole is the soul of the cycling shoe (thank you, please tip your server). It provides the platform where your foot rests and the shoe connects to the cleat/pedal. The stiffer the sole, the better the power transfer (but also, the more uncomfortable for those unaccustomed to them). The sole is typically made of nylon, nylon/fiberglass, or carbon (in premium shoes).

Closure system

This closure system of a cycling shoe doesn’t just tighten and secure your foot in the shoe, but it also helps the upper conform to your foot, which enhances comfort and increases pedaling efficiency. There are three types of closure systems you’ll typically find on modern shoes: laces, which operate like your traditional shoe; Velcro straps, which work well at adjusting the upper around your feet but are not easy to adjust after you start riding; and dialing systems, like the BOA adjustable dials. These tighten strong laces by twisting a small dial (or two, or even three). They’re great for micro-adjustments to ensure a great fit and are easy to tweak on the ride.

Benefits of cycling shoes

Power transfer

This is why you get these shoes. Cycling can be fun and enjoyable, but at the end of the day, it’s an exercise and a sport. Cycling shoes ensure you get the most out of your ride by transforming all your pedaling motion into power.

Confidence

There’s something to be said about mastering the right gear. Not everyone needs or wants to be a cyclist. Some just want to get out every once in a while and ride without the shoes, the shirts, and those awful pants. That’s fine. But when you’re ready to get serious, the right shoes demonstrate that you’re ready to push yourself to the next level of performance. 

Fitness

The increased performance from more efficient power transfer, and the improved ride experiences that come from your increased confidence both lead to longer and more productive workouts. You’ll find that when you’re using cycling shoes, your speed increases, and longer distances become more attainable. That leads to next-level workouts that result in better fitness. You still have to put in the work and the sweat, but the right shoes will help you get there. 

Cycling shoe pricing

Budget

Cycling shoes in this category can be around $100 or so. Typically, the soles of a budget shoe provide a mid-range stiffness rating (e.g., a six on a scale from 1-12), and rigid but not overly stiff uppers. The cost of these shoes is kept lower by using slightly heavier, less durable nylon composites for the soles and nylon material for the upper. 

Also, the closure systems tend to be lace or Velcro straps. Ironically, these shoes can be quite comfortable compared to the more premium brands, since they’re not as stiff, with the downside being they aren’t as efficient. For the beginning cyclist, this is not a bad thing, since you can learn to use the budget shoes and still see marked improvement over not using cycling shoes at all. 

Mid-range

Once you get over $100 and up to about $250, you start getting more advanced materials in the shoe, as well as more advanced dial closure systems. The Stiffness Index ratings of soles in this range may still be middle of the road, but the sole material is stronger and lighter, which makes for more comfortable and efficient use. The upper material also becomes stiffer and lighter. 

Brands such as Shimano and Specialized also boast about the scientifically guided ergonomics that go into their shoes, allowing for maximum pedaling efficiency. 

At the lower end of this range, you’ll often see lower-tier dial closure systems that only twist to tighten, but require you to pull the dial to loosen the lace (a process that isn’t very cumbersome at all, really). But as you climb this range, you’ll find the more advanced dials that both tighten and loosen by turning them.

Premium

Cycling shoes over $250 can be thought of as racing or competition shoes. Some are geared for triathletes. The uppers will use the most advanced, lightweight material (like Dyneema mesh, which is stiff but malleable). The soles will be made of carbon, so they are strong, light, and stiff. These shoes are lightweight, but it’s here where you’ll find the maxed-out stiffness ratings and ergonomically designed soles that squeeze every ounce of performance out of your ride. These are used by the most serious of riders, and frankly not worth the investment unless you’re really looking to maximize your competitiveness. 

How we chose our top picks

This guide was put together using a mix of personal experience, expert opinions, and in-depth market research. I’ve found that local bike shops offer a wealth of wisdom on what cyclists like these days, so I talked with some as part of my research. 

Next, I made sure to cross-reference my experience and what the local shops were saying, along with what other cycling gear testers had to say. The most useful, I found, were BikeRadar, Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, and Bicycling,com

Finally, as I started to line up the finalists, I excluded any that had few customer reviews, whether on Amazon, other vendors, or the company product pages, since by combing through actual user experiences you can find whether or not the shoe resonates with the buyer.

FAQs on cycling shoes

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q. Do cycling shoes make a difference?

A. Absolutely. I was a skeptic at first, but the increased performance and the power transfer (a phrase I use perhaps 100 times in this guide) is undeniable. Cycling shoes are a must for those wanting to up their cycling game.

Q. Do all bike shoes fit all pedals?

A. No. A bike shoe itself doesn’t fit anything. It needs a cleat (usually sold separately), and you need to make sure the cleat you use is designed to fit the pedal you’re using. For your first shoe, it’s smart to buy the pedal and cleat at the same time.

Q. How stiff should my cycling shoes be?

A. A mid-range stiffness rating is a good place to start. If you’re a more experienced rider looking to improve performance, start moving up the scale.

Q. Is there a uniform stiffness index used by all shoes?

A. No! It’s annoying, but each shoe company uses its own index, so comparison of stiffness between brands is difficult. 

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W.E. Linde spent 12 years in the Air Force as an intelligence guy and loved both his enlisted and commissioned time. Now a civilian, he toils away as a healthcare business analyst by day and wannabe writer by night because who needs sleep when you have coffee? His time in the military made him appreciate just how funny the term “military grade” can be. He currently writes for Duffel Blog and for the humor site Damperthree.com

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