You don’t have to own cycling shoes in order to ride a bike, but most people who become serious about cycling end up investing in a pair at some point. They make your cycling easier, more efficient, and altogether more enjoyable. Not only that, but they can also help with knee pain and other ailments that you may suffer from while cycling.
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To the uninitiated, cycling shoes can seem a little complex, but they’re really quite straightforward. All cycling shoes are stiffer on the sole where the shoe meets the pedal, and some have cleats on the bottom that clip into specific pedals you can put on your bike. Perhaps the most confusing aspect of the pedals below is that they're all called 'clipless,' even though you clip into them.
There are essentially two kinds of shoes with cleats: Those designed with walking in mind, and those designed to make cycling as efficient as possible (and as a result the walking part becomes a total nightmare.) Also worth noting is that because you can get different kinds of cleat systems – each one specific to a certain type of pedal - cleats come supplied with the pedals and not with the shoes. So without further ado, here’s our guide to cycling pedals and shoes in case you’re thinking of investing in a pair and taking your cycling to the next level.
ROAD SHOES AND PEDALS:
Road racing shoes are what many people have in mind when thinking of dedicated cycling footwear. The soles are virtually or totally inflexible, and they all feature a cleat that clips into dedicated bike pedals. The soles are also very thin in order to deliver maximum power transfer and to maximise that feeling of being dynamically connected to the bike. Because of the stiffness of the uppers as well as the sole, it's important to get a really good fit.
Although there’s more than one kind of cleat system for road shoes, one of the most popular kinds remains the ‘Look’ system invented more than 30 years ago. With this system, the cleat is bolted on to the sole of the shoe instead of recessed, so you wouldn’t want to walk far in them.
Another popular variation for road shoes is the SPD-SL pedal designed by Shimano. They essentially function in the same way, but you would buy SPD-SL cleats with SPD-SL pedals, and Look cleats with Look pedals.
MOUNTAIN BIKE/LEISURE SHOES AND PEDALS:
These are much more what would be considered a normal-looking shoe, and the only part of the shoe that’s stiffened is where the sole makes contact with the pedal. There are MTB leisure shoes that take cleats, and those that don't, like the one below:
Many people who use the shoes without a cleat use flat pedals or ‘flatties’ that look like a standard pedal but have raised pins to add extra grip. These help your feet stay on the pedals when you’re bombing downhill, and they can also give you a seriously good whack on your shins if you happen to be that unlucky.
You also get mountain bike/leisure shoes that take cleats. In this case, the cleat is recessed into the shoe’s sole instead of bolted on, which means that unlike road shoes you can walk around comfortably without making that clip-clop sound.
Shoes such as these would tend to use a cleat system called Shimano Pedalling Dynamics, or SPD for short. Some of the SPD pedals look more like ‘normal’ pedals and some a bit stranger, but the system on all of them is the same.
MOUNTAIN BIKE / EXPERT SHOES AND PEDALS:
Mountain bike/expert shoes are stiffer all round and tend to look more like the classic road shoe. While leisure shoes such as the Giro Petra above could be described as 50/50 cycling and walking, MTB expert shoes are built with 90% cycling in mind. However, they’re more flexible than road shoes, they accept recessed cleats, and the soles are lugged (bumpy) so you get decent grip when scrambling over rocks on foot.
Just like the more Mountain Bike/Leisure shoes mentioned before, these shoes use the SPD system. They would clip into an SPD pedal such as the one below:
A few points on perfect pedal-and-cleat practice
- Most cyclists ride most efficiently with the ball of the foot over the pedal spindle. To achieve that position it’s usually best to position the cleat as far back as it will go.
- Obviously, if the ball of the foot is now too far forward, reposition the cleat a few millimetres closer to the front of the shoe.
- If you’re pigeon-toed or the opposite, angle your cleats to reflect this so your feet rest on the pedals in the direction that feels most natural.
- The first time you ride with cleated shoes, practise on a traffic-free road so you can concentrate on what you’re doing. Better still, if you own a home trainer practice clipping in and unclipping while riding the turbo.
- Practise clipping into the pedal and releasing without looking down. Most important, practise unclipping your dominant foot whenever you’re coming up to a stop.
- When point 5 becomes second nature, you’ll never suffer the occasional rookie error of falling sideways because you forgot to unclip when rolling up to a red light.
- To help ensure you get a great fit, Giro have supplied each of our shops with a Brannock Device - the shoe industry’s gold standard foot-measuring tool. So if you’re near one of our shops, just pop in to get fitted!
How our Ged learned to love road shoes with Look pedals
‘I’ve been riding SPD-style pedals for 20-odd years. From day one (well, day two if I’m honest) the knack of clipping the cleated shoe into the pedal or releasing it became second nature. I realised immediately that SPDs were a big improvement on the toeclips they replaced. I love the notion of integrating cycling into everyday life, so having a pair of shoes that you can walk, ride and generally live in has always seemed the obvious choice.
Then something happened to me a couple of years ago. I discovered the allure of sportives such as The Tour o the Borders. Chatting to fellow riders, a fair few were askance that I – a bike co-op guy – was wearing casual SPD shoes. ‘You really must try Look pedals.’
This advice was backed up by many roadie colleagues so, for last autumn’s Wooler Wheel Classic, I decided to invest in a pair of Look Pedals. Around the same time, there was a buzz going round the bike co-op about Giro shoes. I was especially advised to try a pair with a micro-adjustable ratcheting buckle.
Giro Apeckx Road Shoes fitted the bill, and my sub £100 budget. I slipped into a pair and I knew immediately that they were just right. (That’s not always the case in a world where cycling shoes tend to be a bit neat on my wide feet.)
As for using the Giro shoes with Look pedals, the difference was immediately evident - the solid connection was especially welcome when I had to climb out the saddle – yet the Looks were at least as easy to clip into or exit as SPDs once I got used to their single-sided cleat retention (versus SPDs which have cleat holders on both sides of the pedal). On my first big ride, I finished the Wooler Wheel with zero foot discomfort - not always the case for me after a 100K ride - which I could only put down to the stiffer sole reducing pressure on the ball of the foot.
Probably the best way to describe the Look difference is that the next time I wore my SPDs my immediate impression was that that the shoes felt more loosely attached to the pedals.
To sum up, I’ll still wear SPD shoes most of the time for general getting around, but for more dedicated rides, I’ll look forward to bringing out the Look shoes for the event.