The key difference between cycling shoes and most other sport shoes is that cycling shoes:
Road shoes for racing
- Have stiff soles to protect the foot from the pedal and ensure that no energy is lost in transferring power into the pedals.
- Tend to be close-fitting.
- Have little or no cushioning to the soles.
- Usually have a lightweight, ventilated upper.
- May have special fixing point for cleats (or 'shoe plates') to engage on the pedals.
- Fastening can be by laces, Velcro or ratchet style straps (or any combination of these three!). It really makes very little difference, though it's often handy to be able to adjust the fit 'on the fly' which make laces less attractive. However, although often regarded as old fashioned, the added security of laces keeps them a popular choice, especially with off-road riders and sprinters.
These have a very stiff sole, sometimes made of carbon fibre for extra strength and minimum weight. They are quite narrow and have a lightweight, ventilated upper, made from nylon mesh, usually reinforced in places with Lorica or similar synthetic leather.
Road cycling cleats
Velcro or ratchet fastening systems are popular so that adjustments can be made 'on the fly' - tighter for climbing or sprinting, a little more loose if your feet swell or feel uncomfortable.
For racing, riders do not need to put their feet down on the ground very often, so having the cleat sit proud of the sole is not a big issue. However, this does make those occasions when you do need to walk in them quite awkward. Most racers waddle like a duck or tiptoe across the car park in their clumsy shoes, but once on a bike the system is excellent - although you do need to check cleats regularly for wear. (See also Pedal maintenance
Mountain bike shoes
Off road shoes need an aggressive tread on the sole for those moments when you have to walk or run with your bike up muddy slopes or across slippery rocks. Most off road shoes can be used with clipless pedals, though usually it's a matter of peeling away a section of the sole to reveal the bolt holes for the cleat, otherwise you can use the shoes on any platform or rat-trap style pedal, with or without toe-clips and straps.
Most manufacturers now supply adapters to fit all the major pedal systems
These shoes are also quite stiff and inflexible but not as much as the road shoes. Like the road riders, off road riders want good power transfer through the shoe to the pedals. However, off road shoes all have a recess for the SPD cleat and an aggressive tread pattern for those occasions when it is necessary to get off and run. Some shoes even have the facility to screw in extra studs near the toe for grip on very muddy trails.
Uppers are usually a little more robust than road shoes, to cope with brushing through the undergrowth. If laces are used, these are usually hidden by a protective tongue - soggy laces are no fun to untie when you're tired after a tough race!
Shoes for leisure riding are manufactured with comfort in mind, and therefore tend to be a little more flexible than their super stiff racing brothers, as the pressure exerted on them will not be so great and they will be used for much more walking than race shoes. Many tourists choose mountain biking shoes with SPD pedals because of their versatility and they may wear them for long days of riding (or even throughout a prolonged tour) and so appreciate the little extra forgiveness in the sole. Styles vary from boot-like designs to low cut, almost racing style shoes (complete with loud colour schemes) with some good compromise models in terms of colours, weights and design in the middle ground.
Dual racing and trials riding
Most riders use flat pedals and their choice of shoe is fashion led. Although almost smooth, the soles of these shoes are made of rubber or a similar synthetic that grips well on the wide pedals. BMX riders and skateboarders wear similar shoes.
Some downhill riders, particularly those who have graduated from BMX riding, also prefer flats over SPDs as the moves in downhill tend to be more extreme, and a quick exit from the bike is often required! Most downhill racers, however, are clipped in as, like cross country there is a power transfer issue, and when downhill races can be won or lost in a matter of 1/100th of a second, then every advantage counts! Such shoes tend to be very stiff, weight is not a great an issue, but protection is. Therefore downhill shoes are heavily constructed using materials like leather and Kevlar, in a boot-style as this offers more protection to the ankle area.
If you don't want to buy cycling specific shoes choose shoes with reasonably stiff soles to avoid getting painful feet and for best power transfer
If you don't want to buy cycling specific shoes choose:
Shoes with reasonably stiff soles (to avoid getting painful feet and for best power transfer). Don't wear bulky shoes (so they don't catch on the frame or crank). Many of the new crop of trail running or multi-activity shoes are fine for most leisure rides, but you'll need to consider a cycling shoe if you intend to race.