By Rick Schultz
As bike fitters, one of the main items we adjust are cleats. But it seems the first question clients have is about their shoes. Shoe questions range from clients asking if I think they need a new pair to some just bringing in new shoes and saying, “I hope these will work?” So, I spend time advising about shoes, cleats, and pedals. So, what are the things to look for when shopping for a pair of cycling shoes?
Shoes come in three main flavors, road, mountain bike and indoor. In general, high-end shoes have more carbon fiber, making them stiffer and harder. Mid tier shoes have plastic soles with added carbon fiber flock (which is basically small carbon fiber particles) during the injection molding process. Lower end shoes have a mostly plastic sole.
This article will focus on road shoes, but the same rules apply to mountain bike shoes, which are often used for gravel riding and sometimes on the road.
Every bike fitter sees a different percentage of different shoes coming in to being fit. In my area, South Orange County, California, I see mainly Sidi, Shimano, Specialized and a very few Lake shoes.
I believe shopping for cycling shoes is as simple as looking at just three things. Now, be warned, the salesperson will probably not like that you will come prepared.
First, Look For Slots
The problem with a lot of shoes is that they only have a single hole for the cleat ‘nut.’ This means that the bike fitter has only the slots in the cleat for adjustments. The problem is that usually the cleat needs to be moved further than only the slots in the cleat will allow.
Sidi shoes have a single hole and are not very adjustable. In fact, I have yet to be able to get a client with (newer) Sidi shoes into the correct position because there’s just not enough adjustability within the cleat itself. Shimano, Specialized and Lake usually have a minimum of 4mm of added adjustability. A Shimano shoe is pictured to the right showing red rubber spacers that can be removed for a total of 8mm added adjustability – 4mm one way, 4mm the other. Lake and Specialized have between 5-6mm added adjustability.
Second, the Twist Test
This is a simple test that will show you how stiff a cycling shoe is. Grab the shoe in each hand and twist as hard as you can. The photo to the right shows an $80 spin shoe. Rubber sole with a thin piece of PVC under the cleat. A light twist easily shows the lack of stiffness of this shoe. Great for a spin class, horrible for use on an actual road or MTB bike.
This shoe is a $325 Lake with a full carbon fiber sole. The stiffness level is a full 14 – that’s among the stiffest made. With all my might, I could not even twist the shoe 1mm. Also notice that the sole is FULL carbon fiber vs a small piece of carbon fiber glued into a nylon sole. Believe me, get the stiffest shoe you can afford.
Third, the Width Test
The widest sole, by far, is Lake cycling shoes. In fact, their top 6 shoes come with full carbon fiber soles. The narrowest is Sidi, and they have such a narrow sole that many clients pedal with all or part of their 1st and 5th metatarsals off the side of the shoe. It’s no wonder most who come in with SIDIs have foot pain. Somewhere middle width is Shimano and Specialized.
To perform the test, turn the shoe over so you are looking at the bottom. Position shoe’s toe forward and heel back towards you. Cover the rear 2 cleat nuts with your thumbs. Next, place your middle fingers around the outside of the shoe in-line with your thumbs and squeeze.
Now, notice how much of the outside of the shoe flattens out. This flattened area is where your 1st and 5th metatarsals will be located at – usually partially or fully off the sole. Doesn’t do much for power transfer if two of your metatarsals are hanging off the edges of the shoes, does it?
Width Test Part 2
My left foot measures 113mm at its widest. The shoe pictured below is a Shimano R320 Wide. The brown marks on the sides of the shoes indicate the middle of my 1st and 5th metatarsals. The actual width of the sole (at the metatarsals) is 88mm. In contrast, the Lake shoes shown above have a full carbon width (at the metatarsals) of 95mm.
You can easily do this measurement for yourself to see where your metatarsals will be.
There you have it, three simple tests to help you pick a great shoe from a so-so shoe. I hope this helps you pick your next shoe.
Coach Rick Schultz is an avid cyclist who trains, races and coaches in Southern California. Rick is an engineer by trade, and in addition to being a coach, he's a bike fitter and prolific product reviewer. He's the author of Stretching & Core Strengthening for the Cyclist and Bike Fit 101: Your Toolset for a Great Bike Fit in the RBR eBookstore. Check his product reviews website, www.biketestreviews.com, and his coaching site, www.bikefitnesscoaching.com. Click to read Rick's full bio.