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Everything you need to know about soles, uppers, ratchets and buckles

Proper cycling shoes help keep your feet comfortable, improve power transfer and let in air to cool your feet on hot days. They’re an under-rated part of the cycling wardrobe and needn’t cost the earth.

The key to the function of cycling shoes is the sole. Cycling shoes have soles that are substantially stiffer than those of regular shoes or trainers. They don’t need to bend for walking, so they can be very stiff. That spreads the force you’re putting on the pedals around your foot and stops your foot uncomfortably bending at the edges of the pedal.

Let’s take a look at cycling shoes from the sole up.

Soles

A cycling shoe sole is stiff because it’s made of some sort of rigid plastic, often reinforced with fibreglass or carbon fibre. Most cycling shoe soles have threaded inserts so you can attach cleats for use with clipless pedals, though there are a few retro-styled shoes with smooth soles for use with clips and straps.

Pearl Izumi M Elite Road IV Shoe Sole
Pearl Izumi M Elite Road IV Shoe with three threaded inserts for a cleat and ventilation holes

There are two types of soles for clipless pedals. Road racing-style shoes have three threaded inserts for a cleat that sits on the outside of the sole. Mountain bike style shoes take a two bolt cleat that sits in a recess in the sole tread so that the shoes are easier to walk in when you have to get off the bike.

Shimano MW7 winter boots - sole
Shimano MW7 winter boots with a recess in the sole for a two-bolt cleat. (Only one pair of bolt holes is used at a time.)

Shoes for three-bolt cleats are great for rides where you don’t get off the bike for more than a cafe stop. If you want to walk around in between periods on the bike, go for two-bolt shoes.

Three-bolt soles usually have a couple of lumps of rubber under the heel and toe to make it slightly easier to walk in them, but they only improve things a little.

Quoc Pham Fixed shoes - sole.jpg
These Quoc Pham Fixed shoes are intended for use with clips and straps and so don't have fixings for cleats

Uppers

Bontrager Classique Shoe.jpeg
Bontrager Classique Shoes have a synthetic leather upper and laces for a retro look.

Cycling shoe uppers are made from many materials including real leather or suede; synthetic leather or suede; and nylon mesh. They are usually stitched together from various panels of material, but some high-end shoes have the upper moulded in one piece, which saves weight. Look for seams reinforced by double lines of stitching at the edges of the panels.

Vittoria Road Shoes - heels
Shaped heel cups keep your foot securely in place in the shoe

The main body of the upper will have padding, reinforcement and stiffening in various places. The most significant stiffening is usually around the heel. This heel cup is shaped to hold your heel down in the shoe so it doesn’t slip on the upstroke as you pedal. The toes are usually reinforced against scuffing, especially in shoes intended for mountain biking. There’s usually padding at the heel and top of the shoe for comfort.

Shimano RP900 shoe.jpg
Shimano RP900 shoes have multi-panel construction with mesh and a rubber toe bumper

Some high-end shoes have uppers that can be moulded to more precisely fit your feet. Your dealer warms them, usually in a special oven, and then you put them on and buckle them up. As they cool they’ll take on the shape of your feet.

Closures

Giro Petra VR Shoes
Laces can still be found on more casually-styled shoes like these Giro Petra VRs

To keep them on your feet shoes need to be fastened. The old school way of doing this was with laces, but most cycling shoes now use Velcro straps, buckles, dials or some combination.

Shoes with laces will usually have a Velcro strap to cover the knot or some sort of ‘speed laces’ with a buckle to hold the laces in place and a place to tuck the free end. Either way, you don’t want any dangling string that can get caught in your chain or wrapped round the pedal axle so be sure to there are no loose dangly bits to get snagged. They may be a bit fiddly, but laces allow you to spread the tension evenly over your foot, which can make lace-up shoes very comfortable.

BTwin Road 5 Mens Road Cycling Shoes
B'Twin Road 5 shoes are a very typical three-strap shoe

Velcro straps are the cheapest option. There are usually three along the top of the foot and you simply pull them tight and cinch them down. They’re quick and easy and they hold the shoe firmly im place, but as there are only three of them it’s easy to overdo tightening one and end up feeling like part of your foot has been clamped. Tighten them gently.

Vittoria Speed road shoes
Vittoria Speed shoes each have a pair of Velcro straps and a ratchet buckle

On more expensive shoes you’ll find a ratchet buckle replacing the top strap. The advantage of a ratchet is that it’s very easy to adjust the tension as you ride, either to tighten it for a big effort or loosen it off if your feet are getting tired.

Bontrager Specter Road Shoe - BOA dial
Bontrager Specter shoes combine a BOA with a single Velcro strap

On some high-end shoes you’ll find one or two dials that tighten very fine plastic-covered steel cables. In effect this is the high-tech answer to laces, spreading the tension around the top of the foot. The idea first appeared as the Boa closure; several shoe manufacturers now use it or their own versions. Like ratchets, wire-dial closures allow you to adjust the tension while you ride.

Insoles

CurrexSole Bikepro Performance Insoles - underside
The underside of these CurrexSole Bikepro insoles shows the different regions for support and shock absorption

Inside the shoe you’ll find an insole that cushions your foot and spreads the loads around. These vary in sophistication from a simple layer of foam to liners with multiple densities and adjustable support to heat-mouldable insoles that can be shaped to fit your foot. You can also buy new insoles to improve the fit and comfort of your shoes.

Ventilation, warmth and waterproofing

GAERNE EPS LIGHT WEIGHT FULL CARBON SOLE.jpg
Vents at the front and in the middle of this Gaerne sole let cooling air fow through.

All that pressure through your feet can lead to them getting hot on warm days. As well as weight reduction, that’s why some shoes use lightweight mesh to let air in and cool your feet. Many shoes also have ventilation holes in the soles, though these can make you too cold in the winter. A strip of duct tape fixes that.

Gaerne G.Winter Road Gore-Tex road shoes
Winter cycling shoes ward off the cold and wet

Speaking of winter, you can get shoes specifically-designed to keep your feet war and dry during the cold and wet months. They usually have a breathable, waterproof Gore-Tex liner and a layer of insulation. That means they’re not cheap, but they’re worth it if you want to carry on riding through the winter. Pro tip: buy them in the spring when they’re heavily discounted and put them away for winter.

Women’s shoes

Fizik R5B Donna Womens shoes 2

In general, women have narrower ankles than men and smaller feet. Women’s shoes are therefore a slightly different shape, and some models are available in smaller sizes than the 36 that’s usually the lower limit of men’s ranges.

What do you get for your money?

It pays to shop around; shoes are rarely sold for full RRP. At actual prices of around £50 you start getting ratchet buckles for easy tension adjustment.

Want something stiffer and lighter? The cheapest shoes we’re aware of with carbon fibre soles will set you back £65, and you don’t have to pay much more for heat-mouldable soles.

From there on up shoes generally get more orientated toward racing, with a few exceptions like winter boots and expedition mountain bike shoes. That also means soles usually get stiffer and the whole shoe lighter. The light, high-strength materials needed to achieve that are expensive, which pushes up the price of the shoes. Won the lottery? Check out the handmade Assos G1 shoes with carbon fibre soles, kangaroo leather uppers, Boa closure and every clever detail you can think of. A snip at £370.

Five great shoes for beginner cyclists

B'Twin RoadC 100 shoes — £29.99

B'Twin RoadC 100 shoes

Shoes with two-bolt SPD cleats are great for riders who are new to cycling shoes because they're easier to get into and allow you to walk around off the bike. These cycle touring shoes from Decathlon are a bargain, with a Velcro strap to stop the laces getting tangled in your bike and a reflective insert in the heel for visibility.

Muddyfox RBS100 — £30

Muddy Fox road shoes.jpg

My eyes! It's okay, these budget road shoes from Muddyfox are also available in a snazzy white, red and black colour scheme for those who aren't sufficiently extrovert for screaming neon.

They have a two-strap closure, with a very broad strap across the top to spread the tension over your foot, and Amazon reviewers say the sole is plenty stiff. For just £30, they do the job.

Louis Garneau Urban Shoe — £30

louis garneau urban shoe black

For just £30 these SPD shoes from Canadian brand Louis Garneau look like an excellent deal. Importer/retailer Evans Cycles says they're comfortable on and off the bike.

There are plenty of other shoes for under £50 at the moment in Evans' end-of-year sale.

Giro Petra VR — £33.99

Giro Petra VR Shoes

While there's always going to be a time and a place for super-stiff lightweight road shoes, sometimes that's not always what's required, or desired. The Giro Petra VR Shoes are designed for those times when there's going to be a fair bit of walking as well as riding, and when a more low-key looking shoe may be the thing. But they're still technical.

Officially in Giro's 'dirt' section of the company's website, the Petra VR is more a touring or casual shoe, rather than a technical mountain bike shoe. They lace up, have a Vibram sole, and feature a removable plate under which lurks SPD attachment points, but they are styled much more casually.

The men's equivalent is the Rumble VR.

Read our review of the Giro Petra VR

Find a Giro dealer

Shimano ME2 — £49.99

Shimano ME2 shoes

Happy customers report comfort on three-hour-plus rides from these three-strap mountain bike shoes which have fibreglass reinforced soles for comfy pedalling. A rubber outsole provides grip when you're off the bike, so these can be used for strolling around as well as riding.

Find a Shimano dealer

Fizik R1 Infinito Knit — £349.99 - £359.99

Fizik R1 Infinito Knit Road Shoe

Only kidding!

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11 comments

Avatar
LastBoyScout [492 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Perhaps worth noting that some shoes are available with both 2 and 3 bolt fittings on the sole - I've got a pair of Diadora ones like that. If you use them with 2-bolt, as I do, you can get an adapter that fits under the cleat to give a bit more support for walking.

Avatar
check12 [243 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Shimano R088 / RP3 for starter road shoes surely

 

 

Avatar
IanEdward [227 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Would love to hear other people's experiences with discomfort/ache around the outside edge of the arch (the narrow bit between the heel and the ball if you picture a footprint in the sand).

I put it down to shoes which were too narrow, but my new Garneaus are plenty generous but I still get it.

Will try some Specialized insoles next with their various arch support mechanisms, but woulkd be interested to hear if anyone else has experienced this.

Avatar
don simon [2622 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Without seeing exactly where the pain is, or visible damage I'll put my medical reputation (IANAD) on the line and say plantar fasciitis (tendons) and should be helped with insoles that support. Reasonably priced insoles available from Decathlon.

Also check cleat alignment.

Probably best to see a real doctor in order to get the correct diagnosis as the internet medics are generally crap.

Avatar
Yorkshire wallet [2318 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
don simon wrote:

Probably best to see a real doctor in order to get the correct diagnosis as the internet medics are generally crap.

As are real doctors. Had a problem with my elbow on full extension recently. She hadn't a clue and just sent me to physio.

Last time I had an eye ulcer, the doc told me to put some antibiotic stuff on and see an optician as I'd had an ulcer 6 months previous so they must be an underlying cause. Optician? I said. Yes, optician, he said, berating me for questioning him. Went to opticion, optician said, you've an ulcer, you need to do to the eye clinic......like the doctor who I saw first time I had an ulcer did. 3 days wasted on the wrong drops and in pain.

Same story with my thyroid. See one doc, puts me on thyroxine, 3 month review comes up, have blood test hear nothing back. Ring docs, reception says reviewed as no action needed. Anyway, I have to see them to get my next 3 months authorised and a different doc looks at blood test and says "this isn't working, I'm tripling your dose".....no action needed eh?

 

 

Avatar
risoto [84 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes
IanEdward wrote:

Would love to hear other people's experiences with discomfort/ache around the outside edge of the arch (the narrow bit between the heel and the ball if you picture a footprint in the sand).

I put it down to shoes which were too narrow, but my new Garneaus are plenty generous but I still get it.

Will try some Specialized insoles next with their various arch support mechanisms, but woulkd be interested to hear if anyone else has experienced this.

I also got Gaerna wide and one size larger. Same problem with my feet. After 10 miles my feet would start to hurt at the side and just behind the toe bones - more or less above the spindle of the pedal. 5 miles further on my feet were almost paralized.

Thought I had moved the cleats around in all possible positions until I moved them forward ½-1 cm. Pain was gone immediately. Never felt so studpid, you'd think you tried all the tricks except for the obvious. If you move them to far forward you'll feel the pain (a lot less than the other pains!) in your toes - then just re-adjust the cleats a few millimeters back. Experiement until the pain is gone.

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csorthofeet [9 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

 I was diagnosed with strap-closure and was given some insoles by my podiatrist. The insoles did not work in all my shoes and I got blisters on my heels. I was in a lot of pain and could not exercise or even go for a walk. I saw an ad for orthofeet shoes online and I was interested. I was so excited to get my pair because of all the great reviews and I was hopeful that they would work for me also. From day 1 they were amazing, so comfortable, no pain when walking or exercising. My strap-closure has even improved and now I am interested in trying different orthofeet styles not just for exercise.

Avatar
CygnusX1 [1014 posts] 2 months ago
1 like

ADMINS: csorthofeet is a spammer - please shut down 

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danhopgood [21 posts] 1 week ago
0 likes

A word of caution over "casual" or trainer style shoes.  The sole of these is often  very supple - good for walking, not good if used with SPD style cleats, since the loads are applied over a small area of the foot.  I know this form personal experience having ridden such shoes for a 1000 mile, 2 week tour of Scotland.  Near the end my toes were numb and they stayed that way for months afterwards - due to nerve damage from the pressure in the "wrong place".  Stiff shoes or  platform pedals and toe clips are better options for long distances.

Avatar
andyp [1598 posts] 1 week ago
0 likes
Yorkshire wallet wrote:
don simon wrote:

Probably best to see a real doctor in order to get the correct diagnosis as the internet medics are generally crap.

As are real doctors. Had a problem with my elbow on full extension recently. She hadn't a clue and just sent me to physio.

Last time I had an eye ulcer, the doc told me to put some antibiotic stuff on and see an optician as I'd had an ulcer 6 months previous so they must be an underlying cause. Optician? I said. Yes, optician, he said, berating me for questioning him. Went to opticion, optician said, you've an ulcer, you need to do to the eye clinic......like the doctor who I saw first time I had an ulcer did. 3 days wasted on the wrong drops and in pain.

Same story with my thyroid. See one doc, puts me on thyroxine, 3 month review comes up, have blood test hear nothing back. Ring docs, reception says reviewed as no action needed. Anyway, I have to see them to get my next 3 months authorised and a different doc looks at blood test and says "this isn't working, I'm tripling your dose".....no action needed eh?

 

 

I have to say, it looks as though it's the patient who is crap in these instances. You went to see a doctor, rather than an optometrist (NB, not an optician, they are very different things) about your eye? You went to see a GP rather than a pyhsio in the first instance with a joint problem?

If you get toothache, do you go and see a car mechanic?

 

Avatar
FluffyKittenofT... [2266 posts] 1 week ago
0 likes
andyp wrote:
Yorkshire wallet wrote:

 

 

I have to say, it looks as though it's the patient who is crap in these instances. You went to see a doctor, rather than an optometrist (NB, not an optician, they are very different things) about your eye? You went to see a GP rather than a pyhsio in the first instance with a joint problem?

If you get toothache, do you go and see a car mechanic?

 

 

Though that's the way the NHS works.  To see a physio you have to first see your GP and get referred to one.  GPs are gatekeepers.  They don't really know very much but they ought to know enough to know who to refer you to.

 

  At least in this case they _did_ refer the OP to one, that's pretty much the right outcome.  The problem arises when they are reluctant to refer you anywhere becuase of how the internal market works.

 

Also, the poster seems to be saying it was the GP who got muddled between an optician and an optometrist.