Get yourself the right pair of high-performance cycling shoes and your riding immediately becomes both more comfortable and more efficient. While you can cycle in a pair of trainers, we’re going to assume for the sake of this article that you want to ride in dedicated cycling shoes. Cycling shoes are designed to be light and stiff for efficient pedalling, usually with mesh panels to keep your feet cool in the summer, and with a sole that's designed to be compatible with clipless pedals.
Carbon fibre soles are common, and most manufacturers have some way of rating sole stiffness; these shoes are usually at or near the top of the scale.
Dials, usually from the idea's inventor Boa, are now the dominant closure, but you'll also find ratchet buckles, Velcro straps and laces.
Most shoemakers now use synthetic materials for their uppers; they're tough, durable and easy to care for.
Impressive comfort, low weight and stunning looks — as close to a pair of slippers as you can get in cycling shoes. At just 408g for a size 45 pair, the Giro Empire SLX are among the very lightest shoes available. This low weight is backed up by incredible comfort from the lace-up uppers and a super stiff carbon fibre sole that doesn't waste any of your power when sprinting for the line.
Giro made quite an impact and raised a good few eyebrows when they launched the Empire shoes, successfully reintroducing lace-up shoes to a sport that had largely confined laces to the history books, replaced by buckles, ratchets and dials.
The Microfiber Sport laces are designed to remain tied, hold a knot, be light and durable. The best thing about the laces is that you can get the closure pressure across the entire top of the foot just right, with no pressure points that you might get with a shoe that uses two or three focused closure points. Once tied, the laces are contained underneath a 'lace garage' on top of the shoe.
Tester David writes: “Don't go mistaking the Empires for an indulgent retro-style shoe, harking back to the old days of cycling when lace-ups were commonplace. These are all about performance. Underneath the shoe is an Easton EC90 SLX2 high-modulus carbon fibre sole and it's incredibly stuff, easily as stiff as any other high-end race shoe I've tested. There's no discernible heel lift during sprints or out of the saddle climbing.”
Shimano's S-Phyre RC902 shoes are stiff, comfortable and hold the foot securely during big power efforts. There are changes over the previous model, the RC9, but the basics stay the same. This is a comfortable, well-thought-out pair of race shoes.
Boa's Li2 dials have easy tension adjustment that’s micro-adjustable both ways, allowing you to crank the dials down tight for town sign sprints and then release them a bit once you've beaten your mates. The upper dial pulls on a wide strap which spreads pressure very well and the lower dial relies on a criss-cross pattern to spread the retention pressure perfectly comfortably. A brilliant new heel cup comprising two rubberised pads sitting on either side of the Achilles tendon absolutely clamps the heel in place.
For a race shoe, they deliver on the stiffness front, the heel retention is excellent and comfort is good for long rides.
Shimano's highly impressive race-orientated RC7 shoes had a significant redesign in 2019, gaining dials and losing Velcro completely. They're still a very comfortable, secure and well-vented option (with a great fit), but while the carbon soles are stiff and vibe-free, they could be stiffer still without sacrificing comfort.
The new RC7s – technically RC701s – are easily distinguished by their twin dials. The mid-foot one allows you to tune security very precisely, creating a fit that's both firm and unconstricted in seconds. I never missed the ability to cinch the toebox with a Velcro strap, which the older style had, and I appreciated the extra room it leaves around my toes for thick socks.
Giro's Regime Women's Road Cycling Shoes are sleek looking, seriously comfortable and performance orientated. There's very little to fault, though if you want bigger than size 42 you'll need to look at the men's version.
Tester Emma writes: "I frequently opt for men's shoes as they seem to fit my wider-than-average feet better than female-specific ones. I was impressed with the Regimes, though: they haven't caused any discomfort or hotspots whatsoever, even on five-hour-plus rides.
"Much of this comfort comes from the Synchwire upper design, which Giro describes as an ultralight mono-filament mesh to which it has added thermal-welded TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) for structural support and resistance to grit and grime. It's manufactured in a single piece, so it's free of potentially irritating seams, and it really does fit and feel like a second skin, as Giro claim. With the two Boa L6 dials this makes for a fully compliant upper that makes your feet feel snugly secure for even the most aggressive of riding.
"The carbon sole delivers as you would expect. It's noticeably better than the nylon/glass fibre composite of Scott's Road Team Boas. In fact I've only ever ridden with one that I would say feels stiffer – Liv's Macha Pros – which felt stiffer for all-out sprints and hills. The Giros would be my preference for longer rides where comfort is more important, though.
"For me, the fit, comfort and performance of the Giro Regimes are all flawless. With durability and style to boot, these are now my favourite shoes. They may not be the cheapest, but given how hard it can be to find shoes that fit perfectly, it's a price I'd be very willing to pay."
Boardman has delivered an absolute belter of a spec list for the sub-£100 price tag on their latest Carbon Cycle Shoes. They offer decent stiffness, are well vented and the upper gives a supple feel for comfort too – plus the adjustment of the ratchet dials allows you to tweak them on the fly.
The full carbon sole found here isn't the stiffest but 95% of the time it’s absolutely fine. The twin dials pull the soft and supple synthetic upper smoothly around your foot with a uniform pressure and no hot sports. Should your feet swell or shrink due to the weather conditions, a quick tweak on the dials while in the saddle is easy.
Boardman has continued the theme of delivering uncomplicated, high quality products for very sensible money. The most powerful riders may find the sole a little flexy, but for the majority of us they're going to fit the bill for all kind of riding styles.
Le Col's Pro Carbon Road Shoes are the company's first attempt at bringing a pair of race shoes to its lineup and if these are anything to go by then it should keep going: they're impressively stiff with a great shape and a soft, supple upper. The only potential drawback is that they are currently only available in whole sizes 41 to 45.
Yanto Barker, ex-pro and the man behind clothing brand Le Col, says on the website, 'Your shoes are not only the principle point of contact with your bike, but some of the most personal items in a cyclist's kit. Stylish, well made shoes have been something I've always sought after, and knowing what's needed, I decided we would make our own.'
For some riders, function over form is the way to go but on a warm sunny day when you've got your best bike out and your favourite kit on, watching a pair of bling cycling shoes turning the pedals over is a thing of beauty.
These Pro Carbon models offer exactly that.
The Specialized S-Works 7 Lace road shoes combine a super-stiff sole with supple uppers that hold your foot firmly yet comfortably, although the lack of on-the-fly adjustability goes with the territory for laced shoes. They're basically the same as the Specialized S-Works 7 road shoes, but with laces, which gives you fine-tunability of laces for getting the tension around your foot just so, but takes away the on-the-fly adjustability of dials. They still offer superb comfort, fit, foot retention and power transfer.
Specialized says that the Powerline carbon outsole is its lightest and stiffest ever. Tester Mat writes: "I tried as hard as I could to get some flex out of these but they just don't budge in any direction. Whether you're sprinting or stamping as hard as possible on a short, sharp power climb, there's no discernible movement at all in the sole.
"The upper is supple and flexible enough that various foot shapes can get an excellent fit, and any little bony bumps can be accommodated comfortably. Speaking of comfort, there are no annoying seams to drive you nuts on a long ride because the upper is one piece, and you get a small but effective amount of padding on the tongue and around the opening. With some shoes I occasionally get a bit of rub around one ankle – an old injury – but the collar is sufficiently low that it's not an issue here.
"The vast majority of cycling shoes cost considerably less than £300, but the S-Works 7 Lace incorporates high-end materials and features throughout and is £70 less than the version with a Boa closure. The S-Works Ares (£375) and S-Works Vent (£399) are more expensive again.
"Overall, these shoes offer excellent performance, the fit will work for most people, and the level of comfort is high. If you want laced shoes in your life, you can't go wrong here."
Giro's Trans Boa shoes update the excellent Velcro-secured original design to create stiff, comfortable and thoroughly modern shoes. They'll please everyone from keen amateurs to sportive riders and occasional racers with their stiff carbon soles and easily tweaked comfort, though they're not the lightest available.
These Trans are broadly similar to the version that scored an impressive 4.5 stars back in 2016, meaning an Easton EC70 carbon sole, a very breathable microfibre and mesh upper, and an attractive mix of matt and gloss panels. Two of the three Velcro straps are now gone, replaced by a quick-release Boa L6 dial that tightens in 1mm increments.
Specialized's flagship S-Works 7 road shoe offers outstanding performance with superb comfort, fit, foot retention and power transfer. Yes, they are spendy – and if you opt for custom insoles (more on them below) rather than standard that adds another £110, but they're about the same as other top-end shoes and are easily a match for the best shoes in this class.
If you're interested in the lightest shoes Specialized makes, check out the S-Works Exos and Exos 99. Unless you're a weight weenie, for all-round performance, outright stiffness demands and durability, the S-Works 7 is the shoe to plump for.
You don't need us to tell you just how important fit is to cycling happiness and performance, whether it's the bike or shoes. You can have the spangliest shoes but if the fit is wrong, you're not going to extract your best performance and you risk injury. Specialized has always focused on fit and its Body Geometry tech, developed over a decade ago, has seen its shoes become incredibly popular even with brand conscious types.
The Quoc Mono II shoes are light, comfortable and minimalist go-faster slippers with extremely stiff soles. If you're looking for high performance, super-modern kicks, they've got to be on your shortlist.
The Mono II shoes are admirably simple. The upper is made from two pieces of microfibre synthetic leather, with hundreds of tiny perforations for ventilation. It's held closed by a pair of ratchet dials, which look like Boa dials, but aren't. The sole is uni-directional carbon fibre. It's extremely stiff and quite thin (Quoc says it's just 4mm thick); you might have to move your saddle down a couple of millimetres if you're very sensitive to bike position, and you're replacing cheaper shoes with thicker soles.
The Quoc Mono II shoes are really nicely thought-out, with all the details you need, and very few that you don't.
With reviews from our testers that don't quite put them in the top 10, these shoes nevertheless are all highly rated.
The Fizik Vento Stabilita Carbon road shoes are one of the most innovative, adjustable, and comfortable pairs of shoes Iou can buyon sole, for excellent power transfer. The price is high, putting them at the top end of the market, but the performance is excellent.
The USP is the clever and very effective adjustable arch support, which substantially improves comfort for people like out tester George who need a bit more support underfoot. They’re also very stiff, and impressively light.
George writes: “Overall, I was very impressed with these shoes. Yes, they're expensive, and they let water in freely around the adjustable area, but they are also comfortable, stiff, light, and have excellent ventilation. But it's the arch support that is truly innovative and a real game changer for people like me who need it.”
The DMT KR0 Road Shoes are hugely comfortable, breathable and light. Using a knitted upper means that they mould to your feet, and if aerodynamics is your thing, there is little bulk to hold you back. They aren't the easiest to get on, though, and the price will raise a few eyebrows.
Tester Stu writes: "The stretchy nature of the mesh means the KR0s literally wrap around your foot, feeling like your favourite pair of slippers. But while it aids the fit, it does make them a bit of a faff to get on, as the opening doesn't stretch much to let your foot in. It did get a bit easier over time as the material developed a little more give, and I also worked out a specific way to wiggle my foot in.
"The dials used here are Boa's new Li2 models, which are made from recycled plastic and have a lower profile than previous versions. This makes it easier to wear overshoes over the top, ideal in the winter months that I've been testing the KR0s as these shoes are very breathable.
"Flip the shoe over and you'll find a full carbon fibre sole that is impressively stiff. DMT doesn't rave on about stiffness or use stiffness ratings, but let me just say these are up there with some of the stiffest I've worn. I got on well with the shape, too; the arch isn't too pronounced, and I found the sole to be supportive without feeling overly harsh on rough roads.
The KR0s are a very comfortable pair of shoes, and light too, though considering their breathability they are definitely going to be reserved for the warmest of days. They aren't cheap, but nor are they over the top when compared to the competition. A big outlay, but worth it if you want some of the most comfortable cycling shoes money can buy.
Bont's Vaypor S shoes are super-stiff yet they provide an excellent level of comfort, and they now come with Boa's top-level Li2 dial closure.
Tester Mat writes: "The soles are handmade from unidirectional carbon fibre and they just don't flex. There are lots of stiff-soled shoes out there these days if you're prepared to pay top-end prices, and the Vaypor S is right up there among the very stiffest. I can detect absolutely no flex at all here.
"Those soles are tub-shaped – they extend up around the sides of your feet, not just at the heel but in all other areas too. It feels like this is providing stability and support as you pedal, particularly when you're out of the saddle. The curved-up sides could cause discomfort if your feet pushed hard against them anywhere, but the soles are heat mouldable.
"Two Boa Li2 dials take care of closure on this version of the Vaypor S. Li2 is Boa's premium product and it works superbly, allowing one-handed micro-adjustment in both directions, even through overshoes. When you want to release the tension completely, you just pull the dial upwards. It could hardly be simpler.
"You know how some saddles manage to be incredibly comfortable despite little in the way of padding? The Vaypor S pulls the same trick. There's a small depth of cell memory foam around the opening (the 'collar') and the heel, and the tongue provides cushioning against the Boa dials and laces, and I've found it perfectly sufficient.
"The Vaypor S shoes aren't just like a thousand others out there, they're a totally different take. You can get lighter shoes and you can get ones with more ventilation, but these are stiff-soled, supportive, secure and very comfortable. If only they were cheap as well."
The Rapha Classic shoes are a superbly comfortable design with a novel lacing system, good sole stiffness and durability, and – shock, horror! – a not-outlandish price.
They're comfortable, with a stiff and durable sole, though they're not the lightest and the lace closure won't be to everyone's taste.
Compared to Rapha's previous Grand Tour, Climber's and Cross shoes, made in collaboration with Giro, these designed-in-house kicks use a last with a little more volume in the forefoot. My feet are a middling width and I found them to have plenty of room up front – certainly enough to wiggle my toes freely. If your feet are narrower, you can always cinch the sides in via the Velcro forefoot strap. I guess you might struggle if your feet are particularly wide, although the supple upper offers a bit of leeway.
Rapha's race-orientated Pro Team shoes come with woven uppers, a dual Boa dial closure system, and stiff carbon fibre soles, and they do a great job of mixing a high performance with plenty of comfort.
Rapha released a couple of new shoe models last year – the Classics and the Explores – but the Pro Teams are very different in that the uppers are made from Powerweave rather than microfibre, and feature a Boa dial closure rather than laces.
If you are looking for a road shoe with absolutely no give in the sole, then the Pearson x Lake Over and Overs need to be on your shopping list. A collaboration between the historic west London shop and the shoe maker, they have incredibly stiff soles, a genuine leather upper and twin Boa dials for easy adjustment on the fly. It's an impressive build for the money, though they aren't the lightest out there.
Tester Stu writes: "The 3k carbon fibre Lake sole is transfers power through the pedals about as efficiently as you can. The carbon gets thicker towards the centre of the foot, being at its deepest at the cleat-mounting point. I was surprised by how comfortable I found such a stiff sole, even on long rides. Some shoes can cause hot-spots when they are so stiff, but the shape of the sole here just seemed to suit my feet.
"The outer is made from Helcor leather which looks cool in my opinion and is certainly hardwearing. Pearson/Lake describe the shoes as a medium width and I'd go along with that. There was room inside them for my feet to swell in warmer weather, and the toe box offers plenty of wiggle room too, but thanks to the suppleness of the leather and the Boa wire system used for retention, the Over and Overs wrapped around my feet nicely with no pressure points.
"The only thing the Over and Overs haven't got going for them is their weight. On our scales this pair weighed in at 701g, which is almost 200g more than the £250 Le Col Pro Carbon shoes I tested a little while back.
"Nevertheless, they might not appeal to the weight-weenies, but if you want a super-stiff, high quality pair of shoes that offer impressive comfort and durable leather uppers, they're very good."
Practical clipless pedals first appeared in 1984, an idea borrowed from the world of skiing. A small metal or plastic cleat is attached to the sole of the foot with two, three or four bolts, and engages with a specific type of pedal. This allows for more efficient pedalling because your feet are held in the optimum position.
If you want to choose some cycling shoes, first you need to decide what type of riding you do, because shoes are available in a huge range of styles to suit different demands. They can largely be split into performance road shoes (stiff soles, external cleats) and leisure/commuting/touring shoes where comfort and practicality are important considerations. In this guide we're focusing on performance road shoes, whether it's for general road riding, racing or sportives.
These are your typically recognisable cycling shoes. They have a nylon, composite or carbon-fibre sole. Generally speaking, the more you spend, the stiffer and/or lighter the sole. These are designed to offer the maximum efficiency and power transfer, getting all your energy through the pedals into the transmission to propel you forward. Shoes at the top-end will be extremely stiff, while at the other end of the price spectrum shoes they will often have a higher degree of flex. You might actually find this more comfortable, especially if you're just starting out or you're not trying to emulate Sir Wiggo.
The soles typically have a three-bolt pattern to accept Shimano’s SPD-SL, Look or Time cleats, or a four-bolt drilling that's compatible with Speedplay’s pedal system. You really don't want to be walking too far in these shoes. The large external cleat, in combination with the stiff sole, makes even the shortest walk a hobble, and can be downright precarious on the wrong floor. You've been warned! The pedals are one-sided and they are usually designed with more weight at the back so they hang in such a way that clipping in is easy. Even so, sometimes you have to flip the pedal the right way in order to clip in.
Shoes have synthetic or leather uppers designed to be as light as possible, and often have many mesh panels to keep your feet ventilated in hot weather. Having hot, sweaty feet is very uncomfortable, especially on a hard ride. Some shoes have a lot more ventilation, which is fine in California, but with the typical British summer it's perhaps worth looking for a shoe with less mesh panelling, depending on how hot your feet tend to get. That's not so easy as most shoes aren't really designed with the British summer in mind. For the winter, you can get Gore-Tex lined shoes to keep out the rain and cold.
Various closure systems are available: Velcro straps, a ratcheting buckle and dial-tightened wire systems are all popular. Some shoes use more than one system. Lace-up shoes have made a return at the top-end with Giro’s Empire shoes harking back to the olden days. Whatever the closure system, the shoe needs to stay in place on your feet; you don't want your feet slipping about in the shoes when you're pedalling. That leads to discomfort and power loss.
The last few years have seen the development of heat mouldable shoes from the likes of Lake, Shimano and Bont. You can heat up the shoes in an oven and sometimes mould the soles and sometimes the thermoplastic uppers. While not cheap, heat mouldable shoes are slowly becoming more affordable.
The more you spend, the more you get, naturally. With shoes, the more you spend, the lighter the shoe is likely to be. The difference can be anything up to 350g or more between entry-level shoes and the most expensive.
Expensive road cycling shoes will use carbon-fibre soles to reduce the weight, which also impacts on the stiffness of the shoe, another factor that increases the more you spend. Stiffness is important for transferring your power to the pedals, and the stiffer the shoe the better it is at doing this. If you’re racing, you’ll want a stiffer shoe, but if you’re not into racing, then you might want to choose a shoe with a more flexible sole.
The system used to secure the shoe to the foot is another key difference between £80 and £200 shoes. The former will likely use a simple arrangement of Velcro straps, while the more you spend the more elaborate the closure is likely to be. From micro-ratcheting buckles to rotary dials to a combination of buckles, ratchets and Velcro, every shoe brand has their favoured approach.
Materials used for the upper get lighter, more breathable and more supple the more you spend. Kangaroo and other leathers tend to be expensive, while there are all kinds of synthetic alternatives. The upper can have a big impact on how comfortable your shoes feel.
Getting a comfortable shoe that fits well is absolutely essentially so it’s really worth heading to a well-stocked bicycle shop to try them on before you buy. Don’t assume that all brands are sized the same. Some are narrower and some come in wider fits.
Some brands, such as Shimano, cater for different foot widths with a ‘wide’ version of their regular shoes. There are brands that are known to suit narrower feet, an example being Sidi.
For this reason it’s really worth trying on a few shoes from different brands to find the ones that best fit you. When you do try on a pair of cycling shoes in the shop, remember to wear the same socks that you would on the bike.
Heat mouldable shoes, as the name implies are shaped by heat. You warm them up in an oven and then mould them around your fit. This offers a degree of custom fit without the expense of having shoes handmade, which is good for people who struggle to get regular shoes to fit comfortably.
If you’re put off by the prospect of clipless shoes, then clips-and-straps, which are still available, might be more suitable. You can even buy shoes, some retro inspired, designed for toe clips.
Want even more choices? Explore the complete archive of reviews of cycling shoes on road.cc
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John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc founder Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.