Cycling Shoes Explained

Cycling shoes can greatly improve pedal stroke efficiency.
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If you're spending significant time in the saddle of a bike and have yet to don a pair of cycling shoes, you should consider it. Whether you're a roadie, mountain biker, triathlete, cyclocross enthusiast or indoor cycling junkie, using a clipless pedal system with a good pair of bike shoes can make your pedal stroke far more powerful and efficient. But before you rush out to the nearest bike shop, take a little time to review some cycling shoe basics.

Types of Shoes

    Most cycling shoes will fall into one of two main categories: road or mountain. Road shoes are designed to be aerodynamic and quick, so they are typically more svelte and lightweight than mountain shoes. Cleats, which clip into the bike pedals, screw onto the bottom of the road shoe's rigid sole. Mountain bike shoes are heavier, more rugged and usually have lugged soles to grip rocks and withstand rough terrain. The sole is not as rigid and the shoe is more comfortable to walk in because the cleats are recessed. These qualities make them a better choice for cyclocross, indoor cycling and touring.

Types of Cleats

    The type of cleat you bolt onto the bottom of your shoes must be compatible with your pedals, or you will not be able to clip in. You also need to make sure that the bolting system of your cleats matches your chosen shoes -- as different cleats have different patterns that use two to four bolts. The most common cleats for road shoes include SPD-SL, Look, Time and Speedplay. Mountain bike shoes may be compatible with Crank Bros, Time A-Tac or Shimano SPD. Note that the pedals on indoor cycling bikes are compatible with the two-bolt Shimano SPD cleats.

Comfort and Fit

    Generally, performance shoes have a snugger fit and use a ratchet-style closure, while more casual shoes will be roomier and have Velcro or lace closures. No matter what type of shoe you choose, make sure the fit isn't too tight or blood flow may be restricted, causing your feet to feel tingly and hot. When riding in warm environments, your feet may swell, so you might want to factor that into your sizing. Because the cleats bolt under the forefoot of the shoes, it's important for your forefoot to fit the shoe precisely. Pick a shoe with a removable insole so you can add a custom insole or orthotic if it becomes necessary down the road.

Cleat Adjustment and Float

    The positioning of cleats on the bottom of your cycling shoes is important. If the cleats are improperly angled, they can force your feet into an angle that causes trouble for your ankles, knees, hips or back. If you get your bike professionally fit, take your shoes and cleats to the fitting so the fit professional can make sure your cleats are placed correctly. Different cleats allow varying degrees of float, which is the wiggle room a cleat allows in shoe movement while riding.

A Piece of Advice

    It can be intimidating to start riding in cycling shoes with clipless pedals. Many people get nervous about falling because they don't unclip in time. But once you adjust to cycling shoes and a clipless pedal system, you'll wonder how you ever rode without them. Practice clipping in and out of your pedals while standing over your bike with one foot on the ground. To clip in, align the cleat with the pedal and press down; to clip out, twist your ankle outward.

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