How To Buy the Right Cycling Shoes

Some may have read my guide on helmets, and if you are in that group you will likely find this guide a little familiar. It’s just because I’m getting lazy and I don’t feel like writing more – so I just copy and pasted the content below. Just replace the word helmet with shoe and you’ll be good. Have fun!

Kidding! It’s not because I’m lazy, it’s because the theory is actually pretty similar. Both items are something that you’ll wear potentially for hours at a time and how well they fit will determine whether you’re distracted and have a miserable ride or can enjoy your ride without thinking about your gear. (I’ve said before that the right gear is the kind you don’t notice. Saddles, shorts, gloves, helmets and yes: shoes.


First – I wrote about pedal and shoes systems a long, long time ago. It’s a pretty concise yet comprehensive post that addresses some of the terms, jargon, and general knowledge that I leave unexplained in this particular guide. If you are new to clipless pedal and shoes systems – start with that post first, then come back to this one.

I do want to reiterate one thing from my above mentioned post on shoes and pedals and that is this: Choose your shoes first and then choose among the many pedal options that are compatible with that shoe. In my opinion; picking pedals before shoes is putting the cart before the horse. By choosing a pedal first you limit your options with shoes for the intended use. For example: for bike touring you’ll spend almost all of your time riding on pavement; so you might choose a road pedal for that purpose. Then when you go to pick your shoe you’ll find that most if not all of the models you have to choose from do not feature a recessed cleat and therefore are difficult to walk in. The pedal is important, but only has to work for you while you are riding and will never have to do anything for you when you are not on your bike.

So the areas of focus are the same as with helmets; but the order is different – for good reason:

  • Function
    Fit (or 2.5) Price.

Much like helmets; this process also involves spending some measurable time trying on several shoes – so give yourself some time and be sure that you either: a) have a patient sales person helping you or b) you’ve assured them that you’ll be there a while and you will find them if you have questions (option “b” is especially helpful if you’ve happened to come to the store when they are particularly busy).

So let’s take a look at a way to help you get the right cycling shoes:

1. Function

When we talked about helmets, this was the secondary factor because you really can ride a road bike in a MTB helmet and vice-versa. However, I wouldn’t want to go mountain biking in my road shoes and I prefer to not wear my road shoes mountain biking. You want the shoe that is built for the job. So here’s a quick checklist:

Going to be riding with these shoes off-road at all? Get mountain bike (recessed cleat) shoes. You’ll need the traction and walkability (if that is not a real word – I made it up years ago and have been using it as one; so deal with it. 🙂 )

Riding all on pavement but want to have easy walkability in your shoes? Consider mountain bike shoes again. The recessed cleat profile allows you to walk on the tread of the shoe and is less slippery on flooring. Recreational road riding and touring are going to fall into this category.

Commuting by bike? Mountain shoes for durability, walkability, and ease of pedal engagement

Buying your first set of clipless pedals and shoes? Get mountain bike shoes; again for walkability and ease of pedal engagement.
Only pavement riding and value maximum stiffness, light weight, and performance over other factors? Road shoes are the way to go.

Already have pedals and don’t have your shoes yet? Take your pedals with you when you go to try on shoes so that you don’t fall in love with a shoe that won’t work with the pedal system you already own. All shoes do not work with all pedals.

You’ll notice that a lot of my answers in the above guidelines suggest mountain bike shoes (o.k., all but one). I believe that these are the most versatile shoes for two reasons: 1) the aforementioned recessed cleat creates a shoe that is much easier to walk in and 2) the pedal systems that are compatible with them generally are double-sided allowing for easier pedal engagement (clipping-in). These are both advantages in more situations that the average rider encounters than the benefits that a road shoe brings to its owner.

2. Fit

Now that you have decided on the style of shoe that suits your needs, you can finally get down to trying some on. Hopefully the store you have chosen offers more than one brand as typically different brands will build their shoes around different foot-forms (called the “last”) and you can therefore expect some to fit you better than others. Options are a good thing here. However, a good, lasting, trusting relationship with a bike shop is more important; so don’t fret if your store of choice only carries one brand.

This part becomes pretty intensely personal – much more than with any other piece of equipment you’ll buy for your bike. Feet come in so many different sizes and shapes and carry so many different ailments that it would be nearly impossible to give a really detailed guide to fit in this format. (Perhaps I’ll write a book someday). However, I’ll give some broad pointers with the advice that there is no substitute for finding someone who a) is patient and b) really knows their stuff – shoes and feet that is – when it comes to who helps you choose your shoe. That is especially true if you have a history of difficult to fit feet.

So; enough of my rambling. Here’s some points on how to prepare and proceed:

Bring your own socks – yeah; some people aren’t all that prepared – but beyond that it is important to be wearing what you wear on your feet when you ride. This is especially true if you wear a thick sock.
Bring any orthotics that you plan on wearing in the shoe when you ride. It is impossible to get the right fit without such an important
Not too tight, not too loose. “Running shoe fit” is the term I have used for years; but not everyone can relate to this. Roomy enough that there is no pinching, binding, or hot spots is basically the idea. You don’t want your toes bumping the end.

The straps should be fastened “comfortably snug”. This term is purposefully subjective because that will vary for everyone. You want the shoe to have as little “slop” (slack) in the fit without creating the aforementioned pinching, binding, or hot spots. The straps can be a source of these symptoms when they are too tight and can cause toe numbness later in a ride.

Standing while trying the shoes on is a good idea as it flattens your foot out from bearing your weight and will give you a better feel for how the shoe will perform while pedaling. You can walk in them a little if you want – but it is not a necessary test. The sole is stiff for maximum power transfer and they will feel funny. If you do walk – a little heel slip is acceptable due to the stiffness of the sole.

“What about all those special footbeds, wedges, arch supports, and other gadgets?”

They serve a good purpose and I’m a big fan when used correctly but the wrong item used improperly is not a solution and can cause bigger problems that the one you’re trying to solve. I see this most frequently with wedges being used to push someone into alignment rather than their proper use of supporting someone into alignment. Proceed with caution and be confident beyond reason that the person making the recommendation is knowledgeable and qualified.

And some sort of certificate or diploma does not necessarily mean someone is going to use these tools properly. One of the worst offenders of misuse of wedges has had almost as much bike fit training as I have. Buyer beware and if things get worse or new pains come up after a fitting session; something isn’t right.