THE BEST ROAD CYCLING SHOES

Feature Photo

Efficient, comfortably fitting, good-looking power transfer.  It isn’t a poetic or catchy phrase, but it’s what a performance cycling shoe should be for most road cycling enthusiasts.

Efficient so that you can transfer the power you bring from your legs to your pedals with minimal loss.  Comfortable so that you can deliver that power hour after hour without your feet ever complaining.  And good-looking to you and perhaps others so that it motivates your performance and enhances your enjoyment on the road.

In this post, I share with you my evaluation of the best performance cycling shoes for serious roadies.  Whether you race, do club rides or like to challenge yourself on short segments or over long days, these shoes are designed to help you ride your best in supreme comfort and look good doing it.

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Click on any statement below to go directly to that part of the post

Shoes are critical to your power, speed, comfort, endurance and enjoyment of cycling

The best shoes are really worth the money, and answers to other key questions

Look past the features; fit and a few performance criteria will help you choose

Top models from Specialized, Sidi, Bont, Bontrager and Lake are the best performers

 

WHY TRUST THIS SITE AND MY RECOMMENDATIONS

In The Know Cycling is for road cycling enthusiasts like you and me who want to know what gear we should get next and where we can get it at the best prices from great stores.  I do hours of my own testing and analysis on an entire category of cycling gear for each review and incorporate insights from other independent reviewers and riders I respect.  I respond to most any question you have in the comment section of each post, usually within a few hours if I’m not on a long ride or sleeping (Eastern US time).

To eliminate potential bias, I don’t accept ads of any kind and don’t post press releases rewritten as “first look” reviews or articles paid for by bike companies or stores.  I buy or demo and return all the gear I and my fellow testers evaluate, don’t go on company-paid product review trips, and don’t offer or charge for special access to any of the content on this site.  My only influence is what I think would be best for my fellow roadies.  This is my passion, not a business.

The site is supported by a simple and transparent model.  I find and provide you regularly updated links to the lowest priced product listings for the gear I’ve reviewed at online stores that have the highest customer satisfaction ratings among the 100 or so I track.  When you click on and buy something through one of those links, some of the stores (though not all) will pay the site a small commission.  You save time and money while supporting the creation of independent reviews written for road cycling enthusiasts and it doesn’t cost you a thing.  If you prefer to buy your gear at a local bike shop, you can support the site with a contribution here or buy anything through these links to Amazon or eBay.

There’s more on all of this at the about and support pages.  Thanks.

THE ROLE OF SHOES IN ROAD CYCLING

Let me tell you this right up front.  I don’t know or care much about cycling fashion.  Standard black and red bikes, black shoes and shorts, and jerseys from whatever events I’ve done was my starting point for most of my cycling life.  The shoes I picked always fit me fine and once that was out of the way, it looked to me like the major difference between what I and other riders wore was just style and color and various do dads that I really didn’t need.  I focused on ridin’ rather than stylin’.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Fit doesn’t always provide the best transfer of power or comfort on a long ride.  Fit like a glove or fit like a pair of slippers or even fit in the store doesn’t always or even usually mean it’s the right fit or a comfortable fit for someone pedaling tempo to threshold zone power out on the road.

As to fashion, it’s about the last thing that should matter when it comes to picking a great pair of cycling shoes.  Power transfer and comfort are what set shoes apart and are key to your ability to improve your performance.  Shoes that you like the look of (or don’t mind) is the icing on the cake.

Look good = feel good = ride good is certainly something I agree with.  It may also be what some companies market and what draws you in.  But looks should be why you buy a pair of cycling shoes only after the you’ve chosen ones witht the right fit, power transfer and comfort for you.  At least if you are serious roadie.

Have you ever thought about getting another pair of shoes other than when your feet start to hurt or your shoes get stretched out or the uppers start looking a little shabby or something new catches your eye?  Have you ever really looked into how your choice of shoes affects your ability to ride faster or longer?  Before I started the research for this review, I must admit that as a fellow road cycling enthusiast I would have answered no to both questions.

Some of us (yes, including me) look at every opportunity to find a few extra watts or clicks of speed by picking the right wheels, tires, or helmets and by spending more time in the right aero position, shaving our legs, shedding our gloves, etc.  I’ve written posts about all those things.  But, the right shoes can also help you increase the power you deliver to your pedals and the speed that shows up on you bike computer.

Some of us focus equally or more on endurance than we do on speed and want to ride more miles or kilometers, do more centuries, sportives, fondos, etc. to get or stay healthy.  Better shoes can help you do that too.

Frankly, I should have known better than to overlook the performance benefits shoes can bring and relegate the decision making merely to basic fit and fashion.  I grew up skiing down mountains, raced through college and still coach.  While the skis and speed suits get all the attention, the most important piece of gear are the boots.

If you aren’t wearing a pair of ski boots that fit you snugger than anything else you’ve ever worn on your feet, hold your heels down firmly, provide the room to wiggle your toes, and allow you to fine tune the fit at the top of a run, it doesn’t much matter how right you got the wax on the bottom of your skis, how well you sharpened your edges, how tight your ski suit fits or how cool all your gear looks.  If you’ve got boots that are the wrong size, fit and flex, you aren’t going to get the most out of all the technique you’ve developed or tactics you’ve planned or training you’ve done.  The same goes whether you are racing or skiing moguls or taking a non-stop 15 minute top to bottom run or skiing the deep pow.

Having the right gear on your feet is also critical in football (aka soccer) or basketball or track or ice skating or volleyball or most any sport where your legs power your performance.  Fashion may get the attention and sell the footwear to those who don’t know better, but the performance your shoes enable or limit will make a big difference in your success and enjoyment.

In a lot of sports including many I just listed, shoes are your biggest expense.  In cycling however, your footwear is one of the things you spend the least on.  Bikes, groupsets, and wheelsets all cost more for a similar level of performance than bike shoes.

Yet I and many of my fellow road cycling enthusiasts seem to be a lot more sensitive spending 100 to 200 more dollars, pounds or euros for a pair of shoes than we would spending 200 to 600 more than that for a bike or groupset or wheelset.  We shouldn’t be.  Shoes are just as critical to your performance – your speed, power, comfort, endurance – as many pieces of gear or kit you might ride that cost much more.

 

THE BASIC Q&A ABOUT CYCLING SHOES

When I began the research for this post, several questions came up that had to be answered before I could move forward.  Since they apply across the whole category of cycling shoes for roadies, I’ll cover them here before sharing with you what I found out about any of the specific pairs of shoes.

Function or fashion?

The good news is that you can get both in some of the best shoes.  You can also get those same shoes in rather basic black and other top performance shoes that don’t look like they are trying to make a fashion statement.  But, you can also get some shoes that look great but don’t perform very well.

Competition or comfort?

Here again, you can get both – shoes that have very stiff and light bottom soles (known as “outsoles” in footwear lingo) and a very precise and comfortable fit.  Those that do both tend to be the higher priced shoes for the more competitive enthusiast, whether it be those looking to go faster or last longer out on the road.

You can also get shoes that are high on comfort and fit well enough but not so precisely or made with materials to get you every last watt of power transfer.  These tend to be those shoes that are 100 to 200 dollars, pounds or euros less expensive and are often favored by the endurance enthusiasts who is in it for the pure pleasure of riding and is a bit more focused on their wallet than their speed.

Readers of this blogsite run the gamut from competitive enthusiasts that are willing to pay more for performance to those that are more value conscious yet enjoy their riding as much as the next cyclist, if not always at the same pace.  In this review, I’ve focused on performance shoes that provide both the most efficient power transfer and comfortable fit.

Are top end shoes really worth the extra money?

I think I’ve covered this in the section above but allow me to repeat myself in this Q&A section of the post.  In most cases spending more for performance shoes than value ones will indeed give you better performance.  The shoes I’ve chosen for this review do with the exception of a couple low rated ones.

Like anything else, you can take it too far.  If you don’t want to, you really don’t need to pay extra for a unique style (e.g. retro lace shoes) or a certain brand name (e.g. Lake) or a top of the line model that has just about every extra you can imagine (e.g. cobranded Lake-Assos) to get top of the line performance.

At market prices (rather than full retail), you can get a great pair of performance shoes in the $250 to $400 price range and a comfortable value shoe with far less efficient power transfer in the $150 to $200 range.  As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.  I personally think spending 100 to 200 more is a deal for the improved cycling performance and pleasure you get from your shoes, especially compared to other places you can spend that amount of money only to see little to no real benefit.

What’s all the fuss about Boa?

Boa is a proprietary combination of wires, guides and dials that together tighten, loosen or open your shoes.  They are made by a company called Boa Technology and are used in place of laces, Velcro straps, buckles or ratchets or sometimes in combination with straps on cycling shoes and other sports and non sports gear.  They have become the standard on performance cycling shoes and are starting to be seen on value shoes as well.

Why?  Quite simply, they can give you a better and more comfortable fit and are easier to adjust while underway than the straps, buckles etc. they have replaced.  The tension is spread more evenly across various parts of your foot as you close the shoe for a secure fit.  If they are used in combination with a high quality upper with minimal seams and a good heel cup, insole (aka footbed), and outsole in a shoe size, width and last that fits your foot, they can give you that glove like feel with efficient power transfer that I’ve never been able to get with Velcro straps and buckles.

Are mens’ and womens’ shoes different?

Most companies do sell gender specific shoes.  That said, it’s hard to tell whether somoe of the women’s cycling shoes are really designed for womens’ feet – stereotypically narrower and smaller and of different shapes and biomechanics then mens’ – or are of the same design as the mens’ shoes but available in smaller sizes and in colors shoe makers think will appeal to women.

The good news is that there are plenty of mens’ shoes (or probably shoes original made for male riders that also fit women) available in basic black, white, and other gender-neutral colors that are made in half sizes, narrow and standard widths and from different lasts (or molds based on heel width, instep height, forefoot width, and toe box depth) to serve a good range of rider needs, both men and women.

If you wear sport shoes (what we used to call sneakers) or football (aka soccer) cleats or any other sports footwear, boots or well fitting shoes, you probably have a good idea if your feet are narrow or wide, have high arches, are sensitive to hot spots, etc.  This will help you figure out what shoes to try or what special requirements you might need to get the right fit.

How different are the sizes between brands?

There are indeed differences in how companies size their shoes.  In the individual shoe reviews below, I point out which ones run small or large and chart which run narrow, wide or standard width.

While most shoes use European sizes, there are also some great charts that convert US shoe sizes to European ones across many brands.  You can link to the most complete ones I’ve seen by clicking on Competitive Cyclist for US shoe sizes.  They are also shown below.  To convert from the UK to EU size, use the US size one full size larger than your UK size.  For example if you are a UK size 9, use the US size 10 column to convert to the European size.

CC Mens Shoe Size vs. Brand Chart

Source: Competitive Cyclist

CC Womens Shoe Size Vs. Brand Chart

Source: Competitive Cyclist

For those shoes I’ve evaluated that aren’t on these conversion charts, use the brand specific size chart at the links I’ve provided to great stores who carry the shoes at the best prices at the end of each review.

What are the pros and cons of buying shoes online vs. at a local bike shop?

As I learned when reviewing aero helmets (here), buying online is a more efficient way and likely to end up with you getting a better cycling shoe choice and price.

If you’ve been in a bike shop lately, you know that most carry fewer brands and less inventory of models, sizes and colors than online stores.  So to go the bike shop route, you need to be willing to spend the time travelling around to various shops that have the models and sizes you are interested in during the hours when you should be working or could be riding or relaxing at home.  If you buy at an online store, you merely order the ones you are interested in with a few clicks whenever you want to.  That’s an easy choice for me.

Buying online, you get to wear the different shoes you are interested for hours at a time in the comfort of your own home the way you couldn’t or wouldn’t do in a bike shop.  You also don’t have a salesman in the middle of the process who might be urging you to buy something they sell but that might not be right.  But, if you aren’t sure what you need or what constitutes a good fit and you have a knowledgeable cycling shoe fitter at your store, you may benefit from buying there.

The harder choice is figuring out whether you are willing to add to your credit card balance by ordering extra models or sizes from an online store until you return the ones you don’t want versus just buying one pair after spending the time going to a lot of bike shops and trying on the shoes they have in stock at each.

You can also apply both approaches.  In my case for example, there was one very high-end shop not too far from me that had a good selection of three of the top brands (Lake, Bont, Sidi) and a chain that sold a couple models made by the larger cycling companies (Specialized and Shimano).  Unfortunately, the shoe fitter in the high-end shop was clearly pushing shoes I didn’t need and was selling them at full price while the chain store had a model I liked in a color I didn’t nor the size that I thought would fit best and needed to special order it and wanted me to make a deposit before he would.

Competitive Cyclist in the US, one of the online stores I’ve bought a lot of gear from over the years and has a top 5 rating from the over 90 I track (see here), had most of the shoes and sizes and color combos in stock I was interested in and quickly processed the returns of shoes that didn’t fit before the credit card billing period ended.  (Timing is everything!)

If you are reading this, I trust you are experienced online shoppers and cycling gear buyers and know what works best for you.

If you want to know how to replicate the cleat position of your old shoes to your new ones or position them without a reference point, here’s a good video from Art’s and another from GCN that tell you how.  It’s pretty straightforward.

And if you do plan to get a pair of shoes that can be heat molded for a customized fit, know that the process to do that is designed for you to do in your home oven.  It takes a few rounds of 10-20 minutes of heating, cooling, and forming to get it right.  Few shops are set up or are going to be able to spend the time to do that with you.

 

SELECTION CRITERIA FOR ROAD CYCLING SHOES

My discipline for each In The Know Cycling review is to evaluate gear-specific criteria that fit into four groups – Performance, Design, Quality and Cost.  I put an emphasis on Performance and Cost criteria in making my recommendations.  Design should mostly be focused on delivering performance rather than to merely say you’ve got some innovation or a spec that no one else does.

Normally, if it doesn’t make the gear perform better or reduce cost, a a novel or or unique design is wasted effort.  With the look of shoes being important to some, some design approaches can provide a distinctive or gotta-have look in the designer’s or buyer’s eyes.  I can only point out but can’t judge a distinctive look with my admittedly blind-to-fashion sensitivities.  You are the best judge of what design looks best to you.

I describe the criteria within in each of the four groups here.

PERFORMANCE

As I stated at the top of this post, efficient, comfortably fitting, good-looking power transfer is what makes a good cycling shoe and how you should choose them.  Two thirds of that formula – efficient and comfortably fitting power transfer – are clearly performance criteria.

Efficient power transfer is dependent on two things: 1) how stiff the outsole is and 2) how closely your foot moves with your shoe.  With a stiff sole and a fit that holds your foot firmly to that shoe so that it moves with no wasted effort, you’ll transfer your power efficiently.  Without a good fit or one that doesn’t hold everything but your toes in place, power will be lost somewhere between your foot and the pedal.

A good fitting road cycling shoe will keep your heel immovable, toes free, and midfoot snug.  This comes in part from picking one with the right size or, more specifically, the right “last” (heel width, instep height, forefoot width, and toe box depth).  Fit also comes from how well the upper and closure system work to wrap you at all points across the top of your midfoot (or “metatarsal” bones), how well your arch is supported by the insole (aka footbed), and how well your heel is held in place.

Comfortably fitting power transfer really speaks to your ability to stay comfortable with that right fit over time.  Obviously, if the fit is great but your foot starts to sweat or develop pressure points after you ride for a while, you’ll be less likely to transfer your power as well as you did when you first started riding.

To keep the fit comfortable over a ride of any distance, a good shoe will 1) be breathable enough to allow your feet to cool (keeping them warm is usually done through socks or overshoes, 2) not produce any hot spots or pressure points across the top of your midfoot or along the bottom touch points between the bottom of your foot and insole and 3) allow you to adjust the fit for different situations like changing temperature, swelling feet, hill climbing or sprinting.

It’s important to remember then that a good fit doesn’t guarantee comfort and you can be comfortable in shoes that don’t fit you very well.  You need both fit and comfort well secured to a stiff outsole to get good power transfer over miles and miles of riding.

Since everyone’s feet are a little different, I can only describe the cut or “last” characteristics of cycling shoes (for example: runs narrow, wide toe box, high arch) to help steer you to those that might best fit what you know to be the characteristics of your own feet.  And to be able to rate shoes on fit, efficiency and comfort for a range of readers, I’ve used input from a cross section of reviewers I trust who have feet of different sizes and shapes (though sadly most are men’s feet) rather than just offer you the response to these shoes of my own sorry feet.

Once you get the right fit, the shoe’s efficiency and comfort performance are more easily discernible.

Too many companies market their shoes’ power transfer based on the the stiffness of the outsole.  The outsole might be super rigid but if your foot moves around on top of that outsole, you aren’t gong to get an efficient transfer of power.  To compare power transfer efficiency across shoes from different brands for this review, rather than just evaluating the sole’s flex or regurgitating the company flex number they come up with comparing shoes in their own line, I’ve used input from independent tester Tour magazine which did relative ratings of each shoe’s flex using an artificial foot fit and secured inside each shoe.

DESIGN

The design of a road cycling enthusiast’s shoe, as with any piece of cycling gear, is mostly focused on delivering a desired performance level for a targeted cost and partly focused on delivering a certain look.  Some designs work well in achieving the performance goals while others fall short.  Some design attributes like sole composition can be objectively measured against a performance goal while others, like a shoe’s attractiveness to a segment of customers can only be judged in the eyes of potential buyers.

Just because a shoe has a specific technology or design feature doesn’t mean it’s going to perform better than those that don’t have them.  Design is a means to performance, cost, and aesthetic ends.  Sometimes a technology or feature helps get you there, sometimes it makes no difference or actually detracts from performance and cost goals.

Unfortunately, since performance is hard to quantify and describe, companies market the crap out of technology and features.  You see a lot of that from those selling cycling shoes similar to the way you do from those selling wheelsets or bike frames or cycling clothing.  So while I will lay out the major design criteria here, you should only be aware of them and make your choice on how well they deliver the performance, cost and look you want from your shoes, rather than whether your shoes have one design feature or another.

Outsole – Performance level shoes are almost always made from very stiff carbon fiber impregnated resins.  Value shoes use less stiff carbon fibers and often nylon fibers in their soles.  Outsoles may also be designed with ribs or other structural features to improve their stiffness or provide desired arch support levels or toward other performance objectives.  The bumpers on the front and back of the shoes, almost always replaceable are designed to protect the soles from damage or scuffing and, to a lesser degree, to make it easier to avoid falling on your face when you walk around off the bike or through a coffee shop.

Last – The dimensions of heel width, instep height, forefoot width, and toe box depth give a shoe its unique fit characteristics.  The proportions of these dimensions will typically remain consistent regardless of the length or size except when there are separate men’s and women’s shoes that are made with different lasts.

Insole (or Footbed) – Many shoes regardless of price come with very basic, wafer-thin insoles that most people will replace with those that can be best fit to the rider’s specific arch and forefoot needs.  These insoles are made by specialist companies and represent an upsell for the shop.  So you have to figure that into the shoe cost.  Some shoes do come with more substantial insoles that work as is or can be customized with included wedges that you insert or velcro to the footbed.

Closures – As mentioned in the Q&A section above, Boa closures and similar dial and wire closure systems that Sidi and Mavic have developed for their own shoes have pretty much taken over the performance market.  There are three models of Boa closures used on cycling shoes which provide you more or less functionality, mostly in loosening the shoes but they all tighten more or less the same way.

Most shoes that have Boa closures now use two dials and wires, one at the top of the shoe that close is just below your ankle and a second placed about halfway down your shoe to close it across you midfoot or from the top to bottom of your metatarsal bones.  A few shoes will also use a small Velcro strap below the middle Boa to tighten the shoe in the area just above the toes.

With the latest generation of Boa closures called lP1 (small L, capital P, the number 1 – don’t ask me what it means), you can pull up on the dials, totally relieving all the tension in wires for a quick exit from your shoes at the end of a ride or to open them fully to put your foot in when you first put them on.  Earlier models still found on some shoes like the Specialized S-Works 6 allow you to turn the dial one way or another to tighten or loosen the wires but don’t have this total release function, something I welcome on form fitting shoes.

Laces have made a comeback with retro or football styled cycling shoes.  You’ll see them both on high performance and value shoes most prominently from Giro.  Laces provide almost infinite adjustment to get the fit right when you first put them on but you obviously can’t adjust them while riding unless you stop.

Ratchets, buckles, and Velcro straps are the traditional closure systems used mostly on value shoes these days but you will find straps used in combination with dial and wire closures in some cases as in the example mentioned above.

Upper – Uppers differ based on the type of material being used, how many separate pieces are stitched together, and how flexible, soft and breathable they are.  Some shoes use real leather, most use a synthetic leather-like material and others use a synthetic mesh.

One piece uppers eliminate the potential pressure points or “hot spots” across the top of your feet that come with stitching or seams pressing down on them.  The more stitching and seams, the more likely you get pressure points and potentially an uneven fit from materials that stretch differently.

Some shoes will use a synthetic leather upper with a more breathable mesh near the toes to provide more ventilation where feet tend to sweat more.  Uppers will also be perforated with holes to improve breathability.  Softer and more flexible uppers can improve flexibility and improve the shoe’s fit but may also provide more give when you are pedaling and lead to less efficient power transfer.

Venting – To keep your feet from overheating, uppers usually have perforations throughout the upper sometimes combined with a mesh area in spots where the feet can get especially overheated.  Some shoes are great for the summer while others with less ventilation can be worn three seasons without an overshoe but might be a little warm in the summer.  Most good shoes have vents in the outsole for cooling which will be covered over with an overshoe when riding in cooler weather.

Customization – Some of the more expensive shoes have heat moldable insoles, heel cups and even uppers to customize the fit to your shoes.  Moldable insoles make sense if you have feet that pronate unusually.  Moldable uppers or integrated upper and outsoles like on Bonts can help improve your fit if you have bunions or you have found over the years that you just have a hard time finding shoes that will fit your feet.

According the companies that make these heat moldable shoes, most people don’t need or even use the molding.  Heat moldable shoes are often more expensive and take several hours of molding and remolding over the first few months of use to get them right.  If you feel or are being told you need a moldable shoe, you may want to consider whether you are going with what seems like a cure-all feature that you don’t really need or your shop is trying too hard to sell you a shoe that’s not right for you.

Weight – Cycling shoe weight is another place where we as riders and the industry as marketers put way too much emphasis on something that matters so relatively little.  With the exception of a couple of outliers, most of the Performance shoes weigh within 50 grams of each other at around 250 grams per shoe.  This is not a criterion most enthusiasts should concern themselves with.

Sizes – You’ll find half sizes available for most shoes in the more common foot size range, women’s sizes or at least smaller shoes of similar lasts from most, and some shoes sold in both normal and wide widths.  While most shoes have normal or standard widths that fit the largest number of cyclists, the lasts on some shoes are naturally narrow or wide to start out with.  The chart below shows where each shoe falls on the width spectrum including those that sell multiple widths of the same shoe.

Outsole bolt holes – Nearly all road shoes come with 3 bolt holes in the outsole to work with road cleats made by Shimano and Look, the most popular pedal systems.  Speedplay, another popular road pedal system, use cleats with 4 holes.  While you can find a couple shoes that come with outsoles specifically designed for 4-hole Speedplay cleats, a simple adapter Speedplay makes can convert any 3-hole shoe to work with their pedals.  If the shoe you are interested in only has 2 holes, you better be planning to use them with mountain bike cleats as they won’t work with your road bike ones.

Walking – Chris Froome took to running in his cycling shoes on a 2016 Tour de France stage up Mount Ventoux when his bike was run over by a moto and there were no other bikes (or running shoes) immediately available.  While none of these shoes are designed for running and few are really great to walk in for long, there are some I’ve noted that may be less desirable than most for a mid-ride trip into the café.

Style – We can all judge this for ourselves.  My suggestion is to get a shoe that will provide a comfortable fit first and efficient power transfer if you want a performance level shoe.  Once you’ve done that, pick between the shoes whose look or style you are good with.  Most come in black and white along with yellow or red with standard lines while there are others that have tried to separate themselves with unique style or comfort touches including some with a retro lace-up closure system, others with real kangaroo leather, and still others with bright neon green, orange and blue color choices.

QUALITY

Fortunately, all the shoes I’ve reviewed are made with pretty high quality.  The most you should have to do is replace the heel pads on the bottom of the shoes when they wear down to improve your walking rather than your riding.  You’ll also want to keep your Boa system clean by using some water on the dials and silicone on the wire guides to avoid things from getting gummed up.

Here’s a brief video from Boa and Specialized which shows how.

Of course, you may treat your shoes in ways that extend or shorten their life.  My suggestion is that if you are going to put a few hundies down on a nice pair of shoes, take care of them.  I’ve tried to point out where I know of a shoe’s reputation for wearing out in one place or another.  Frankly, all you’ll have to do with most of these shoes is replace the heel pad, keep the closure systems and uppers clean and avoid scuffing the soles and they’ll last a long time… or until something new catches your eye.

COST

With shoes, your cost is primarily what you pay for them when you first buy them.  Other than heel pads, there’s no added or maintenance costs you need to figure in along the way.  Depending on the shoes you buy or the needs of your feet, you may need to buy custom insoles when you first get your shoes.  A lot of us just transfer the insoles we already had made up from shoe to shoe.

Like much of the cycling gear these days, the price of shoes often depends on whether the company sells them just through local bike shops or also sells them online.  Specialized, Bontrager and Lake, which make three of the more highly rated shoes only sell through local bike shops and independent bike dealers and offer little discount of their MSRP or RRP.  Some of these shop also sell online but the distribution is frequently limited to sales in-country.

Most of the other shoes reviewed can be bought online, often at a 10-20% discount to the store prices.  Those who only sell through a few online stores, are typically closer to the 10% discount level.

RECOMMENDATIONS

With the chart below and the to-the-point comments about each shoe that follows, my attempt is to give you enough about what matters using the selection criteria I just laid out so you can pick a shoe or a couple of shoes you want to try on.  While I normally recommend a best performer in each category of gear I review, I can’t do that for shoes for two reasons.  First, some great shoes will not fit your feet and second, how a shoe looks will be important in choosing between them for some of you.

What I have done is give you a performance rating for each shoe based on efficiency and comfort, assuming you’ve got the right fit to start with.  While most shoes are designed to fit the majority of riders, some shoes run narrow or wide by design or heritage and a few are made in more than one width.

 

Best Shoes Chart

My suggestion is to look for the shoes with the best performance rating in the column of the chart that you think best fits the width of your feet.  So, if you normally wear a narrow shoe, look at the shoes in that column of the chart.  I’ve rated the shoes that are in the upper right of each column highest on overall performance.  That overall performance rating is simply the rating I’ve given for comfort times the efficiency rating.  Similar to a golf score or a course time, the lower the number, the better the rating.

 

Specialized S-Works 6 – With superior efficiency and comfort, there’s few if any better

Performance Rating: 1

Shimano S-Works 6 Photos

Like: Great, molded-like fit and comfort sustained over hours with little micro-adjustment required; as stiff/efficient power transfer as any shoe; great heel hold down; mid foot supported well between form fitting upper and out/insole supported arch; room for toes to move around; vented toe box; bonded seams with no hot spots; comes in basic black or white but looks can be spiced up with neon yellow or rocket red dipped options

Don’t LikeHard to get into – would be easier to get into with the newest Boa dials that fully release rather than unwinding the wire; some shoes have had dial/wire issues requiring maintenance or replacement but lifetime guarantee covers costs; some break-in time; won’t fit heavier/winter socks in size that best fits regular socks; one of the most expensive and not discounted

For you if: Regularly sized feet, don’t plan to ride shoes in cold weather

Not for you if: Flat feet, wide ankles, don’t like a close fit, don’t want to spend top dollar

Notable: Two Boa2 closures, stichless seam upper, one of the lightest (225g)

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$400, £280, €370.  Available at ebay, in the UK and EU from Evans CyclesTredzRutland Cycling and elsewhere from other Specialized retailers.

Sidi Wire Carbon – First rate power transfer and comfort but some drawbacks that show its age

Performance Rating: 1

Sidi Carbon Wire

Like: Supremely stiff, breathable shoes with excellent and highly tunable fit for narrow feet that together provide top-of-the-chart power transfer efficiency and comfort; classic cycling shoe looks; for years, the benchmark for others

Don’t Like: One of the most expensive and heaviest performance shoes; Sidi proprietary dial and reel system not as easy to use for fit tuning underway as Boa; simple insole that comes with shoe needs replacement if you want more support under your forefoot or arch; many “innovations” that are more complex to use than more modern shoes from others

For you if: Narrow feet; compete or want the best performance in a classic shoe where price isn’t important

Not for you if: Want a more modern, simpler, lighter and less expensive shoe

Notable: Will be replaced by new top of the line shoe in the next model year

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$500, £300, €400, AUD$500.  Available in the US and Canada from Competitive Cyclist and elsewhere from WiggleProBikeKit ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles, Ribble Cycles and  Evans Cycles

Bont VayporS – Outstanding power transfer for race-focused enthusiasts who want a custom fit

Performance Rating: 2

Bont VayporS

Like: Ultimate stiffness and power transfer from a one piece boat-like structure that integrates outsole and supporting parts of the upper; outsole/upper structure can be molded to riders’ unique fit needs

Don’t Like: Walking in shoes will soon scuff and wear outsole; not the most comfortable over longer rides; can get quite warm in hot weather; will likely take multiple moldings to get desired fit; some find the unconventional forefoot shape and boat structure unattractive; insole provided is useless so need to buy better one adding to already high cost

For you if: Race or are competitive enthusiast; have hard to fit feet especially because of unique protrusions from bones or bunions; have the patience or even like to adjust your gear over a period of time to get it just right and superior to others

Not for you if: Looking for a versatile shoe – competition, endurance, able to walk around; have flat fee (arch built into sole)

Notable: Sizes run small but come in normal, wide and narrow fit options; very small distance between bottom of foot and cleat (“stack height”) requires lowering seat post a few mm to maintain bike fit; excellent Boa closures and placement

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$440, £270, €360, AUD$480.  Available from Wiggle

 

Bontrager XXX Road Shoe – Excellent power transfer and average comfort at a top price

Performance Rating: 2

Bontrager XXX

LikePower transfer in the top tier of performance shoes; good air flow in warm weather

Don’t LikeThicker upper is stiff and feels tight, less comfortable than the best shoes; takes a few long rides to break in to average comfort level

For you if: Have wide feet; don’t want to mess with custom molding

Not for you if:  Value comfort

Notable: Top of the line Boa lP1 closures for easy exit

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$400, £270, €350, $460.  Available from Trek

 

Lake CX331 – Customizable and comfortable but more flexible upper makes for less efficient power transfer

Performance Rating: 2

Lake CX331

Like: Heat molded sole, heel cup and insole components provides highly customizable fit; comfortable real leather upper

Don’t Like: Only one Boa dial at top of shoe limits tightening in the forefoot; flexible upper material leads to average power transfer against today’s shoes; need to mold them, usually several times, to get right fit; older style Boa requires dial to be pulled up to loosen; uneven venting; leather wears more quickly and scuffs more easily than synthetic uppers

For you if: Usually need customizable shoes, boots, other footwear; you like the CX402 model but want to save on the same fitting but heavier CX331

Not for you if: Plan to walk very far; weight matters – weigh (590g) more than most value/endurance shoes

Notable: Heel and tongue have padded linings; one of few shoes to offer 4 hole sole for Speedplay cleats

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$400, £275, €350.  Available from Lake’s online store and retailers.

Note: Lake has introduced the CX332 for model year 2017 that will replace the CX331.  I’ll update this review when I have an opportunity to review the new model.

Giro Empire SLX – Exceptional comfort and unique style at expense of power transfer and adjustability

Performance Rating: 3

Giro Empire SLX

Like: Superb fit and slipper-like comfort lasting throughout the ride; lightest performance shoe going though matters more in feel than performance; one of the least expensive performance shoes; some find them very breathable while others find them sweaty

Don’t Like: Below average power transfer despite stiff outsole because of poor arch support and thin, flexible upper; takes a while to lace up just right; have to stop if you like to adjust fit during ride; thin sole can require shorter cleat bolts and lowering seat post

For you ifPrize comfortable fit, weight and style above all else; have narrow feet

Not for you if: Like to tighten/adjust shoes for in-ride situations; don’t want to mess with laces; have wide feet; are a competitive or racer level enthusiast

Notable: Very low stack height, three different arch height insole options; super light (175g per shoe)

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$350, £250, €325, AUD$400.  Available from Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, Tweeks Cycles, ProBikeKit UK code ITK10, Chain Reaction Cycles

 

Gaerne Carbon G.Stillo – Brash cycling style and excellent long ride comfort at the expense of efficiency

Performance Rating: 3

Gaerne

Like: Great comfort from flexible and breathable upper and padded tongue; distinctive Italian, football shoe styling

Don’t Like: Emphasis on comfort comes at expense of power transfer; different views on heel retention; front outsole pad is not replaceable; expensive

For you if: Bold colors and brash design trumps all

Not for you if: Looking for traditionally narrow Italian shoe fit – these run at normal widths

Notable:  Comes with insole that has limited arch support – will likely want to replace with better one; white shoes come with a 4 hole Speedplay cleat option

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$420, £320, €415.  Available from Chain Reaction Cycles

 

Fi’zi:k R1B – High on comfort but mushy fit and power transfer

Performance Rating: 4

Fizik R1B Photos

Like: Supremely comfortable feel with cushioning for ankle and heel and use of soft upper synthetic; among the easiest to get on and off; very sleek look

Don’t Like: Heel hold average; narrow toe box; precarious walking on smooth surfaces; cleat mounting holes may not slide back enough; run a bit large

For you if: Comfort and style matters more than fit and performance

Not for you if: Wide feet; competitive enthusiast rider; walk through coffee shops often

Notable: Pullover flap makes tongue irrelevant

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$400, £280, €350.  Available from Competitive Cyclist, Chain Reaction Cycles, Tweeks Cycles.

 

Louis Garneau Course Airlite – Moderately stiff and comfortable shoes available in striking colors

Performance Rating: 4

Garneau Course Lite

Like: Combination of good, if not the best power transfer and comfort; red and neon provide striking color options along with standard white; well supporting and comfortable insoles for arch and forefoot; closure system that allows easy exit when you need it

Don’t LikeHeel hold down depends on friction pads more so than heel cup shape; good not great shoe

For you if: Aren’t willing/able to spend top dollar for bold looking performance shoes

Not for you if: Wide feet; don’t like loud shoes; want the best level of power transfer for racing

Notable: Two sets of insoles provided – one with perforations for hot weather and a second with insulation for colder temps; top of the line Boa lP1 closures that fully release tension enabling you to quickly remove shoes

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$360, £?, €?, AUD$450.  Available from Competitive CyclistGarneau dealers

 

Scott Road RC – Good but not top ranked power transfer efficiency and comfort

Performance Rating: 4

Scott Road RC

Like: Good overall comfort; stiff yet breathable upper and very good heel hold provides good efficiency

Don’t LikeAll “good” and a lot of “innovations” but nothing that really distinguishes the performance or attracts me to this shoe over others: white Boa dials hard to keep clean

For you if: Narrow feet

Not for you if: Want black shoes or distinctive styling

Notable: Run small; insoles come with wedges to add height under toes and arch; stiff outsole from front through arch but more flexible under heel, theoretically for injury prevention; latest Boa dials

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$350, £250, €300.  Available from Competitive Cyclist, Westbrook Cycles, Tredz

 

Pearl Izumi PRO Leader III – Poor heel hold and breathability detract from efficiency and comfort

Performance Rating: 6

Pearl Izumi PRO Leader III

Like: Comfortable over long rides in moderate weather; forefoot angle and arch height easily adjusted with inserts;

Don’t Like: Not as efficient as shoes with the best power transfer; wide heel cup and loose heel hold; not as breathable as best shoes; lined grid styling and dial placement isn’t appealing for my tastes

For you if: Comfort and distinctive style are priorities

Not for you if: Have high metatarsal bones across top of foot; ride in hot weather

Notable: Boa lP1 closure system; dials placed on heavily padded tongue

Pricing: MSRP/RRP USD$320, £250, €350, AUD$440.  Available from Competitive CyclistCyclestore, Tredz

    *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Several new shoes from some of the biggest players are on the way.  Shimano, whose best road shoes like the R321 have used straps and ratchets until now, have just introduced the RC7, the company’s first with Boa closures.  With a one piece upper, a competitive weight and an announced MSRP of USD$200, it’s one I look forward to trying when it becomes available in 2017.  I hope it has more efficient power transfer than it’s predecessors that weren’t competitive on performance with the best shoes

Mavic, whose Cosmic Ultimate shoe ranks in the bottom power transfer tier among performance shoes, also looks to be ready to come out with a new top of the line shoe.  According to reports from BikeRadar which saw prototypes of it in pro races, the shoe uses a liner for your foot that is separate from the shoe that then goes into the carbon shell shoe.  This takes a page from the best ski racing boots that have also have a separate liner and boot shell design and perhaps is the result of lessons learned from Salomon, a ski equipment company held by the same investment group that owns Mavic.  No announcement yet on what, when, how much, etc.

xxx:

As shown above, Sidi also looks to be coming out with something new.  The Sky blue version that Froome wore in the Dauphine appear to have classic similar lines but the proprietary ratchets have been moved to the tongue and a bit more mesh has been added to the uppers. No details on this one either but I’ll look to update this post with reviews of the new Shimano, Mavic and Sidi once they are out on the road.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions below, encourage you to stay connected using the e-mail sign-up, RSS, Twitter and Facebook links in the right hand column, and appreciate you supporting the costs involved to put out these independent reviews and run this site by buying through the links in this post to the best stores who offer the best prices on this gear.

59 comments

  • The only cycling shoes I’ve owned (2 pair in the past 16 years) were MTB shoes used for indoor spinning classes. I now have a new Cannondale bike since August of 2016 and have been using heavy Pearl Izumi Enduro shoes I bought many years ago. I’m finally realizing how heavy and inappropriate they are. Since I had these shoes when I purchased the bike I ended up with SPD pedals, but now I’m finding limited shoes styles/manufacturers that will accommodate these SPD clips. So, do I buy new SPD-SL pedals or just look for shoes that can accommodate regular SPD clips? It looks like all of the shoes in this review will not accommodate SPD cleats. I was about to order Pearl Izumi Race Road IV shoes from Amazon until I started reading this review. Now I’m completely confused! Could use some help here. Thanks.

    • Jay, road shoes don’t have hole patterns for SPD pedal cleats. They are all set up for SPD-SL. Steve

      • I did not know that! So I guess I have to make a decision. If I stick with the regular SPD cleats is the Pearl Izumi Road Race iv shoe a decent choice?

        • Not one I recommend. Shoes aren’t cheap but relative to the benefit they provide and the other things you can spend money on like wheels and components to get similar benefit, a good performance shoe like the ones I recommend above are a great investment.

          • Got it. So would the Shimano RC7 be a good shoe to consider? Have you been able to test it out?

          • Haven’t yet. It came out after I did this review. With just one Boa dial, it’s not going to give you the adjustment options of those I reviewed that have two. But can’t say for sure about the performance

          • I just received the Shimano RC7 via Amazon. Maybe you can answer this questions for me. I usually wear a 10.5 shoe. I ordered a US 10.5(EUR 45) and a US 10.9(EUR 45.5). I tried on both. Both fit well and feel solid across the top of the foot. No pain or discomfort (have not actually gone for a ride yet. They just arrived!) The only noticeable difference I feel in the shoe is in the toe area. I can wiggle my toes in the 45s but can get a bit more toe wiggle room in the 45.5. The only bike shoes I’ve had prior to this were shoes I bought for spin classes of which the last shoe I owned was a Pearl Izumi Alps X Enduro size 46 which I’ve been using one my new road Bike. That shoe is mushy and probably has been too big on me. So, which shoe should I keep The 45 or 45.5? Is more room in the toe area more important or should I keep the 45 which has a little less toe wiggle room but also feels comfortable.

  • Jay, Do you notice any difference in the way the shoe holds your heel down in? Hold your shoes to the floor and try to pull your heel out. You want your heel coming up as little as possible. I suspect that will be where the difference is. If your heel doesn’t come up in either size, go with the one that gives you more wiggle room. Steve

    • Funny you say that because that was the only test I could think of to compare and there was no noticeable difference in heel slippage. So I guess the 45.5 is the one to keep. Really appreciate the help. Thanks!

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