THE BEST ROAD CYCLING SHOES 2023
If you are a serious roadie, buying a pair of the best road cycling shoes isn’t cheap but is worth the added cycling performance and enjoyment they provide. Depending on the shape of your feet and your performance and style preferences, you can choose from a range of dual-dial closure models I recommend to transfer your power efficiently while keeping your feet comfortable.
From our testing, we’ve found the best at both are the Specialized S-Works Torch (available from stores we recommend here, here, here, here), Shimano RC903 (here, here, here, here), Sidi Wire 2 (here, here, here), and Bontrager XXX Road Cycling Shoe (here).
The Rapha Pro Team Shoes (here, here) offer similarly high levels of power transfer efficiency with slightly less comfort over the longest rides, while the Giro Imperial (here, here, here) and Lake CX 332 (here) provide all-day comfort with slightly less power transfer efficiency.
When enthusiasts are looking for the best road cycling shoes, several qualities come to mind. Efficient power transfer, comfortable fit, good-looking, and reasonably priced tops my list.
Are they all important? Can you find them all in one pair of road bike shoes?
Yes and relatively speaking, yes.
You want efficient power transfer so that the energy you deliver from your legs goes to your pedals with minimal loss through your shoes. A comfortable fit makes it possible to deliver that power hour after hour without your feet ever complaining. Shoes that are good-looking to you and perhaps others motivate your performance and enhance your enjoyment on the road. And a reasonable price, at least compared to what we other options we have to get top cycling gear performance, well we always want that.
In this post, I’ll share with you my evaluation of the best cycling shoes for enthusiasts. Whether you race, do club rides, or like to challenge yourself on short segments, over long days, or every day you ride, these shoes come the closest to delivering on the qualities that are key to getting the most out of our road cycling.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Click any headline to go directly to that part of the post to read about it.
With the charts below and the to-the-point comments about each shoe that follows, I attempt to give you enough about what matters using the selection criteria I just laid out so you can pick one or two shoes worth trying on and that will likely work for you.
While I normally recommend a single best performer and best value in each category of gear I review, I can’t do that for shoes for two reasons. First, because our feet have different shapes, the “last” or form of some great shoes will not fit some of our feet as well as others might. Second, you may not like the look of even a great shoe that fits you well. Third, the best value in road cycling shoes is usually found in single Boa or Velcro closure shoes that don’t perform nearly as well as the dual-dial shoes reviewed here.
What I have done instead is give you a performance rating for each shoe based on its power transfer efficiency and comfort and then compare the last and other design characteristics of the shoes. That analysis, along with the links you have to the best current prices from the best stores, should allow you to close in a pair or two to decide between.
First, here are my comparative performance ratings:
My suggestion is to start by looking for the shoes with the best rating in the chart column above you think best fit the width of your feet.
So, if you normally wear a standard-width shoe, start with the shoes in that column of the chart.
I’ve rated the shoes that are in the upper right of each column as the top performers based on multiplying my comfortable fit rating times the power transfer efficiency rating, both on a 1 to 3 scale where 1 is better, 2 is on par, and 3 is worse than the others. Similar to a golf score or a ride time, the smaller the number, the better the performance.
Then, look at the chart below to pick between the top-rated performance shoes in your width that have the last characteristics you want.
Because shoes are sized differently for the same length foot, and my fellow testers and I have remarkably close but not identical size feet, you’ll see shoe sizes from 42.5 to 43.5 in the chart below. However, the last characteristics are based on wearing the right size shoes for each tester.
I can’t easily add price into the mix at this point because a) prices change from time to time for some of these shoes and b) most (though not all) cost within 10% of each other anyway. Once you have decided to go with performance shoes, I think the price differences figure into your decision less than the performance and fit ones.
However, as I’ve mentioned above, you have links at the end of each review to stores with high customer satisfaction ratings with each shoe at the best current prices.
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Specialized S-Works Torch – Widening for comfort yet as stiff as ever
Performance Rating: 1
Whenever a new model of one of the best bike shoes is introduced, as is the case with the Specialized S-Works Torch, the first question that comes up is how it differs from its predecessors.
With the S-Works 6 and 7 being two of the best-performing shoes over the years, Specialized established a dynasty of sorts with the S-Works road cycling shoe line. While I’m not privy to any sales data, it’s probably a good bet that Specialized has sold a crapton of them to road enthusiasts and racers. I certainly see a lot of them on the road.
For those of us who’ve owned S-Works shoes, like fellow tester Nate and me, who have both the 6 and 7, and may need or, more likely, want a fresh pair of shoes every 15,000 miles or so, we’d like to know if the new S-Works Torch fits and performs the same, better or worse than what we’ve become accustomed to.
And for those who are looking to step into one of the best road bike shoes or perhaps switch from a pair they’ve not been totally satisfied with, the second question is how the Specialized S-Works Torch compares to models from other brands.
I’ll try to cover those two questions in this review about what Nate and I liked and didn’t like about the newest S-Works top-of-the-line shoe.
From what we agree and disagree on, I hope you can find what aligns with your preferences and help you choose between the S-Works Torch and other models of the best road bike shoes we’ve tested.
Like: For the labeled size (we tested a size EU 43.0), the S-Works Torch feels a bit longer than the S-Works 6 and 7. Whereas the 7 had a pointier toe box, a characteristic that might appeal to those with far longer big and second toes than the rest, the Torch is more rounded for those with piggies with more similar lengths.
The length and size are the same between the Torch and 7 and perhaps a half size longer than the 6; just recognize that you may feel more room between the front of your shoes and the 3rd, 4th, and pinkie toes with the Torch than you did with the 7.
While the S-Works Torch’s side-to-side toe box room is one of the most generous of dual Boa shoes, it’s slightly less than what the 7 provided and more than what we experienced with the 6.
You do get far more protection against scuffing the upper at the front of the Torch than the 7. A rubbery, bumper-type piece about the height of your toes wraps that area of the shoe’s outside.
Moving on to the forefoot, the balls of my size D feet didn’t even touch the insides of Torch shoes. It’s clearly wider in this area than either the 7 or 6 was. While Nate and I really liked that Spesh did away with the Velcro strap that was intended to adjust the forefoot shoe width but really didn’t do the job, I’m disappointed that they didn’t extend the lower Boa lace down to the forefoot the way Shimano, Lake, and others do to actually be able to adjust the width in this area.
This is where we start to get into personal fit preferences. While my feet are a few millimeters wider and longer than Nate’s, this added forefoot width didn’t even merit a mention in Nate’s testing. I also prefer a racier, more glove-like fit despite riding nowhere near as fast as Nate.
At the mid-foot, the Torch is clearly wider than the 7 and more similar to the 6. Among the dual Boa, performance-level road bike shoes we’ve tested, the Torch is also one of two with the widest forefoot.
Here again, Nate liked this after having found the 7 a bit too narrow. Despite my wider foot and probably because I like a snugger fit, I preferred the 7’s forefoot width.
Of course, once at the midfoot and continuing up toward the opening of the shoe, the Boa dials allow you to snug the shoe as much or little as you like. And it’s here where you see big changes between the S-Works Torch and its predecessors, ones that we think are all for the better.
While the S-Works proprietary Boa dials are the same as with the 7, the greater distance between the top dial and hook on the Torch gives you a more functional lace. That’s because Specialized removed a lot of material between the left and right side of the upper from the midfoot up toward the foot opening of the Torch.
This allows you to put your feet into and or take them out of these new S-Works shoes more easily by unwinding the dials rather than having to take the laces out of the hooks the way you had to with the 7 and 6. It’s still not as easy to get in and out of them as nearly every other top road cycling shoe that uses Li2 or IP1 Boas, which fully release the wire tension by just pulling up the dials.
With this wider opening, the tongue plays a bigger role in the fit and comfort of the Torch. Tightening the dial, especially the upper one feels more like you’re bringing the tongue and upper closer to your foot, similar to how the 6 worked, rather than bringing the sides of the shoe closer together, as we experienced with the 7.
The Torch’s tongue has two wire loops on top of it to keep the wire laces in place. It’s also comfortably padded and, notably different from its immediate predecessor, has softened and shortened the edge that felt quite rigid and high against the front of your foot between your ankles.
And then there’s the upper material itself, also a big improvement from that rugged, plastic-like synthetic Dynema used in the 6 and 7. The S-Work Torch uppers are more supple and comfortable, making them on par with those used by all but the leather ones used in Lake shoes.
Don’t Like: On the hottest days, and we certainly had our share of those when I was testing these, my feet were hot in the Torch (Hmmm? Something in a name?). I’ve not had this issue in other shoes before. Perhaps the new upper material or the small, single vent in the sole between my first two toes was to blame.
The 7 had a slightly larger vent more to the center of the toes and much larger vents under the arch and just below the heel.
On the contrary, Nate found S-Works Torch hot weather ventilation more than ample and noted that he’d have to wear heavier socks for shoulder season riding due to the shoe’s lack of insulation. Doubling down, he welcomed the contribution of Torch’s added room for those heavier socks and its adjustability to still wear lighter ones in the summer months.
We strongly agreed that Specialized could also do better and be more competitive with the Torch by supplying insoles of different arch support heights the way brands like Shimano and others do with their highest-priced road and MTB shoes do now. While most of the best road bike shoes are built with flat arches these days, the thin insoles that come with the S-Works shoes are merely cosmetic, and you are forced to spend money on an aftermarket insole like their Body Geometry brand ones.
Yes, you can move those insoles between your road and MTB shoes or into whatever road shoes you buy next. But, it shouldn’t be necessary to make the added investment for shoes that already cost as much as the S-Works Torch.
The heel cup has always been, dare I say, the S-Works’ Achilles heel. The back end of the shoe around the upper heel and below the ankles got wider and taller from the 6 to the 7. With the Torch, those areas get even wider than the 7 but shorter again like the 6.
These changes eliminate the interference and rubbing that came with the design of the 6 and 7 shoes, especially for those whose calluses weren’t established from early-season riding or who hadn’t worn shoes with their narrower heel cups.
Nate and I disagree on whether the Torch’s wider heel area has gone too far in the S-Works shoe evolution. While we agree that the Torch keeps our heels down, I experienced too much side-to-side movement. I felt less control and developed a blister on one of my heels during a long ride.
Nate also acknowledged that the wider Torch heel cup led to lateral motion, but it wasn’t a control or blistering problem for him.
If you do your own cleat installation as Nate does, you may find it a bit frustrating on these Torch shoes. The sockets in the soles of the shoes slide and rotate so freely that you need to first capture them with the cleat screws and then keep outward tension on the sockets as you turn the screws. While they remain in place once everything is bolted down, Nate found it to be a rather fiddly experience getting them both tight and in the right alignment until you do.
Overall, we found the S-Works Torch to be a very comfortable pair of high-performance cycling shoes. The outsole is as stiff and the power transfer is as good as any previous S-Works or other models we’ve ridden.
At the same time, the Torch is more comfortable in many ways than the S-Works 6 and 7 that came before it. If you like roomier shoes, it’s also one of the most comfortable dual Boa shoes available.
It’s certainly not perfect. Nate nor I took issue with its lack of forefoot width adjustment, ventilation, heel cup width, and proprietary Boa dials.
There’s no doubt that the Specialized S-Works Torch is a top performer. For Nate’s fit and comfort preferences, it’s the shoe for him. I prefer a more tailored fit like the Shimano RC 9’s latest iteration. When I want a roomier ride for an exceptionally long day in the saddle or when I need to wear winter socks, I’ll go with the Bontrager XXX that’s not as wide as the Torch.
Price and Availablity: If the Torch fits your preferences and US$450, £385, €446 MSRP/RRP budget, you can order it by clicking on these links to my recommended stores Competitive Cyclist, Performance Bicycle, Tredz (10% off w/code ITKTDZ10) and Cyclestore.
Shimano RC903 – Below the surface changes bring it to the top
Performance Rating: 1
While very similar to their immediate predecessors, the latest Shimano S-Phyre RC903 road cycling shoes have changes below the surface that make them noticeably better performers and more comfortable than their highly-rated predecessors. I rank these new S-Phyres among the best cycling shoes we’ve tested, and are the ones I’m most likely to put on for a ride on the road or trainer.
Like: On the surface, it looks like Shimano has made only superficial, small modifications to the shoes. Most obvious is the RC903’s use of multiple tiny eyelets to direct the closure lace in a figure 8 pattern in the area above your toes instead of the regular-sized plastic guides the lace runs through on the previous RC902 model.
There’s also a stretchy, sock-like fabric running atop your toes between these front eyelets; the RC902 used the same upper material in this area as in the rest of the shoes. And if you look closely, you’ll notice a modified pattern of pin-hole-sized perforations across the uppers of the RC903.
On both models, the heels look to be protected with almost the same bumper profile and thickness as before. True, the new RC903 bumpers have slightly raised ribs along the sides of the heels. Indeed, the entire outside surface of the shoes from the ankles back has an appealingly shinier and perhaps more reflective finish than before.
But the design, materials, and vents in the bottom or “outsole” of the shoe appear unchanged. Likewise, the same dual, Li2 dial BOA closure system with the upper dial attached to the end of a crossover strap still controls the fit of the shoes.
And the signature blue color that has long made this S-Phyre stand out in a crowd remains along with classic black and white options and my favorite, the In The Know Cycling red. (How did they know to do that?)
Even the single-digit increase in the model number from RC902 to RC903 and the almost identical weight (242 to 244 grams on my scale for a single EU43 shoe) suggests little has changed.
Going below the surface and actually putting my feet into and riding the new Shimano S-Phyre RC903, I immediately noticed two changes that make them as good as any road cycling shoes we’ve tested and better than most for both fast, hard group rides and races and long days of endurance riding.
I previously rated the RC902 model equal to the best road cycling shoes for their overall performance. But while their snug fit and stiff outsole seemed to transfer your leg power to the pedals as efficiently as any shoe we’ve worn, I and my fellow tester Nate found them less comfortable than other shoes on 3+ hour rides.
The Shimano S-Phyre RC903 changes that. They have more room both above and to the sides of your toes than the earlier model while still giving you a glove-like fit with no pressure points from the forefoot back. This makes them as comfortable as any shoes I’ve reviewed on 3+ hour rides.
And while I’ve not yet worn them outside on the warmest summer days, I never found the prior models hot in those temps and expect the softer, permeable fabric above your toes will allow them to breathe even more inside the RC903.
The second consequential below-the-surface change comes at the back of the shoes. On my feet, the RC903 feels more tailored to the shape of my heels from the middle – or just above where the heel’s width begins to decrease – to the top than the prior model. The lower heel cup volume had always been comfortably snug, and that seems unchanged in this latest model.
This heel cup reshaping gives me the sense that the shoes are more connected to my heels than ever during the up and forward quadrants of my pedal stroke. At the same time, I didn’t experience any challenge getting into and out of the RC903 or any change in comfort at the heels while cranking on the pedals.
Even with the added room for your toes, these Shimano S-Phyre shoes aren’t as wide as the new top-of-the-line Specialized S-Works Torch in the toe box, forefoot, or heel cup areas. That’s a plus for me as I found the Spech too roomy for my EU43 or US 9D size feet to get optimized power transfer.
On the other hand (other foot?), my fellow tester Nate who wears the same size and whose feet measure just a couple of millimeters shorter and narrower than mine, prefers the Torch’s fit and can still drop most anyone he rides with.
Shimano also makes the RC903 in a men’s wide that adds 3-4mm to the forefoot and probably is more similar in roominess up front to the Torch without the latter’s wider heel cup.
As with most shoes and cycling apparel in general, we tend to find and stay with the brands that seem to fit us best. I’ve tested a dozen brands and fit well in many of them but prefer the last of Shimano road and gravel shoes. The same goes for Nate, who wears Shimano MTB shoes but prefers the wider fit of the Specialized Torch road shoes.
If you’re new to high-performance road shoes and know that the proportions of your feet fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve, the Shimano S-Phyre RC903 is definitely a shoe worth ordering and trying on.
Don’t Like: There’s little that I don’t like about the RC903s. Shimano has been one of the leaders in giving you pads of different thicknesses that you can velcro to the insole for more or less arch support. However, even with the right pad in place, I still find the Specialized Body Geometry insoles give me a smoother transition to and from the arch and along the full length of the insole.
And while I credit Shimano’s design of a crossover strap as part of the upper closure for giving me a precise, pain-point-free fit, I find you do need to be mindful to place it not too far above or below its intended position before cranking the Boa dial to get the most even pressure across your midfoot.
You can also get the RC903 in a women’s version with a unique last shape but only sold in white. My fellow tester Aiyana rode and reviewed the men’s and women’s versions of the shoe to see how they differed.
Price and Availability: The Shimano S-Phyre RC903’s USD $450, £350, €400 price is also no bargain but is no more than other top-tier road cycling shoes. It’s available at these links to Competitive Cyclist, BTD (BikeTiresDirect), Tredz (10% off w/code ITKTDZ10), and Cyclestore.
Sidi Wire 2 Carbon – First-rate power transfer, comfort, and status but a trying closure system
Performance Rating: 1
Like: For those who want a choice in a top-of-the-line pair of road cycling shoes, Sidi sells three 2-dial models that share the same last characteristics. The Genius 10 has both dials positioned on the side of the shoes, the Shot 2 has both on the tongue, and the Wire 2 has the upper dial on the side and the lower one on the tongue. The standard Wire 2 reviewed here is sold in men’s and women’s versions, with a matt finish (Wire 2 Matt) or with highly perforated uppers (Wire 2 Vent or Air). They also come in a wide range of regularly updated color choices and combinations across the different models.
So if you want options in a top-performing shoe, Sidi has them in spades.
The Wire 2 I evaluated is a supremely stiff, breathable shoe with an excellent and highly tunable fit for my standard width US 9 1/2 D, EU size 43 feet. I can also see these fitting those with narrower well as there is no extra room in the toe box.
Once I had the Wire’s dialed in, they seemed at one with my feet. They provided first-rate power transfer efficiency and comfort. The heel hold was flawless – neither too tight nor loose – thanks to the screw-adjustable band. I noticed no slack or slip between these shoes and my feet through each part of my pedal stroke. The fit was also comfortable over many miles.
Like Campagnolo, Sidi is a classic cycling brand and conveys status along with its great performance and comfortable fit. So there’s a lot to like in these Wires if you are looking for a classic, well-fitting, high-performance road cycling shoe that your fellow enthusiasts will notice.
Don’t Like: Also, like Campagnolo, Sidi seems fixed on its way of doing things. Unfortunately, that model differs from a growing range of equally well-performing and less costly shoe options.
The Boa dial closure system has spoiled me. I find Sidi’s proprietary Tecno-3 Push system a bit trying in comparison. With top-of-the-line Boas found on nearly all the other top-of-the-line shoes, you only need to twist clockwise to tighten your shoes, counterclockwise to loosen them, and pull up to fully release the wire tension. It’s mindlessly simple to do while underway.
By comparison, you need to locate the hinged tab on Sidi’s dial, flip it up and turn it to tighten the shoe, and then flip it back down. Alternatively, you can push the red button at the top of the dial, and it flips up. You then find it (easier to do once it’s up), turn it to tighten, and then flip it back down. Not hard. You can get used to it, but it’s extra steps.
Loosening your Sidi while underway requires only that you push one of the two buttons on the edge of the dial. Each push backs it off a click. Unlike the Boa, you can’t totally free the slack to get your feet into or out of your shoes before or after a ride. Instead, you need to push and hold both edge buttons with one hand while pulling open the shoe with the other.
Sidi also hasn’t joined the wider toe box movement that others in this review seem to be part of. While I’m comfortable in Sidi’s standard toe box width, I have come to find the wider toe box even more comfortable without having to give up fit or performance.
Sidi’s last is also a touch narrower to start with. If you are a full D width, it’s gonna be snug. Comfortable if you like snug, which I do, but snug nonetheless.
Also, while most of the shoes in this review are so close in weight as to be virtually indistinguishable, the Wire feels and is heavier than most by about 50 grams per shoe. That starts to get noticeable.
Even more noticeable is the $500+ price tag Sidi asks for these shoes, typically a $100 price premium over the others. I have noticed sales on the Wire and other Sidi shoes from time to time, but that only brings them down to the list price of the others which doesn’t make them a bargain. Further, if you have a high arch, you may find you need to spend more for a more substantial insole than those provided with these shoes.
Bontrager XXX Road Cycling Shoe – Top Performer Without Tradeoffs
Performance Rating: 1
Like: Among some of today’s road bike shoes, there usually seem to be some trade-offs you need to make. Performance vs. comfort. Functionality vs. style. The right size vs. enough room. Good venting vs. three-season use. Appeal vs. price.
With the XXX Road Cycling Shoe, Bontrager has created a shoe that, in nearly every instance, doesn’t force you to make these choices.
Starting with performance, I found the XXX as stiff as any shoe I’ve worn. I didn’t feel any flex in the carbon outsole at max power output, no matter whether I was climbing or going full gas on the flats. And with two good-sized vents under the toes and a narrow one running the length of your arch, you don’t give up any cooling potential for that stiffness.
The heel cup holds my heel in place with a shape that fits me well and is easy to get into and out of. It has a snug surrounding reinforced by dense plastic ribbing on the outside and uses a flexible material at the top around my heel cord.
Rather than having a tongue like most shoes, the Bontrager XXX upper wraps over your midfoot from the Boa dial side of each shoe. The amply perforated and well-vented upper itself has the soft feel and durability of leather except in this midfoot area, where it is as strong as the stiffest tongues in shoes I’ve worn.
This wrap design, in combination with IP1 Boa dials, gives me a fit and level of stiffness on my upstroke that I haven’t felt with other shoes this comfortable.
And honestly, I haven’t found many shoes this comfortable, certainly not with the performance of a stiff outsole or the fit that comes with dual-dial closures.
Comfort in the XXX comes from a combination of things. The midfoot wrap design and leather-like upper give me a snug, cozy feel. On top of that, there is enough give across my forefoot, that widest part of your foot between the outside of the ball on one side and the bone that sticks out below your small toe on the other.
Having worn these through the hot summer and now into the cooler fall months, that “give” is still there, but there hasn’t been any loss in shape.
There’s also a ton of room for my size D-width feet in the toe box, as much as I’ve felt in any other road shoes and far more than most. I almost feel guilty that my toes should be so free in shoes that fit so comfortably snug but are otherwise so stiff.
To my eyes, these are good-looking shoes. I usually make a mess of the toes and heels of my shoes, kicking my regularly greased Speedplay pedals forward to put the cranks in position to zero offset my power meter or to merely clip in.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well the white XXX model shoes I’ve been wearing have resisted showing dirt and grease and how easily and well they’ve cleaned up.
Don’t Like: For shoes this good, I’d prefer a few more color options than white, black, or white with navy or red trim. Full-on neon yellow and red would be good options for those of us like me looking for more visibility in our kit, especially in our shoes which are constantly moving and can catch a driver’s attention better when they are brightly colored.
While these Bontrager XXX shoes do come in half sizes from EU38 to 46 (men’s US 5 to 13), it’s a shame they don’t come in different widths as many of my other top-rated performance cycling shoes do.
Based on what I reported above about how these fit my feet, these also might work, though offer a little less forefoot room if you are an E-width. It took me about five rides before I got the midfoot wrap to “break in” to fit some of the taller cuneiform bones in my midfoot. So be aware of that when you first get into them.
Price and Availability: $420, £345, €389 at these links to the Trek store.
Lake CX332 – Customizable and comfortable but flexible leather upper makes for less efficient power transfer
Performance Rating: 2
Like: These are luxury and performance shoes all in one. The real leather upper provides dress shoe comfort and is quite handsome while feeling much like an extremely well-fit road cycling shoe. The black model looks like you could wear it into an office building after getting off your bike. The white would fit right in at the finest Italian cafe on a summer day.
They also come in what Lake calls Chameleon Green and Chameleon Blue, which, based on the name, Lake may feel will blend in anywhere.
At the same time, the bottom sole is as performance-stiff as any of the best road bike shoes you could wear to race in. The heel cup is thermoformable and allows you to mold it to your heel’s unique shape. I ran through the molding process several times to get it just where I wanted it.
Two IP1 Boas with dials and guides in just the right places allowed me to snug up the shoes for a good upper wrap.
They also come in standard and wide models and with a 4-hole option for Speedplay pedals in addition to standard 3-hole ones (for which you can add a Speedplay adapter as with and 3-hole sole).
Don’t Like: Just like any other pair of leather shoes, it took me a couple of dozen rides for the uppers to shape to my feet. It’s worth it unless you are impatient. (I do need to learn how to be more patient!)
The toe box and heel cup run on the narrow side, and the foot volume is limited. I’m fine with that, but most models, including the new S-Works Torch, have gone to wider toe boxes without losing the performance fit.
You do pay a slight performance penalty for the leather upper. They feel more flexible than the synthetic leather most every other top shoe uses these days, so they give a little bit more on the upstroke.
Price and Availability: USD$430, £340, €430 at this link to Competitive Cyclist.
Giro Imperial – More room and comfort for more cyclists
Performance Rating: 2
Like: Fellow tester and regular racer Miles, whose feet work well with the historically narrower, flatter last characteristics of Giro shoes, feels the Imperial is one of the best fitting and most comfortable Giro or any shoes he’s ever worn.
Chief among his affection for the Imperial is the heel cup. It bumps out at the base of the heel where it matters most and then tapers up to the top. this creates a great mold for his self-described “average foot” shape and holds his heels in place very securely
The Imperial’s forefoot and toe box widths are both wider and more comfortable than earlier top-of-the-line Giros and on par with the average widths of shoes from other brands. This could open the Imperial to consideration by cyclists who couldn’t wear Giros in the past.
The balls of Miles’ feet feel secure – not too tight or loose – in the Imperial. His toes can wiggle and swell without issue. This compares favorably with the scrunched feeling of earlier Giro shoes he’s worn.
Imperial’s style also rates highly in Miles’ book. The screen-like mesh and faux leather upper that gives these Giros a distinctive style are also quite functional. They are supremely ventilated on warm days (though need toe covers below 55F/13C and shoe covers below 45F/7C) and have been quite durable over many miles.
For a century or all-day ride, in the heat or in the mountains, these are go-to shoes.
Don’t Like: While Miles finds the Giro Imperial’s outsoles to be stiff, it’s not as stiff as others he wears. The difference shows up when he’s sprinting in a race.
Something that’s not changed with the Imperial is the relatively flat arch that has been characteristic of most Giro shoes. The highest of the three inserts Giro provides with the insoles provides enough support for Miles’ typical arches. If you have naturally high arches, as fellow testers Nate and I do, Miles advises that an aftermarket insole will be needed.
Additionally, the uppers in the Imperial have a bit more room than most other shoes that Miles wears. He has to crank down the IP1 Boa closure dials more than normal, and the tongue of the shoe gets scrunched as it overlaps itself. Taking care to keep the tongue tucked under the uppers is the solution, though one that could be more easily dealt with by making the tongue a few millimeters narrower.
Rapha Pro Team – Performance in traditional fitting, stylish-looking shoes
Performance Rating: 2
Like: Consistent with how I think about Rapha clothing, their Pro Team road cycling shoes combine traditional design elements and modern styling that works to set them apart from the rest.
While many have gone to some form of a midfoot upper overlay or “burrito” style wrap, Rapha sticks with a padded tongue covering a relatively wide opening. I find this allows easy entry and exit from the shoes and quite a bit of comfort over my intermediate cuneiform bone, the one in the middle of the top of each foot that seems to protrude above the rest of them.
The IP1 Boa closure system used in the Pro Team is also no-nonsense. It’s a top-shelf model for sure but doesn’t require a ton of turning to reel in the wire and get your feet snuggled into your shoes.
I use the word snuggled purposely because that’s how your forefoot and toes will feel in these shoes. This is a more traditional, race-like fit that I prefer, and contrary to the more spacious toe-box and ample, touchless forefoot width that some shoes have adopted and cyclists may prefer for endurance riding.
The Pro Team also has a very stiff outsole with a high arch profile. It’s one of the few shoes where I don’t need to use an aftermarket insole to replace the ones that come with the shoes, including those that offer arch support pads with varying thicknesses.
On top of all of that, literally and figuratively, is an upper that looks like a stylish knit (it’s actually a woven polyester) yet is as stiff as any I’ve worn. That stiffness helps me transfer power when I’m pulling up on the cranks or at least keeps my feet from moving up and down in the shoes. The heel cup also has a shape that holds my heels nicely in place.
I’ll admit to being a fan of white shoes, and the white-looking, light grey color Rapha Pro Team shoes clearly spice up my other kit choices on any given day. These shoes also come in unique teal and high-vis pink colors, each in alternating darker and lighter shades to give a zebra-type look. For the traditionalist, there’s also a black color option.
Don’t Like: While I find these shoes sufficiently comfortable on 3 and 4-hour rides, the snug fit and stiff uppers make them less comfortable than shoes with a more relaxed fit. On my longest rides, I tend to leave these at home.
The pair I wore also felt a half-size or so shorter than the size I was directed to by their size chart after measuring my foot length. This, together with the trimmer forefoot and toe box space, give you a shoe with relatively less volume than others I’ve tested.
If you’re looking to optimize performance, none of this is an issue. For those looking to ride hard sometimes and do longer, less demanding rides at other times and not stand out based on the style of shoes you’re wearing, there are better options to pick from.
DMT SH10 Road Shoes – Warm weather, knit, narrow fit
Performance Rating: 4
Like: I’ve always thought about knit cycling shoes as an extra pair that you’d wear primarily on hot summer days. Going no further than checking them out in the store, they seemed like a light, great-looking, nice-to-have luxury for those who enjoy and can afford such things.
I was initially attracted to DMT’s top-of-the-line KRO shoes. The white ones, of course. When I tried them on, they felt like I was wearing thin, super-attractive, and super-expensive socks, the kind one might wear in soft leather loafers to a cocktail party at a nice ocean-side resort if I was one who did such things.
So, not me.
But with the introduction of the DMT SH10, I saw possibilities. First, it has structurally supported heel counters or heel cups. The KRO lacks this, and wearing it even in the store, my heel moved freely and seemed unprotected.
Second, the SH10 is just as gorgeous as the KRO but looks like it would cool my feet more evenly than the KRO. The SH10 has a uniform, 3D-printed look knit upper, essentially giving it perforations across the entire knit upper and under the toes.
This suggests to me an even better airflow than the KRO that has cooling perforations in the upper and a mesh screen in the outsole across its toes, and another large mesh screen under the arch.
And third, the SH10 is priced competitively with dual Boa, top-of-the-line road cycling shoes from other brands. The KRO is even more expensive.
So, I bit.
Actually, I had to wait in anticipation since the DMT SH10 was first introduced in Europe and wasn’t available in the US where I ride until early 2023.
And when they did arrive, it was winter, and my hot indoor trainer rides with a hard-blowing fan were the closest I could come to a summer simulation. I completed testing the SH10 in the spring on some surprisingly warm April days, a few cooler ones, and even a day with pop-up rain showers.
Unlike any shoes I’ve worn before, the DMT SH10 gives me the sense that I’m riding barefoot yet with a very strong connection to my pedals. The combination of knit uppers and hot-spot-free closures dials, laces, and guides make it feel that my feet are moving along topless.
At the same time, the outsoles are rigid making the SH10 feel like I’m giving up nothing on the downstroke.
Don’t Like: After I transition to the upstroke and as I’m kicking forward between the upstroke and downstroke, I do feel like I’m giving up some efficiency as my heel isn’t held in place very well. While, as mentioned, the SH10 does have a structured heel counter, it has more volume and isn’t as rigid or formed in the heel cup area compared to other dual-Boa, comparatively priced shoes we’ve tested.
At the same time, the DMT SH10’s forefoot is as narrow as any we’ve tested. While the knit upper provides some give, I still felt a bit of pressure from the shoes at the outsides of the balls of my feet. And I wear a rather standard width, size EU43 shoe in most brands.
The length feels right, and there is sufficient, if not ample, room in the toe box. And like many cycling shoes, these DMT start with a very flat arch, and you’ll want to add some aftermarket insoles if your feet need more support there.
While the comparative last characteristics chart above shows the details, the DMT SH10 fit is closest to other Italian brands Giro and Sidi.
The bottoms of my feet became less comfortable the longer my ride. After a couple of hours in these shoes and despite tightening the Boa dials appropriately, it feels like my feet are moving around too much.
On days cooler than about 55F/13C with any kind of wind blowing, my feet were a bit chilly. They did dry out and clean up quite easily when I got caught in a shower.
One “nit” to pick. DMT outsoles come with a 4th hole between the three holes you get for standard cleats on most shoes. This can be used with Look cleats to maintain your cleat position when replacing them.
If you don’t use Look cleats, or if you do but don’t want to take advantage of this feature, you’ll want to remove the small, hard-to-access bolt in the outsole that the screw goes into. If not, you’ll hear it jiggling while you ride as I did until I took it to my shop, and we went on an internet treasure hunt to figure it out.
Clearly, the DMT SH10 is not a 3-season race shoe in most climates.
However, if you ride in parts of the world where it’s warm much of the year, have narrow feet, don’t go on day-long rides, and aren’t pushing to get every last watt of efficiency out of your shoes, this shoe gives you a cool and good looking option.
Fizik Vento Stabilita – A generation or so away from realizing its promise
Performance Rating: 4
Like: With the Vento Stabilita, Fizik brings a novel and promising approach to the design of modern road bike shoes. Instead of providing insoles with pads to raise your arch, its upper Li2 Boa closure hooks to an inch-wide strap that connects to two of the same width that extends down the side of your arch to the bottom of your foot. The inner half of the outsole is cut away to accommodate this setup.
Both Nate and I wore these shoes, but neither of us could tell how much tightening the dial does to change the arch that already seems to offer more support from the shape of the very stiff carbon outsole.
Nate found that cranking the dial to get more arch support created uncomfortable pressure against the top of his feet that he was eager to release at rest stops. I felt the added pressure of the strap against the side of my foot at about the 8 o’clock position in the arch area. More practically, I had to make sure to position the top single strap in the right place to get the best leverage on the lower straps.
The upper polyurethane material is stiff, offering sufficient resistance when pulling up on the cranks. The forefoot is comfortably snug, and the toe box has plenty of room, more than the traditional race shoe but not as much as the widest available in some shoes.
We both liked the beefy non-slip pads at the heel and the gummy silicone beads along the upper half of the nicely padded heel cup.
Don’t Like: The heel cup is wider than in most shoes Nate and I have worn. That allowed my heels to move more than I like and made the Vento Stabilita feel less efficient in transferring my power.
While the upper is stiff and well-ventilated with pinholes throughout, it has a cardboard-like feel. The tongue area, sewn into the outside of the upper rather than free-standing, has an extra layer of material and seems twice as stiff as the upper. Again, that’s good for power transfer but is not the most comfortable of approaches.
Overall, the Vento Stabilita seems like it’s a design iteration or two away from accomplishing what it set out to do. Smoothing out the pressure along its arch support straps, shaping the heel cup a bit, and using a more comfortable yet still stiff upper material could get it closer to some of its rivals.
Louis Garneau Course Air Lite XZ – Features take away from performance
Performance Rating: 4
Like: Garneau gets a few things right with the XZ road cycling shoes, the latest generation in the Course Air Lite mode evolution.
True to its name, the shoes stay very cool in warm weather. The pair Nate and I tested have two vented slots in the outsole, one that’s aligned with the area underneath my 2nd and 4th toes and another under my arch. Along with this, the Course Air Lite XZ comes with a cushiony, open-cell foam insole that allows the air to flow through. For cooler days, there’s a second closed-cell foam insole.
Garneau also includes different height arch supports that connect with these insoles. We found the highest one works well to effectively give both of with relatively high arches the support we need.
The upper on the Course Air Lite XZ is probably synthetic but feels like a soft, very pliable glove leather. On either side of your forefoot, there are stretchy sections of the upper to allow for wider feet or for those with bunions. It’s quite a clever feature.
Along with the well-placed Li2 Boa dials and hooks, this creates a comfortable upper with nary a hot spot to be experienced even on the longest, hottest rides we wore them on.
Don’t Like: For all the features we like, there are a few we don’t, and some core issues that are a turn-off about the shoes.
For example, while the venting is great, the second toe on my right foot (but not my left) sits in the slot designed to let the air in. Not only did that block some of the cooling, but it also felt quite distracting. Neither of the insoles prevented this sensation nor did my DIY solution to plug the vent.
This highlighted how challenging it may be to get the vent and toe alignment right since it’s likely that I’m not the only one whose toes don’t line up the same on both feet.
The upper’s soft material, while being quite comfortable, doesn’t give you enough resistance when pulling up during your pedal stroke to make me feel like you’re pedaling efficiently. And using the size chart based on my foot length put me in a shoe that made my feet feel like they were swimming. I went down a full size, consistent with what I normally wear but still didn’t feel the resistance of a more efficient shoe.
Nate’s feet are a couple of millimeters shorter and narrower than mine. He also regularly wears the S-Works 7 shoes that provide more toe box room than most. In these Garneaus, his toes are a bit cramped, especially on the tops and the forefoot isn’t as wide as he prefers.
The Course Air Lite XZ’s Boa retention system also uses wires that are too long for my liking. It takes many more turns to crank them into place, and I needed to pull the edges of the upper that overlay the tongue apart to unreel the wires enough to get my feet out.
Price and Availability: USD$400 at this link to Competitive Cyclist.
THE ROLE OF SHOES IN ROAD CYCLING
I used to pick road cycling shoes based on their comfort and price. It always looked to me like the major difference between what I and other riders wore was just style and color and various features that I really didn’t need. I focused on comfortable and low-priced ridin’ rather than feature-rich and expensive stylin’.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
While I’m still not into stylin’, I learned that a comfortable pair of road bike shoes don’t always provide the best power transfer. And while you’d think that comfort comes from a good fit, there’s a range of views on what a “comfortable fit” means, from fit like a glove to a fit like a pair of slippers. Even the right fit walking around in the store doesn’t always or even usually mean it’s the right fit or a comfortable fit for someone pedaling tempo or threshold zone power out on the road.
As to fashion, I think it’s the last thing that should matter when it comes to picking the best cycling shoes. But I get that looking good, if not necessarily being fashionable, matters to a lot of people.
Perhaps more important than looking good is being seen. Our feet and legs are the only parts of our body that always move when we are riding. If your shoes are a bright color, you have a better chance of catching the attention of a car driver than if you are wearing black ones. Fortunately, most of the best bike shoes come in at least one or two colors.
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 road cycling shoes affects your ability to ride faster or longer?
Before I started my evaluations of road bike shoes, I must admit that as a fellow road cycling enthusiast, I would have answered no to both questions.
Some of us, 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 this, specifically how training and technique and gear and kit can help you ride faster.
While putting covers over any pair of shoes can make you more aero and save you watts, the right shoes can also help you increase the power you deliver to your pedals and the speed that shows up on your 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. More efficient power transfer from comfortably fitting road bike shoes can help you do the same distance with less effort or get more distance with the same effort when compared to wearing a less efficient pair.
Frankly, I should have known better than to overlook the performance benefits that the best cycling shoes can bring and relegate the decision-making merely to apparent comfort and price. I grew up skiing down mountains, raced through college, and have coached for many years since then. While the skis and speed suits get all the attention, the most important piece of gear is 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 room to wiggle your toes, and allow you to easily tighten the buckles at the top of a run, it doesn’t much matter how right you got 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, or flex, you aren’t going to get the most out of all the techniques you’ve developed or tactics you’ve planned, or the 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 almost any sport where your legs power your performance. Fashion and features 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 the many I just listed, shoes are your biggest expense. In cycling, however, your footwear is one of the things we spend the least on when it comes to gear. Bikes, groupsets, and wheelsets all cost more for a similar level of performance than road bike shoes.
Yet many of my fellow road cycling enthusiasts and I seem to be a lot more sensitive about spending 100 to 200 more dollars, pounds, or euros on a pair of shoes than we would be spending thousands more for a bike or hundreds more for a 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.
Expect to pay about 400 USD$, £ or € for the best cycling shoes, ones that will give you the efficient power transfer, comfortable fit, and the be-seen look expected by most serious roadies. Relative to the benefits you get from investing in other cycling gear, I think that’s a reasonable amount to help you perform your best.
If you’re a recreational cyclist who rides less often, shorter distances, and with less ambitious performance goals than we enthusiasts do, then no, you don’t need to spend this much.
THE BASIC Q&A ABOUT ROAD 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 road bike shoes. You can also get shoes that are functional without trying to be stylish. But you can also get some shoes that look great and don’t perform very well.
Competition or comfort?
Here again, you can get both – shoes with 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 made are made with more flexible outsole materials that can limit the power you try to transfer through them. These tend to be shoes that are 100 to 200 dollars, pounds, or euros less expensive and are often favored by endurance enthusiasts who are in it for the pure pleasure of riding and are a bit more focused on their wallet than their speed. That’s fine, but that’s not me, and probably not most of you who ride regularly and are even the least bit competitive about it.
Readers of this blog site run the gamut from serious 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 or as regularly. In this review, I’ve focused on shoes that suit the first group of readers and riders.
Are top-end road bike shoes really worth the 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. Spending more on the best bike shoes gets you better performance in most cases. That sounds obvious but isn’t true with every cycling product.
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 or co-branded top-of-the-line model that has just about every extra you can imagine but don’t need 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 300 to 400 dollar/pound/euro 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 wire laces, plastic wire guides, and dials that reel the laces in or out around the guides to tighten or loosen your shoes. They are made by a company called Boa Technology and are used in place of some combination of string laces, Velcro straps, buckles or ratchets on cycling shoes and other sports and non-sports gear.
Boa’s Li2 and IP1 dials have become the standard on performance cycling shoes, and other Boa dial models are starting to be seen on value shoes as well. As you can see in the chart above, both have the same functionality, most notably pushing down to engage and pulling up to release the closure process. The Li2s have slightly shorter steps between clicks for finer adjustments as you turn clockwise to tighten and counterclockwise to loosen.
Specialized uses S3 dials on their latest top-of-the-line cycling shoes. As I’ve not seen these on any other brand of shoes, I assume Boa makes them only for Specialized. They emphasize a more textured feel of the dials, turning clockwise and counterclockwise to tighten and loosen like the others but without the need to push in to engage or the ability to pull up to quickly release.
Why have most middle and top-end road shoes moved to Boa dial closures?
Quite simply, they can give you a better and more comfortable fit and are easier to adjust while underway than the laces, straps, buckles, etc., they have replaced. The tension can be 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 size, width, and last (or foot-shaped molds built to unique heel width, instep height, forefoot width, and toe box depth and width) that fit your feet, 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.
The best-performing road cycling shoes have two dials, one close to your ankle and the other between your midfoot and forefoot, typically to the outside of the tongue. In most cases, they give you more control of the closure tension and fit than those with a single dial found on mid-priced cycling shoes. That results in better power transfer and comfort.
For that reason, I’ve evaluated two dial shoes in this review. With the exception of Sidi, which uses its own proprietary dial, lace, and hook closure system, all the shoes reviewed here use Boa closures.
Are men’s and women’s shoes different?
Many companies do sell gender-specific shoes. That said, it’s hard to tell whether some of the women’s cycling shoes are really designed for a woman’s foot – stereotypically narrower and smaller than a man’s – or are of the same design as a men’s shoe but available in “woman’s” sizes and in colors shoemakers think will appeal to women.
The good news is that there are plenty of men’s shoes (or probably shoes originally made for male riders) that also fit women available in basic black, white, and other gender-neutral colors that are made in half sizes, though mostly with standard men’s widths, and with different lasts to serve a good range of rider needs, both men and women.
If you wear running shoes 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, where you 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?
Like other types of shoes, cycling shoes of the same size from different brands will vary in length, width, and fit. Most road bike shoes are labeled in EU sizes. Brands provide size guides to help you close in on the sizes they use on their shoes compared to the size of other shoes you wear.
Alongside the EU size, these size guides will usually provide the men’s and women’s US and UK sizes that the EU size is closest to. Some will also give you a corresponding length in centimeters and instructions on measuring your feet.
These are helpful but not always dependable. And they are focused only on the length of the shoe. Equally important measures like the heel cup and forefoot widths or the arch height and toe-box room are unique to the brand or model’s last.
To deal with all of these differences, I’ve developed a chart comparing the last characteristics of the shoes we’ve worn and reviewed here. For a given size, you can see whether a shoe has relatively more or less of each key dimension versus the average fit of the shoes we’ve tested.
In the review of each of the road cycling shoes, I say more about how the shoe fits.
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 is 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 traveling around to various shops to find 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 also get to wear the different shoes or sizes of the same shoes you are interested in 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 best for you compared to something they don’t carry.
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.
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 brands (Lake, Fizik, Sidi) and a chain that sold a couple of models made by the larger cycling companies (Specialized, Bontrager, 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. The chain store had a model I liked in a color I didn’t and another in a size that was just a bit big. I would have needed to special order these, and the store wanted me to make a deposit and commit to buying the shoes before they would order them. Uh, no, thank you.
Competitive Cyclist in the US is one of the online stores I’ve bought a lot of gear from over the years and has a top 5 ranking of the nearly 100 stores I track (see here). They had most of the shoes and sizes and color combos in stock I was interested in. Buying from them, you can order, receive, try on, return shoes that don’t fit, and get your purchase credited all within a single credit card billing cycle. (I’ve done it with other gear and kit with no questions asked.)
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 tells 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.
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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 merely saying you’ve got some technology, spec, or features no one else does.
Normally, if a novel or unique design doesn’t make the gear perform better or reduce cost, it is a wasted effort. With the look of shoes being important to 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 looks best to you.
I describe the criteria within each of the four groups here.
As I stated at the top of this post, efficient power transfer, comfortable fit, good-looking, and reasonably priced are what make a good cycling shoe and how you should choose them. The first two of those are clearly performance criteria.
Efficient power transfer depends on two things: 1) how stiff the outsole is and 2) how closely your shoe moves with your foot. 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.
Good-fitting road cycling shoes will keep your heel down on your upstroke, your toes free, your midfoot and forefoot snug, and your arch well supported. This comes in part from picking one with the right size or, more specifically, the right “last” (heel width, instep or midfoot height, forefoot width, and toe box width and depth). Fit also comes from how well the upper and closure system works to wrap you at all points across the top of your forefoot, how well your arch is supported by a combination of the last and insole (aka footbed), and how well the heel cup shape aligns to your own heel.
Comfortably fitting power transfer really speaks to your ability to stay comfortable with that right fit over time, distance, and different environmental conditions, not just when you try it on.
To keep a good fit comfortable, you need a shoe that 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 touchpoints between the bottom of your foot and insole and 3) allow you to adjust the fit for different situations like changing temperature, normally swelling feet, hill climbing and sprinting.
It’s important to remember that a good fit doesn’t guarantee comfort. You can also 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, low volume forefoot, etc.) to help steer you to those that might best fit what you know to be the characteristics of your own feet.
For the record, I wear a US men’s size 9.5D width dress shoe, which translates to a European 43.0 width in most cycling shoe models. Beyond my own experience, I’ve also 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 offering you the response to these shoes of my own 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 stiffness of the outsole. The outsole might be super rigid but if your foot moves around on top of that outsole, you aren’t going 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, which is based on comparing shoes in their own line, I’ve used input from independent tester Tour magazine. They used an artificial foot fit secured inside many of the shoes in this review or previous models using the same outsole to come up with relative measures of stiffness.
The design of a road cycling enthusiast’s shoe, as with any piece of cycling gear, is mostly focused on delivering the desired performance level for a targeted cost and partly focused on delivering a certain look. Some designs work well in achieving performance goals, while others fall short. Some design characteristics, 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, while sometimes, it makes no difference or actually detracts from the performance and cost goals.
Unfortunately, since performance is hard to quantify and describe, companies market the crap out of technology, specs, and features. You see a lot of that from companies 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 choose 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 road bike shoes are almost always made from very stiff carbon fiber-impregnated resins. Lower-priced or value cycling 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, many of which are replaceable, are designed to protect your 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 at 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. Specialist companies make these insoles 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 wedges of different thicknesses that you insert or velcro to the footbed.
Closures – As mentioned in the Q&A section above, Boa closures systems have pretty much taken over the performance road cycling shoe market with only a couple of exceptions (e.g. Sidi shoes). There are different models of Boa closures used on cycling shoes that provide more or less functionality, mostly in loosening the shoes, but they all tighten more or less the same way.
As I described earlier, most of the top-performance shoes now use two Li2 or IP1 model Boa dials. One is typically placed at the top of the shoe that closes it just below your ankle. The second goes lower down your shoe to close it across your midfoot.
Some designs extend the wire from the second dial to guides further down to your forefoot. Other shoes use a Velcro strap to help you synch up that area over your toes. Most don’t have any mechanism to tighten that area of your shoe.
With the latest generation of Li2 and IP1 Boa dials (don’t ask me what the letters and numbers stand for), you relieve all the tension in wires by merely pulling up on each dial. This gives you a quick exit from your shoes at the end of a ride or allows you to open them fully to put your foot in when you first put them on.
String laces have made a comeback in retro or football-style cycling shoes. You’ll see them both on high-performance and value shoes. Laces provide almost infinite adjustment to get the fit right when you first put your shoes on but you obviously can’t easily adjust them during a ride 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 on performance shoes like those in this review.
Uppers – 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 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 are to 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 and are sometimes combined with a mesh area in spots where the feet can get especially overheated. Some shoes are best for the summer temps, while others with less ventilation can be worn three seasons without an overshoe but might be a little warm on the hottest days. Most good shoes have vents in the outsole for cooling, which will be covered over with an overshoe when riding in cooler weather.
Customization – If you are hard to fit or have problems with hot spots, there are many things potential causes, as shown in this chart from an article here from Jo Allen.
Although you see it less often in the newer models, some of the more expensive shoes have heat-moldable insoles, heel cups, and even uppers to customize the fit of your shoes. Moldable insoles make sense if you have feet that pronate unusually. Moldable uppers or integrated upper and outsoles like on Bont shoes 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 to 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 per shoe of each other.
As shown in one of the last characteristic charts in this post further below, the size 43 or so shoes I evaluated in this review weigh from 218 (for a size 42.5) to 304 (for a size 43.5) grams per shoe. Beyond those two, however, the remaining shoes range from 240 to 260 grams, essentially no discernable weight difference.
The bottom line: weight is something most of us enthusiasts should give little, if any, attention to when buying performance shoes.
Sizes – You’ll find half sizes available for most shoes in the more common foot size range. Most also have women’s sizes or at least smaller shoes of similar lasts. Some shoes are sold in standard widths, and others are sold in wide sizes.
More importantly, the lasts differ from shoe to shoe and tell you much more about how well a shoe will fit than simply ordering a standard or wide width. The Last Characteristics chart below shows you the difference in shoe lasts from, dare I say, heel to toe.
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 now made by Wahoo, uses cleats with 4 holes. While you can find a couple of 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 Mont Ventoux when a moto ran over his bike, and there were no other bikes (or running shoes) immediately available. While the best road cycling shoes are not designed for running, and few are really great to walk in for long, there are some I’ve noted in my reviews that may be less desirable than others when you are walking around while in a café or on a bathroom break.
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 road bike shoes come in black and white, along with yellow or red with standard lines. There are others that have tried to separate themselves with a 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. And then there are combinations of these colors.
Something for everyone, I guess.
Fortunately, all the shoes I’ve reviewed are made of pretty high quality. The most you should have to do on some that have this feature is to 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.
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 if I know of a shoe’s reputation for wearing out in one place or another, but I haven’t seen that much in the relatively short period of time I can test these shoes.
With shoes, our cost is primarily what we pay for them when we first buy them.
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 have from shoe to shoe or buy a new pair every year or two when they flatten out or lose their shape.
Other than heel pads, there are no other added or maintenance costs you need to figure in along the way.
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. Most sell through both channels these days and price often depend on typical retail strategies – inventory, margins, promotions, etc.
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Thanks, and enjoy your rides safely! Cheers, Steve