THE BEST ROAD CYCLING SHOES
Summary: If you are a serious roadie, buying a great pair of road cycling shoes isn’t cheap but will pay off big time in your power, speed, comfort, and endurance. Among the dual-Boa closure models I tested, I found the Specialized S-Works 7 (available from stores I recommend here, here, and here), Bontrager XXX Road Cycling Shoe (here), and Sidi Wire models (here, here, here, here) are the best performers and the ones I recommend.
Several qualities come to mind when enthusiasts are looking for a great pair of road cycling shoes. Efficient power transfer, comfortable fit, good-looking, and reasonably priced tops the list for me.
Are they all important? Can you find them all in one pair of road cycling shoes?
Yes and 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, well we always want that.
In this post, I’ll share with you my evaluation of the best cycling shoes for road enthusiasts. Whether you race, do club rides or like to challenge yourself on short segments, over long days or every day you ride, these are the shoes I’ve found 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
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THE ROLE OF SHOES IN ROAD CYCLING
I used to pick 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 cycling 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 or 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 about the last thing that should matter when it comes to picking a great pair of road 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 are always moving when you 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 road cycling 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 on 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 cycling shoes can help you do the same distance with less effort or get more distance from the same effort when compared to wearing a less efficient pair.
Frankly, I should have known better than to overlook the performance benefits road 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 still coach. 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 the 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 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 or flex, you aren’t going to get the most out of all the techniques 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 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 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 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 on a pair of shoes than we would be spending 200 to 600 more 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.
Expect to pay 300 to 400 USD$, £ or € for the best road cycling shoes, ones that will give you the efficient power transfer, comfortable fit, and be-seen look expect 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.
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 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 outsole materials that get you can lose a good deal of 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 the 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 cycling 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 a pair of road cycling 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. The 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.
Why? 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 high quality upper with minimal seams and a good heel cup, insole (aka footbed), and outsole in a shoe 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 2 Boa dials. In most cases, they give you a better and more comfortable fit and more efficient power transfer than those with a single Boa. For that reason, I’ve evaluated 2 Boa dial shoes in this review.
Are mens and womens shoes different?
Most 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 and of biomechanics then a man’s – or are of the same design as a mens shoe but available in smaller sizes and in colors shoemakers think will appeal to women.
The good news is that there are plenty of mens 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, narrow and standard widths and to 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?
There are indeed differences in how companies size their shoes. I have a grid further down comparing the width range of the models I’ve reviewed and another with my evaluation of their last characteristics. I’ve also commented on sizing in some of the individual shoe reviews.
While most shoes use European sizes, there are also some great charts that convert US shoe sizes to European ones across many brands. The most complete ones I’ve seen come from Competitive Cyclist in their cycling shoe section and are 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.
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 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 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 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 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 it. 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 cycling. (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 to merely say 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 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 is what makes a good cycling shoe and how you should choose them. The first two of those are clearly performance criteria.
Efficient power transfer is dependent 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.
A good fitting road cycling shoe 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 work 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 then 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 9.5 D 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 offer 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 the 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 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 road cycling 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. 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 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.
Most of the top performance shoes now use two 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 while 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 IP1 Boa dials (don’t ask me what it means), 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 styled 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 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 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 to 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 229 to 304 grams per shoe. Beyond those two, however, the remaining shoes range from 253 to 298 grams and six range from 253 to 275 grams.
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 two widths and one I reviewed is sold narrow, standard, and wide widths.
While most shoes come in standard widths that fit the majority of cyclists, the lasts on some shoes are naturally narrower or wider than others 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 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 his bike was run over by a moto 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 on a café or 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 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.
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.
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.
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 had 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. Specialized, which makes one of the more highly rated shoes only sell them through local bike shops and independent bike dealers and offer little discount off their MSRP or RRP. Some of these shops also sell online but the distribution is frequently limited to sales in-country.
Bontrager, which makes another of my top-rated shoes, sells them both at local bike shops and through their online store.
Most of the other shoes reviewed can be bought online, often at a 10-20% discount to local bike shop prices. Those which only sell through a few online stores are typically closer to the 10% discount level.
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With the charts 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 one or two shoes that are worth trying on and that will likely work for you.
While I normally recommend a best performer and best value 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. Second, you may not like the look of even a great shoe that fits you well.
What I have done instead is give you a performance rating for each shoe based on its power transfer efficiency and comfort and then compared 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 column of the chart above you think best fits 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 rating 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.
You can also get an idea of whether the shoes run large or small by looking at whether I wore a half size more or less than my standard 43.
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 that have each shoe at the best current prices.
OK then. Let’s get on with it!
Bontrager XXX Road Cycling Shoe – Top Performer Without Tradeoffs
Performance Rating: 1
Like: Among most of today’s road bike shoes, there usually seems 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 new 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 in to 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 Boas.
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, 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 and 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 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, 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 driver 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 5 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.
If you are a B width, I think you’d likely find these shoes too wide.
Pricing: While I think these shoes are worth it, of course, I wish they were less expensive. They sell for $400/£300, available through this link to the Trek store. Compared to my other top-rated shoes, this is the same you’ll pay for the Specialized S-Works 7 and slightly less or more than Sidi Wire shoes depending on model and retailer.
Note that the name of these shoes is the Bontrager XXX Road Cycling Shoe, not to be confused with the previous, similarly named but far different performing and fitting model Bontrager XXX Road Shoe.
Specialized S-Works 7 – With superior efficiency and comfort, there’s few if any better
Performance Rating: 1
Like: Specialized took the S-Works 6, which I rated one of my top-performing road shoes in my last review, and made the S-Works 7 successor more comfortable with no loss in performance. They widened the opening around your heel cord to make it easier to get into and out of the shoes without changing the width or shape of the heel cup itself. I felt just as snug at the heel but with more breathing room above it.
At the front of the shoe, there’s more wiggle room in the toe box than with the 6 but no change in width that I could tell fit across the ball of your foot. This also gives you the effect of more breathing room and perhaps for more air to pass around your toes. There’s not so much room as in some shoes where you feel like your toes are swimming on their own while the rest of the foot feels all cinched up. On the flip side, there is more room than I experienced (and also liked) in the 6 where your toes felt at one with your shoe.
While my D-width foot fit snugly and comfortably into the standard-width model, Specialized also makes the S-Works 7 in narrow and wide widths. This attests to the success and popularity of the S-Works shoes. The other shoes in this review only come in one or at best two widths.
The black pair I wore had a firm yet almost knit-textured upper feel. This is in contrast to the smoother, more synthetic leather feel of the 6. To be clear, the S-Works 7 doesn’t have a knit upper like some of the style-before-performance shoes that you see today. But the weave of the 7, different than the 6 despite using the same material, gives it a tight-knit texture feel and a bit more ventilation than its predecessor.
The bottom sole is as stiff as ever. That along with the fit of the upper and the sole’s supportive arch gives you the feeling that you are transferring your power with no loss. The Boa dials, wires and guides are also located in seemingly just right places on the shoe to give me the ability to micro-adjust as my feet need it during the ride without creating any pressure points or hot spots. I never felt anything but comfortable.
And for those of us who want color choice, these come in traditional black, summer white, my favorite be-seen rocket-red color, and a pair with a yellow/green front and rocket red heel that really stands out. You can also pay extra for one of the limited edition runs of shoes with unique colors or prints to separate you from the field of others wearing these popular shoes.
Don’t Like: While the changes made to the S-Works 7 make them far easier to get into and out of than the 6, you still need to undo the top Boa wire from the guide and fully loosen or undo the bottom one to enter or exit the shoes. It’s something I adapted to do with the 6s and am more than happy to do with the 7s considering all the other benefits. I just wish Specialized would go with the now-standard IP1 for top-end shoes so you could just pull up the dial to fully release the wire tension and leave the wires in place.
And Specialized, love them or hate them, has such a strong position in the cycling market, and had so much success with this model shoe that you seldom see them discounted. They aren’t priced any higher than most of the other top shoes in this high-performance category, but it would be nice to feel like you’re getting a deal now and then.
Ah well, the price we pay for performance. With these shoes, it’s absolutely worth it.
Pricing: USD$400, £340, €370. They’re available from Competitive Cyclist, Tredz Limited, and at other stores in Know’s Shop I recommend because they have the best prices, customer satisfaction records, and selection of enthusiast-level cycling gear and kit.
Sidi Wire Vent Carbon Push – First-rate power transfer, comfort, and status but trying closure system and a high price
Performance Rating: 1
Like: For those who want choice in a top-of-the-line in a pair of road cycling shoes, Sidi gives you a dizzying variety of wire models with either both dials positioned on the sides of the shoes (Wire), one on the side and one on the tongue (Wire 2) or both on the tongue (Shot). Some come are available with lighter or more perforated uppers (Air) or a matt upper finish (Matt) or in womens models or even with 4 screw holes for Speedplay cleats. There is also a wide range of 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 model I evaluated (actually called the Wire Vent Carbon Push) with two dials on the side and the standard perforation pattern was a supremely stiff, breathable shoe with an excellent and highly tunable fit for my standard width feet. I could also see these fitting narrow width feet well as there is no extra room in the toe box. FYI, the lasts are the same in the different mens model options; the womens shoes have a different last.
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 or too 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 also a classic cycling brand and they convey status along with their 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 model of doing things. Unfortunately, that model is different than a growing range of equally well-performing and less costly shoe options.
I’ve been spoiled by the Boa dial closure system and find Sidi’s proprietary Tecno-3 Push system a bit trying in comparison. With the Boa IP1 found on nearly all the other top-of-the-line models, you only need 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 back down. Not hard and 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 in both edge buttons in with one hand while pulling open the shoe with the other.
Sidi also hasn’t joined the wider toe box movement that Bontrager and Specialized have and that the shoes from Garneau, Shimano, and 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 Sidi feel and are heavier than the others by as much as 50-70 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 provided with these shoes.
Lake CX332 – Customizable and comfortable but more flexible leather upper makes for less efficient power transfer
Performance Rating: 2
Like: These shoes are a luxury performance shoe 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 work after getting off your bike. The white would fit right in at the finest Italian cafe on a summer day.
At the same time, the bottom sole is as performance stiff as any of the best road cycling 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 a couple of 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 drilled 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, all like the S-Works 6 shoes were. I’m fine with that but most models including the new S-Works 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.
And while you can occasionally find them on sale, except for Sidi, Lakes are the most expensive shoes on the market.
Louis Garneau Course Air Lite II– Moderately stiff, comfortable fitting, and well ventilated at a good price
Performance Rating: 2
Like: These are very comfortable, well-fitting shoes that fit standard to wide width feet with a lot of room for your toes to move around and a pre-shaped tongue and Boa closures that wrap your mid-foot well.
My feet stayed cool with vents in just the right places – mesh above and below toes, large perforated and stretchy sections along the widest part of your feet, and mesh cut into the outsoles under your arches. The combination of the wide toe box and these stretchy sections suggests you could get feet slightly wider than my D size ones in these shoes without a problem.
Garneau claims these shoes will fit B to D+. I think a B width foot would find these too an E would find them comfortably snug. I wore them with my thick Woolie Boolie socks on my size D feet and I wouldn’t want to go any snugger. While a fellow reviewer at a major cycling pub wrote that they fit his slightly narrower than standard feet, a half dozen fellow cyclists who have bought and worn them uniformly report they fit true to size.
I like that they come with substantial perforated insoles for warmer months and non-perforated ones for cooler temps. They also come with under-arch pads in three different thicknesses to attach to the insoles and get you the right support. No need to buy footbeds; the ones that come with these are as good as most aftermarket insoles for the ones made custom for your feet.
The tongue is thicker and already curved to wrap the top of your foot. It keeps the Boa wires from pressuring your top side. The wide toe box, venting, tongue, and Boa design make a lot of sense and provided me comfortable rides yet never seemed to be trading off too much performance for that comfort.
In addition to black and white, they come in a bright yellow and fluo orange if you want to be seen (or match your kit). The top-of-the-line Boa IP1 closures easily dial your fit in or out while riding and pop out to release all the tension when you are getting into or out of your shoes. They are also one of the lighter pair but only about 50g per shoe lighter than the heaviest.
Don’t Like: While I never noticed my heels coming up, the cups feel less snug or wrapped to my heels as with some other road bike shoes. Same goes for the mid- and forefoot on the upstroke. There’s undoubtedly a little efficiency loss there and that’s why I rated their power transfer at 2.
The uppers have an almost vinyl feel and don’t seem as pliable as others and the yellow pair I tested didn’t clean up easily from typical pedal grease. Almost none of the shoes have leather uppers these days (except for Lake), but the Garneau don’t even seem to be trying to give you that faux-leather look or feel.
SHIMANO S-PHYRE RC9 – More of a comfortable recreational cycling shoe than a well-fitting performance one
Performance Rating: 4
Like: If you’ve got a big volume foot, one that’s also on the wider side, the S-Phyre RC9 (also known as the RC901, a second-generation RC9) is likely a good cycling shoe for you. The toe box is wide and the upper has a lot of room above your metatarsal bones to fit a fuller foot. And, while many shoes’ lower Boa systems don’t reach very far past the ball of your foot, the RC901’s lower laces and guides do a good job, to a degree, of adjusting the shoe width in that area to reduce the volume of the shoe there, should you need or want to.
The shoes’ outsoles are wide and stiff with the rear section reaching up to surround your heel. They are also very thin, amongst the thinnest I’ve seen. This should add up to efficient power transfer if your heel fills out the cup and the upper wraps your foot snuggly and comfortably.
Don’t Like: Even with that stiff sole and the ample closure adjustment, however, I found the S-Phyre RC9 felt more like a comfortable recreational shoe than a well-fitting performance one.
My heels didn’t stay down in these shoes as they did in most of the others I’ve reviewed here. The heel cup is wider than most and the “cat’s tongue” rough fabric that sits well above it is really a case of too little, too late (or too high above the cup).
Even with Shimano includes moderate and high arch pad options that Velcro to the insoles that come with the RC9s, I don’t find enough arch support in these shoes. Replacing them with my Specialized Body Geometry SL blue or moderate arch footbeds didn’t provide enough support either. It appears these shoes just have a flatter sole design to start out with.
Cranking down the BOAs to get more of a performance fit created two unwanted results. The wide flap attached to the upper BOA uncomfortably compressed the tongue on the bony high spot on my foot and created a pain point. Perhaps that’s an issue with the unique anatomy of my foot but I much prefer the BOA pulling the material on either side of the tongue together rather than the flap-stretching approach.
When cranking the lower BOA in tight, the first half-inch or so of material beneath the wire depressed. It didn’t look great but it felt even worse. Another hot spot, this time over my outside metatarsal bones had been created.
Easing off a couple of clicks on both Boas eliminated the hot spots but also reduced the power transfer efficiency.
I have a rather common US size 9 1/2 D foot. After trying on the RC9s in the store, I chose a size 43, a full size smaller than the 44 that is called for by the Shimano size chart. There was plenty of length and width in the 43 but still, my foot apparently didn’t have enough volume to make the fit work.
While these are often discounted below the top performance shoes with In The Know Cycling exclusive store coupon codes, the RC9 is overpriced for the recreational cycling shoe you get.
Fi’zi:k Infinito R1 – High on style and comfort but average power transfer and fit
Performance Rating: 4
Like: While I’m not a fashion guy, the first impression I got after trying on the Infinito R1 was that Fizik was going after a distinctive look and fit as its first priority. I actually found that somewhat refreshing in the often staid category of road bike shoes.
The Infinito R1 looks more like a sleek soccer shoe, has an upper flap that wraps across the centerline of the shoe, and lacks a tongue altogether.
The upper feels about as close to real leather as any synthetic material I’ve felt among road cycling shoes. If you like the look, Fizik also makes a knit version of the shoe for hot weather riding or for everyday stylin’.
Contrary to what the “Infinito” name suggests, the shoe wraps your forefoot snuggly and allows little extra volume or length for your toes to move around. While it’s not the spacious wide toebox that many performance shoes are gravitating to these days, you get a comfortable, performance feeling fit from your toes up to the balls of your feet.
Don’t Like: Unfortunately, the fit reaching from your forefoot toward your ankles is only average. The short upper Boa wires in combination with the wrap-over flap never seemed to give me the leverage I wanted to get the midfoot part of the shoe snug enough for efficient upstroke pedaling.
Opposite to the toe-box, the heel cup volume is more than ample in a place where I wanted it to be more limited so that my heel would stay down. There is some sort of a textured rubber-like fabric above the heel cup but it starts too far above my heel.
The insole offers some cushioning under the balls of your foot but no arch support. I tried it out with my Specialized Body Geometry insoles but that didn’t provide any more support than fix the ones provided by Fizik.
As tested by Tour Magazine, the outsoles aren’t as stiff as the leading shoes.
While I welcome Fizik’s unique design, the Infinito R1 comes up aces on style but average at best on performance.
Scott Road RC – Great price but disappointing power transfer efficiency and comfort
Performance Rating: 4
Like: This is one of the best-priced shoes in this review of two-dial, top-performing road bike shoes. Scott also makes the RC SL and RC Ultimate shoes, the former has a slightly stiffer upper while the latter sports a warm-weather mesh one. Both have the same outsole, IP1 Boas, insoles, and fit.
The sole is reasonably stiff, if not on par with the best in this class of shoes. The heel cup has a shape and width which kept me in as well as any other pair. The upper isn’t terribly stiff but the material adds comfort and the perforations create good ventilation.
There’s a nice mesh piece overlapping the outside of the ball of your foot allowing both some more air in and that part of your foot some extra space. The insole is a substantial one that has a medium amount of arch support.
There’s plenty of length in these shoes without any extra room in the toe box. While my standard width feet fit in here fine, these shoes would also fit a road cyclist with a narrow long foot perfectly well.
You are limited to all black, white, and a fluo yellow with black as your only color choices but I did like the black-yellow combination. Scott smartly put the black on the heel and crank facing sides of the shoes, places where I always seem to rub my shoes up against some pedal grease. They put the yellow on the front and outside sections where cars can more easily see your pumping feet. Really smart.
Don’t Like: Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to find a comfortable fit across my midfoot. If I cranked the Boa to fit me snug, there was little wire left between the dials and guides and I felt the pressure turn to pain across the tall bone (lateral cuneiform) at the top of my midfoot. When I measured the dial to guide distance on the Scott Road RC against a few other shoes in this review, I found it to be 1/4″ to 3/8″ shorter.
This seemed curious as my D width foot should require more wire and keep these dial and guide distance wider than someone with a B or C width. I would expect if you have a narrower foot, the dial and guides would be even closer and further localize the tension in the wire rather than spreading it more evenly across your foot.
Bottom line – a snug fit, but not a comfortable one. While I didn’t wear these shoes very long because of this issue, the stiff tongue didn’t loosen up to make room for my foot and I’d imagine if it did, I’d just have to crank them further.
Pricing: USD$350, £250, €300. Available from Competitive Cyclist.
Diadora Vortex Pro 2 – Poor heel hold and breathability detract from efficiency and comfort
Performance Rating: 9
Like: The Vortex Pro 2 is a narrow width, low volume, dual Boa IP1 shoe that sells for less than $300. That combination is hard to find. It also comes in red-orange and black-blue color combinations that you don’t see elsewhere.
They really seem as if they are intended as a pure summer shoe or for those of you who do most of your riding hot environments. The outsole could be better described as a sole skeleton with all the cutouts and mesh vents that cover them. The insole is also heavily cutout in a waffle pattern to allow the air passing through the outsole to flow to your feet. The upper is a very pliable synthetic leather material.
Don’t Like: With all the cutouts in the outsole and insole, it’s curious that Diadora put so few places on the uppers for fresh air to get in or dirty air to get out. I guess that’s why they call it the Vortex. But, I didn’t find the shoes were any cooler than others, perhaps because of the limited air coming through or out the top and because the top of your foot is the part that usually breaks the wind rather than the bottom.
Worse yet was the power transfer and comfort. While the carbon outsole, even with its skeletal structure, is stiff, the heel cup is wide and flexible. Even with this shoe being narrower than my feet would normally prefer, my heel was up and down in the cup. This created all kinds of inefficiency on the upstroke.
I also didn’t find them very comfortable. There’s very little built-in arch to the shoes and the insoles that come with them don’t add any support or volume. If you’ve got narrow, high volume, flat feet with big heels, you’re probably good. Otherwise, you’ll need a custom insole that will probably block the outsole vent.
The most troubling part of the fit was how the upper Boa dial pushes in against the vein running between a couple of bones. It seems that it is located too far up the shoe. This created a regular pain point for me unless I loosened the shoes. But then, of course, the less snug fit made for even less efficient power transfer. In this mode, both the mid-foot and heel were looser than they should be.
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First published on January 6, 2019. Date of the most recent major update shown at the top of the post.