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Home » Cycling » The Noob’s Guide to Buying Cycling Shoes:  Road, Mountain or Mix?  To Thine Own Hobby be True!

The Noob’s Guide to Buying Cycling Shoes:  Road, Mountain or Mix?  To Thine Own Hobby be True!

December 2016
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Oh, how I’ve learned, cycling shoes matter.  

I was once on a fairly strict budget so I tried to get into cycling as cheaply as possible.  I started out, as many do, on a mountain bike so when I bought my first and second road bikes (for a combined total of less than $1,200), I naturally put mountain pedals on the road bike(s) and went with that.

That worked excellently… until I started putting in some serious mileage.  

Unfortunately, after buying three sets of mountain bike pedals I found out the hard way that those rumors about hot spots on the feet directly over the cleats aren’t rumors.  The pain wasn’t great enough that I couldn’t ride through it but I love riding enough to ride through just about anything.  Most aren’t so…err… dedicated.  Yes, that’s the word, dedicated.  The shoe problem, specifically, has a lot to do with how fast one rides.  If, for instance, you’re going to be riding your road bike around at 15-17 miles an hour, you’ll probably be just fine with mountain shoes, cleats and pedals – and on the plus side, you won’t have to walk like a penguin as the cleats are inset on mountain bike shoes.    On the other hand, if you want to average faster than 20, you’re simply going to be putting too much pressure on the pedals over a long haul for those tiny cleats.

I found this out the hard way.  Or maybe the painful way.  Once I switched to a stiffer sole and a cleat with about five or six times the surface area, my foot trouble ceased.

And this is the new cleat…

In place of this:

Next you’ll have to make a decision as far as sole material goes:  Plastic or Carbon Fiber.  

Now the sole of the shoe is where a lot of magic happens.  As you could imagine, the flexibility of a cycling shoe can be rather important.  A decent reinforced plastic soled shoe will end up between a 5 and 7 on the stiffness scale and cost between $80 and $150.  The Specialized Road Pro’s that I bought retailed for $275 and are rated at 11 on the scale, but the cost can definitely get a little outrageous (I bought my 2o13’s at the end of 2014 and paid A LOT less).  I’ve seen carbon shoes as expensive as $600 (or more than a decent starter mountain bike).  

The question, again, comes down to how you anticipate you’ll ride.  As you might assume, the easiest way to judge is by speed.  Above 2o, you might want to opt for the stiffer shoes because more power is transfered to the crank.  On the other hand, if you’re going to cruise around on the Sunday ride with the gang, save the money.

Here’s the fun part where I completely turn half of what I wrote around on its head.  

Look, the difference between a $500 pair of shoes and a $150 pair, other than the fact that the $500 shoes will probably feel like $500, is negligible.  Ignorance and a little “want to” will more than make up for the difference between a great shoe and a good shoe or a carbon fiber and a reinforced plastic shoe.

See, ignorance, sometimes, gets a bad rap.  If I don’t know how good a $500 pair of cycling shoes feels, I can just look at the price tag and not care.  Even with my job, I can’t justify a $500 pair of cycling shoes without wanting to kick my own butt, so I can happily live in ignorance, believing my shoes are plenty good enough (they actually are).

I have to add in one more distinct factor though;  Distance.  A 30 mile ride with a few shortish climbs at 22 mph (average) isn’t all that bad in mountain shoes.  I’ve done it, killed it, no problem.  No worries.  A 100 mile ride at that speed, in those shoes?  Excruciating, though the pain does subside after the ride is over.

The problem is this;  The mind can only process so much motivational “just one more mile” crap before it finally tells the rest of the brain to shut up and your legs to shut down.  Been there, done it, it sucks.

Long miles are made more enjoyable with a good pair of cycling shoes, it just is what it is.  And if your wondering if you’re tennis shoes in plastic pedals with toe clips and straps will be okay, you’re reading the wrong blog (and post).

With that out of the way, here’s what to look for:  

  • Toe box room.  Snug isn’t bad.  Tight sucks. Snug after 100 miles is tight, and tight sucks.
  • Proper size.  Go with European sizing, not American – and get your feet measured! 
  • Take into account the length of your toes.  I have big feet but short toes.  I can fit into a 43 (10-1/2 ish US) but the arch is in the wrong place.  I need a 44 (11).  You’re not playing hockey, get the right size (hockey players are notorious for wearing skates a couple of sizes too small).
  • Closure style.  Those velcro straps suck and lose grab after a year or two.  Go with a boa or ratchet strap system for the top closure or two.  Both can be adjusted perfectly on the fly, not so much for velcro.
  • Incidentally, when tightening your shoes, snug is good, tight is bad, and crushing your foot is silly and quite unnecessary.  If you can see the outline of the strap on your foot after you remove your socks, it’s too tight.  Loosen up a bit.  At least that’s my experience.  And the tighter I ratchet down the straps, the more the soles/arches of my feet hurt.
  • Tying your shoes, while gaining popularity of late, is silly and impossible to adjust without stopping.  Real cyclists only stop to fill up water bottles and to let some of that water back out… or to pick up something to eat, because we gotta eat.  Shoestrings don’t look cool, they make it look like you blew $400 on a pair of shoes that only kinda work.  Oh, and relax.  If the “real cyclists” thing fired you up, I was being facetious.  I was fishing, and I hooked you.
  • If all of this is too confusing, Carbon Fiber.  Because.  Carbon Fiber.  

No matter your choice, know this:  Cycling shoes start at $80.  They are not your department store sneakers….  Nor would you want them to be 50 miles from home.  You get what you pay for… in pain.  All is not lost though.  You can get tremendous deals at Nashbar, Wiggle or any of the other cycling specific websites.  Just know your size and under the specifications and comments/reviews, ascertain the “fit” of the shoes if possible.  If they typically run big or small, it should show somewhere on the page.

If all else fails, remember that last bullet point and you’ll be good.

UPDATE:  Brent commented below about how he’s had to work around wide hips and even wider feet to be able to ride comfortably on his road bike.  If you have  problems with either issue, check out his comment.  It’s incredibly detailed.

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4 Comments

  1. Brent says:

    I have to use mountain bike shoes on my road bike because I have had a hell of a time finding pedals with extra-wide Q-factor, which my fitter recommended. Apparently, I have wider hips than many women do.

    There are a couple brands of mountain bike pedals that work with a 65mm Q-factor. The only road pedals I could find with 65mm spindle width are Speedplay “lollipop” pedals but they’re hard to match with most common shoes because they use 4 bolts instead of the standard 3. I use Issi (a QBP brand) mountain bike pedals which are cheap but good. No problems in 2 years and 3,000 miles.

    The other killer issue that keeps me in mountain bike shoes on the road bike is wide feet. There aren’t too many road shoes available in my EEE width. And, unfortunately, the high end road shoes are not available in widths at all.

    Incidentally, I’m not up in the 20mph crowd, but more in the 16-17 mph crowd, so I haven’t run into the issue with pressure points on the sole that you described. My bike fitter tells me that I can fix this problem with orthotic footbeds that are custom built to my feet, when and if it happens.

  2. bgddyjim says:

    Thanks for adding your experience to this post, Brent. You obviously have an experienced fitter who knows their way around issues. It never ceases to amaze me the workarounds that are out there to make things work.

  3. I also use MTB cleat pedals (but single sided Shimano A520 ones) on all my bikes, even the TT bike. I have stiff carbon fibre soled shoes and have never experienced hot spots. Maybe I need to pedal harder for longer though, hehehe!

    • bgddyjim says:

      Nah, it looks like you get a fair amount of surface area with the additional brackets on the pedals. With the ones I show, there’s a limited surface area to push on. 😎

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