Close-up of road cycling shoes

How to choose cycling shoes

Ready to upgrade from sneakers to cycling shoes? Or are you moving to clipless pedals and need shoes to match? Learn about the different options for bike shoes to find out what ones are best for you. To narrow down your options, start with these points:

  • Type of cycling you’re doing: Are you road cycling, commuting or mountain biking? There are different shoes for each kind of riding.
  • Fitting bike shoes: Road shoes are quite different than your street shoes – learn how they should fit.
  • Bike shoes and cleats: The big thing is making sure they’re compatible.

Type of riding you’re doing

Bike shoes are designed with specific types of riding in mind. Let’s look at this in some more detail:

Road biking shoes

Close up of a road cyclist wearing bike shoes and about to grab a cup of coffee

Worn in combination with a good clipless pedal system, road shoes are the go-to for roadies, whether recreational riders or racers. Designed for speed, they have a narrow profile that holds your foot (especially your heel) in place with the help of Velcro® straps, locking buckles and ratcheting cables.

Road shoes are designed to be lightweight and rigid. They’re awesome for biking, but they’re not comfortable to walk in, so stick to quick pit stops and short coffee breaks. If you’ve got a triathlon planned, look for road shoes that slip on and off fast for speedy transitions. For shoulder season or cold-weather riding, add a pair of snug-fitting cycling shoe covers to keep your toes from freezing.

Commuting and touring bike shoes

Rear view of a bike commuter showing their bike pedals and shoes

Bike-specific shoes that commuters wear are designed to blend the flexibility of a street shoe with the stiff sole of a road shoe – think of a good day hiker with a firm rubber outsole. The goal with these is to strike a balance between pedalling efficiency and off-bike comfort.

Many shoes in this category can also be used with an SPD clipless pedal system (a.k.a., 2-hole clipless), and most are suitable for light trail riding and cycle touring on paved roads. They’re also a good option for spin class, as most bikes are equipped with SPD-compatible pedals.

If you expect to be riding year-round through rain, sleet or snow, you can buy cycling shoe covers to keep your feet dry and warm.

Mountain biking Shoes

Close-up of mountain biker shoes standing on a wooden bridge

If you’re a new mountain biker using flat pedals, you can get away with wearing any comfortable shoes you own. But over time, you’ll likely want to upgrade to shoes made for mountain biking.

Flat shoes also allow you to get your feet off the pedals quicker than clipless (when a fall is imminent, a split second can be the difference between a sweet recovery and a crash). The soles on these shoes usually have sticky rubber that your pedals can bite into to keep your feet in place. They’re common for enduro, all-mountain, freeride and downhill riding.

Riding clipless gives you added control, more pedalling power, and helps prevent getting bounced off (or losing your footing) from your pedals. Mountain biking is all about 2-hole clipless pedals (sometimes called the SPD system), so make sure your shoes, cleats and pedals are all compatible. Clipless pedals and shoes are common for cross-country or trail riding, but you’ll also see them on enduro, all-mountain, and freeride and downhill riders too.

Whatever shoes you choose, think about how far you’ll be riding and how much time you’ll be spending off the bike. Hiking your bike over muddy terrain or down unrideable slick rock is not fun in super stiff or slippery shoes. If you expect to be walking over rough terrain, look for soles with traction or lugs.

Finding the right fit

One thing you’ll notice about cycling shoes is that they’re not your typical footwear. A lot of them are really stiff and may seem a little uncomfortable when you first try them on – especially road cycling shoes.

Their stiffness means that they can transfer the energy of your pedaling to your bike with amazing efficiency – you’ll feel like you’re sailing. When you’re fitting road shoes, make sure they’re snug, but not tight. Pick up a pair that leaves a little room for your toes, provides support under your arch and prevents your heel from rubbing or sliding.

Mountain biking and commuting shoes are a little more forgiving with stiffness, because there’ll be times when you’ll be walking in them.

Don’t forget your cleats

Examples of 2-hole shoes, cleats and pedals and 3-hole shoes, cleats and pedals

Bike shoes compatible with 2-hole clipless cleats and pedals (left) and bike shoes compatible with 3-hole clipless cleats and pedals (right).

Most cycling shoes are designed to work with clipless pedal systems, and that means you may need some cleats. Bike cleats connect the soles of your shoes to your pedals, so that the push-pull motion of your feet takes you further, faster. Make sure the bike shoes you buy are compatible with the cleats and pedals you’re using.

  • If you’re buying new shoes, it’s a good idea to buy new cleats at the same time. Worn out cleats are “sloppier” and don’t perform as well.
  • Look at the label of cycling shoes to see what systems they’re compatible with. You can also turn them over and look at the holes in the soles, which is where the cleats slot in.
  • Road shoes generally have three holes in the bottom, while most other types – whether for commuting, touring, mountain biking or your spin class – have two. To learn more, check out our article on how to choose bike pedals and cleats.