One thing I’ve learned as a cyclist is that cycling can look wildly different depending on who you ask. Cycling for some can mean a tightly coordinated group of riders flying single-file down a highway at 20 mph. For others, it can mean winding through dirt roads far from civilization, enjoying nature at 10 mph (or less). Cycling can also mean riding an indoor exercise bike at home, following a live-class on a fitness app like Peloton.
All different forms of cycling can technically be done wearing normal shoes. But each experience is dramatically altered by wearing cycling shoes. To find the best cycling shoes on the market, we spoke with professional cycling coaches, club leaders and former athletes to better understand the different types of shoes and which they recommend.
What are cycling shoes?
Cycling shoes are made to get the most out of your ride. They are most often made with either indoor or outdoor bikes in mind. This guide focuses on outdoor cycling shoes, while our guide to the best spin shoes highlights indoor shoe recommendations.
What unites all cycling shoes is a very stiff sole, engineered to efficiently convert your pedaling efforts into energy and momentum, says Stephen Fitzgerald, founder of Rodeo Adventure Labs, a cycling company based in Lakewood, Colorado.
The stiffer the shoe, the more evenly you can spread out your force across the pedal, says Natalie Raborn, a professional cycling coach and former USA Cycling Masters Marathon Mountain Bike National Champion. This is especially important when biking on pedals with a small point-of-contact.
There are two big categories of cycling shoes: flat-pedal and clipless.
Flat pedal cycling shoes are commonly worn for off-road and mountain biking. In these disciplines, you are getting on and off the bike often and may need to quickly jump off your bike to avoid falls or crashes.
Clipless cycling shoes are made for all types of riding but are especially common for riding on roads. The bottoms of these shoes typically have a slot for a cycling cleat. When you slide the right cleat into the right bike pedal, they click together, connecting you to the bike.
All that said, anyone who is new to cycling should feel free to start pedaling with street shoes and flat bike pedals, says Fitzgerald.
How we picked the best cycling shoes
We spoke with cycling experts who helped us identify what to look for when picking the best cycling shoes for your next ride. Based on their guidance, we highlighted shoes keeping the following in mind:
- Fit: Cycling shoes are generally snug, but they shouldn’t feel cramped or uncomfortable, according to our experts. Just like running or training shoes, getting a cycling shoe that fits your foot is crucial — our experts shared many horror-stories of spending miles in shoes that didn’t fit well. All of our recommendations come in a range of sizes, including half sizes.
- Terrain: The best shoe for riding the open road is usually not the best shoe for traversing a rocky mountain pass. We included shoes recommendations fit for road, gravel and mountainous terrain.
- Price: Our expert and staff picks cover a range of prices from $100 to over $400. Many of our experts emphasized that beginner and intermediate riders will be best served with entry-level and mid-range prices between $100 and $200. “Almost any cycling shoe is going to be stiff enough for a beginner cyclist,” says Raborn.
- Compatibility: Bike pedals are either flat or feature one of two types of clipless cleat: two-bolt SPD cleats or three bolt Delta/SPD-SL cleats. We list each shoes’ cleat-type at the bottom of the recommendation.
The best cycling shoes of 2024
Our expert and staff picks come from a range of small and large cycling brands like Giro, Specialized, Bontrager, Five Ten, Quoc and more. Many of our top picks are unisex shoes that use EU sizing — we converted sizing information to the U.S. system at the bottom of each recommendation.
Best budget shoe: Men’s Giro Rumble VR Shoe
Neile Weissman, the public relations director at New York Cycle Club, recommends these cycling shoes for everyone outside of elite riders because of how easy they are to walk in when you are off your bike. They are great for commuting, touring, group rides and off-road riding, says Weissman.
The shoes have a recessed SPD cleat and a durable, grippy outsole. Weissman’s group rides often involve local railways, subways and stops at cafes — these shoes tackle stairs and pavement, even in wet weather, easily.
Sizes offered: 6.5-15 men’s, 5-10.5 women’s, including half sizes | Weight: 15 oz men’s, 14.3 oz women’s | Cleat type: SPD | Fastening system: Laces
Best budget road shoe: Giant Bolt Shoe (Unisex)
If you are looking for a good value and ride largely on pavement, consider these entry-level shoes, says Garret Seacat, a professional cycling coach and former USA Cycling mountain bike racer. They are lightweight, breathable and have a snug fit, says Seacat.
The shoes have both 2-bolt SPD and 3-bolt Delta/SPD-SL cleats, so they fit all kinds of bikes and pedals, even most indoor exercise bikes. Fastening is dead-simple, with two hook and loop straps across the top of the upper.
Sizes offered: 6.5-13.5 men’s, 8.5-12 women’s, including half sizes | Weight: Unlisted | Cleat type: SPD and Delta/SPD-SL | Fastening system: Hook and loop straps
Staff-pick gravel shoe: Men’s Five Ten Trailcross Clip-In MTB Shoes
I’ve tackled roads, rail trails, gravel paths, rocky descents and cliffside slopes on these shoes — I’ve felt confident regardless of the terrain. I’ve used both the flat-pedal and clip-in (linked above) versions of these shoes, and love them both.
In my experience, these are some of the most comfortable cycling shoes to walk in. I’ve explored towns and neighborhoods and forgotten that the shoes I was wearing were meant for cycling. I can climb subway stairs and board local trains without feeling unstable. The upper is flexible and breathable, making these shoes comfortable in warmer weather.
Sizes offered: 6-15 men’s, 5-11 women’s, including half sizes | Weight: 15.1 oz men’s, 11.7 oz women’s | Cleat type: SPD | Fastening system: Laces and a hook and loop strap
Staff-pick mountain biking shoe: Specialized Rime 2.0 (Unisex)
I wouldn’t call any of the terrain I ride mountainous, but these shoes have handled my roughest routes with ease. The rubber outsoles have significant lugs that deliver ample traction even on loose dirt and rocks. I especially enjoy using both laces and a Boa dial to tighten the shoes — the strap and dial goes across the top of the laces, so I don’t have to worry about loose laces getting tangled in my pedals.
Sizes offered: 7-15 men’s, 5.5-12 women’s, including half sizes | Weight: ~13.5 oz | Cleat type: SPD | Fastening system: Laces and a Boa dial.
Best road shoe: Men’s Shimano S-Phyre RC903
If you are an elite road rider looking to optimize your ride for speed and endurance, consider a more premium shoe like this one from Shimano. Seacat recommends them for getting the maximum amount of energy transfer from you to your bike. The shoes use carbon fiber, a premium material that is very light and very firm. They have two Boa dials across the upper that keep your foot snug and in-position. New to the 903 version is men’s and women’s sizing options.
Sizes offered: 5-12.5 men’s, 5-11 women’s, including half sizes | Weight: 7.94 oz men’s, 7.58 oz women’s | Cleat type: Delta/SPD-SL | Fastening system: Boa dials
Best gravel shoe: Quoc Gran Tourer Lace (Unisex)
Fitzgerald has worn Quoc Gran Tourer cycling shoes for the last five years almost exclusively. They may be labeled gravel shoes, but Fitzgerald uses them for road, gravel and MTB riding equally. They have a double lock lace system that has a streamlined look and minimizes the chance of loose laces getting tangled.
Fitzgerald owns both the dial and the lace-up versions (linked above) of the shoe, but prefers the lace version because they are more flexible and easier to walk in. To find your perfect fit, the brand recommends measuring your foot, as its sizing can be slightly different from other brands.
Sizes offered: Approximately 5-12.75 men’s, 6.5-12 women’s, including half sizes | Weight: ~12.2 oz | Cleat type: SPD | Fastening system: Laces
Best mountain biking shoe: Bontrager XXX MTB Shoe (Unisex)
If you are an off-road rider seeking speed, power and performance, consider these premium mountain biking shoes. Raborn upgraded to these XXXs recently, but has worn (and preferred) Bontrager shoes for years. While she has tried many other brands, she always comes back to Bontrager for its comfort and wearability — she never gets hot spots or pinched toes.
While these shoes are excellent, Raborn recommends the more mid-range Bontrager Cambion for most people, but that model is out of stock at the time of writing.
Sizes offered: 6-15 men’s, 5.5-12 women’s, including half sizes | Weight: ~11.53 oz | Cleat type: SPD | Fastening system: Boa dials
Best for hot weather: Udog Distanza Ash Grey (Unisex)
Tackling a long ride in hot, dry terrain? Fitzgerald recommends these off-road shoes for riding in warm weather. They have a full mesh upper that is water-resistant and breathable, getting fresh air to your feet as your ride. He has ridden them for road, gravel and mountain bike rides. The shoes use regular laces, but have a unique wrap across the top of the upper that helps to keep your foot in place and transfer power more effectively, according to the brand.
Sizes offered: 6-13 men’s, 7.5-12 women’s, including half sizes | Weight: 11.6 oz | Cleat type: SPD | Fastening system: Laces
How to shop for cycling shoes
Moving from street shoes to cycling shoes can make a big difference in your riding experience. Our experts highlighted a few things to keep in mind to make sure you find the perfect shoes for your next ride.
A good fit is crucial
A poor fitting cycling shoe can cause foot pain, hot spots and cramping, according to our experts.
Every foot is different. Comfort is different for everyone, and each bike and pedal setup is unique. I recommend going to a store in person and trying on multiple pairs of cycling shoes to find what’s best for you.
Cycling shoes should be snug, but not so tight that the fastening system cuts off circulation, says Weissman. Be sure your toes aren’t pinched or crammed into the shoe, says Fitzgerald. Not enough room in the toe box can lead to overheating, hot spots and chaffing.
Some shoes become more comfortable as you break them in, but if your gut says that a shoe doesn’t fit your foot the moment you try it on, find something that feels better, says Fitzgerald. “Don’t force a bad fit just because a shoe looks cool.”
It may take some time to find what works for you. If biking is a big part of your life, invest in a professional bike fit — fitters can identify issues across the entirety of your bike setup, not just your pedals and shoes, says Raborn.
For recreational riders, our experts recommend shoes that are easy to walk in over ultra-stiff shoes that may make you slightly faster.
Road shoes are usually light, sleek and extra stiff, and may better convert your efforts into speed. But they are very hard to walk in, according to all of our experts. They have a slipper-like bottom with little traction and protruding Delta/SPD-SL cleat that makes walking any distance challenging.
Gravel and mountain bike shoes are sometimes heavier and less stiff than road shoes, but they are very comfortable to walk in, according to our experts. They have grippy bottoms that provide good traction and use a recessed SPD cleat that is less noticeable when walking. Shoe traction is critical when you are off-road riding, facing a hill or terrain you’d rather walk up than bike over, says Raborn.
Cleats sold separately
Most cycling shoes do not come with cleats. Check what type of cleat your bike’s pedals use, and choose a shoe that will fit that pedal. Cleats are sold by a variety of brands, but Shimano makes some of the most popular SPD and Delta/SPD-SL cleats. If you are new to clipping in, I recommend Shimano multi-directional release SPD cleats, which I’ve found easier for beginners to clip in and out of than other options.
Meet our experts
At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Stephen Fitzgerald is the founder of Rodeo Adventure Labs, a custom bike and cycling company based in Lakewood, Colorado.
- Natalie Raborn is a professional cycling coach and former USA Cycling Masters Marathon Mountain Bike National Champion. She is also the operations and program director at Team Evergreen Cycling, the oldest and largest cycling club in Colorado.
- Neile Weissman is the public relations director at New York Cycle Club, one of the biggest cycling organizations in New York City.
- Garret Seacat is a professional cycling coach and former USA Cycling mountain bike racer. He is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist.
Why trust NBC Select?
Harry Rabinowitz is a reporter at NBC Select who covers technology and fitness including guides to running shoes, fitness trackers and workout headphones. To better understand different types of cycling shoes, he spoke with professional cycling coaches, racers, club leaders and former athletes and got their recommendations. A cyclist himself, he also tried top-rated shoes in routes with varying terrain.