When it comes to cycling at home on a stationary bike or outdoors on a road or mountain bike, the bike itself isn’t the only equipment worth investing in. Many bikes' pedals are designed to be used with a certain type of clip for a safer and more intense riding experience — that’s where the cycling shoe comes in. Cycling shoes differ from normal shoes in two very specific ways, explained Garret Seacat, a former bike shop manager and professional cycling coach. First, they have a stiffer sole with very little, if any, flexibility. Second, they allow attached cleats to clip into your pedals.
“When you clip in, you are physically fixing yourself to your bike from the cleat on your shoe that attaches to the pedal,” Seacat explained. “While it sounds dangerous, by simply turning your foot to the side, you can disengage your foot.”
So how should you choose a cycling shoe? We spoke to experts about various styles of cycling shoes as well as features to look for, and got some product recommendations. Based on their shopping guidance, we also compiled some highly rated options from brands like Sidi, Specialized and more.
SKIP AHEAD Top-rated cycling shoes
What exactly are cycling shoes?
In general, cycling shoes are lighter and have a more rigid shank — the supportive piece that sits between the insole and outsole of the cleat — than “regular” gym shoes, explained Elizabeth Bondi, a podiatric foot and ankle surgeon. “These factors help with power and pedal efficiency and also help decrease the stress placed on the foot,” she said. “Gym shoes often do not have the same support and rigidity as cycling cleats and, as a result, allow the arch of the foot to collapse when pedaling, leading to injury.”
However, not all shoes within the cycling category are the same, and although some use “spin” and “cycling” shoes interchangeably, they’re technically intended for different activities. “Spin” refers to indoor cycling and “cycling” refers to outdoor cycling, like road cycling and mountain biking, explained Karen Maxwell, ACE-CPT and head of instructor development for CycleBar. “Both [spin and cycling] activities have specialized shoes, [though] some shoes can cross over,” she said.
Since cycling shoes in general allow you to clip in with a sturdy sole, they also help you to stabilize on the bike. This creates a more efficient ride as well as a sense of security and mobility whether you’re riding indoors or out, explained Maxwell. “The design of the shoe promotes maximum potential as a rider,” she said. And for indoor cycling specifically, “wearing a specialized shoe that fits the bike pedals will allow the riders to lift up on the pedal, activating the hamstrings and glutes for power and speed instead of pushing down on the pedals with full body weight, applying too much pressure on the knees and quads,” she added.
Best cycling shoes to shop
Here are some of the best cycling shoes across categories for indoor and outdoor riding, recommended by experts — we also added one affordable option to the list that's aligned with expert guidance.
Best road cycling shoes
Best overall splurge road cycling shoes: Sidi
According to Jerome Enad, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, the Sidi Genius road cycling shoes are the best bicycling shoes available — in his opinion, it offers all the features podiatrists and physiologists look for in a road bike shoe. “The carbon/nylon sole is rigid, sleek and lightweight with a gentle curve in the sagittal plane to maximize energy transfer with each pedal stroke,” he said. “The sole also provides etch marks to adjust placement of your cleats in millimeter increments.” He also appreciates the soft leather upper and the mesh vents, which are strategically placed throughout to ventilate vulnerable hotspots. The straps and buckle allow fine adjustments to accommodate pinch points while the plastic heel cup is molded to maximize stability.
Best basic road cycling shoes: Bontrager
For those who are looking to stick to a lower price point, Seacat has found that the Bontrager Circuit road cycling shoe is one of the best. “With a modest $135 price tag, you get big value in these shoes, including the ability to use SPD or Delta cleats, a BOA fit system and a variety of colors to pick from — you cannot go wrong,” he said.
Best lightweight road cycling shoes: Specialized
Enad said that the Specialized S-Works 7 Road Shoes are worth the investment for anyone searching for airy road cycling shoes with a light yet stiff carbon outsole and BOA system. “’Lightweight and no compromise’' is the name of the game for the Specialized S-Works 7 road shoe,” agreed Seacat. “It is not for everyone, but [for] those who crave a super stiff shoe, this is it.”
Best road cycling shoes for Delta pedals: Shimano
Shimano is well-known in the road cycling space, and the S-Phyre is one of the most popular shoes out there, explained Jack Craig, a certified personal trainer. “These shoes have a rigid sole for great performance with a Delta cleat,” he said. Seacat agreed that the S-Phyre RC902 is the best style currently on the market. “With updated materials, the newest BOA dials and a sole designed to improve power transfer, there is no other shoe like it at the moment,” he said.
Best mountain biking shoes, spin shoes and more
Best mountain biking shoes for SPD pedals: Shimano
When it comes to the best mountain biking SPD shoe, Seacat said you can’t go wrong with the company SPD came from: Shimano. “The S-Phyre XC9 is a no-compromise mountain bike shoe with road bike-like stiffness,” he said. These shoes have perforated uppers for increased ventilation, a carbon sole, Michelin rubber outsoles for serious traction that won’t weigh you down and dual BOA dials for a more customized fit.
Best overall spin shoe: PEARL iZUMi
These cycling shoes for indoor spinning, which come in sizes for men and women and are Craig’s top pick for spinning shoes, are compatible with both three- and two-bolt pedals and have traditional laces. Although he wouldn’t recommend laced shoes for outdoor cycling — the laces can be a tangling hazard and become annoying when dirty — he explained that these are “great for indoors, where the environment is more forgiving.”
Best budget-friendly cycling shoe: R ROYDEAR
These unisex cycling shoes are compatible with both SPD and Delta pedals, making them a versatile pick whether you plan on Peloton workouts or commuting to work via your bike. They have a breathable mesh upper, are designed to be easy to slip on and off and have a velcro strap with a BOA dial closure system. They are available in 14 color combinations to add a pop of personal style to your ride.
Best 'sockless' spin shoes: Nike
Available for men and women, the Nike SuperRep Cycle shoes are popular for indoor cycling with two velcro straps, lightweight mesh to promote airflow and a rubber heel to help with walking to the bike. Seacat described these SPD-compatible shoes as one of the best indoor options at the moment, noting that “while Nike has been out of the cycling shoe world for over a decade, they have slowly worked their way back in over the last year.” Bondi agreed, noting that this shoe nailed both “ventilation and the feeling of wearing a sock, so they promote ‘no socks’ necessary with this shoe.” This is ideal for someone who lives in hot weather or if you sweat a lot in your indoor cycling studio.
The different types of cycling shoes
Not all cycling shoes have cleats and you only need cleats on your cycling shoes if you are using clipless pedals, Craig explained. Cycling shoes are typically broken down into five different categories depending on their use, according to Bondi:
- Road cycling shoes. Road shoes like the Sidi Genius 10 are lightweight yet rigid with good ventilation. “These features allow for better power transfer and also help to protect the foot from excess stress,” Bondi said. They "typically feature velcro straps on the lower foot and a ratchet system at the top to secure them properly to your foot,” Seacat said.
- Mountain biking shoes. Mountain biking shoes (MTB shoes) like the S-Phyre XC9 are more flexible than cycling or triathlon styles, according to Bondi. “These cleats are typically recessed [into the sole], allowing the biker to run or walk” without worrying about destroying the cleats or the floor, she explained. “They also have an outsole that has a solid grip to allow for better traction.” These shoes typically use an SPD-style cleat.
- Spin shoes. Spin shoes like the Nike SuperRep Cycle are generally meant to be worn indoors with clipless pedals and look more like athletic shoes, explained Craig. They’re stiff, but less rigid than road shoes with a “plastic-like sole that offers a large amount of flex to keep walking comfortable,” said Seacat. They most often use SPD-style cleats so you can easily walk around the house or gym without worrying about damaging the floor. (Notably, although SPD cleats are more common for spinning, Peloton spin bikes use Delta cleats.)
- Triathlon cleats. Triathlon shoes like the Riot TR+ are comparable to road cycling shoes in regards to stiffness and performance, but there are a few key differences. “Triathlon cleats tend to have a completely velcro closure system with a heel loop, which allows for a quicker transition for getting the shoes on and off,” said Bondi. “They are often better ventilated in order to allow water to escape and are often slightly more cushioned to accommodate for a barefoot ride.” They are also clipless and tend to have a rubber area on the heel and bumpers on the front and back of the shoe for when the athlete needs to run.
- Flat-soled/platform shoes. Ideal for newer bikers, casual biking shoes like the Five Ten Freerider Mountain Bike Shoes do not have cleats and require a platform-type pedal. “They have a rubber outsole with a lot of grip that provides traction so that the foot does not slide off the pedal,” said Bondi. Flat-soled shoes are typically the least rigid option, which results in a decrease of power. However, this style can be popular with mountain bikers who prefer having a totally flat bottom that makes good connection with the pedal.
What to know about pedal clips before shopping
Cycling shoes either have cleats that clip into pedals (known as clipless cleats because they don’t use toe-clips attached to pedals) or just a solid rubber bottom to work with flat pedals. In general, the clipless system consists of a few key components: the shoe, the cleat and the pedal. This system allows for more stability as well as a smoother and more even pedal stroke, which in turn can improve power output and climbing efficiency. The two most common cleats within the clipless system are SPD and Look Delta, which fit into their own respective pedals, explained Enad.
SPD (or Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) cleats are the most common kind. They are small in size and attach to the sole of the shoe with two screws. These cleats are common on mountain bike and spinning shoes as they are relatively easy to walk on. “Most SPD-style shoes either have tread similar to football cleats to help with traction when walking or they are a fitness shoe that has a recessed area for the cleat to go into that protects it from hitting the ground when walking,” explained Seacat. Because of this, though, there’s a smaller contact area between the pedal and cleat, “which can cause hot spots if not properly placed on the shoe,” he noted.
Delta cleats are larger in size and surface area for more stability and they attach to the sole of the shoe with three screws. These are typical for road cycling, and since they have a much larger contact area, there’s “typically better power transfer,” said Seacat. However, he noted that it’s harder to walk around on these cleats — as you do, it slowly breaks them down. Although these can be lighter and more powerful, they are typically less durable than the two-hole system. Another downside is that “they can be harder to clip in and out of and they are single-sided, making it less than ideal in situations when you have to start and stop frequently,” said Bondi.
Though slightly less common, Shimano also makes a three-screw cleat called the SPD-SL. Like the Delta, this cleat is ideal for riding on the road.
Maxwell noted that some indoor bike studios offer “triple” pedals, which means they can accommodate either a Delta or SPD cleat. If you have your own indoor bike at home, you can also switch out the pedals if you prefer one clip over the other.
Cycling shoes features to shop
The first thing to remember while shopping is that no matter which cycling shoes you pick, they likely won’t come with cleats or pedals. “Those need to be purchased separately,” Seacat said, noting that “different brands of pedals are not compatible with each other unless directly stated.”
Though your shoes likely won’t be coming with the cleats, there are some other features you should be on the lookout for while you shop.
Different types of closure systems
While almost all running shoes have laces, spinning shoes use different types of closure systems. Which one you choose will depend on the type of cycling you do.
Velcro: This is best for triathletes who need to get the shoe on and off quickly. They are easy to adjust, but there is slightly more loosening that can occur while riding compared to the retention system, noted Bondi.
Ratchet cable: This system uses a dial to rotate and tighten a ratchet cable, or thin steel cable, which results in "even tension across the shoe," according to Seacat. It also has a quick release function that can "loosen the cleat and get it off quickly," Bondi noted. Craig added that they’re the lightest and most secure option. While shopping, you may come across BOA, which is the name of a specific dial system.
Notched with buckles: These are like the closures you’d see on roller blades or ski boots. They’re easy to adjust and do not loosen during the ride, but they can take longer to put on and get off. And although they typically come at a cheaper price point, Seacat noted another downside is that the only way to adjust the plastic strap is to apply pressure to the small section of your foot it goes across. “This can cause ‘hot spots’ or discomfort on the top of the foot for some,” he said.
Laces: Traditional laces allow for a more precise tightening throughout the cleat, explained Bondi. However, “there is concern about them getting caught in the chain if not tucked in,” she said, plus they “take longer to put on and take off.”
Cycling shoe soles can be made of everything from plastic to carbon, and the material impacts how light, durable and stiff your shoe is. According to Seacat, less expensive shoes tend to be made from composite plastic with nylon, while mid-range shoes often have carbon and composite mixed soles. “As you jump into high end bike shoes, you are looking at soles that are 100 percent carbon fiber — a very high end, lightweight carbon fiber — and are molded in a way to be as stiff as possible,” he said.
The experts we spoke to said it's important to look for a sole that's lightweight but stiff. To understand why this is important, Seacat said to think of how your foot "folds" around the pedal when you push down while wearing tennis shoes. "As you begin to use cycling shoes, your entire shoe becomes the pedal that transfers that power into the bike,” he explained.
If you look at the bottom of a shoe or cleat, you will notice they come in slightly different shapes — some are curved and some are straight, explained Bondi. “It is important to understand the shape of your foot and make sure you choose a cleat that is shaped similar to your foot,” she said. Some shoes are also designed with holes in the sole or sides to encourage airflow and keep feet cooler.
Cycling shoe fit tips
All cycling shoes, whether or not they have cleats, have some degree of stiffness on the soles to make pedaling more efficient — which means there's not much of a break-in period if they’re uncomfortable, explained Craig. “Look for a comfortable footbed that supports the arch and has enough room in the toes so you can wiggle them slightly," he advised.
And finding that ideal fit isn’t just about being comfortable during your ride — it’s also essential when it comes to injury prevention and biking efficiency. “Cycling cleats are meant to be tight, but not squeeze the forefoot and toes,” added Bondi. She suggests keeping these other fit tips in mind:
- The end of the shoe should only be a couple of millimeters from the longest toe.
- If your toe hits up against the end of the cleat when you’re pedaling, then it is too small.
- You want your heel to be locked without slippage.
- The last (or the shape of the bottom part of the cleat) should match up with the shape of your foot. “One way to assess this is to take the insole out of the shoe and put your foot over it and see how well they align,” Bondi said.
Bondi also suggested trying your shoe on near the end of the day after you have been on your feet awhile so that you can take into account any swelling and the thickness of the sock you are going to wear. “You [also] want to pay attention to where the straps hit and make sure they do not rub against a prominent area of your foot,” she added.