Cycling can take many different forms. Cycling can mean riding on a road bike for dozens of miles on a local highway. But it can also mean hopping on an affordable stationary bike as part of an everyday workout. It’s also often conflated with spinning — riding an indoor exercise bike like the one from Peloton as part of a high-energy workout class.
All of these forms of cycling can technically be done with regular shoes. But each experience is radically altered with the addition of cycling-specific shoes. We spoke with experts across the fitness world to better understand the features and differences among cycling shoes, and which brands are worth buying from.
What exactly are cycling shoes?
Generally, cycling shoes, whether they are for indoor or outdoor use, are lightweight and more rigid than your average gym or running shoes. They are made specifically for cycling, placing support in different places on the shoe to improve performance and prevent injury, according to our experts. As such, they will be uncomfortable for other exercise routines like running or weight lifting, and should only be worn when cycling.
The main feature of most cycling shoes is the cleats or clips on the bottom of the shoe. These allow you to “clip in'' to your indoor or outdoor bike. “When you clip in, you are physically fixing yourself to your bike from the cleat on your shoe that attaches to the pedal,” said Garret Seacat, a former bike shop manager and professional cycling coach. Clipping in “truly changes the ride,” according to Alexa Arent, senior instructor at Spin City Massapequa (Arent is also the leadership coordinator for Commerce at NBC News.) When you clip in, you can lift up on the pedals as your ride, activating additional muscle groups for a more balanced, complete and powerful motion. Then, by simply turning your foot to the side, you can disengage the clips and step off of your bike.
Different types of cycling shoes
Since cycling includes so many different disciplines, there are a lot of different kinds of cycling shoes. Cycling shoes are generally categorized by the type of activity they are designed for:
- Road cycling shoes are designed for clipping into outdoor road bikes and riding on paved surfaces like roads and bike paths.
- Mountain biking shoes are made for clipping into outdoor mountain bikes. Compared to road cycling shoes, they have better grip and traction for walking with your bike in mountainous terrain.
- Spin shoes are used for clipping into indoor exercise bikes like Peloton, NordicTrack and more.
- Flat/platform shoes are constructed without clips or cleats. Best paired with flat pedals that do not feature clips or cleats, such as outdoor commuter bikes.
Cycling shoes that clip into the pedals of a bike feature one of three types of cleats:
- SPD cleats are a two-screw cleat commonly used for clipping into mountain bikes and spinning shoes.
- Look Delta cleats are a three-screw cleat commonly used for clipping into high-end outdoor road bikes.
- SPD-SL cleats are a three-screw cleat, similar to Look Delta. They are sometimes found in high-end road bikes.
Some shoes and bike pedals are compatible with multiple different types of cleats.
Expert-recommended cycling shoes
We spoke with our experts about a wide variety of different types of cycling shoes. They recommend double checking your shoes and your bike to make sure the cleats will be compatible before purchasing.
Below are some of their top picks from brands like Bontrager, Specialized, Shimano and more. We’ve grouped them according to the type of activity they are designed for. Note that most cycling shoes do not come with cleats — they are often sold separately.
Best cycling shoes
Best basic road cycling shoes: Bontrager
For those who are looking to stick to an entry level price point, Seacat recommends the Bontrager Circuit road cycling shoe. “With a modest $145 price tag, you get big value in these shoes, including the ability to use SPD or Delta cleats, a laceless BOA fit and a variety of colors to pick from — you cannot go wrong,” he said.
Best lightweight road cycling shoes: Specialized
“When it comes to a no-compromise shoe, the S-Works Torch is hands-down the best shoe around,” said Seacat. The S-Works Torch is the latest in a long line of S-Works shoes from Specialized. This latest pair is extremely lightweight, reinforced in key pressure zones, and equipped with an updated laceless BOA fit, according to the brand. “Specialized was also able to leverage all of the data collected from their bike fitting company RETÜL,” said Seacat. “If money is no problem and the best fit is your goal, this is the shoe.”
Best road cycling shoes for Delta pedals: Shimano
Shimano is a huge brand in the cycling world, and the S-Phyre series of shoes is its top-of-the-line offering. The RC903 is one of the latest versions of the shoe, and, unlike prior years, comes in both men’s and women’s sizes. Seacat recommends the RC903 as a great premium option, with “a new heel cup and BOA Li2 laces to keep your foot snug and comfortable.”
Best mountain biking shoes: Shimano
For mountain bikers, Seacat says you can’t go wrong with the S-Phyre XC902. “The S-Phyre XC902 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, rubber outsoles for traction and dual BOA dials for a more customized fit, according to the brand.
Best spinning shoes
Best women’s spin shoe: TIEM
Arent recommends the TIEM Slipstream shoe for women doing a lot of indoor cycling activity. “The bottom is tough, but they are breathable, super comfortable, and come in a ton of different colors,” she said. The TIEM look similar to regular athletic shoes, but utilize a single strap closure, and SPD-compatible cleat openings at the bottom, according to the brand.
The TIEM Slipstream is only available in women’s sizes.
Best men’s spin shoe: Nike
The Nike SuperRep Cycle 2 is the new version of the popular indoor cycling shoe from the brand. Similar to TIEM, this pair uses velcro straps for fit, and has a combination of a hard bottom and breathable mesh upper that’s well-suited to indoor cycling. “While Nike has been out of the cycling shoe world for over a decade, it has slowly worked its way back in over the last year,” said Seacat.
How to get the most out of your cycling shoes
Cycling shoes can be intimidating to purchase as they often have a price tag much higher than regular athletic shoes. They are also loaded with features that can be hard to understand. When shopping for your potential shoes, keep a few basics in mind:
Fit is essential
Because cycling shoes are generally much tighter than other types of shoes, getting the right fit is crucial. We recommend going to a store in-person, where you can try on different brands, models and sizes, with the help of a store associate.
Cycling shoes have a break-in period
Our experts said that cycling shoes have a break in period. Don’t expect your brand new shoes to be perfectly comfortable on your first ride, especially if you are new to cycling or spinning. “You are going to be sore after your first time,” said Arent. “The shoes might be a little tight to start, but they loosen up overtime.”
Don’t forget the cleats
Most cycling shoes do not come with cleats included. Make sure to check your shoe and bike cleat compatibility. Cleats are sold by a wide variety of different brands, but most are either SPD or Delta.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Garret Seacat is a former bike shop manager and professional cycling coach.
- Alexa Arent is a senior instructor at Spin City Massapequa. (Arent is also the leadership coordinator for Commerce at NBC News.)
- Jordan Rowe is a certified personal trainer and founder of NOEX Fitness in Richmond, Virginia.