Drive My Bike


Understanding Clipless Pedals – The Shoes

If you are new to modern bicycling, or even just unfamiliar with clipless pedals, then the options can be confusing. In my last post about clipless pedals I gave an overview of two of the common clipless pedal systems available. In this post I’m going to talk about the different kinds of shoes that are available.

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Clipless shoes come in several different varieties. There are shoes for racing, with special kinds for both road and mountain bikes. There are shoes for casual riding, such as commuting or taking a spinning class. There are also specialty shoes, such as sandals. The picture above shows examples of these:

  • On the Left is a racing shoe for Road Bikes. It is equipped with a cleat for a Look clipless pedal.
  • In the Middle is a shoe intended for casual riding. It is what I wear for my daily commuting and my spinning class. It is equipped with a cleat for an SPD clipless pedal.
  • On the Right is a bicycling sandal. The weather has finally gotten warm enough that I wore this sandal last week for my commute. It is equipped with a cleat for an SPD clipless pedal.

What are the differences in these shoes? Basically it comes down to three things, Compatibility, Functionality, and Comfort.

Compatibility is probably the most fundamental difference. The road shoe is compatible with a cleat for a Look pedal, and casual shoe and sandal are both compatible with a cleat for an SPD pedal.

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I compared these systems in my previous post, and also mentioned that there are other systems available. Whatever system you choose to use, you will need to make sure that the shoes you buy will accommodate a cleat to work with your pedals.

Functionality is another difference, in other words, what kind of riding are you going to be doing? The racing shoe has a strap system, much like a ski boot, that offers a very secure fit designed for high performance. You can cinch it down tightly for minimal foot movement and maximum power transfer when you are doing serious riding. They are also very lightweight. The casual shoe offers a simple lace up system that is simple and comfortable, with no fancy moving parts. It won’t secure your foot as well as the racing shoe, and it is a bit heavier, but it is great for more casual riding. The sandal… well, it is a sandal. It is intended for rides when casual and comfortable are the theme of the day.

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Comfort comes in two flavors, on the bike, and off the bike. If you pick a pair of shoes that fit well, then your comfort on the bike should be good, no matter what.

The big difference will come when you get off the bike.

The Look style cleat on the road shoe extends almost a half an inch off of the bottom of the shoe. When you walk in that shoe it can be quite awkward, because you are literally walking on the cleat. It can be slippery on smooth floors, and it is easy to roll an ankle if you aren’t careful. Of course, if you buy a pair of road shoes then you are probably far more concerned about riding in them than walking around.

The SPD Cleat on the other shoes is set into a cutout in the sole, so it is virtually flush with the bottom of the shoe. That means that walking in these shoes feels much more natural and comfortable. You still make a clickety-clack noise when you walk, kind of like wearing tap shoes, and it can get slippery if you step right where the cleat is, so you still have to be careful.

What shoe is best for you? Only you can answer that question. Figure out what kind of riding you are going to do, then go take a look at some of the shoes that are available. Try some of them on and find a pair that is comfortable, then find out what type of cleats those shoes are compatible with and get some pedals to match. Of course, if you have already purchased your pedals, then that will limit your selection a bit. This would be a good time to visit your local bike shop and get their advice. I purchased my shoes at REI, and the people there were very helpful.

Personally, I have chosen to go with the SPD system because I prefer wearing my casual shoes, and I enjoy being able to walk around easily if I ride to the grocery store. The sandals are also compatible with my SPD pedals, and I have decided that I love wearing them in warmer weather. They are so comfortable that I kept them on the entire day last week and wore them around the office and out to lunch. (Yes, we have a very casual work environment).

Another consideration is what to do if you have multiple bikes. If you put the same kind of clipless pedals on all of your bikes, then you might be able to get by with a single pair of shoes. On the other hand, if you are hard core, and can afford multiple shoes and systems, then you may prefer to have specific shoes for specific bikes. The racing shoes actually belong to my friend Jake, and his road bike has a nice set of Look pedals. I’m babysitting Jake’s bike while he is in Africa, and even though his shoes fit me, I really prefer to use my SPD shoes, so I’ve decided to purchase a cheaper set of SPD pedals to replace his Look pedals. (Jake, if you read this, know that I’m taking good care of your baby while you are gone).

Once again, it is all about finding out what works for you. Don’t worry so much about “the rules” here, just try some things and see what you prefer.

I’ve got one more post planned in this series where I will briefly show how to install the cleats on your shoes once you make your purchase.

See you next time….

UPDATE: You can read more about installing cleats on your shoes here.

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8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Glad to hear that you are taking care of my baby. Remember…the canyons are calling. She was made for them…

Comment by Jake Tillett

Thanks for your informative website. Do you by chance have any facts on the effectiveness of clipless pedals? ie how much energy they save? and their benefits?

Thanks for your time

Comment by Kyle

Kyle, I don’t have any scientific findings, if that is what you are looking for, just my personal experience. Clipping in allows you to become one with the crank arms through the entire stroke circle. This means that your power is not just on the downstroke, but on the entire circle, down, up and around. Much more efficient, and much more powerful. This is noticeable on flat roads, but especially on hills.

Comment by Scott

Hi I am a biking returnee and it has been 15 years since the last time I biked. to force myself to exercise i got a cervelo road bike and i am still in a “getting to know you” phase. My question is which pedal system is easiest to remove in case i am caught in traffic and i have to get down the bike immediately?? thanks

Comment by enchong

I would say that any of the modern clipless systems would probably work fine for you, as they all are designed to release quickly. The key is practice, so that the motion to release your foot becomes natural and you do it without thinking. I am by no means an expert though, so I would recommend asking your local bike shop what they would recommend.

Comment by Scott

Shoe stiffness? I recently started riding. A friend lent me a pair of old Carnac SPD road shoes with stiff carbon soles. I’m looking to buy another pair of shoes but wondering if sole stiffness will have a significant effect. Most road shoes don’t seem to take SPD cleats, and those that do don’t seem to have the additional sole that touring/MTB shoes have. Will the reduced stiffness of touring shoes have a significant impact on riding?

Comment by Alan

I am a returning cyclist I have a Decatlon Triban bike and was wondering which shoes I need to fit the pedals on the bike

Comment by Paul

Paul, there are a number of different possibilities. I’d recommend you take your bike by your local bike shop and get their opinion.

Comment by Scott




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