Learning how to choose cycling shoes correctly can be a little tricky since they are a lot different than your average athletic shoe. Using clipless or clip-in technology, cycling shoes connect with the pedals of your bike. This allows you to effectively generate more power into each and every pedal stroke, both as you pull up and push down on the pedals. But besides power transfer, there are a whole bunch of other factors that you have to consider. For example, ventilation, support, comfort, and weight are just a few. With that in mind, we’ll talk about everything you should consider when finding yourself a suitable pair of cycling shoes in this article. You can also find some useful tips on how to choose cycling shoes at the very bottom. Let’s continue!


How to Choose Cycling Shoes Infographic

How to Choose Cycling Shoes - Infographic - Athlete Audit


How to Choose Cycling Shoes: In-Depth


Step 1: Know Your Cycling Shoes

There are a few disciplines of cycling that will determine what type of shoes you’ll need. Besides road cycling, there are also niche categories such as triathlon, casual/city cycling, and indoor cycling. Let’s talk a little about each.


Road – Designed specifically for road cycling. The outsole will be smooth and blank except for the hole mounts to attach cleats. Often vented with a closure system that can be easily and quickly tightened, they also offer good ventilation. However, off-bike wear is not recommended as they lack flex and traction with a protruding cleat, making extended walking difficult while also scuffing up the shoe in the process.

Triathlon – Similar to road cycling shoes, but made for triathletes who need to transition in and out of their cycling shoes quickly. You can also adjust them while riding. Furthermore, most triathlon shoes have a single velcro strap that opens outward and a heel loop for slipping on easily. They also tend to be better ventilated than road shoes and are seamless so that wearing them without socks is comfortable.

Indoor/Spinning – Typically, indoor cycling shoes are just MTB shoes that have clipless 2-bolt mounts for SPD pedals with recessed cleat mounts. This (plus a little flexibility and lugs) makes it easier to walk in and they won’t get damaged by doing so.

City – Best for commuting, urban cycling, and recreational cycling. They’ll look like casual or light hiking shoes with the technology of a cycling shoe. Many city cycling shoes use clipless 2-bolt cleats and pedals and are flexible, allowing you to easily walk in them.

Types of Cycling Shoes - How to Choose Cycling Shoes - Athlete Audit


Step 2: Pick a Closure System

The type of closure system a cycling shoe has is another important aspect to look at. It will help keep your feet snug and comfortable, allow you to adjust the fit as you ride, and help you transfer power more efficiently. With that said, there are four main types of closure systems: BOA, ratchet/velcro, velcro, and laces. What you’ll need will depend on what discipline of cycling you’re interested in.


BOA lacing / dialsBOA lacing is a dial system that can evenly distribute pressure across the top of shoes. It consists of steel laces, nylon guides, and mechanical reels to ensure a snug fit. Simply turn the knob for a tighter fit or quick release to loosen, this takes out the hassle of adjusting comfort. Although the most expensive closure system available, BOA lacing are most commonly found on competitive cycling shoes and are very lightweight.

Ratchet/velcro – More expensive than velcro but allows for a snugger fit that won’t come loose. Ratchets use micro-adjusting plastic straps (similar to what you’d find on snowboard bindings) and are most often found on road cycling shoes. The ratchet strap is commonly located at the top of the shoe, with additional velcro straps over the forefoot and toe area for better fitting.

Velcro – One of the quickest and easiest ways to open and close a shoe. Velcro has been around for a long time and lets you easily adjust the fit of the shoe, even while cycling. Perfectly suited for muddy and wet conditions, many shoes that use velcro have multiple straps to allow pinpoint adjustments. Also the least expensive closure system after laces, they are often found on road and triathlon cycling shoes.

Laces – Offers the most comfort and customization on fit and is the cheapest option. Although laces have lost popularity in the not-too-distant past when better fastening systems were developed, they are making a comeback in modern times due to their simplicity and fit.


Closure System - How to Choose Cycling Shoes - Athlete Audit


Step 3: Shoe and Cleat Compatibility

Next thing to consider is shoe and cleat compatibility. Cycling shoes come with a set number of mounting holes with which to attach cleats. Now, the most popular configurations include 2 and 3-bolt systems, but 4-bolt shoes are also available as well. 2-bolt shoes are used mostly off-road cycling or recessed cleat mounts, while 3-bolt shoes are almost exclusively used for road cycling as they allow for a wider distribution of weight on the pedals. The 2-hole system is commonly known as the SPD system, while the 3-hole system can often be referred to as the Look-Shimano system.

Cleat Compatibility Chart

This is a rough guide for which cleats and pedals work with which, so double check to make sure they are compatible.

  3-Bolt Mount 2-Bolt Mount 4-Bolt Mount
Works with:
  • Look
  • TIME
  • SPD-SL
  • Speedplay (w/ adapter kit)
  • SPD
  • Time ATAC
  • Speedplay Frogg
  • Crank Brothers
  • Look S-Track
  • Speedplay


Step 4: Discover Your Sole

A stiffer sole equates to more cycling performance, as it doesn’t flex as much and allows you to transfer more power into your pedals. Now, the sole can be made out of a variety of materials. Nylon, carbon reinforced nylon, and carbon fiber are the three main types of soles. Nylon is the least expensive option, and as such are not the lightest or stiffest. However, they are good options for recreational or beginner cyclists. Carbon reinforced nylon is more expensive than nylon, but offer a stiffer sole for those who want a bit more power in their stroke. Last but not least, you have carbon fiber soles which are extremely stiff and lightweight, although they do tend to vibrate more for less comfort. They also cost a pretty penny, and are most often used by many challenge and racing cyclists.




Step 5: All the Other Essentials

Upper – The most popular materials for uppers are leather, kangaroo leather, and synthetic leather. Synthetic leathers are easy to clean and are the least expensive, but they aren’t especially breathable and don’t form to your feet all that well. Leather and kangaroo leather are reserved for more expensive models, and they are very breathable and form-fitting.

Stiffness/flexibility – As discussed earlier, stiffness plays a huge role in cycling performance, but a little flexibility is important if you’re going to be walking in your shoes. For all the commuters, casual cyclists, and indoor cyclists, you’re going to want a fairly flexible sole and upper so that you won’t have to wince every step you take.

Ventilation – Ventilation is another biggie that you shouldn’t brush off. Most cycling shoes make use of either built-in vents, ventilation holes, and mesh panels to keep your feet cool. However, the amount of ventilation you’ll need is also dependent on weather. But for winter/colder weather, you’ll want to use cycling shoe covers to keep your feet warm instead of buying a less ventilated shoe, that way you’ll have a pair to wear in summer as well.


Step 6: Find the Right Fit

Signs of a Perfect Fit

  • A very snug fitting heel with no lift
  • Ideally 3-5mm of space in the front. A little more is okay for casual shoes
  • No pain or blood flow restriction
  • Should have adequate width and volume
  • No pressure points from the closure system
  • Even pressure on the arches when standing on the ball of your foot

Tips for Fitting Cycling Shoes

  • Always wear cycling socks when fitting shoes
  • Try out shoes in-store for the most accurate fit
  • Shop for shoes in the evening as feet swell throughout the day
  • Natural leathers stretch as you break them in; synthetics don’t
  • Allow a little flexibility in the sole if you’ll be walking in your shoes
  • Try cycling shoes in multiple sizes for the best fit
  • Consider adding insoles for more comfort or a better fit
  • Try out shoes of the opposite sex for more/less volume depending on your foot shape