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Cycling shoes and cleats

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Knowledge Level: Beginner

Cycling shoes and cleats

When cycling, you have three contact areas with your bike. Correct handlebar set-up is essential for safe handling, comfort and optimal aerodynamics.  Choosing the right saddle and positioning it correctly can genuinely make the difference between cycling bliss and riding misery. The third contact point are your pedals and these are what link the bike’s engine, your legs, to the bike. In just an hour of cycling, you could be performing well over 5000 pedal strokes so it’s essential to get this key area right.

Why wear cycling shoes

Many novices ride with flat pedals and trainers and, although this is fine for short recreational rides, the inefficiency and potential discomfort makes it a poor choice for more serious cycling. The main problem with cycling in trainers is that they’re too flexible.

This means with every pedal stroke some power is lost as your shoe flexes. Thinking about the 5000 pedal strokes in an hour, this lost energy and resulting lost speed soon adds up. This flexibility also results in your feet constantly having to flex which can result in uncomfortable soreness and fatigue.

You’ll feel large amount of pressure through soft soled shoes which can also lead to soreness and hot spots developing. This article gives more information on avoiding foot pain on the bike.

Stiff soled cycling shoes solve all these problems and ensure that the maximum amount of power finds it way from your legs, into the pedals and ultimately onto the road. The rigid soles are made from nylon or glass fibre composites in cheaper shoes but most higher end cycling shoes make use of the high strength, amazing stiffness and low weight of carbon fibre.

A combination of velcro straps and ratchet mechanisms ensure that your feet are securely but comfortably held within the shoes and ventilation panels prevent overheating. The uppers are lightweight, fast drying and materials used range from synthetic fabrics to yak and kangaroo leather.

Clipless pedals

For a long time cyclists have been aware of the benefits of having their feet physically attached to their pedals. It allows a far more even and efficient pedal stroke and, when descending, especially when riding off-road or in wet conditions, keeps your feet securely in place.

The traditional method was to use metal cages and leather straps known as toe-clips but in the mid eighties the French company Look developed clipless pedals using technology derived from ski bindings. A cleat bolted to the sole of the shoe engages with a spring mechanism on the pedal and is held in place. A sideways twisting action disengages the cleat and allows the rider to remove their feet from the pedals.

Learning to ride clipless

Beginners are often put off by the idea of having their feet attached to their bike but becoming confident with clipless pedals takes hardly any time at all. Watch this video for tips on the technique of clipping in. If your brand of pedals allow you to adjust the release tension, dial it right down while you’re learning.

Take your bike somewhere free of traffic and just practice clipping in and out. After 20-30 minutes of practice it will become second nature and you can hit the roads for real.

Setting up cleats

By following this simple process, recommended by Phil Burt, lead physiotherapist with the Great Britain Cycling Team and consultant physiotherapist to Team Sky, you can make sure your cleats are setup correctly.

Fore and Aft

  • With your foot in your shoes, feel along the inside of your foot for the large bony prominence at the base of your big toe. Use a marker pen to mark its position.

  • Do the same with the outside of your foot for the prominence at the base of your little toe.

  • Take off the shoe and draw two parallel lines across the base of the shoe. The first straight across from the first mark and the second from the second mark.

  • The midpoint between these two lines indicates the fore and aft position for the centre of the cleat.


  • Once you know the fore and aft position, if you position the cleat in the middle of the shoe based on this, you’ll have a neutral setup which is a good place for the majority of riders to start, especially if you’ve chosen cleats and pedals that offer a reasonable amount of float.
  • However, look at the way you stand and walk. If you tend to have your toes pointing out, slightly rotate the alignment of your cleats to allow for this. Similarly, if you have a toes in stance, rotate your cleats to accommodate this.

Stance width

  • Although bottom bracket widths are standard, cyclists are not. Once you have adjusted, if necessary, for rotation, look for signs that you may need to alter width away from neutral. Are you catching your cranks with your heels or do your cranks or heels of your shoes show signs of scuffing?
  • If so, move the cleats in towards the bike to move your feet out.

Types of shoe

There are several different types of cycling shoe to consider depending on the type of cycling you mainly do.


Light and extremely stiff, road shoes are designed to maximise power transfer to the pedals. Top end models will have full carbon soles and finely adjustable fitting systems. Some brands even allow you to custom fit them by pre-heating in your oven and then moulding to your feet. The cleats tend to be fairly wide to spread pressure and, as they stand proud of the sole, are precarious to walk in.

Cross country mountain bike

The uppers look very similar to a performance road shoe but will be slightly more robust and the sole will have rubber grips to aid running off the bike on rough surfaces. Many also have screw in holes for two football style studs on the toe for when it’s really slippery.

The cleats are recessed, tend to be smaller than road cleats and allow more float. The action of engaging and disengaging the cleats with the pedals serves to clear mud and prevents them clogging up. This style of shoe is also used for cyclo-cross.

Leisure mountain bike/commuting

Have the same recessed cleats as a racing mountain biking shoe but are styled to look more like a regular shoe, trainer or hiking boot. The sole is usually slightly more flexible than a full-on race shoe, making walking for extended periods far more comfortable.


Are similar to a road shoe but have a number of multi-sport specific features. A large single velcro strap that opens away from the cranks allows easier on the bike fastening and unfastening. A large heel loop also facilitates getting your feet in and out of the pedals while rolling out of or into transition.

Heel bumpers prevent the shoe getting damaged bouncing on the road as you run with it still attached from the bike. Drainage holes lets water out from the swim, multiple venting panels aid drying and the inners are soft for sock free riding.

Winter booties and overshoes

Cold feet can make winter riding uncomfortable but fortunately winter booty versions of both road and mountain biking shoes are available. These are higher cut and are both insulated and waterproof. It’s also possible to get overshoes for your regular shoes.

These range from full-on thick waterproof neoprene ones for winter riding to thin lycra ones for spring, autumn or for gaining a tiny aerodynamic edge. Another option for those mixed spring and autumn days are toe covers which, by covering up your shoes’ ventilation panels, make a surprisingly big difference.

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