Road bike shoes fall under four broad categories: road, tri, mountain, and commuter. We mainly focus on a few different sorts of shoes under the road umbrella, which we divide up into entry level, mid, and premium (pro) road. With this spread comes a variety of fastening systems, from simple wallet-friendly velcro straps to wallet-accosting bi-directional BOA dials or some proprietary variation. Upper materials also push and pull on price and quality, where a mesh or synthetic leather is likely to be found on an entry shoe while a fine leather or advanced multifunctional material will adorn the premium shoes.
But soles are where most of the fuss happens with road bike shoes. Soles range from nylon or plastic composite to carbon composite to full carbon with stiffness and power transfer adjusting accordingly. As with the rest of cycling, carbon fiber brings not just stiffness and lightness, but also prestige, so expect all things carbon to come with a pricing premium.
The most important aspect of a shoe is cleat hole design. That's because the hole design will determine the cleats that can be used, which define the pedals that can be used, which are selected based on the riding you intend to do. There are 2-hole, 3-hole, and 4-hole designs, meant to fit Crank Brothers and SPD (2), SPD-SL, LOOK, and TIME (3), or SPEEDPLAY (4) and we have no idea why these companies insist on the caps lock. Shoes will come with the 2-, 3-, or 4-hole design, or a combination, typically 2- and 3-hole to suit a particular cleat design. It's also important to keep in mind that generally, pedals and cleats will not work with competitors' products, so make sure you're matching cleats to pedals.
The Type of Riding Determines the Shoe and Pedal
The first thing you need to narrow down is what type of riding you do. Where do you ride? If you're out on trails and off-road, you need mountain bike pedals like Crank Brothers or SPD, which use cleats that are bolted into the shoe using two holes and will be specific to mountain bike shoes. If you ride to work or around town to the grocery store and cafes and do a good bit of walking, you might want to use mountain bike pedals as well, but your shoe may be a little more fashionable and better adapted to walking. If you spend most of your time out on the road trying to crush it, you want a road pedal, typically a single-sided entry platform. Below, we go into a little more detail on each type of shoe.
Types of Bike Shoes
These are meant for the hairy-legged folks with whom we do not associate, even though they seem to be a lot more fun and adventurous and probably spend a little more time living that brewery life. Mountain bike shoes tend to be much heavier, come with more reinforcement, will have tread for scrambling and walking and will favor the 2-hole design. But we're not going to sit here and talk about them when one of our expert reviewers took the time to lay out the Best Mountain Bike Shoes of 2017 for you.
Commuter shoes tend to be stylish and practical. Often they'll have lacing or simple Velcro straps. They're what you'll want to wear if you intend to walk around a little and just want to get around a bit. That means they'll be a little more padded and have large walking pads on the outsole. Usually, they use 2-hole cleats for pedals with easy double-sided entry. They also tend to have less rigid soles, partly out of expense and partly because walking on a carbon fiber sole is not an overwhelmingly lovely experience. The great thing here is that commuter shoes aren't too expensive, but they'll treat you well, even if you have some epic climb on your morning commute. These shoes tend to work well for spinning as well.
Touring shoes - we mean leisurely touring - are very similar to commuter shoes, but because they put in more miles, you'll want a little more stiffness in the sole, less weight, and probably something with more ease of adjustability than laces. It can be fairly difficult to strike a balance between walkability and performance for touring shoes, so go with your judgment. If you expect to putter around and walk all over the place, go with a more walkable shoe. If you think you'll spend most of your time getting in miles and stopping only occasionally, go with something a little stiffer and less walkable with better adjustability.
This is where the more serious shoes fall. Proper road bike shoes are so much meant for the bike that they're barely functional off the bike. As a rule, cycling shoes are stiff, streamlined, not-necessarily comfortable, and light. They use all sorts of advanced and exotic materials and designs to give you an edge or solve a problem. Heel slips? Put a fastener on the outside. Tongue rubs? Redesign it out with a burrito tongue. Toe degrades? Add a replaceable toe pad. When you approach road bike shoes, you should be thinking regarding the type of rider you are, where and how you'll be riding, what level of investment you're willing to make in return for performance, and any problems you face if you're replacing old shoes.
The Kind of Road Shoes Depends on…
How You Ride
If you're a climber, especially if you prefer to get out of the saddle, you're going to want super light, super stiff shoes that will hold you up and transfer everything you put in down to the pedals. You'll probably want something that will adjust pretty easily as some riders tend to tighten shoes for a long climb and loosen once they're back to flats or low rollers. This almost always means carbon fiber with some thin synthetic upper.
Sprinters might not care as much as about the weight but will want a stiff shoe that they can dial down ahead of an effort. Usually, this means carbon fiber and a reinforced upper that can take some serious wattage. This is also the ideal style for crit racers who crush at near-sprint for about an hour and need to be able to accelerate super quickly.
Cruisers/domestiques who just put the hammer down and hold it for a few hours will want a more general shoe that favors comfort. That probably means that it won't be the lightest shoe on the market or the stiffest; however, they will have a nice molded footbed that helps the shoe conform for the foot, has a smooth inner lining and a good deal of padding, and will have a snug, uniform tightness to cut down on hot spots.
One thing that only becomes apparent when it's raining is that your shoes would be great if they had big holes in the bottom, so your feet weren't swimming and carrying an extra liter of water. That's what happens in the middle of July when your ride's already in the mid-90s at 10 am, and you still have another hour of riding left. Your socks are soaked, and your shorts, helmet, and glasses are caked in salt, and you wish you hadn't bought the fully enclosed, heavily padded (read: hot) shoes in October when you were thinking about winter.
It's best to anticipate those conditions and buy shoes that will work for what you'll encounter. That might mean finding a generalist shoe that can vent out heat and dump water or be sealed off enough to keep the feet warm in chilly conditions. It might also mean buying your main season shoe that fits the weather and climate where you do most of your riding and buying a pair of less expensive inclement weather shoes that you only break out for icy or rainy weather.
So to break that down, wet conditions probably mean you want some drainage in the soles and a thin, stripped-down upper that isn't going to soak up a ton of water and squish around too much. Hot conditions mean the same thing, but you'll probably want more ventilation in the upper, whereas for wet circumstances it's probably best to have an impermeable upper. For cold, wet conditions, you'll want perfunctory drainage holes in the sole, but anything more will act as a vent, and you'll have an unwelcome breeze on your damp feet. For just cold conditions, get the most padded, thick-walled, ventless shoes possible, but make sure they're roomy enough for thick socks. Your toes will thank you.
Entry, Mid-Level, or Pro?
This question comes down to your budget and your expectations for performance. A new rider, irrespective of pocket depth, should be looking to get into a pair of modest entry level shoes. First off, it will save you from the ridicule of the group ride as they watch the Fred in the premium gear embarrass himself out on the road for a few months and wonder out loud if he thought he could buy the skills. Second, it will save you from the rage that comes with learning how not to scuff, scrape, and scratch a shiny new pair of beautiful carbon shoes like a noob. Consider them to be your beater car until you get through the learning curve. Plus, hey, they're affordable and usually lend themselves to mountain biking, commuting, and spin classes. You can expect these to last a few seasons.
Mid-level shoes are for riders who are a little more seasoned and serious. They typically have tougher, lighter material in the upper, some sort of advanced composite in the outsole, and likely have at least one advanced fastener, like a Boa dial. These will cost a bit more than the entry shoes, but will look nicer, have greater adjustability, and be lighter and stiffer than the entry stuff, but will last longer and perform better.
The pro-level shoes are where you need to really decide that you're dedicated to riding. These are an investment that you can keep using for years. They're usually beautiful shoes that you can also beat the crap out of because they're made from top of the line materials and almost always have a full carbon sole.