Reviews You Can Rely On

How We Tested Road Bike Shoes

By Ryan Baham ⋅ Review Editor
Wednesday June 23, 2021
The SH-RC9s are lighter and stiffer than their predecessors, making...
The SH-RC9s are lighter and stiffer than their predecessors, making them an even better choice for racing and serious riding.
Photo: Ryan Baham

This is really the starting point for our reviews. This is what sets the tone for everything from the selection process to where and for how long we'll test to the types of awards we'll hand out. It's the central organizing piece to our reviews that give them their structure and help us continue to crank out steady, objective analyses. Of course, years of collective experience give us the judgment and intuition to make good calls, but being diligent in breaking our reviews down across performance is what allows us to have confidence in our work.

Product Testing


When we approach our reviews, we aim to be as thorough as possible. We're gearheads surrounded by other unbearably nerdy, discerning gearheads. When we conduct our analyses, we want to make sure they pass muster, but we also recognize that there are practical folks out there that just want the boil-down without the tedium. We do our best to accommodate both dispositions while recognizing that the advanced gearheads are probably more interested in small-batch boutique releases of 1967 tungsten carbide cap bolts finished on organic grass than the average cyclist, so we spend less time on that level of detail and just tease out the real-world performance of each bike shoe.

To produce our reviews, we look across the market to find the very best road bike shoes with our specific lens forged from technical analysis, research, experience, and judgment. From that, we whittle down the best of the best road bike shoes and get them sent out to our product analysts. Once there, we do everything we can to push, pull, prod, and destroy the cycling shoes to get a better understanding of their performance and overall value to riders.

Each shoe sees a lot of time on the bike, both on a trainer and out on the road. Much of our side-by-side testing is handled on the trainer, while the deep evaluative stuff is typically done individually out on the road with notes compiled for crunching once back home.

We struggled and made a lot of sacrifices to get this road gear...
We struggled and made a lot of sacrifices to get this road gear tested, even the hardass fi'zi:k Infinito R1s.
Photo: Ryan Baham

One of the toughest things about testing high-performance athletic gear like road bike shoes is that we only have so many feet and testing conditions. We're doomed to gloss over certain things and miss odds and ends that someone somewhere will be annoyed by. All we can do is do our due diligence and try like hell to find every single complaint, flaw, and quirk to bring it to light and plant a flag for readers.

Durability matters when you put in the miles and expect performance...
Durability matters when you put in the miles and expect performance to last.

While it's true that we generally go out on the market to find and test the latest gear, we do actually keep a lot of the best road bike shoes and keep riding in them throughout the year. This gives us a great chance to update shoes with notes on durability or performance issues if anything unexpected arises. It also helps us look to newer products that use old, bad designs.

As to terrain and training, we're incredibly lucky that we get to spend hundreds of miles in some of the most beautiful parts of the country. We're out in hot, windy, wet, flat, hilly, and mountainous conditions. We tested primarily in southern Virginia and made it to hilly Richmond and the coastal and interior ranges along the Pacific surrounding San Diego. We're also sure to exploit our well-tenured friends and fellow riders for guinea pigging, feedback, tech gossip, and support. We use our testing, research, and analysis to bring you honest, unbiased reviews.

Our testing sometimes involves using other roadies as guinea pigs...
Our testing sometimes involves using other roadies as guinea pigs and aggressively interviewing them about the gear (Scott Road RC SLs, left, Fi'zi:k R5B Uomo Boa, right).
Photo: Scott Keppler

The remainder of this article will provide a brief description of our performance metrics. These provide the analytical framework we use to evaluate bike shoes and compare them against each other. We treat these as guide rails in our analysis. A high score in weight means that a road shoe is light, but that doesn't mean it's the best shoe, per se; it's just one data point that can help describe the shoe's performance. It's a necessary and very helpful practice to keep us honest and reduce as much bias and subjectivity as possible.

Comfort


Comfort can vary from rider to rider, so we do our best to account for that difference, looking to find consensus. We look both at padding and ergonomics here. A heavily padded shoe might end up being more comfortable, but it takes a lot of hours sweating in a shoe to see if it becomes a chafe risk. It's the ergonomic shoes that usually successfully execute the padding/design balance. Either way, to tease out these nuances, we spend a lot of time grinding and end up discovering the limits of shoes' comfort.

Side by side comparison aided by the tortures of an indoor trainer...
Side by side comparison aided by the tortures of an indoor trainer help parse down what's comfortable walking around the store for a minute from what's comfortable after some friction and force in the saddle.

Weight


As we said, this one was pretty hard to screw up or ruin with bias. It was the easiest measure to check, simply using a digital food scale and the good old triple check method. All of the shoes we weighed were men's 45 and didn't have any additions like cleats. It's pretty straightforward. As might be expected, the more expensive carbon fiber shoes tend to be the lightest, and the less expensive shoes tend to be heavier.

Ah, the simplicity of this measure! Just kidding. We have to figure...
Ah, the simplicity of this measure! Just kidding. We have to figure out why these things weigh what they do and what tradeoffs are or aren't made to hit those numbers.
Photo: Ryan Baham

Power Transfer


Testing power transfer was slightly more complicated than the other measures. It is mostly a measure of stiffness in the sole, which can be discerned from researching the materials and verifying with a few good climbs and sprints. What complicates it is that power can also be lost if there is too much give or movement in the upper, which takes more time, more miles, and longer, harder efforts to reveal.

You notice power transfer the most on short, punchy bits, but it's...
You notice power transfer the most on short, punchy bits, but it's just as important when you're out putting in the miles.
Photo: Andrew Crook

Adjustability


Adjustability comes into play at foot entry, during exercise, and at exit. We first tested this by tinkering with fastening systems to see how effective each one was - it's easy to open up and lockdown when you get in, but is it going to adjust when you're in the middle of a pack that keeps surging into the 30s? We spent a good deal of side by side time beside and on the trainer looking at the ease of entry and exit, in-motion adjustability (catch a buckle at the top of the stroke without stopping), and quick stop adjustment (stop pedaling without losing your pace). We also tested incremental adjustability at mid-ride for each shoe as our feet swelled.

Well, even premium shoes don't always get the fastening and closures...
Well, even premium shoes don't always get the fastening and closures perfect as can be seen with the high-end pro S-Works Ares and its closure bunching up here.
Photo: Ryan Baham

Durability


We looked at design, material, and wear to test this measure. Attributes like carbon fiber, premium synthetics, low-profile fasteners, reinforced wear zones, and heavy stitching help us determine durable designs. Rough, hard riding helps us put those designs through the wringer. We also look to see if other users experience durability problems and pay special attention to any features that other users report as weak or low quality.

Superior designs often improve durability. Sidi has included more...
Superior designs often improve durability. Sidi has included more replaceable parts like toe pads in its Wire Vent Carbon (right), which vastly prolongs its life over its 5 year old cousin, the Ergo 4 (left).
Photo: Ryan Baham

Conclusion


Any individual metric can be pretty useful - or it can be a disembodied factoid floating out in the ether. It's once the measures start coming together that they paint a useful picture with actionable insights that they show their value. Light, but uncomfortable, super comfy, but clunky, super ergonomic, but doesn't transfer power too efficiently. It takes a lot of time compiling notes and determining what needs deeper evaluation, but eventually, we're able to tell the story of each shoe and set it in its right context.