What Makes A Good Cycling Shoe?

by | Nov 23, 2022 | Buyer's Guide, Bike, Gear Check, Gear, Reviews & First Looks

We speak with pro riders about what the important factors are to consider in choosing the right cycling shoe so that you can make a better purchasing decision for your feet.

As the interface between your body and the pedal, one of your few contact points with your bicycle, the cycling shoe plays an important role in your riding experience when it comes to comfort and performance.

We reached out to some of South Africa’s most successful cyclists, who spend a lot of time in their cycling shoes (as Matt Beers points out), to learn what they believe is important to consider when choosing the right cycling shoe.

Kev Benky – Endurance Cycling Specialist / 2 X Munga Winner

What are some of the key things you look for in a cycling shoe?
“My focuses when looking for a cycling shoe are sole stiffness, a wide toe box and a secure retention system. Breathability and a somewhat supple upper matter to me too. All of these factors feed into comfort and power transfer which are the most important end goals for me.”

What do you want to avoid when it comes to cycling shoes?
“A sole that flexes is my number one hate as it causes pain under power as the sole flexes around the pedal. A narrow shoe that creates pressure on the outside of my forefoot is also a no-go for me.”

How important is comfort to you and what makes a shoe comfortable?
“With my focus being long-distance races, comfort is massively important. I think the two biggest keys to comfort when pedalling are a stiff sole and generous toe box, I want my toes to be able to wiggle and not feel vacuum packed. Thankfully shoes are mostly heading in that direction nowadays.”

What is your preferred shoe for everyday riding and does it differ from what you prefer to race in?
“I ride Shimano XC901 shoes, in the ‘wide’ version for both training and racing. With the mileage I do, I replace shoes annually and will buy the new version of the same shoe soon, the XC902.”

“I like these shoes because they have very good retention of my foot without having to tighten the Boa’s too much (the heel cup is great), the sole is nice and stiff, the toe box is wide so my toes can move, breathability seems good (the Namibian Desert was a good test of that) and lastly they have a generous cleat position which allows me to use a quite rearward cleat position which reduces pressure points, I find. I had been using the previous brand I rode for a long time so changing to these last year was a bit stressful but they’ve been my favourite since, and being confident that I will have comfortable feet for 1000s of km is a very comforting thought and I happily recommend them to anyone who asks.”

Choosing The Right Cycling Shoe
Kev Benky’s trusty Shimano XC901s. Note the rearward cleat position.
“The shoes are about 12,000km old including Rhino Run so have done some kms. They get cleaned when it rains, so excuse their state but that’s more real I think!”

Mariske Strauss – World Cup XCO Racer / 2021 & 2022 ABSA Cape Epic Runner Up

What are some of the key things you look for in a cycling shoe?
“Well firstly size. It might seem silly but over the years I’ve found that not all sizes are the same. Make sure you have enough space so that when it gets warm there’s room as your feet might swell slightly. Secondly, comfort. Very important! We already push our bodies to the extreme so your feet need to be comfy. It’s one of the contact points with your bike so having a good fit is important.
I also look for carbon soles, a nice stiff shoe is important for power transfer.”

What do you want to avoid when it comes to cycling shoes?
“Ideally I avoid light colours, you’re a mountain biker not a figure skater, there will be dust and mud so darker shoes are a must because they just clean easier! Other than that I prefer shoes with a ratchet system and a lower tong.”

How important is comfort to you and what makes a shoe comfortable?
“Extremely! As stated above, your feet are one of the three contact points with your bike. It’s where you push all your power through so being comfortable while you rip off your competitors legs with your mind blowing watts is crucial!”

What is your preferred shoe for everyday riding and does it differ from what you prefer to race in?
“I prefer a brand called SPIUK. It’s a Spanish brand I used in one of my previous teams. It ticks all my boxes and is actually not too badly priced. Plus, it feels like I’m wearing a cloud!”

Spanish Cycling Shoe From Spiuk
Mariske is a big fan of Spiuk’s shoes and they certainly look the part. (c) Spiuk

Matt Beers – SA Gravel Cycling Champion / 2021 ABSA Cape Epic Winner

What are some of the key things you look for in a cycling shoe?
“Obviously fit is the first big thing. Everyone’s feet are very different. Specialized have done a really good job, off of tons of data and research, to make a shoe that fits a very broad audience of people.”

What do you want to avoid when it comes to cycling shoes?
“Pressure points are the main thing to avoid. This will lead to hot foot which I’m sure many people have experienced on long days out on the bike. The shoe should feel roomy yet supportive.”

How important is comfort to you and what makes a shoe comfortable?
“Comfort in a shoe for me is massive. I spend a lot of hours in them, more than my actual normal shoes haha. Getting the correct insole is also huge, making sure your arch is supported. You can get that assessed at most good bike shops or at a bike fitter i.e. RETÜL bike fit stores.”

What is your preferred shoe for everyday riding and does it differ from what you prefer to race in?
“My shoes that I race and train with everyday are the S-Works Recon MTB shoes and S-Works Torch for the road. For gravel I switch it up depending on course conditions. I use these because they are the top of the range Specialized shoe, extremely light and stiff and really comfortable.”

Matt Beers Prefers The Specialized S Works Recon Cycling Shoe
Matt Beers of course makes use of the top shelf S-Works Recon MTB shoes. Specialized’s “Body Geometry” products are highly regarded for their fit. (c) Ray Cox

Marc Pritzen – Multiple Cape Town Cycle Tour Winner / 2022 Wines2Whales Winner

What are some of the key things you look for in a cycling shoe?
“What I look for in a cycling shoe is something that has enough space for the custom moulded inners that I use. The main purpose of the inners that I use is to transfer power with the entire surface of your foot and not just the ball of your foot. They also make the shoe more comfortable as you don’t have any pressure points on the bottom.”

Do those differ between a road and MTB shoe?
“With a mountain bike shoe I look for something with a wider toe box as you tend to move your foot quite a lot when descending and in technical sections.”

What do you want to avoid when it comes to cycling shoes?
“Something that doesn’t squish your toes. I have quite a long foot but it is also quite wide at the front. As I said, I always make sure that the shoe has room for my inners.”

How important is comfort to you and what makes a shoe comfortable?
“Of course you want something that is comfortable and fits without any pressure points. I prefer a white shoe on the road especially because of the heat. A black shoe can get quite hot when riding

Pro Tip from Marc: To prevent the toe box from collapsing after washing, push some newspaper into the toe box to support it when drying.

What is your preferred shoe for everyday riding and does it differ from what you prefer to race in?
“I really enjoy Gaerne’s shoes, especially the newer models. The older ones had a bit of a narrower front. I’ve also gotten on well with the Shimano and Specialized S-Works shoes recently. They really are all so similar in performance.”

Marc Pritzen Give'S His Opinion On What Makes A Good Cycling Shoe
A weapon on and off the road, Marc Pritzen delivers his power through the Italian Gaerne shoes with his custom moulded inserts for a perfect fit.

Summary

There are certainly consistent traits across the pros that we spoke to above, finding a shoe that isn’t too tight being possibly the most notable. As Mariske mentioned, you want to have a bit of room for your foot to swell on warm days or even when riding technical mountain bike terrain.

If you really want to take your shoe fit to the next level you can look into getting inserts that are moulded to suit your exact foot such as Marc Pritzen uses. If you struggle with pressure points in your shoes, this is definitely something we would recommend! A stiffer sole is also going to make a difference to reducing pressure points on the sole of your foot.

Shimano and Specialized seem to be at the top of the game for performance cycling shoes, being well regarded by 3 of the 4 pros we spoke with. Anything Italian or Spanish also seems to be worth looking at (i.e. Spiuk and Gaerne) which is only fitting if we’re talking cycling products!

We hope that this info has been useful for you and you’re able to make better informed purchasing decisions for your next set of cycling shoes!

If you’re looking to learn more about the training side of things, be sure to check out our articles from renowned cycling coach John Wakefield here.