What To Look For In A Cycling Shoe

Turning your precious power into forward motion starts at the shoe—the direct connection between rider and machine.

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Turning your precious power into forward motion starts at the shoe—the direct connection between rider and machine. Finding the right pair is key for comfort and performance. Triathlon-specific shoes can help save a few seconds out of T1, but they lack some training-day functionality boasted by many road shoes. Sturdier road pairs can serve as race shoes if you can tolerate a little wasted transition time, typically fit more securely and are better for year-round training. We tested shoes of both styles to help you find your perfect match—whether you need a specialty race shoe or an all-purpose road pair.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.


Positives: Better foot-to-sole hold, more insulation

Negatives: Slower transitions, heavier, less ventilation

Shimano R170L (500 grams)
$200, Bike.shimano.com

Rock it if: You want budget-friendly high performance and aren’t picky about the closure system
Stiff, light, durable and (comparably) inexpensive
Little micro-adjustability or ventilation

While just a few scant grams above the ultra-light category, this remarkably affordable shoe is still plenty light for serious riders and boasts a well-built upper and stiff carbon-composite outsole. Serious sprinters and bigger pedal mashers may feel the shoe flex underfoot, but not many others. There’s plenty of toe room—really nice on all-day rides—and the security of the heel cup and asymmetrical straps impressed when out of the saddle and cranking hard. Where the shoe falls short, however, is the ratchet closure. Only one-click adjustments are possible in either direction, making it a pain to tighten and almost impossible to loosen slightly. Venting is poor, with only a few small mesh openings.

Sidi Wire SP Carbon (600 grams)
$500, Sidiamerica.com

Rock it if: You want fine Italian dress shoes suited for cycling
Incredible stiffness, impeccable construction
A bit heavy for a top-end shoe

If any cycling shoe is worth $500, this may be it: The synthetic leather upper supplely wraps the foot over every contour while leaving ample wiggle room for toes. Even the thinnest ankles don’t budge in the snug heel cup, and it’s adjustable for wider ones. The ridiculously stiff carbon outsole offers a scant 4mm stack height, while dual Boa-style ratchets (although tough to grab on the fly) dial smoothly and securely, spreading impressively even pressure across the entire upper. For all its comfort and unflappable connection with the ride, this is not an ultra-light shoe. At 600 grams, it’s 20 percent bulkier than Shimano’s $200 offering. Minimal mesh in the upper could mean hot feet in warmer temps.

Louis Garneau Carbon Pro Team (526 grams)
$300, Louisgarneau.com

Rock it if: Pro-level fit and features are worth it, but paying for style isn’t
Snug, secure fit and excellent ventilation
Minimal cleat adjustability

These fit as securely as any shoe in this test, no matter how explosive the effort. The one-piece, overwrapping tongue blissfully cradles the foot, and its soft, grippy heel cup locks the foot in place. The top buckle micro-adjusts easily and can be moved to dial the best fit, but the Velcro on the lower straps felt a bit flimsy. The carbon outsole is very stiff and helps keep total weight down. While not quite on par with some top-end shoes, the sole is sufficiently robust for most serious competitors. Interchangeable insoles are claimed to be weather-specific; we didn’t notice much difference, but overall the ventilation is ample and evenly distributed.

Bontrager Race DLX (600 grams)
$130, Bontrager.com

Rock it if: Comfort and fit is more important than performance
Outstanding performance and fit for the price
A bit heavy and lacking ventilation

While a bit heavy and overbuilt to be called a “race” shoe, the Race DLX provides the best value of the bunch. It is the perfect training shoe to complement a separate pair of dedicated tri race shoes. This feature-packed, affordable shoe has a cushy interior and tongue for a semi-narrow slipper-like feel, although it lacks arch support unless used with Bontrager’s aftermarket insole. The ratchet buckle offers multi-click tightening for quick closure, and one-click micro-adjustability for a secure fit with plenty of adjustment. The nylon outsole flexes noticeably under sprint or stand-up climbing loads, but is stiff enough to provide a nice blend of efficiency and comfort for long training rides. Venting may not be sufficient for really hot days.

RELATED – Reviewed: Specialized S-Works Trivent


Positives: Flying-mount-friendly, light

Negatives: More wiggle, bad for cold days

Specialized S-Works Trivent (560 grams)
$400, Specialized.com

Rock it if: Every second counts
Best-in-test for easy flying mounts
Some issues with fit security

Dare we say “game-changer”? The Trivent is the first with a drawbridge-style heel closure that opens rearward for easy entry—more are sure to follow. Mount the shoes to pedals, then, after a flying mount, just slip your foot in from the back and dial the Boa buckle to tighten the heel and instep strap. Pop the buckle to release the heel, jump out and go. Getting in and out was incredibly quick and easy. It’s also light, and features the brand’s stiffest carbon outsole and a no-tongue design for max venting. Overall the fit was snug and free of hot spots, but wearing it barefoot was a bit rough. There were some loose areas in the heel and instep, but as the shoe broke in, they got snugger. The one-way Boa dial does not allow micro-loosening to tune the fit.

Giro Mele (538 grams)
$200, Giro.com

Rock it if: You want the combination of stiffness and well-cushioned comfort suited to training and racing
Supportive and customizable fit
Quick flying mounts are tricky

With an Easton carbon-composite outsole padded by a footbed featuring three interchangeable arch supports, the Mele feels sufficiently rigid without any of the discomfort common with stiff outsoles. The fit is snug and soft, especially around the well-padded heel, and the variable arch support effectively tailored the shoe’s fit around the arch. These fit features, coupled with nearly complete toe closure, help the Mele serve as a training shoe as well as race gear. Ejecting from this shoe while rolling down the road was more difficult than with the other tri models, however. Its overwrapping toe and mid-foot closure caused some hot spots and minimized ventilation. The broad reverse top strap was easy to tighten and held very tight but was not the easiest to open.

Pearl Izumi Tri Fly IV Carbon (540 grams)
$180, Pearlizumi.com

Rock it if: You need a narrow shoe built for serious racing
Über-comfy upper
Low heel cup allows some slippage

The Tri Fly is as cushy as a running shoe in the heel and instep, without impeding performance on the lightweight racers. The upper stretches to conform to the foot where necessary, while remaining supportive, responsive and stiff. The impressively rigid uni-directional carbon outsole adds to the responsive feeling. The main flaw was the low heel cup that slips under high torque. Otherwise, the two-strap closure was very secure, and, unlike some of the other shoes, the Velcro upper strap reliably stayed open for flying mounts. With a wide-open design, lots of mesh, and venting everywhere, these can easily handle the heat of Kona’s Queen K Highway. And although the toe box is narrow and not as soft as the rear, the shoe is plenty comfy for barefoot riding.

Mavic Tri Race (590 grams)
$130, Mavic.com

Rock it if: You need barefoot comfort with a stiff sole at a cheap price
Outstanding value with cushy interior and roomy toe box
A bit heavy and overbuilt

The Tri Race is a ridiculously good value, considering you get a carbon-reinforced outsole and true flying-mount capabilities. While the outsole flexes noticeably more than higher-end shoes, it’s plenty sufficient for most age groupers, especially since sprinting and stand-up climbing are not common in triathlon. It’s also the most barefoot-friendly of the group, with a supple, seamless sock liner and a soft, well-vented insole. The shoe could use some more ventilation in the outsole and upper, but the overwrap tongue doesn’t close the top completely, leaving an open channel for airflow. And the wide, reverse top strap works easily for quick on and off, and it stayed put during flying mounts.

RELATED – 2013 Triathlete Buyer’s Guide: Cycling Shoes

What to Look For

These six characteristics are the key attributes of any cycling shoe—road or tri.

Weight always matters—using ultra-light material in the upper and a carbon outsole can save a half-pound or more.

Stiffness Stiffer outsoles transfer more wattage than softer ones, but too much stiffness can cause foot discomfort.

A snug fit prevents blistering and improves efficiency by locking the rider into connection with the bike.

Venting keeps feet cool during hot rides, but too much venting makes shoes unusable in cold temps.

Velcro straps are often lighter and simpler than ratcheting buckles, but harder to micro-adjust for optimal fit.

A large heel loop makes flying mounts easier—tri shoes have them; road shoes don’t.

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