It is, of course, entirely possible to ride a bike in any kind of shoe (although those Manolo Blahnik slingbacks might not be ideal). But shoes made specifically for cycling have a number of advantages. They're usually stiffer than normal shoes, which is more comfortable and efficient for pedalling, and will either be grippy underneath to avoid slippage or be compatible with clipless pedal systems.
Pure cycling shoes aren't designed to walk in – they're very stiff and there's only vestigial tread underneath, so getting around on foot is more akin to hobbling and slipping. If you've got a long commute and/or like to go fast, this might not be a problem (especially if you can store your bike very close to your workplace) but for most purposes a shoe that gives at least a nod towards walking is a good idea. There are lots of shoes available that look like trainers or lightweight hiking shoes while still having the pedalling performance you're looking for.
Flat or clipless?
There are two kinds of pedals in common use. Flat, or platform, pedals are just that – a platform that you rest your feet on. Usually there are pins or serrations on the pedal surface to stop your feet slipping around, but a shoe with a flat, grippy rubber sole helps a lot.
Flats are great for just hopping on and off, but if your commute is longer or faster (or if you're already a keen cyclist) then you might want to opt for “clipless” pedals. They're called that because they replaced the toeclips that used to be used to hold feet in place on the pedals. Instead there's a sprung mechanism in the pedal that engages with a cleat attached to the shoe. Shoes need to be designed specifically for this purpose. There are several types of clipless pedal, but in general those designed for off-road use low-profile cleats with two bolts and road systems use more prominent plastic cleats with three bolts. The off-road type have the advantage that the cleat can be recessed into the sole of the shoe so as not to impede walking.
Fit and fastening
High-end race shoes tend to feature an array of exotic fastening solutions, including ratchet straps and dials that tension a monofilament line. Less expensive shoes usually rely on Velcro straps, and the majority of “everyday” shoes have traditional laces. These are often supplemented by a Velcro strap, although that doesn't always contribute much to keeping the shoe on – in some cases it's mainly there to keep the ends of the laces out of the way of the chainset. If there isn't a strap, you'll need some way of keeping laces clear of whirly bits – the end of a shoelace in the chain is a good way to come to an abrupt halt.
Quoc Pham Tourer
They're not cheap, but Quoc Pham's hand made leather shoes are the epitome of subtlety. They certainly don't shout “cyclist!”, unless you're familiar with cycling shoes of the 1950s. Bringing the design up to date, the Tourer has a chunky rubber sole and fittings for cleats – there's also the Fixed, with a flat sole for use with traditional toeclips.
Endura Deluge Overshoes
Waterproof shoes are available, but they're expensive. Neoprene overshoes like the Deluge go over your cycling shoes and keep the worst of the elements off, keeping your feet warm even if there's rain and puddles. Most overshoes are designed to fit over slim road-style shoes – seek out bigger ones if you're using chunkier shoes.
The MT44 is a great example of the “rugged trainer” style of cycling shoe. At a glance it could be an approach shoe from the likes of Merrell or Salomon, but inside there's a stiffened sole and clipless fittings. Speed laces mean no knots to tie, and the laces hook safely out of the way.
Five Ten Dirtbag Low
Five Ten made its name in climbing shoes, and it uses the same super-sticky rubber on the soles of its bike shoes. A lot of Five Ten offerings are pitched at mountain biking, and look it, but the Dirtbag Low is a more subtle, skate-style shoe that won't look out of place with jeans.
Specialized Women's Tahoe
Specialized's Body Geometry design makes for a range of comfortable, well-fitting shoes. The Tahoe is its crossover bike/hike shoe, with a chunky sole and suede/mesh upper. It's clipless pedal-ready. A Velcro strap adds security and keeps the laces out of the way. There's a men's version too.
The Solstice comes at the “walkable cycling shoe” concept from a different angle, with an upper modelled on a conventional race shoe but equipped with a thicker sole. You wouldn't want to walk a long way in it, but it's a good solution to having a “proper” cycling shoe that doesn't make you walk like a duck.
Riding for an hour rather than just across town? You might want to look beyond “crossover” shoes and get yourself some more uncompromising footwear. Lake's CX175 has a Boa dial and monofilament line for fast, secure fastening and a sole ready for a road clipless system. They're more expensive than some shoes, but good value for their type.
Cheap doesn’t have to mean nasty. Choose wisely and you can buy a decent new commuter bike for £250 or less.
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