The Anatomy of a Cycling Shoe

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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The Anatomy of a Cycling Shoe

A good cycling shoe can make a big difference in your comfort and performance. But, like running shoes, the right cycling shoe is highly individual and should be based on a number of different factors such as your style of riding, fit and comfort.

To help you narrow the choices and determine which cycling shoe is best for you, we break down the different parts of a cycling shoe and what you should look for before purchasing.

Using clipless pedals with a dedicated cycling shoe provides a few advantages over using normal shoes. Clipping into the pedal with a cycling cleat allows you to pedal in circles rather than just pushing down — a habit most of us learned during childhood. Using this fixed pedaling system generates more power and enables you to use more of your muscle groups — namely the hamstrings and glutes instead of just relying on the quadriceps.


A dedicated cycling shoe also features a stiffer sole, which is more efficient at transferring your pedaling power to forward motion than the flexible sole on most tennis shoes. And while tennis shoes might seem a bit more comfortable, the right cycling shoe keeps your foot in the right spot on the pedal and provides a better fit and feel on the bike.

The first decision you’ll need to make when determining what cycling shoe to buy is what kind of riding you’ll be doing most. If you intend to do most or all of your riding on the road, you’ll want to purchase a road shoe that has a smooth outer sole and a three-bolt pattern that can only be used with road-specific pedals.

If you ride a mix of on- and off-road or stick primarily to trails, a mountain bike shoe with a rubber sole provides traction for when you have to hop off the bike and walk. Keep in mind that mountain bike shoes have a two-bolt pattern for the cleats, which means you’ll also have to use a mountain-specific pedal. For urban commuters, there are specialty options that look more like a regular sneaker with a slightly stiffer sole.


Once you’ve decided on your style of riding and the type of shoe you need to buy, which option you choose will likely come down to the price and features. Below is a breakdown of each of the elements of a cycling shoe you should look at when deciding which shoe is right for you.


The stiffness of the sole plays a big factor in the cost of a cycling shoe. Stiffer soles made of more expensive carbon fiber flex much less than cheaper materials, which means you’ll transfer your power from the pedals much more efficiently. Stiffer carbon fiber soles will also be lighter than most other materials. Unfortunately, ultra-stiff carbon fiber soles also bump up the price and make you feel road vibration a little bit more, which could play a factor in your overall comfort.

Less expensive options often include nylon soles or nylon soles that are reinforced with carbon fiber. These options still provide you with a stiffer sole than a tennis shoe and a pretty efficient pedal stroke, they just won’t be quite as light or stiff as higher-end, all-carbon options. When considering which sole is best for you, concentrate on the fit and feel and how serious you are about racing versus comfort.


The material used on the upper portion of a cycling shoe also plays a factor in your comfort, fit and overall price point. More expensive options are often made of a softer material like a natural leather that molds to the foot and improves your comfort. Synthetic materials might not be quite as comfortable but can provide other advantages like being lighter and easier to clean if you ride in poor conditions.

Other than material, the amount of ventilation should also be considered when deciding on an upper. Some cycling shoes feature holes in the upper to allow the foot to breathe. While this might be suitable for moderate conditions, shoes that include mesh sections breathe much easier in hot and humid conditions. On the downside, mesh sections on the upper are  harder to keep clean — particularly if they’re white.


There are four main types of closures: Velcro straps, boa dials, shoe laces and buckles. The current trend on mid- to high-end shoes are boa dials, which are lightweight and easy to adjust on the bike. Shoe laces have made a big comeback recently for fans of retro styling, and they are another lightweight option that can also improve your comfort. When it comes to adjustments though, shoestrings can be tough to deal with.

Buckle and Velcro straps (or a combination) are usually used to cut cost on less expensive models. However, they can be just as comfortable and light as higher-end options. When choosing a closure, pick one that best adjusts to your foot and provides the right amount of pressure when tightening.


When it comes to comfort, the footbed is crucial. The arch, width and curve of the footbed differ from shoe to shoe. Because of this, which shoe is most comfortable is highly individual. Just because a friend from your cycling club recommends a specific brand or model doesn’t mean it’ll work for you.

This is why it’s important to try on several pairs of cycling shoes before you decide on a pair, just as you would with running shoes.



The rear portion of the shoe that hugs the Achilles tendon is known as the heel cup. A secure heel cup keeps the shoe from rocking up and down as you pedal, which also improves efficiency and the transfer of power.

The heel cup, along with the fit of the midfoot, prevents the shoe from sliding back and forth. This friction of your foot sliding inside the shoe can cause hot foot or other fit issues that lead to discomfort during longer rides. When trying on a cycling shoe, lift your heel off the ground and press down on the toe to see if the heel cup is secure and comfortable.


Small rubber inserts on the heel and toe of a road cycling shoe are often used to make standing when you unclip a little easier. While these can wear out fairly easily, replacement parts will be available for a good shoe allowing you to replace heel and toe bumpers.

Before you decide on a purchase, inquire which parts of the shoe are replaceable, as this will factor into the overall durability and how long your shoe will last before it needs to be replaced.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for


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