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Seven tips to buying the right bicycle touring shoe

Alia Parker's picture
Seven tips to buying the right pair of bicycle touring shoes. Cycle Traveller

Our feet work hard on a bicycle tour; they're the major contact point in which we transfer our energy onto the pedals to keep us moving, day after day. Given the amount of pressure we put on our feet, it's important to think about the type of footwear we dress them in. Does the sole provide adequate support to prevent numbness? Should you wear cleats? What type of cleats? And will you need to carry more than one pair of shoes?

There's no 'one size fits all' solution to finding the right pair of touring shoe, so to make sure you buy the right ones for you, ask yourself these seven questions:

1. Should I wear cleats?

This is perhaps the most common question new cyclists ask.

Cleats are attached to the bottom of specifically designed cycling shoes to allow the foot to clip into the pedal. By clipping into the pedal, the cyclist not only prevents the foot from slipping around on the pedal, but is able to improve pedaling efficiency because the rider can now pull up on the pedal as well as push down. This can make long rides much more comfortable. Most cyclists, once having used cleats, never go back. But, cleats are not everyone's cup of tea and many cycle tourers opt not to use them. Some make this choice because they don't like cleats while others prefer to travel light and take a pair of shoes that can be used in multiple situations.

There are generally two types of cleats: road cycling cleats and SPD cleats. Each must be paired with the corresponding pedal. Since road cleats are larger and protrude from the bottom of the shoe, most tourers avoid these because the shoe isn't that practical when off a bike. SPD cleats are used with mountain bike shoes as well as alternative cycling shoes (such as sandals or city sneakers designed to be used with cleats). They are smaller and most often sit recessed into the sole of the shoe, making them more practical for walking in (although, since the soles are rigid and the cleat often crunches on the concrete, they're not as comfortable as a normal walking shoe). If you're wearing cleats for the first time, make sure to get some practice in before heading off on tour because you don't want to be in a situation where you forget to clip out with a fully loaded bike (and all those new to cleats forget or are late to clip out at some point). Cleats are easy to use -- you push down into the pedal to clip in and twist the ankle outwards to clip out -- but it takes a few rides to train the brain to make these movements subconsciously.

If you don't want to wear cleats, you have some alternative options. Some riders still like to use toe clips (a cage-like contraption that fits onto the front of the pedal for the toes to slip into). Many riders that haven't worn cleats make the mistake of thinking these are safer because the foot isn't clipped in. This is not necessarily the case because the foot needs to be pulled backwards to be released from the pedal. SPC cleats are quick release and allow the foot to come straight off the side of the pedal.

Another option is the flat pedal. If taking this option, you may want to consider a platform pedal, like the Straightline Componets DeFacto pedal, that provides the foot with support as well as grip to prevent the shoe slipping around.

2. What will the road conditions be like?

Bontrager RXL Mountain. Cycle TravellerThe answer to this question will ultimately determine which type of shoe will best suit your tour. Will you be predominantly on paved road, on dirt, or a bit of both? Will you be riding over steep mountain passes, sandy roads or flat plains?

If you're on a fully supported tour on paved roads, you'll likely be riding a road bike and your road shoes and cleats will be perfect. If you're going to be carrying your own gear, you'll probably want to opt for more practical shoes. A reader in our forum recommends the Shimano MT-42 shoe (pictured above) fitted with SPD cleats, and this is a great multipurpose shoe for touring in. If you're going to be hitting some off-road trails and expect to find yourself pushing your bike up gravelly dirt, you may want to consider a more traditional mountain bike shoe, like the Bontrager RXL Mountain (pictured right).

3. What will the weather be like?

Parts of Australia can get very hot and since feet generate a lot of heat, you don't want to find yourself in a position where your feet feel like they're burning up. Many cycle tourists prefer to ride cycling sandals fitted with cleats in warm weather. Darryl in our forum says these are not only great in hot weather, but also handy if you need to take a quick splash or ford a river. Consider something like the Shimano SD66L Sandal (pictured below).

The feet, along with the hands and head, can also lose a lot of heat, so when cycling in cold conditions, make sure to have a full shoe combined with a warm pair of socks, preferably wool. You can also buy shoe covers to add warmth or protect the shoes from getting wet in the rain.

Shimano Sandal. Cycle Touring shoes. Cycle Traveller

4. Does the shoe provide adequate sole support?

Many cyclists may already be familiar with foot cramps or numbness. You can improve the circulation in your foot by making sure your cycling shoes have a stiff and supportive sole. The stiffness in the sole allows a more even pressure to be exerted on the foot when pushing down on the pedal rather than having the force concentrated in one spot on the ball of the foot. This is a very important consideration on long rides. If the shoe you plan on buying can bend through the sole, especially in the area around the ball of the foot, then this means it won't provide your foot with the support it needs.

5. Does the shoe fit properly?

An ill fitting pair of shoes will be more trouble than their worth. Don't wear loose fitting shoes because your foot will slip around inside, causing blisters and discomfort. On the other hand, you don't want the shoes to be too tight and cutting into your circulation because you'll quickly lose the feeling in your feet. Importantly, your toes should not be able to touch the inside tip of the shoe; you'll end up with very sore and irritated toenails.

On another note, some shoes are secured with velcro only. Velcro may loosen over the course of the day, so you may prefer to go with a combination of velcro straps with a top clip, as in the Bontrager RLX Mountain. This will ensure your shoe stays snug.

6. Will the shoe serve more than one function?

Unless you're going on a fully supported tour in which a van will carry your luggage between stops, the weight and amount of gear you carry will need to be taken into consideration. Since shoes are bulky, you ideally want to avoid taking too many pairs. Think about what you'll need on your feet while you're not riding. Do you want to go hiking? Would you be comfortable wearing your cycling shoes into a restaurant, pub or cafe? It's not necessary to make sure your cycling shoe will serve all these functions, but if you buy a pair that will serve more than one purpose, then you'll find it will make your trip a lot easier.

A light pair of thongs (that's Aussie for flip flops or jandals to our overseas friends) will likely be very useful as a second pair and they won't take up much space in your panniers. Alternatively, a nice pair of walking sandals, like Teva, could be practical for around a campsite, about town and also look nice in a restaurant or cafe. Hiking in cycling shoes is not ideal, so if a bushwalk is on your agenda, you will likely need to carry a second pair of shoes. There's a very rare breed of people that like to cycle in hiking boots. Boots have nice stiff soles, but their comfort on a bike is questionable. Each to their own, but it's an option.

7. Is the shoe safe?

This may seem like a strange question, but it's an important one. Generally, you'll want to avoid shoes that have loose objects, such as laces, that can get stuck between the chain and the chain ring. Some cycling shoes have laces combined with a velcro strap across the top. If using laces, always make sure they are secured under the strap.


RonK's picture

I find Shimano MTB shoes too narrow for my flat feet. Northwave MTB shoes have more internal volume and fit nicely. They are my everyday shoe on tour and are worn on flights, around town, hiking and of course on the bike. I've been using the Expedition GTX, but they are now superceded.

After experiementing with several types of pedal, I have settled on Shimano M785 XT Trail pedals. These are a double-sided SPD type with a compact platform. It is very easy to engage the cleats so they are excellent for those difficult uphill starts.

Usually I carry a pair of thongs, but on a recent tour I needed to ford a number of streams, and went looking for something a bit more secure whilst still light and compact. I discovered that the barefoot running craze has spawned a plethora of lightweight shoe designs and I settled on a pair of Vivo Barefoot Ultra's - they have a removable neoprene liner which helped keep my feet warm in the icy mountain streams. The Ultra's did a great job of protecting my feet from stones on the stream beds and took the place of thongs for my camp shoes.

At one time I was considering sandals, but after a chance encounter with a sandal shoed cycle tourist I abandoned the idea. His feet were very smelly.

Paul62's picture

I agree with RonK , Shimano are nice shoes but way too narrow. I have two pairs that have never had cleats attached and both only used once. One is the Goretex MT 60 size 44, the other MT 52 size 43. So if anyone is interested in these shoes , drop me a line. They are in mint condition. Now stick with my Keen Targhee II mid hiking boots with Shimano Saint PD MX80 pedals, sweet.

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