Welcome back to CT Recommends, a new series where we take the experience of our team and trusted contributors and force them to choose their favourite product in a particular category.
For this second instalment, we sent the following question to our global team via Slack: “If you could only have one pair of road cycling shoes, what would it be?” Some tried sitting on the fence, while others didn’t hesitate to call out what they consider the best road cycling shoe.
In the end, Specialized was the obvious winner, selected by a fair few of the team. Giro, Shimano, Bont and Lake all received votes, too. The varying choices go to prove that fit is everything when it comes to cycling shoes and so it’s certainly a good idea to try before you buy.
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Road cycling shoe basics
The shoes picked here are traditional road cycling shoes, designed for use with road cycling pedals. The outersole is always telling for such a shoe, offering just minimal tread at the toe and heel, and typically relying on the cleat as the prominent walking surface. All the shoes picked feature the common three-bolt cleat mounting surface, which is notably different to the two-bolt system found on mountain-bike, gravel, touring or similar cycling footwear.
When looking at budget road shoes, expect to see a sole made of nylon or similar plastic. Almost all of our team selected shoes that sit at the higher-end, meaning a (usually) lighter and stiffer carbon fibre sole.
Upper material can vary greatly in cycling shoes, with many brands choosing to use synthetics (often microfibre) for the ability to engineer exact qualities. However, there is variety in choice, with some high-end shoes made of real leather (such as the kangaroo leather used in top-end Lake shoes), or even newer knitted material. Take a look inside the shoe and many higher-end models will feature advanced lining materials to keep your heel snug and an innersole with more considered or adjustable arch support.
Shoe retention is just as varied as the material itself, with the popularity of laces having a notable resurgence of late. At the low end, velcro straps are the most common retention method, with dial- and wire-based retention systems, such as those from Boa, taking over as prices go up.
When looking at high-end shoes, Boa systems, or similar offerings, dominate the market, with laced options from a few brands offering an alternative. While velcro straps are available in premium shoes as a low-weight pick, very few in our team rate them.
Shoes with strong ventilation ensure your feet stay dry on hot days, and it’s something even high-end shoes can fail to offer. Stack height is another aspect of shoe design rarely spoken about it, but the closer your foot can be to the pedal, the better your pedaling stability will be.
Our favourite road cycling shoes
Unlike our last CT Recommends feature on bike travel cases, which broke our favourites down into five categories, cycling shoes are simpler, and obviously, a whole lot more personal. Unfortunately, as we all have different-shaped feet, what works for one staff member may not work for you. I’ve tried to provide basic insight into foot shapes, but it’s a topic we’ve barely dipped a toe in here.
Specialized S-Works road shoes are used by a number of CT staff, and for good reason. James Huang, CyclingTips’ US tech editor, chooses the S-Works Sub 6 because they “work extremely well for me with the tight-fitting and narrow heel, relatively squared-off and roomy toe box, and medium volume. The varus angling works well for me, too.”
James describes his foot shape as being typically Asian: flat, wide, low-volume, narrow heel, very low instep. He also gets along well with Shimano shoes, and so-so on Giro, but describes the likes of Fizik, Sidi, Lake and Mavic as being too narrow in the toe box and lacking heel support.
Our leader, Wade Wallace, is another who picks the Specialized. With an “average” width foot, Wade finds comfort in most cycling shoes, but prefers the S-Works 6 (and now the 7) as they “fit like a glove”.
“Everything keeps in place, especially the heel,” Wade says. “They’re nice and snug without ever getting uncomfortable if my feet swell.” Wade notes that Shimano S-Phyre RC9s are a close second, but in that position simply because they “don’t feel as snug.”
Andy van Bergen, our customer experience manager, and Mr Hells 500, is another S-Works 6 user. “Lightweight, and comfortable. I’ve done a couple of Everestings in them now, so I figure if you can ride 20 hours straight in them they must be ok. I really like how snug it is on the heel.”
Andy also rates the Bontrager XXX, giving some indication of the fit for those shoes. This aligns with James’ thoughts on Bontrager, that they’re a “fairly similar overall fit to Specialized, although with a wider heel and more volume overall.” Andy doesn’t rate the velcro straps on his Bontragers, however, and so he has Specialized on top.
One last nod for the Specialized S-Works 6s comes from Mitch Wells, a key person behind the CyclingTips Emporium. “Add me to the list on liking the heel-cup-hugging feel of the S-Works,” he says. “I still run two pairs of the older Boa dial S-Works 5s as my everyday pairs. And I like the lace fitting of the S-Works Sub 6, but white is for dry days only.”
Giro Empire ACC and SLX
Giro’s laced shoes earn two votes from the team.
First is from our senior US editor, Caley Fretz, who, with a self-described narrow foot, picks the laced Giro Empire range. “Huge Giro Empire fan here. The last just works for me and I like laces,” he says. “E70 knits are my current summer favorite. I have a high instep which is why laces are so good. I can leave the middle of my foot pretty loose.”
CyclingTips’ production editor, Iain Treloar is also a fan of the Giro Empire ACC and the lighter SLX.
“I’m all about laces. When I use other closures I just find that I can’t get as precise a fit,” Iain says. “Although, the VR90 are a pain to get dry after muddy rides.” A user of orthotic inserts, Iain has long had trouble in finding shoes that fit him. “They’re the only road shoes I could get comfortable with after trying on about 30 different models. I thought I was a wide foot, but who the hell knows, because I keep seeing them referenced as a narrow fit.”
My take on Iain’s fitting success, backed by James, is that Giro’s flat sole, with its somewhat lacking arch support, works perfectly with the orthotics, while the construction of the shoe and the laces mean there’s little pressure against the ball of the foot. James isn’t a fan of the Giro Empires, citing “the fit is kinda meh for me. Heel is too wide, the toe box is too narrow (especially in the Empire line), and there’s no built-in arch support (beyond what the innersole offers).”
Shimano S-Phyre RC9
This is my pick. The S-Phyre RC9s just give me so little to complain of. They offer an impressively low stack height, are super easy to get in and out of and have one of the most widely adjustable cleat mounts of any shoe on the market.
For me, the Specialized S-Works 6s (I haven’t used the 7s) are awesome, but I have mixed feelings about the locked-in heel that Wade, Mitch, Andy and James love. I appreciate the feel of it, but I’ve also had it blister me where it wraps around the Achilles (an element that’s apparently more relaxed in the new S-Works 7). I also don’t love the aesthetic of the tall toe box.
I totally understand why Wade and James have put the Specialized S-Works as their top pick (and, notably, mentioned Shimano as their second), especially given they’re lighter, more supportive and just feel like a more premium shoe. But in the end, the more relaxed hold of the Shimano S-Phyre hasn’t caused me any pain.
Our roving reporter Dave Everett is a bonafide fan of Lake shoes, despite no longer wearing a pair. “I get terribly uncomfortable feet: frozen toes, hot feet, they even keep me awake at night,” he says. “I can tell you the day it started to get like that: 2008 Marmotte in the Alps. My feet blew to bits in the heat on the Galibier.
“Since then I’ve struggled with shoes but the best by far were Lake CX401s matched with a Solestar insole. Super supple, and the standard version just fit perfectly. But I destroyed them in a crash and they’re crazy money to replace.
“Since then, I’ve found the Bontrager XXX with their customisable insoles good. But nothing touches the Lakes.”
Dave’s love for Lake is repeated by our new development hire, Josh Kadis. Josh casually commented “Lake 4eva”, before suggesting that, while a novelty, the kangaroo leather is amazing.
James is another that’s tried Lake, but didn’t get along with them, stating they suffer from the “same arch curvature issue as Fizik — too much volume for me.”
Bont Vaypor S
Our Australian tech editor, Matt Wikstrom, picks the Bont Vaypor S shoes. These Australian-designed shoes are a strong example of Bont’s different approach to shoe design which sees the carbon sole nearly envelope the whole foot. As a result of the design, Bont shoes are typically extremely low in weight and high in stiffness.
“So much room for the toes, so much hold on the heel, and very hard wearing,” Matt says. “Plus no cardboard inner to get smelly when the shoes are wet. I don’t wear anything else.”
Matt suggests his foot shape is about average and with a low volume when shopping for normal street shoes. When it comes to cycling shoes, he’s on the cusp of a wide fit. Worthy of note, like Iain Treloar, Wikstrom uses orthotics inside his cycling shoes, although his cover the arch and heel only.
Be warned that the fit of the Bont Vaypors is notoriously polarising. For example, James says: “Ironclad hold around heel and ankle, tons of room in the toe box. Have to closely match last with foot shape, though, since the built-in arch support is so aggressive. Sometimes can’t find them comfortable on long rides in hot weather. They’re too stiff in that situation.”
Fizik R1 (older model)
CyclingTips’ US editor, Neal Rogers, has forever widening feet as a result of collapsed arches. Those collapsed arches also result in fairly consistent hot-spot pain in trying many popular shoes. Neal keeps returning to his old pair of first-gen buckle and velcro Fizik R1s, stating they just work for his feet. He also finds favour in an even older pair of Sidi Megas, but states the Fizik are better in comfort and durability.
Funnily enough, Neal also likes Bontrager shoes, stating the RXLs are nicely comfortable for him, but despite that, prefers to use the older Fizik R1 (note: these are discontinued and Fizik has since changed its last shape).
In Neal’s case, his feet just did not get along with Specialized S-Works’ offering, nor Giro’s.
Our senior Australian editor Matt de Neef suggested his favourite road cycling shoes are Shimano SPD sandals. “Unrivalled ventilation for those hot days, quick to dry, and wonderfully stylish as well!” He claims he was joking, but regardless, I decided it was safest to remove him from the conversation.
What road cycling shoes do you use and why? Or are you part of the growing crowd to ditch road pedals altogether and move exclusively to mountain bike cleats?