The day you first put on a pair of cycling shoes is one you’ll never forget. Cycling shoes might feel weird off the bike, but the moment you put your foot down on that very first pedal stroke, it’s as if the scales have fallen from your eyes, and you see a new world. Pushing down is much easier and now pulling up is something you can actually do. Combine shoes with clipless pedals, and you’re both secure and free.
There is footwear for all your bike riding needs. There are road shoes, MTB shoes, shoes for flat pedals, shoes for winter, shoes for commuting, even cycling sandals. What makes a cycling shoe is a stiffened sole, often drilled to accept cleats, an upper section that resists stretching, and a heel cup which prevents your foot from pulling out of the shoe.
Once Shimano debuted their SPD pedal and shoe, off-road footwear standardized around the two-bolt cleat pattern, which could sit flush with a walking tread. Traditional European cyclocross shoes typically came with threaded inserts for toe spikes, an idea that quickly became integrated into MTB footwear. They may seem unnecessary until you encounter a steep, muddy hill.
Today, the best MTB shoes run a wide range from svelte racers to protective hightops to flat pedal MTB shoes. The first thing to consider is how stiff a sole you want, then what kind of hoofing you might do, then what kind of upper protection you might need.
The best gravel bike shoes are a matter of debate. The proper choice may depend on how much walking you anticipate doing. Some folks prefer lightweight road shoes, some prefer a more flexible sole found in MTB shoes. For many, the perfect medium is XC racing shoes—stiff, but with tread. Mavic cycling shoes have options in this realm; they’ve even made gravel-specific footwear.
At their best, road bike shoes are stiffened slippers, a light, conforming upper that doesn’t stretch, combined with a rigid sole. The more you are on the road riding, the better vented the upper part of the shoe and the thinner and stiffer the sole. Most road shoes have a three-bolt pattern for mounting cleats, a minimum amount of rubber on the sole, and a securing system. This can be a combination of laces, Velcro, buckles, and Boas.
The best bike socks are thin, tight, and light. Thin bike socks help the shoes gain a more snug fit without the extra room being taken up by a thicker sock, this helps prevent sliding around within the shoe when riding. Thin also doesn’t get as soggy with sweat or water encountered on rides. Tight is because a loose sock can lead to discomfort and blisters. For warmer weather, a synthetic fiber mixed with spandex often works best. In cold weather, wool cycling socks are favored for insulation. These principles work for both the best men’s and women’s cycling socks as well as for road, gravel, and MTB shoes. The only thing left to debate is sock length, where personal preference takes priority.