First, let’s acknowledge and even celebrate that ANY shoe you wear while pedaling a bicycle is a cycling shoe. Pair of Hush Puppies? Cycling shoes. Louis Vuitton heals? Cycling shoes. Crocs? No. Stop it. There are limits.
Today though, I’m going to talk about the kinds of shoes with cleats on them that allow you to attach yourself to your bicycle. There is, of course, another type of cycling-specific shoe worn by mountain bike-cyclists who have flat pedals on their machines. These pedals have spikes (charmingly called “pins”) that dig into the soles of said shoes. It’s just a clip system with an extremely loose release mechanism. Like a jet with an ejector seat where the eject button is right next to the volume for the radio. Oops.
Then, there are any shoes you jam into a pair of toe-clips, or “cages.” The use of said cages pre-dated the modern “clipless” era, unless you are/were a fixie-riding hipster, in which case you’d want an anachronistic pedal system to match your anachronistic moustache, and that makes perfect sense, and no one thinks it’s dumb. Getting into and out of a pair of toe clips is a dicey affair, requiring just the right tightness of the clip’s straps, so that entry is only somewhat difficult and exit, under duress, doesn’t produce a catastrophic ending. It’s a bad system, which is why so many of us love it.
Among the true clipless shoes there are a further two types. The two-bolt and the three-bolt, which I think of as “really” and “really, really” clipped in. In the woods, we really wanna be clipped in. On the road, we really, really wanna. Because stiffness! Because power transfer! Because cultural signifier! The best way to be taken seriously as a bike rider is to dress up like a bike rider.
As I understand it, the rationale for cycling shoes is that you can both push down AND pull up, so that the whole pedal stroke is more powerful and more efficient. Smarter people than me, people who work with pro teams, have told me that the pull part of that story is false, that most cyclists don’t pull up, and even those who do gain no real advantage from doing so. That doesn’t jibe necessarily with my personal experience, but there is data apparently.
What I think I can say reliably is that the people who are faster than I am, on the road, are faster whether they’re wearing a pair of high zoot road shoes or a pair of Louis Vuitton heels.
On the trail, cycling shoes have a dual purpose, or perhaps given their likely lack of help on the power/efficiency front, one remaining purpose, and that is as an adjunct to bike handling skills. I am certainly better able to control the rear of my bike when I’m clipped in than when I’m not. Those dedicated to flat pedals will call that cheating, but I’m not sure what the game is or where the rules are written, so I’m inclined to ignore those people.
In summation, I am a big fan of cycling shoes, even if I’m not sure what they get me. Maybe it’s one of those deals where you have to dress the part to get the job. Cycling shoes are more placebo than medicine? I think I ride better with them than without, and I think you think that too, about yourself that is. I am increasingly open to the idea that much of the gear we affect to ride our bikes is only so much cosplay, and rather than feeling embarrassed by that, I’m happy enough to lean in, even if it means I make a clicky-clacky sound as I make my way over to the Slurpee machine at the 7-11.
Wish I still had my Detto Pietros with the nailed in cleats. Now those oozed cool. But I pretty much wore those to tatters and after a few too many rainy rides in Honolulu, they gave up the ghost. And the Avocet touring shoes and white socks were what caught the eye of the girl I eventually married, so in that case, it was a permanent bond even without toe clips and straps.