top of page

On Shoes and Pedals



Proper clothes are of great importance to anyone interested in their own well-being. The shoes in particular are of great interest for cyclists, as it is with your feet you usually pedal, and only the most advanced cyclists can do so without shoes. Here I will first discuss the attributes of shoes I feel are important in general, and later on shoes in the cycling context more specifically. I’m not trying to set any standards or to say what is better for everyone, but to provoke thinking and discussion on different alternatives.


Style


Style is a universe of its own, which I have a lot of thoughts, feelings and opinions in, so in order to keep my article somewhat focused, I shall not venture there for now, but will keep to more worldly concerns.


Fit


Like any piece of wardrobe, the shoes must first and foremost be of good size and fit. The wrong shape of shoes can cause severe harm to your feet, the more so if you engage in hard and long lasting outings, be it by foot or by bicycle. Personally I have started paying more and more attention to the fit of my own shoes in the last few years. It is one of those things that you realize you could have realized ages ago! But late is better than never.


Shoes tend to be made and sold in simple incremental sizes. The length and width increase systematically. But in which proportions, that is up to the particular system of the shoemaker. For me, a vast majority of shoes are too long and narrow. After having my shoe-realization, even looking at the fine shape of a long and slenderly narrow shoe causes discomfort in the mental awareness of my feet. 


My feet are a much more sturdy shape: wide and short. After doing some research on shoe fit, I have come to learn that especially people who don't wear shoes indoors, or who tend to wear sandals or walk barefoot will tend to have wider feet, probably because they are not constantly constricting them. Possibly feet become naturally wider, reach their full potential so to say, if they are let free. I have always liked to go barefoot in the summer, and instinctively have been taking my shoes off whenever I had the opportunity. But for a long time I did not commit to using wide shoes as well. I was mostly ignoring the discomfort and living with it. So, pay attention to the shape of your foot, maybe try some wider shoes and see if you notice a pleasant feeling. 


On a side note, I have come to appreciate sandals greatly for their comfort and fit. They are virtually always of wide last, and usually have plenty of adjustment. As for their benefits in freshness I won't delve here, as it deserves an article of its own! Lately I have even experimented with using open-toe sandals with toe clips and straps, with surprisingly few problems. I'm not saying it's great, but that it can be done!


But when the situation calls for shoes, I now wear almost exclusively only selected very wide last shoes that are actually the shape of my foot. 




You might not like it, but this is what peak performance can look like. These Ecco leather shoes have “seen it all”. They’ve been through thousands of kilometres of cycling and walking in varying conditions from hot summer days to cool autumn nights and a week of continuous norwegian rain. Note boxy shape for lots of toe room and DIY-perforation for air-conditioning. 


Material


Like about the fit, I have come to be very critical of the material of shoes. By reasoning, intuition and practice I have come to regard shoes made with leather uppers by far the best for most use. Leather is a natural, simple, robust, breathable, and if needed, by coating it, a nearly waterproof material, that has proven itself over millenia. The natural fibers will stretch and adapt to your feet over time, making the shoes essentially custom fitted for you. This is something that synthetic fibers can properly reach only by elaborate and expensive custom fabrication. I personally also dislike the general feel of synthetic shoes, as they tend to be more sweaty and develop a bad smell easily. Simple canvas shoes can be a decent choice, but they are often cheaply made and not especially durable or repairable. 






Good old leather adventure shoe: tough and repairable. Picture taken at Koskenjalan Kenkä- ja Nahkamuseo (Koskenjalka Shoe and Leather Museum), a highly recommended visit!


Preference of natural materials of course limits my options regarding style, and has mostly driven me into vintage-esque looks, which I’m not always completely happy with. Shiny black Sidis look cool in a cyberpunk way, I cannot deny that! But here I prioritize health over a variety of styles. Natural fibers also wear in, not out, as the cliché goes, and will generally look better with age. This is usually not the case with synthetics.


My crusade for natural materials also has to do with the state of the world and the implications of technologies and materials. I just really, really do not like the oil industry and the affiliated infrastructure that makes possible the production of plastics which most shoes and clothes are made of. At least for the time being, I would rather live in constant spiritual debt to the cow-god than try to break free of this primal bond by transcending into the purified world of synthetics that scares me. I of course understand that this is mostly symbolic, as it is close to impossible to live inside the modern world without collaborating with the oil industry. Most leather shoes will have some plastics used as well… 


Cycling and shoes


The basics being introduced, we can move to our niche context of cycling. This specific branch of reality asks for more attributes than style, correct fit and good material. Any shoe and pedal combination works as long as you're riding along casually. But for those who care for the performance aspect of cycling, there are the questions of stiffness, long term comfort and foot retention to consider.


Studies in stiffness


In the first written version of this chapter, I tried to think about different types of cycling and their needs for shoe stiffness, theorizing that strong riders need stiff shoes to have maximum performance. But after looking into the matter, I found multiple sources claiming that small changes in sole stiffness do not have a major direct effect on pedaling performance even on higher power outputs. (1) (2) (3)


These studies and tests suggest that major differences in sole stiffness will have a minor effect on pedalling efficiency. Using a very flexible non-cycling shoe will make you lose some watts compared to decently stiff shoes, especially when sprinting. With steady pedaling the difference is much less pronounced but still exists. But with any decently stiff sole found in almost any cycling shoe, the performance gain in going stiffer is very minimal or non-existent.


The reason a clipless shoe needs to be stiff, seems to have more to do with pedal pressure and comfort, and not “pure” performance (these two are of course in reality very much related). The very small surface area of most clipless pedals will start to make themselves felt if the sole is not stiff enough. The stiff sole acts as the pedal platform.

The only reason to have a stiffer-than-normal cycling shoe would probably be if you are very very strong and thus have very large pedal pressure, or if you have very sensitive feet.


Regarding this I have had a theory since many years ago, when I was riding Vans and other flexy normal shoes, that the muscles of one’s feet get stronger and can keep themselves “stiff” without need for stiff shoes. If one always rides with stiff shoes, some muscles of the feet will wither away and thus the rider becomes dependent on stiff soles. I still believe this to be true to some extent, and I’m quite sure having strong healthy feet will help in every case. 


I have an interesting example about foot strength: last year we rode a 200km brevet with a few friends. One was using xc-racing Sidis, I was using some normal-ish leather shoes and the third was using so-called barefoot shoes with old school sharp edged quill pedals. No one complained about foot problems, even though the third option seems like a nightmare scenario. But as the person using them is a marathon runner with probably very strong feet, they had no problems at all with pedal pressure during the just-under 10 hour ride. The point here being, if you have problems with sore feet while cycling, maybe try strengthening your feet instead of your shoes


Dress for the occasion


Still to some extent, the stiffness of the shoe sole should match that of the power output of your typical use. If you are doing track sprints or road racing, or any other form of high intensity power, where all your power needs to be expended in the shortest possible time, you will probably want a stiff sole. In this kind of extreme case you probably will start to lose in performance with flexible shoes or suffer from comfort issues.

For long distance riding, touring, commuting or anything a bit more controlled the stiffness is not as important, and one can get away with almost any shoe, especially if using large-platform non-clipless pedals that support the not-so-stiff shoes well. Even when going “fast” on a long distance ride, the power output is not very high at any given one time. Naturally, a higher pedaling cadence would also be less affected by sole stiffness, as the load is spread more evenly than on a lower cadence.


For me, in recreational, utilitarian and even sporty use, even the least stiff shoes on cycling shoe manufacturers' scales would do perfectly well, and in a lot of cases, an even flexier normal shoe will do quite adequately. Everyone should find what works for them and really try to feel their way.


Advantages of softer shoes


Softer shoes will of course be much more comfortable when walking than more stiff soled shoes. Your foot wants to flex around the ball and toes, which it cannot really do with an overly stiff sole, and thus your heel will try to come out of the shoe on every step.

I have yet another theory that when using platform pedals instead of clipless, the stiffness of the front part of the shoe has very little use, as it is completely supported by the pedal platform. Only the part that sticks out behind the pedal should be stiff. With clipless, due to the lack of support of the pedal you need to make the whole of the sole very stiff, as you basically have eliminated the pedal platform. This makes the clipless specific shoes less natural to walk in, as the front part cannot flex. With platform pedals you can have  flex in the front of the shoe and a stiff middle and heel, and it will work great for both cycling and walking.




These Ecco “BIOM Natural Movement” shoes have a special stiffened middle part, perforated suede leather upper and sleek shape making for a nearly perfect toe clip shoe. I have added real felt insoles for odor control and fuzzy warm feelings.


Foot retention


The other consideration when cycling with speed in mind is foot retention. It is nearly universally accepted that having your foot attached to the pedal will increase your performance considerably. For decades, the mark of the serious cyclist was that their pedals had toe clips. There surely was some dogma involved, and different types of cycling, the not so serious ones, were not as appreciated. But there is some truth to this that cannot be overlooked. 


The “rear foot pulling up the pedal” theory has been debunked many times by now and thus does not explain the advantage of foot retention. So what makes it worthwhile?

I think if one had the perfect pedaling technique, and would never falter, the difference between a flat pedal and one that holds your foot in place would largely disappear. But humans are not machines that have perfect control of every moment at all times.


The fact that I think makes foot retention work is that you do not need to think about your foot position or worry about your foot slipping off. This frees up more attention, more control and thus more power to your pedalstroke. This is especially true if you are exerting high power or spinning at a high cadence. And once you get tired and lack focus, your foot won't start to wander on the pedal.


On the other hand, for trail riding, “ATB ''ing, casual commuting and low-power touring flat shoes are usually a good or better option, as other factors quickly overcome the pedaling performance aspect. But let’s say you like to spin fast and pedal hard (guaranteed recipe for fast riding!); in this case foot retention is going to help a lot.


Clipless pedals


The type of foot retention that most cyclists are stuck into are the modern type of "click pedals", popularized by LOOK by adapting them from ski bindings. Basically all the different systems consist of special cleats attached to the soles of the shoes, which are then received by the mechanism of the pedal, locked in by springs. The idea is very mature and works well. The first clipless pedal was actually invented in 1895, only 7 years after Dunlop came about with their pneumatic tire. For some reason it took almost a century for the design to override the standard toe clips…


The problems for me with clipless are that the cleats always stick out a bit, making the shoes slippery and a bit awkward to prance around in. Secondly, the obvious one, the special shoes need to be designed for use with the special cleats, limiting shoe choice to those manufactured for cycling only. One would like to think that in the hundreds of different models of cycling shoes made, there would be some that fit my criteria of style, fit, material and stiffness. But there actually aren't. If I wish to have cycling shoes made of leather or any other natural material, my options are narrowed to about 2% of the market offerings. 

Some of the few companies that manufacture leather cycling shoes are Lake and Dromarti. Some of the "super-wide last" Lake high-end models might fit me decently, but even their claimed superwide fit is not quite wide enough for me. And the soles are mostly racing oriented, and thus too stiff for my use. The price is also very high for shoes that are made in China. Dromarti shoes might fit my specifications otherwise, but they are of quintessential narrow and long "italian fit" that would need my hobbit feet to live completely cramped and bound. The more famous long haired cycling hippie is advocating the Stomplox shoes, but they look too hippy-esque even for me and would probably cost a small fortune to import here as well. 


For people who do rides that do not include much walking (or running, climbing trees, dancing etc) a clipless pedal system will work great and is probably the obvious choice. But there are other types of rides and riders.


Toe clips


All this brings us to one of my favourite dadas, as in controversial ideas, the pedals with traditional toe-clips and straps. Even as the alternative bicycle culture is bringing back many old ideas like steel frames, rim brakes and friction shifters, the good old toe clip has mostly vanished into obscurity. It seems nowadays only a select set of streetwise fixie goons are the ones to appreciate them. Having used toe clips for more than 15 years now, since my own street-track times, I can only wonder what makes them so alien to most cyclists. For me, paired with correct shoes, they have always been the best compromise between performance and everyday needs. I don’t need to think about what I can or cannot do with my cycling shoes.


Consider this scenario: it’s a sunny summer day, you go for a long nice bike ride in the morning, getting back in the afternoon and your friends are already at the beach. So you head there, not bothering to go home to swap bikes, shoes or any other equipment as you live on the other side of town. After enjoying some swimming and refreshments the light slowly starts to turn golden and the scent of flowers grows heavier in the evening air. You suddenly hear the first echoes of music as the underground party organisers are setting up their sound system in the nearby woods. Of course your crew gets excited and you all follow the music to its source. A few hours later the party is in full blast, and you naturally feel the need to dance to your heart's content. Would you now rather have your normal shoes or your stiff and slippery clipless cycling shoes on? 


If you are still sticking with your SPDs, what about when the next day, after crashing at your friends’ palace (sic) after the party, and everyone wants to take a nice one hour walk to the other beach via the other forest but you don’t want to walk such a long way with your awkward cycling shoes. Well, you ask if they can loan you a pair of normal shoes or go barefoot, but you get my point anyhow.

~~~~~~


Shoes for toe clips 


It is important to note however that not any shoe will work well with toeclips. The front of the shoe must be smooth and vertically compact to easily slip into the cage. As mentioned earlier, the sole should be decently stiff, but also thin as very thick soles will make the shoe bulky and complicate entry into the pedal cage. So take special care when selecting your shoes in this case as well. Luckily, most very basic classic leather shoes fit these criteria well, and often have a decently stiff shank to boot.


Actually there used to exist such wonderful things as toe-clip optimized touring shoes, like the Sidi Touring described here. Some small companies still produce similar shoes, for example Ribo in Spain. They would still have a slim chance to be wide enough for my feet though.




“Paulette Vassart on the 1000km brevet in 1929”. Note mid-length shoes and the “toe covers'' for rain and wind protection. I have successfully used a similar system on a fenderless fixed gear bike, just by adding gaffer tape onto the toe clips. Picture from “Histoire du Cyclotourisme” by Raymond Henry.


Performance advantages


Next, let’s assess the question of pure performance, which I don't consider of utmost importance, but which I cannot completely disregard anyhow.


Weight


Some might be surprised to learn that a good quality pair of aluminium pedals, like the MKS GR-10, with aluminium toe clips and single leather straps weighs very closely the same as a normal pair of Shimano M520 mountain bike SPD pedals (incl. cleats), both being very close to 400 grams per pair. With special pedals like the Crankbrothers Eggbeaters you could reduce the weight to around 200 grams, but for some reason pretty much no one uses those! A good option for people looking for a lightweight shimano mtb-cleat pedal would be the PD-ES600, a single sided pedal weighing in at ~330 grams with cleats. So there is a small advantage regarding weight for clipless pedals. But on a tour, riding with clipless shoes might mean that you will want to bring another pair of more casual shoes or sandals along, and then the weight advantage will be completely lost. 


Science in Numbers (out of a hat)


As for power transfer considered holistically (including long term comfort), my completely feel-based non-scientific approximations are that a good combination of decent shoes with toe clips and straps could increase overall efficiency by 10% compared to flat pedals. Using stiff wood or nylon base cycling shoes with old-school recess-cleats designed for clips and straps would maybe increase it by another 5%. Compared to that I dont believe an average modern SPD-setup is going to be more efficient, but it will of course be much easier to clip in and out of, which is the real advantage. I dont think anybody is crazy enough to want to go back to using cleats with toe-clips (except maybe myself for elaborating on this pseudoscientific research). Using super-stiff carbon soles and/or road racing click-in-pedals might add another few percent of power in extreme situations, in addition to being lighter in weight.


So according to this intuitive and unscientific theory the largest gain is from going from flats to a decent clips&straps setup. The rest of the changes are important only if you are looking for the infamous marginal gains. In any kind of racing-ish situation an advantage of 1-2-5% can be massive of course. This is where superlight carbon soles, dyneema uppers etc come to play. 


Of course, like said earlier, if the riding to be done is in either very technical terrain or over very long distances with relaxed pace the difference is going to be less pronounced, and flat pedals will work just as well. Grandmaster Vélocio and the associated disciples of the St. Etienne school did most of their fabulous exploits wearing sandals with flat pedals. This reverend attitude of piety and connection with the earth might have given them some performance gains not easily explained by mainstream science. 


One possible extra advantage that clipless pedals do have, is the possibility to shim the cleats and thus adjust the shoes for uneven leg length and such problems. My editor Petri mentioned Steve Hogg’s article series on cycling shoes that might prove helpful to some. I’m sure this can help some individuals, but even here I would firstly try to fix these problems with movement practice such as barefoot walking, yoga and stretching, or with the help of massage and bone setting. I have personally had my leg lengths evened out (temporarily at least) in this type of procedure some years back.


The case for dual sided flat/SPD pedals


If one wants to use any type of shoe, and not choose them for toe-clip compatibility, dual-sided flat/click-in pedals are in a way more versatile, as you get the performance benefits of the SPD side when you like, but can also use any shoes on the flat side. Sandal users especially benefit from this. In some ways this is a compromise with “the best of both worlds”, IF you have a good pair of clipless shoes that you are happy with.


I did notice a possible problem with this type of pedal: due to clipless shoes’ soles and the cleats adding up to quite a high “Effective Sole Height”, you need to have your saddle set higher for optimal ergonomics. Then on the flat-side of the pedal, when using normal shoes with lower ESH, the saddle will be too high and pedaling can be very uncomfortable. In the summer I like to sometimes use super thin soled sandals, and then the problem can be very pronounced.


Summary


I want to emphasize again that I have used toe clips for most of my life, and thus am very used to them. This cannot be overlooked, and someone used to stiffer SPD-shoes might not be able to cycle without them without a long familiarization period. As a side note on this subject, I found this article by Lake quite amusing, as they basically imply that road cyclists on the highest level have been on the bike so much from an early age, that their feet have grown into a special “pro roadie shape”. 


I recently bought a second-hand pair of older Shimano “hike-a-bike'' SPD-shoes, model name SH-MT22, that feature real leather construction for the most part, semistiff sole, and decently roomy fit (I still had to size up 2 whole sizes to acquire enough width!). I will try these shoes to make myself conform to the modern world of clipless shoes and to better understand my fellow contemporary cyclists. They feel much more comfortable for me than the common Sidi Dominators I used to occasionally use, which feel like a hard plastic box tightened around my foot.


The main point of this article still remains: it is not easy to find the perfect pair of shoes, and the use of toe clips can be a very valid option to increase the amount of possibilities while retaining most of the performance benefits of foot retention. And in a lot of real-life situations, not having overly stiff shoes with cleats can make your time a lot more enjoyable. What works best for you depends on your riding- and lifestyle, and on the unavoidable compromises that you will choose. 


-Aki "Feet on the Ground" Viren





342 katselukertaa0 kommenttia

Viimeisimmät päivitykset

Katso kaikki

Comments


bottom of page