Cycling Shoes Demystified: What Type of Shoe is Right For You?

Navigating the many types of cycling shoes and performance features so you can pick the perfect set of shoes for your riding style.

The sense of being one with the bike is something that every cyclist can appreciate. Flowing through tree-lined singletrack, carving down switchbacks on an alpine road, or flying along a wide-open gravel road with the wind at your back: it’s freeing. 


Man riding a Shimano equipped gravel bike with Shimano RX8 SPD shoes on


Your cycling shoes play an important part in that bike-body relationship as they're the connection between you and your machine. They're the place where all of your power and effort is translated into forward motion. Shoes are also a critical component when it comes to comfort on the bike, and finding the right shoes can be a game-changer for novice and experienced cyclists alike.


Female mountain biker riding bike off rock ledge wearing Shimano MTB footwear


As such an essential part of your cycling kit and performance on the bike, it's no surprise that with the increasing specialization of bikes, shoes are becoming just as honed and purpose-built. Whether you race or ride, hit the trails or stick to pavement, commute around town or spend most of your time on dusty, deserted roads, there is a pair of shoes designed just for you. 



Road Shoes

Road shoes are the original cycling shoe, and the basic concept and design hasn't changed much since the near-universal adoption into the sport in the 1990s. The smooth sole of a road shoe allows for a large, three-bolt SPD-SL cleat to be mounted, which then clips-in to your bike’s road pedal. The cleat's large platform design translates to maximum power transfer between you and the bike. Also, because the sole is flat, without any extra material, modern road shoes, like the Shimano's S-Phyre RC902 - can be astoundingly light while attaining stiffness-to-weight ratings only dreamed of a decade ago.


Model wearing Shimano SH-RC902 S-PHYRE road bike shoes


Gravel Shoes

In the early days of gravel riding and racing, riders had to choose between road shoes and mountain bike shoes. Road shoes are light and stiff, but the pedal systems they use are prone to getting clogged up with mud, and the smooth sole means walking or even putting a foot down on loose gravel could be disastrous. MTB shoes shed mud perfectly and have good traction but are often more built-up with extra protection features that aren’t needed on gravel. Then, in 2019, Shimano released the first dedicated gravel race shoe with the RX8. Blending the featherweight design and stiffness of a road shoe with the traction and durability of a mountain bike shoe, the RX8s changed the face of gravel footwear. 


Model wearing Shimano SH-RX800 Purple and Green SPD Gravel shoes


Cross-Country Mountain Bike Shoes

Cross-Country or XC shoes are the lightest and stiffest of the mountain shoe lineup. While there is a high technical demand in XC racing, power transfer and weight remain top priorities. With that in mind, Shimano’s S-PHYRE RC9 shoes have been shaped and honed to be the lightest, most agile option while still offering superior traction that is necessary for off-road riding. These shoes use special lightweight, proprietary compounds on the outsole, which can make all the difference when negotiating slippery off-camber surfaces, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase "rubber side down."


Shimano SH-XC901 Mountain bike cross-country shoes



Support, protection, and some measures of forgiveness are key when moving fast through jarring terrain. Trail riding and Enduro racing place unique demands on the foot, and many riders prioritize bike control and protection over pure power transfer that’s most important in XC racing. Off-bike traction is also important, and Shimano's ME7 shoes feature a Michelin rubber outside and TORBAL torsional midsole that allows for a more natural foot movement and a closer connection to the trail.


Model wearing Shimano SH-ME702 Olive SPD Enduro Mountain biking shoes while riding his bike


Mountain Touring Shoes

For those who would rather spend the whole day (or week) traversing beautiful landscapes and exploring unseen vistas, stiffness and weight obsession don't hold quite the same allure as other types of riding. Mountain touring shoes like Shimano’s MT7s offer equal comfort and support both on and off the bike, so riders are just as happy pedaling for hours on end or hike-a-biking up a loose and rocky trail. Whether sustaining the rigors of a multiple-day adventure or just looking to enhance your enjoyment with the benefits of clipped-in riding, mountain touring shoes could be the right fit.


Man staring off into the sunset as he hike-a-bike up the trail in his Shimano MTB shoes


Indoor Cycling Shoes

Whether you hit the cycling studio or have an at-home bike setup, Shimano’s lineup of IC indoor cycling shoes has you covered. Riding inside typically means hot and sweaty conditions, so the IC shoes feature highly ventilated designs and quick-drying materials. They also offer stability on and off the bike for those fusion classes or simply walking across the slick studio floor to get to your bike. Style is also a significant component of the IC lineup, and Shimano features an assortment of zesty colors, textures, and patterns. 


Women adjusting the BOA dial on her Shimano Indoor Cycling's SH-IC500 Purple indoor cycling shoes


Triathlon Shoes

As a subset of road shoes, triathlon shoes use the same SPD-SL cleat and pedal system and prioritize minimal weight and maximum stiffness. The unique demands of triathlon racing mean that riders often put these shoes on straight out of the water, so tri shoes feature quick-drying materials and plenty of ventilation. They also usually have built-in sock-like linings that increase comfort while eliminating the need for traditional socks. Shimano’s TR901 shoes deliver added triathlon-specific features like a heel-loop, wide foot opening, and a large Velcro enclosure strap that help make your transition from the swim to the bike quick and seamless. 


Shimano SH-TR901 Black Pearl Triathlon shoes