There’s no getting away from it, cycling shoes can be eye wateringly expensive.
Of course, the very best cycling shoes are always going to command a certain premium. But with prices soaring into the region of $450 / £400, it’s no exaggeration that a set of shiny new kicks can cost more than a good set of road bike wheels.
Fortunately, there is still some good news to share. Although the priciest shoes are indeed more expensive than ever, the quality and performance of entry level models has come on leaps and bounds over recent years – and there’s a handful that really stand out.
The shoes here are all designed for use with clipless pedals (the type that you clip into – a counter intuitive term that we explain (along with much more!) in our guide on how to cycle with ‘clipless’ pedals.
For the initiated, we tested shoes designed for both two-bolt and three-bolt cleats (plus some that can do either) – two-bolt cleats being predominantly used for off-road and gravel riding, while three-bolt is traditionally used on the road.
Further down the page, we take you through all the details you need to know about cycling shoes for clipless – including the benefits to your riding and what to look for when buying. We also share our testing methodology for this group test and reviews in general.
But first, let’s take a look at how the shoes stacked up!
Best budget cycling shoes
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The RC-1 shoe is the road going sibling to the XC-1 (also on test here) and it uses the 3-bolt cleat type sole which is a little stiffer than the off-road version. Shimano suggests that it has a 6/12 stiffness rating, although as each brand has their own rating system, this is only really useful for comparing between their models.
This sole uses a glass fibre reinforced nylon with some venting in the toe area. The sole is easily the best to walk in with cleats attached, it’s so flexible you can almost walk normally!
The shoe certainly looks the part with synthetic leather uppers and three Velcro straps. The offset upper strap relieves tension on the top of the foot, says Shimano, and I found this to match my experience on the longer, hotter rides of the summer. I found the fit to be really good with a snug heel and enough space in the toe box, but only just. Whilst there was no touching of toes, there wasn’t loads of extra space.
Available in three colours; Black, Navy and White and in sizes 36-50 plus a ladies Black with accents in sizes 36-44. You will probably need to size up at least one size over your normal shoe.
I could wear these shoes for a long time without problems and liked their construction and style. It’s a shame that they didn’t have reflective heel sections though. Overall a really nice shoe in what is a really close competition.
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The FLR F-35iii are the least expensive of our sub group at $69.99 (c. £60) RRP. This is “a great entry level shoe that delivers high performance” according to FLR. The stretch resistant synthetic upper uses three velcro straps (as do the Shimano and Northwave) and the 3-bolt cleat sole uses injected fibreglass to keep things stiff to aid power transfer. There are six colour variants; Black with either white, yellow or pink detailing, White, Fluorescent Yellow and Fluorescent Pink, and sizes 36-49 are catered for.
Putting the shoes on, the first thing I notice is that the top velcro strap always comes out of it’s loop, and needs feeding back through each time. It’s not a big problem though. Once on, I found the fit to be a fraction wider than the other three road shoes, and this is felt across the toes and toe box. Although slightly wider I felt more pressure on the top of the foot under the top straps after longer rides. The heel cup follows in the same fashion but I found no heel slip. We really are talking small increments of difference here though.
The sole transferred power efficiently and was pretty good to walk in with its wide and stable heel pad. I liked the reflective heel patch, which was the largest of the four 3-bolt shoes.
With its wide selection of colours and keen pricing it may be considered to be a bit of a bargain in the pack.
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The dhb Dorica Road are available in three colours; White, Black and Grey, and in sizes 39-48. At $109.00 / £70.00 RRP they are decently priced too. They feature perforations on the central part of the upper and tongue to increase breathability, whilst the lower sections are solid fabric. There are three ventilation slots on the sole too. The soles can accommodate either 2-bolt or 3-bolt cleats (see introduction) but are primarily aimed at 3-bolt road use I’d say.
These are a good looking shoe and garnered positive comments from all who saw them. They appear to be really slim but I found the fit to be really good. The toe box had a good amount of room but not excessive, and the heel cup held the foot well. On hot days my feet didn’t overheat. I rather liked the lace setup with its elasticated tidy-away place half way down the tongue.
I had one issue however with the right shoe but not the left one, though. It felt that there was pressure on the top of my toes around the bottom lace / tongue base area. It was as if the tongue had folded over when putting them on. I checked all possibilities, I felt inside both shoes by hand with no detectable differences. I tried swivelling the top of the tongue, loosening the bottom laces right off and it improved a little. I could never quite get comfortable. The left shoe had no issues and was great. I therefore put it down to one of those weird one-off things
Size-wise these were a 43 (my normal shoe size) and there was plenty of room. No need to size up here.
Overall I liked their style and performance but, for me, the right tongue issue spoilt an otherwise great pair of shoes.
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The Northwave Core 2 shoe is available in a variety of sizes from 36-50 (including half sizes 39.5-45.5) for men, 36-43 for women (again with half sizes 39.5-42.5) as well as a junior version with sizes 32-38. The men’s shoe is available in three colours; black with either a subtle grey heel section, a red or yellow heeled version. The ladies have a black front half which fades to a white heel section with a flash of pink for good measure. The juniors fade from black to a bright yellow rear outer half of the shoe.
The carbon reinforced sole has a stiffness rating of 8.0 (versus their own Extreme Pro 2 model at 15.0) and it has 5 venting sections to aid airflow. The sole will accommodate both 2-bolt and 3-bolt cleat types but I used 3-bolt cleats as there was no side support to allow safe walking in a 2-bolt cleat. Indoor use only in that scenario…
Northwave says that the “upper’s seamless unibody construction reduces pressure points” and whilst I found this to be true I did find that the upper Velcro strap did apply a little pressure if not set just so. Careful adjustment reduced this one issue. I had a size 44 shoe and wore a mid weight sock and it fitted really nicely. There was no slop when riding hard out of the saddle and I was able to pull up on the pedals effectively for that extra burst of power on a steep section.
I felt that I could put on a slightly thicker sock for colder weather and not become cramped, especially in the toe box. They were pretty weatherproof in the rain, all things considered, and the venting felt well judged in the hotter weather too. I liked the seven bars of reflective material on the heel as well, good for night rides.
Overall a really nice looking, well performing and comfortable shoe. Spend a little time getting the top Velcro strap set correctly and you’ll have a great ride.
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The Shimano XC-1 is a really classic looking shoe featuring a synthetic leather composite upper with 3 velcro straps and a super grippy rubber sole, which was the best in test to walk in. The fit is comfortable with a great heel cup but I found them to be a fraction short and a little closer to my outer toes than I’d ideally like. To be fair I wore them the other night for three hours without any issues developing.
You may need to consider sizing up again, I’m normally a 43 and was wearing the 44 XC-1’s. I found loosening off the lowest Velcro strap helped. An oddity is that when wearing the Shimano RC-1 shoe I didn’t experience this tight toe box feeling. Visually the shoes appear to have the same uppers whilst differing in the soles, but maybe there are other difference in their design.
The tongue is only open on one side (as opposed to both sides with most shoes) and the upper slides over the fixed tongue to set its position. I really liked this arrangement, and with the offset upper velcro strap it lessened pressure on the top of the foot.
Shimano say that the soles are a 5/12 in their stiffness rating. It felt absolutely fine when riding and they were really good to walk in.
Apart from being a fraction short, and I could wear thinner socks perhaps, I liked the XC-1’s. I would wear them if I was commuting or touring as the combination of good riding performance, good walking ability and looking more ‘normal’ was excellent. It was a nicely made shoe too.
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The Muddyfox MTB100 is the most budget friendly of our selection coming in at a permanently discounted $56.99 / £37.99. It is an aggressively styled MTB shoe and only comes in a Black with Grey and Orange accents version. The sole is similarly aggressive with its grips and removable toe studs, however the sole is not particularly grippy as it’s made from a fairly hard plastic rather than rubber. It’s also quite hard to walk in with the toe studs, as your foot can’t roll onto the toes so easily. Unless you’re in a muddy cross-country or cyclo-cross race, I’d probably remove them!
Whilst entirely comfortable I found the shoe to feel a bit tube like in its fit, by which I mean that there is minimal arch support and quite a rounded toe box. I found that, with the size 44, my left big toe was just touching the end. Whilst this didn’t cause any issues it’s worth noting that they’re a fraction short. Maybe you’d need to size up to a 45? The reflective stripe on the heel is a good thing too especially if you ever ride at night on the road.
The other issue that I found was with pedals. It played nicely with the M520 pedal but with a single sided and caged SPD pedal (PD-A520) it wouldn’t click in correctly. The tread either side of the cleat was a fraction taller (only 1mm or so) and this clashed. Over time and with wear this would cease to be a problem but it’s worth knowing. Stick to an M520 type of pedal…?
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If you can up the budget a little then the old school cross-country style Giro Ranger is well worth a look. There are four colours this time; Black, Black with Cascade Green writing, Porter Grey and an Olive Green with a Gum sole. The uppers combine a supple synthetic fibre, which feels slightly rubbery to the touch, with mesh panels for breathability. There are three Velcro straps to adjust the fit. Also available are three sizes of arch support insole kits if the standard shoe needs adjustment. I found no issue with the standard fit and left it that way for the testing.
The sole is made from a fairly grippy rubber and the tread is reasonably lugged for XC mountain biking. You can add two toe studs per shoe should you wish but whilst they help in really muddy conditions they do hinder walking otherwise.
These shoes were, for me, the most comfortable of the 2-bolt selection. I could wear them all day with no issues. I liked the aesthetic of the Olive Green and the reflective heel patch was a good size to make it a worthwhile addition. They were cool enough in the 25-30 degree Centigrade weather of this summer. Overall the fit felt very similar to my own Sidi Dominator shoes and they were my personal favourites.
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At $59.99 / £39.99 the Rockrider EXPL100 shoe represents great value for money particularly for a novice or occasional rider. The shoes only come in black with a white sole edging, and they have the styling of a trainer. The sole has a trail running shoe tread pattern with widely spaced blocks that should shed mud fairly easily. It is a nicely grippy tread and whilst it isn’t a particularly stiff sole it is comfortable to walk in.
Decathlon say that this shoe is good for a couple of hours riding and I’d agree with that. The laces start to be felt on the top of the foot a little, and lower down they don’t add much support if one is out of the saddle and pulling up on the pedals. I did however really like the lace tidy-away at the top of the sewn in tongue. It stopped the loose ends from getting anywhere near the chain and front cogs.
I found that the size 44 was a good fit from the ball of the foot back to the heel but it was a bit too long overall. I tried on a 43 in Decathlon and found that it was the size that I’d choose. I’m a 43 in ‘normal’ shoes and would suggest that you don’t size up in this case.
Overall it was the sort of shoe that would be great at a Centre Parcs or on a gentle family trail ride, or to use where some walking as well as riding is needed.
Why buy cycling specific shoes?
There are three main reasons why you might consider riding with a cycling specific shoe. Firstly, it will allow the use of cleats and clipless pedals. Secondly, once clipped in, more of your leg power is transferred through the pedal to the wheel. Finally, once set up correctly, your foot will be in the optimal position for pedalling.
Of course, you can achieve similar things with old school toe clips (this is why SPD type pedals are called ‘clipless’), or you may prefer flat pedals with pins for mountain biking as this can allow dynamic movement of the bike.
What are the differences between two-bolt and three-bolt cleats?
Assuming that you’re looking for a shoe to clip in with, we looked at four shoes that use the 2-bolt SPD type system and four shoes that use the 3-bolt SPD-SL road system. Broadly speaking, to decide whether to choose the 2-bolt or 3-bolt route here are some pros and cons:
3-bolt SPD-SL gives a larger clipped in area so that more power is transferred and a more secure fixing is created. However they are more awkward to walk in. Shoes tend to be stiffer soled too. Recommended for road use primarily.
The 2-bolt SPD uses a smaller cleat which has less connection interface with the pedal yet still transfers power efficiently. It can be walked with easily as the cleat is recessed within the sole/tread. For this reason it is recommended for really everything else and you can ride road happily with it too. As a consequence of this versatility you tend to find a wider variety of shoe types too. The only other thing to be aware of is that often different pedal brands will only work with their own pedal & cleat combinations – pairing Shimano pedals and Time cleats won’t work. They all will work with either the 2-bolt or 3-bolt standard as appropriate though.
There are two shoes on test (dhb Dorica and Northwave Core 2) that can accept either 2 or 3 bolt cleats. I have assumed that they are a 3-bolt type primarily as to try to walk in them with a 2-bolt cleat would be very difficult. They would work as a group cycling class or turbo trainer shoe where you can take them off immediately. They would give you the flexibility to use in those contexts then move to a road setup when outdoors.
Methodology and technical info
For the 3-bolt shoes I used the Shimano PD-R550 SPD-SL pedal (c. £65) with an SH-11 cleat (6 degrees of float) as this is not only a good pedal system but it is arguably an entry level component which matches the shoes tested.
For the 2-bolt shoes I used the PD-M520 SPD double sided pedal (c. £45) which has 4 deg float, as again it’s a great entry level pedal that won’t break the bank. I used the SH-51 single direction release cleat but there is an SH-56 multi-release cleat available for nervous new riders.
There are many other brands to consider (Time, Look, Ritchey, Speedplay etc), however your primary choice is 2 or 3-bolt type…
Regarding float… This is the amount of movement that a pedal and cleat have while connected. This will really help your knees in particular. Unless you know otherwise (for yourself) start with a mid setting as recommended above.
Also if you’re new to clipless pedals find our guide on how to set the cleat position on road bike cycling shoes here. You’ll also want to check out our how to on cycling with ‘clipless’ pedals. Before riding we recommend turning the tension screw right back to ‘-‘ (minus). It’s often a 2.5 or 3mm Allen key bolt. Then ride up and down a quiet area and practice clipping in and out. Once you’re more confident you can up the tension a little at a time. Ideally you should clip out with moderate force by turning your heel outwards but not straining your knee. If your foot gets released (over rough ground for example) without your ‘command’ then raise the tension a little. They’re probably too loose.
It is a common fear of riders new to the system that they will stop, not be able to unclip and fall over in an ungainly fashion. Loosening the tension and practicing should help. It’ll soon become second nature.
Finally, the same sock was used for all shoes and any mentions regarding fit etc are relative to each other. I take a 43 in ‘normal’ shoes and am generally a size 44 with cycling shoes. All the shoes tested were a 44 except the dhb Dorica which was a 43.
A diverse set of shoes which span road, cross country, commuting, touring and leisure and each has their niche. It’s easier to keep the groups separated for the sake of simplicity, so firstly the 3-bolt cleat road shoes. They were all pretty closely grouped price-wise as well as ride-wise, with small details that separated them. They all looked the part, with possibly an extra style point awarded to the dhb Dorica, they were all stiff enough to effectively transfer power to the pedals and they were all comfortable, with an extra point given to the NW’s for the shape of their shoe. They were all fine to walk in; the Shimano being particularly good… For variety of colours and price point, the FLR had the field pipped. Personally I liked the fit of the Northwave best.
The 2-bolt cleated group of shoes had a much wider selection of purpose and as such were not so directly comparable. Certainly the low price point of the Decathlon and Muddyfox’s should allow most people to try SPD pedals in a family or gentle leisure setting, or to try trickier off-roading. The Shimano’s felt most at home in a commuting or touring setting but are quite capable to use on or off-road. Which leads us to the Giro Ranger which had the chops to race cross country, or ride off road generally, but equally they could live happily as an on road shoe. The extra cost of the XC-1 and Ranger showed itself in the quality of their construction.