Shoes are a critical touch point on a bike. Having the right pair contributes to comfort and efficiency while riding. Our guide below details the components of a shoe for you to be able to identify these parts the next time you are purchasing a new pair or looking for replacement parts.
The sole, or the bottom exterior of the shoe, is where the foot makes contact with the ground, or pedal. Soles vary by stiffness, with stiffer soles providing more efficient power transfer, while softer soles offer more comfort and control while walking. There are two basic types of bike shoe soles: platform and clipless. Platform shoes are similar to an athletic sneaker, and consists of a patterned rubber surface designed to adhere to the shape of flat platform pedals. Clipless soles feature a pattern of threads below the ball of the foot. These threads can be fitted with a metal cleat, which can clamp into compatible clipless pedals. A distinct variation between mountain and road bike shoes can be seen in the tread pattern of the sole—mountain bike shoes have a supple rubber sole with a recessed cleat and an aggressive tread pattern, to make it easy for the rider to walk while off the bike. Road bike soles are often stiff, feature little or no tread, and are fitted with cleats that protrude from the surface. While these shoes are cumbersome to walk in, they offer better power transfer and acceleration.
Cleat threads refer to a bolt pattern found on the bottom of clipless shoes. The two types of cleats are two-hole (SPD) cleats, which are typically used by mountain bikers, and three-hole (Look) cleats, which are popular among road bikers. Two-hole cleats typically allow for a small amount of float, allowing riders to shift their feet slightly and reposition themselves without disengaging the cleat. Three-hole cleats provide a firmer connection with the pedal. This system, while not allowing for repositioning movement, provides a more efficient transfer of power between the shoe and the pedal.
The upper refers to the shoe’s exterior, extending from the top of the sole to the cuff. Uppers are often made of synthetic leather materials, and sometimes feature rubberized accents for added protection and durability. Mountain bike shoes’ uppers are typically designed to be water-resistant, allowing them to perform well in all weather conditions. It’s not uncommon for high performance models to also include laser-cut holes for ventilation.
The closure is the mechanism that allows the rider to tighten the shoe around their foot. Classic incarnations of bike shoes feature laces, velcro straps, and ratchet closures, or some combination thereof. Newer models often utilize dial closures such as the Boa® system. These closures allow for a sufficiently tight fit that won’t loosen over the course of the ride, and unlike standard laces, dial closures are not prone to getting caught in the drivetrain.
A footbed, also called an insole, is a layer of padding inside the shoe that the bottom of the foot rests on. Footbeds feature varying layers of material and construction elements to cater to riders’ preferences. Stiffer, more rigid footbeds allow riders to transfer power more efficiently, while softer, more supple footbeds suit riders who prioritize comfort. Some footbeds can be heat-molded, allowing them to adhere to the specific shape of the rider’s foot. These custom fitting techniques deplete open space inside the shoe, reducing wiggle-room and creating a more efficient pedal stroke.
The heel cup is located in the posterior of the shoe, and it’s designed to hug the rider’s Achilles tendon. A properly fitting heel cup will adhere to the shape of the foot, and prevent the heel from lifting off of the footbed while the rider is pedaling. By limiting movement, the heel cup not only increases the transfer of power, but also reduces friction, which can lead to heat, chafing, and discomfort, especially on longer rides.
Bumpers are located on the toe and heel of the sole. While they can be found on some mountain bike shoes, they are more commonly found on road bike shoes, since road bike shoes often lack rubber tread on the sole. The purpose of the bumpers is to increase comfort and control while walking, and they help prevent wear and tear. Some cleats, particularly three-hole models, feature plastic elements that are especially vulnerable to chipping and erosion when stepped on, and in these cases, bumpers are a necessity to preserve the shoes’ ability to engage with the pedal.