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Choosing the Right Shoe


The three places your body contacts the bike are critical to comfort and performance. Between the hands, saddle area and feet the feet are the one most responsible for translating fitness into speed. The primary link between your fitness and your bike's ability to use it are your shoes.

Cycling footwear, and the small subcategory of triathlon cycling footwear, is as sport-specific as equipment comes. It is meant for one purpose only: Power transfer. Everything else is an absolute distant second. As a result, the process of buying cycling shoes for the first time is an unusual one.

Cycling shoes, and triathlon shoes especially, must fit much tighter than running shoes or daily footwear. There should be no movement of the foot inside the shoe whatsoever.


Few people buy their shoes tight enough. These are my feet, my new running shoes on the left, my three year old road cyclng shoes on the right. My heels were even when I shot this photo. If there isn't this much difference in size between your street shoes and your cycling shoes guess what... Your cycling shoes are too big.


The most common problem (and hardest to avoid) with cycling specific footwear is buying it too big. Movement is the enemy. In a strange irony the symptoms of cycling shoes being too big makes you think they are too small. Numb feet, hot spots under the ball of the foot, blackened toenails and even blisters are symptoms of cycling shoes that are allowing minor movements of the foot inside the shoe. If the shoes were tighter and restricted the movement some or all of these symptoms would disappear.

The first step in getting the right fit is trying the shoes on. One thought on sizing: Don't bother trying to convert "English" sizes to "metric" sizes. It doesn't really work. I wear a size 41 in a Sidi T-1 and Shimano TR-01 and have on a size 10 pair of expertly fitted Lowa hiking boots right now. When I checked the "conversion charts" they say I should have a size 42.5. Not even close. You know the saying: "If the shoe fits, wear it." Don't worry about what the size sounds like- go with feel and make sure it is super-snug.


Shoes transmit power to the pedals. The union between shoe and foot is critical.
Remember that your riding generally begins early in the morning and many times on weekends. Your feet will be smaller then than they are at 6:30 p.m. on Friday. Take that into account when fitting cycling shoes. Socks are also critical. Lighter is better. With triathlon cycling shoes it is best to plan for no sock at all. From sprint distance to half Ironman distance no one should have any problem racing without socks. Most people, myself included, prefer to train with socks. While not everyone may want to spend the extra $150-$250 required to do this, I have one pair of "road shoes". These shoes fit perfectly with thin cycling socks and have a different closure system. I have another pair of "triathlon shoes" specifically fitted to a bare foot and with a closure system designed to enter and exit the shoe at speed while the shoes are mounted to the pedals. Up to Ironman distance, these are the shoes I race in.

When you try on cycling shoes don't stand up in them to test the fit. You will never be standing in the shoes while using them for what they are designed for. Even when pedaling out of the saddle much of your weight is still on the handlebars. Additionally, when you stand on the floor in cycling shoes you distribute weight over the shoe sole differently than you would when your shoes are clipped to the pedals. Because of this, the shoes will always feel too small when you stand in them. Remain seated while trying on cycling shoes. You are looking for a fit that restricts all movement of the foot in the shoe, with the possible exception of being able to slightly wiggle your toes. Personally, I can't wiggle my toes at all in any of my cycling shoes and they fit fine. Cross your legs and try to move the heel counter or heel cup of the shoe against your foot. If it budges the shoe is too big. I guarantee you, the mechanical joint between the pedals and your shoes is greater than the "fit joint" between your foot and the shoe. When power is applied to the pedals, if your shoes are too large, your foot will be the looser.

 


Your foot should fill the entire shoe with no movement inside. Much tighter than normal shoes.
Sole stiffness is another aspect of shoe performance. For years shoe design lagged behind pedal design. As pedals became lighter and smaller shoe soles had to become stiffer to more effectively translate power from the entire shoe sole to a small pedal surface. At the same time the shoe sole had to "insulate" the foot from the sensation that the rider was standing on a walnut.

The most recent jump forward in shoe design is the use of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber shoe soles are stiffer and lighter than injection molded plastic. Two companies leading the way with carbon sole triathlon shoes are Sidi and Shimano. Sidi has offered a new carbon version of the venerable T-1 Triathlon cycling shoe. Only in the pre-production stage, the Sidi T-1 Triathlon Carbon was the lightest shoe in our test, even when our test shoe was 1 full size larger (size 42) than our other test shoes. Shimano's carbon soled tri shoe is also light and stiff compared to plastic soled alternatives.



Carbon soles, like this one on the new Shimano TR-01, increase sole stiffness, power transfer, comfort and make the entire shoe lighter. Carbon soles are the "Gold Standard".

The subcategory of triathlon bike shoes is defined by the construction of the uppers. Triathlon specific cycling shoes are designed to be worn bare foot and have a closure system designed for rapid entry and exit on the bike. It's no secret that leaving your shoes attached to your pedals in the single most important reduction you can make in transition time. Triathlon specific cycling shoes are designed to facilitate this tactic.



Sidi has previewed a carbon sole version of its excellent T-1 that may enter production this Spring. The T-1 Carbon (top) was the lightest shoe in our test, even though our test model was 1 full size larger than the other shoes we weighed. The current T-1 with its excellent molded sole is shown below.

Triathlon shoes use a strap, that when designed correctly, opens "away" from the drivetrain of the bicycle to the "outside" or away from the bike. Traditional cycling shoes (and some lesser triathlon designs) have straps that open toward the center of the bike. When your straps open toward the center of the bike they can interfere with the chain and get fouled in the frame after you remove your feet from the shoes. This is dangerous. Usually the triathlete approaching the T2 transition from bike to run is rapidly becoming "task saturated" and has to steer the bike, avoid collisions, maintain speed and remove their shoes simultaneously all in a matter of seconds. This requires practice on an indoor trainer first but also requires a shoe with straps that facilitate such gymnastics.



This is the critical tactical moment in your swim to bike transition. Shoes are left clipped to pedals in the transition area. The athlete enters the shoe on the bike while pedalling. A well designed shoe makes this safer and easier. Practice this on an indoor trainer first.


The tongue of triathlon shoes is missing so it can't get pushed forward in the shoe when the wet foot is forced into the shoe at the beginning of the ride. The inner is largely seamless to prevent irritation with no socks. There is often a "pull tab" at the back of the shoe to facilitate easy donning.

The new Shimano TR-01 on the left features a well-designed strap that opens away from the drivetrain. The older Carnac TRS-1K (right) uses an annoying design that, when open, can become fouled in your drivetrain as you pedal.

There are currently about eight to ten triathlon specific cycling shoes available in the U.S. This list is not entirely inclusive, but includes the ones most readily available. Noteworthy shoes not in this list are the Time Triathlon shoe, The Lake Triathlon shoe and the new Pearl Izumi triathlon shoe which was not ready before our article. Here is a very quick overview of the shoes we have sold and used:
DMT R3 Triathlon.
Pleasant surprise. I liked the fit. Strap hinges the wrong way but will be corrected in newer version this year. Heavy. A good choice for Ironman distance. Very comfortable. Good.
Sidi T-1
The old industry standard. Still arguably the best or second best shoe. Best Upper design to date. Light. Perfect fit on me. Tough to beat. Most versatile sole. Excellent with Look, Speedplay.
Sidi T-1 Carbon (pre production sample)
All of the above plus lighter, stiffer carbon sole. Want some? Me too. Not available yet. May or may not be produced for Summer '03. The best yet.Keep your fingers crossed they make these.
Carnac TRS-7K

An original but somewhat out of date. Too narrow for my taste.Weird fit. Heavy. Strap opens in the wrong direction. Toe box seemed oddly "long". Well made though. Good sole.
Shimano TR-01
The current leader with its carbon sole and advanced upper design. Works best with 3 hole pattern pedals like Look and new SPD SL.Very Light. Very good fit. Highly recommended.
Since we have a new scale and we're weighing everything (you asked for it) we decided to compare weights of the popular shoes we sell. Since the shoes are rotating during the pedal stroke shoe/pedal weight is quite important. We weighed all size 41 shoes (my size) with the exception of the Sidi T-1 Carbon pre-production sample we had. It was a size 42 and still tested lighter than any other shoe. Click on the chart below (By Seth Kirkendall) to see a graphic representation of the relative weights of a pair of size 41s.

For years the gold standard of cycling triathlon shoes has been the Sidi T-1. The T-1 is a perfect, or nearly perfect product. All of the perfromance requirements merge in a reasonable compromise to form the best triathlon shoe available during the previous five model years. No one else came close until this year. the T-1 is a "family" of triathlon shoes that include the standard T-1, a "women's specific" size T-1 in a different color, a very limited edition "World Championship" edition T-1 (Super hard to find- if you see some, buy them!) distinguished by the Arc en Ciel stripes and white color and the new Carbon Sole T-1. The Carbon T-1 is "slated for production" this spring but may or may not ever happen depending on the volume of orders. Keep your fingers crossed they make this in production volumes. It would be the best triathlon shoe ever produced in my opinion.

The venerable Sidi T-1 family featuring the limited edition "World Championship" version (white) and the women's specific version as well as the proposed "super T-1" with the carbon sole. This has, for years, been the standard against which other shoes are judged.

The new Shimano TR-01 is a very pleasant surprise. To me, previous Shimano shoe efforts have been disappointing in fit and quality. But not this one. It fits fantastic (I have absolutely "average" D width feet with normal arches) and has a very good upper design. The carbon sole is light and stiff. It is at its best with Shimano's excellent new SPD SL pedal (the "Lance" pedal) or other Look pedals. some users on the Slowtwitch.com forum report good results with Speedplay pedals although we have not tested this yet. The shoe is lightening fast to don and doff. the toe box feels great. No problem going Ironman distance in these.


Shimano gets it right: Beating Sidi to the punch with a outboard opening strap and carbon sole the Shimano TR-01 may be the nicest shoe out now, until the Sidi T-1 Carbon becomes available. As it is, the fit of the TR-01 may be better for some. It is a fine shoe in all respects.

Another pleasant entry has been the DMT R3 Triathlon. the currently available version features a strap that opens inward toward the centerline of the bike and into the drivetrain. DMT's U.S. distributor says that only exisitng stock will be shipped this way and subsequent shipments will include the new strap that opens away from the drivetrain. the fit on the DMT's is the surprise. It is spot on: Snug, supportive, not too tight but "right there". I could easily go 112 miles in these and get off to run in relative comfort. This is a heavy shoe with a lot of upper, so it is at its best in the bigger (size 43+) sizes for a rider who needs some beef in his/her shoes. All in all a good offering.


The Carnac TRS-7K is the evolution of the TRS series of triathloon cycling shoes. One of the originals. The TRS series started out with a nicely rounded, high toe box and somewhat of a tendency toward a wider fit than perhaps Sidi. To me, however, the shoe has changed and not for the better. It feels oddly narrow but too long. The strap, despite years of evolution, still opens into your drivetrain. The shoe is heavy but is built to last. I have an old pair of TRS-1Ks that I still use occasionally and like, but not as much as I like my Sidi T-1s and my new Shimano TR-01s. the Carnacs are good- don't get me wrong, but they just don't fit me and that darn strap thing drives me nuts.


We weigh the shoes, all size 41 (my size) except for our size 42 pre-production Sidi T-1 carbon, which was lighter than anything even though it was bigger.

In the final analysis shoes selection is an individual thing but certain principles apply. A carbon sole is emerging as the state of the art. A strap system that opens away from the drivetrain of the bike is a big advantage and you hone your tranition skills. And, above all else, a tight, unyeidling fit is critical to the most important place you interact with your bike: The Direct Connection.



The brain they call Seth. U of M Engineering student Seth Kirkendall crunches the numbers for our shoe article. Awesome work Seth!
 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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