Having spent many years cycling, and working my way through more ugly pairs of cycling shoes than I would care to remember, I realized there are very few “attractive” cycling shoes out there. But why is this? I spent some time asking other cyclists which shoes they thought looked the best as well as looking into why cycling shoes are so ugly in the first place.
Cycling shoes are ugly as they prioritize function over form. Cycling shoes have a stiff sole, are aerodynamic, lightweight, and store a clipless mechanism, all of which make the shoe unattractive. The best-looking shoes tend to be mountain bike shoes that focus on looking more like normal shoes than cycling shoes.
So, we’ve established that cycling shoes are ugly because of the different features they must have, but are any shoes designed to look better than they need to? And if so which ones are they?
Do riders actually care what their shoes look like?
Given so many cycling shoes look so bad, I wondered if I was just in the small minority of cyclists who cared about how their shoes looked. To find out I asked a large cycling community if they cared about the aesthetic of their shoes!
It seems clear that most of us bike riders actually do care about how our shoes look when we are cycling, but if that’s the case, why are they so ugly!
Why do cycling shoes look so bad?
I guess when we head out for a cycle in our lycra shorts, helmets, and too-tight jerseys, having a piece of fashionable footwear isn’t going to make a huge difference. In fact, you might consider that your ugly shoes serve to make everything from the ankles up look better by comparison.
But in all seriousness, why do cycling shoes have to look so bad? The answer comes down to function over fashion.
There are some key features that bike shoes have to have, very few of which enhance the looks of the shoe itself.
Shoe sole design
First of all, cycling shoes require a stiff and flat sole. This is needed as the flatter, stronger surface helps your feet to transfer your pushing power into moving the pedals (a softer sole bends more as you push down on it and wastes energy).
Having a flat sole means that the shoe itself looks more clunky than it otherwise would, and limits the design of the shoe itself.
On top of this, cycling shoes, specifically road cycling shoes, are designed to be aerodynamic. Road cyclists are constantly focusing on how aerodynamic their bikes and gear are, so it’s hardly surprising that shoe manufacturers focus on this too.
To be aerodynamic, most cycling shoes have to do away with many features that could make a shoe look better, such as laces instead of velcro straps. This results in the overall focus of the shoe being more function than form.
You can’t talk about a piece of bike gear without a cyclist asking about its weight. Naturally, manufacturers want their shoes to be as lightweight as possible to enable even the most professional bike riders to consider their shoes.
Cutting down on the weight of shoes means that designers have less material to play with in order to make the shoe look more attractive.
Cycling shoes need to fit well to the shape of your foot, not only to improve aerodynamics but to ensure there is minimal space for rubbing. This limits blisters and again improves power transfer to the pedals.
Not only this, but the material needs to be flexible to accommodate for any swelling of your foot as you cycle (which is common).
Obviously, the clip securing mechanism in the shoe plays a key role in its aesthetics. Having to fit a clip mechanism into the shoe means that the sole of the shoe has to be much deeper than you would normally expect, it also makes walking around in the shoe much more difficult and less attractive.
While some brands offer recessed cleats, these still impact the size of the sole, even if they make walking more comfortable.
On top of all of this, the shoe still needs to be functional for cycling. Being water-resistant enough to survive on your weekend cycle, while remaining breathable enough that your feet don’t overheat and have some way for all that sweat to escape.
Which types of cycling shoes look the best?
So, we’ve established that cycling shoes have an uphill battle when it comes to looks. But that doesn’t mean all cycling shoes have to look terrible. There are a few brands that have focused on aesthetics more than others.
Mountain biking shoes
In my opinion, mountain biking shoes look better than road bike shoes. Mountain bike shoes look more like “normal” shoes than their road shoe counterparts and often are made of materials that I prefer.
I asked a group of mountain bikers which shoes they felt looked the best, many of these focus on looking like a normal shoe rather than a cycling shoe, and this really does show in some of the shoes they answered with.
Below you can see the size most popular options that were suggested.
As you can see, a majority of the shoes suggested by the mountain bikers I asked went for shoes that looked more like “typical shoes”.
Road Bike Shoes
When it comes to road bike shoes, you are typically trapped in the “sporty” or “traditional” look for road bike shoes. These shoes tend to be regarded as sports shoes and so the road cyclists we spoke to recommended shoes that leaned into this sports vibe.
As you can see, road cycling shoes appeared much more sporty, almost like football boots. This is likely because once your wearing your lycra shorts, having a sporty pair of shoes only really adds to the look rather than appearing odd.
So you don’t like the look of any cycling shoes, what can you do?
If you haven’t managed to find any shoes you like, then the next option may be to look for shoes that aren’t designed for cycling. This would involve you moving from clipless pedals to platform pedals (also called flats).
Personally, all of my bikes have now been changed to flat pedals (I do a lot of bikepacking and prefer the flexibility this offers). This allows me to wear any normal shoes while cycling.
In our article on which shoes to wear for bikepacking, we looked into the most versatile options for shoes on flat pedals and found that myself and many other cyclists used hiking shoes, normal trainers (such as Vans), or even football boots on flat pedals.
If you arent willing to fully commit to flat pedals, you could look into getting some “one-sided pedals” such as these Shimano pedals you can find on amazon. These have a clipless mechanism on one side but a flat pedal on the other, offering the best of both worlds.
Whatever shoes you choose to wear with your bike, make sure that they have some of those key features we talked about earlier. Typcially a grippy rubber sole that has a flat surface for pedal contact will be best suited for this. Vans are a common flat choice among mountain bikers that fit this niche well.
Overall, bike shoes have been, and likely always will be ugly. At the end of the day, they are a piece of sporting equipment first and foremost, and need to prioritize this or why else would you buy them in the first place.
However, when it comes down to the best-looking bike shoes, it is clear that mountain bikers choose shoes that look more like normal shoes, while road cyclists lean into the lycra attire and pick sporty shoes that look like an alien might wear them.