Reviews You Can Rely On

Best Road Bike Shoes of 2021

Photo: Andrew Crook
By Ryan Baham ⋅ Review Editor
Wednesday June 23, 2021
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After testing over 70 of the best road bike shoes over the past several years, we bought 10 of this year's top models to review head-to-head to come up with the year's top performers across a handful of categories. We put in at least 100 miles with each model after spending dozens of hours researching and comparing side-by-side. That task put us out on the roads in the rain, shine, night, categorized climbs, white-knuckle descents, and especially lots of indoor trainer punishment. The remainder of this article is comprised of our boildown from months of testing and analysis.

Top 10 Product Ratings

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Awards Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award Top Pick Award  Top Pick Award 
Price $400 List$254.95 at Backcountry
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Overall Score Sort Icon
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81
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Pros Stylish, breathable, great adjustability, great power transfer, fits like a gloveSuper low weight, very stable, unbeatable power transfer, great adjustabilityVery comfortable, stable, ergonomic, fast, lightExtremely light weight, very stiff, great adjustability, super comfortableVentilated, unbeatable power-transfer, lots of replaceable parts, durable, stable
Cons Pricey, sole scuffs, may be narrow for some feetLess comfort than earlier versions, upper material susceptible to wear, can feel too rigidPremium price, last shape not universal, heel cup might rubHeel may be loose, lacing could be easier to cinch upCostly, high-weight, can be too stiff, fasteners can be a pain on the fly
Bottom Line A sleek, stylish, refined road shoe ready to lay down the wattsA pro peloton reimagining of one of the most popular shoes on the roadA brilliant union of comfort and speed to create a high-performance pro shoeAn affordable pro-level shoe that won’t let you down when you're hammeringThe classic Sidi design you’d expect to see peppered throughout the pro peloton
Rating Categories Fizik R1 Infinito Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyre Specialized S-Works... Louis Garneau Cours... Sidi Wire 2 Air Ven...
Comfort (25%)
9.0
8.0
9.0
9.0
7.0
Weight (15%)
9.0
10.0
9.0
10.0
6.0
Power Transfer (25%)
9.0
10.0
9.0
9.0
10.0
Adjustability (20%)
7.0
7.0
7.0
6.0
8.0
Durability (15%)
8.0
7.0
7.0
7.0
9.0
Specs Fizik R1 Infinito Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyre Specialized S-Works... Louis Garneau Cours... Sidi Wire 2 Air Ven...
Measured Weight (Pair) 20.0 oz 18.8 oz 19.2 oz 18.7 oz 22.9 oz
Size Tested 44 45 45 44 45
Outsole Carbon Carbon fiber FACT Powerline (stiffness index 15) Carbon Air Lite Vent Carbon
Upper Material Laser-perforated 1.2mm microtex Synthetic Synthetic leather, Dyneema, TPU High-density microfiber Highly-perforated Microfiber Techpro
Closure BOA Dual Boa Li2 dials BOA Li2 Fit System BOA IP1 micro-adjustment Soft Instep Closure Strap, Tecno-3 Push Dials
Width Options Regular Regular Regular Regular Regular


Best Overall Bike Shoes


Fizik R1 Infinito


85
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Comfort 9
  • Weight 9
  • Power Transfer 9
  • Adjustability 7
  • Durability 8
Weight: 20 oz | Upper material: Microtex
Sleek and stylish
Breathable
Great adjustability
Excellent power transfer
Runs narrow

Fizik knocked it out with their awesome Infinito R1 road cycling shoes, our favorite and the first in our list of recommendations. The first thing you'll notice about them is their stylish appeal. They're sleek, refined, and elegant, with an operation that is simple and clean. The aspect that rockets them to the top of the radar is their uni-directional full carbon outsole which is one of the stiffest on the market. Pairing that with a firm, tight cut of microtex for the upper, it comes out with one of the most efficient road bike shoes for power transfer. Their superior cut and design also place them among the most comfortable. Add to that their unique fastening system, and you can understand why we are still gushing.

Sadly, this top dog isn't built for everybody — all of the time. Casual riders, for example, may not love the level of stiffness that professional riders might prefer. In addition, they run a little narrow, which can improve power transfer but reduces comfort for those with a wider foot. The last concern is that the toe pad on the outsole isn't robust enough to prevent long-term damage to the outsole. Aside from those caveats, this is still one of the highest performers that any serious or professional rider will love.

Read review: Fizik R1 Infinito

Best Bang for the Buck


Fizik Tempo Overcurve R4


68
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Comfort 7
  • Weight 8
  • Power Transfer 6
  • Adjustability 7
  • Durability 6
Weight: 20.8 oz | Upper material: PU laminated mesh
Simple to use
Affordable
Pretty light
Can produce hotspots
Limited adjustability

The Fizik Tempo Overcurve R4 is a pretty streamlined, utilitarian bike shoe. It's fine, but not fancy, and that's why it earns recognition for its great value. It doesn't rely on a ton of advanced features or gimmicky selling points. You get a fairly standard upper made of polyurethane-laminated mesh with a single two-way BOA dial for a fastener. It's as comfortable as it needs to be and no more. The R4 outsole is a little unique in that it's carbon injected nylon, which improves power transfer and reduces weight without kicking up the price too much. The result is a somewhat stripped-down shoe with great performance but no frills.

With its limited use of premium features and add-ons, you can expect it to come with a few caveats and deficits, especially compared to the high-end full-carbon shoes. The upper isn't quite as supple as the top bike shoes. You'll get a little more rub and potential for hotspots in these. As we mentioned before, there's only one BOA dial, so fit and fastening isn't as precise as it could be. And, of course, the outsole is mostly nylon, so you get a little more flex when you're cranking on the pedals. Still, it's a great shoe for any rider on a budget looking for a solid, dependable bike shoe.

Read review: Fizik Tempo Overcurve

Best for Stiffness and Power Transfer


Sidi Wire 2 Air Vent Carbon


81
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Comfort 7
  • Weight 6
  • Power Transfer 10
  • Adjustability 8
  • Durability 9
Weight: 22.9 oz | Upper material: Microfiber Techpro
Visually beautiful
Excellent power transfer
Great longevity
Can feel too stiff
Premium price

The first thing you'll notice about the Sidi Wire 2 Air Vent Carbon is that these are just objectively gorgeous cycling shoes. When you start factoring in their top-end performance, like unmatched power transfer and the great ventilation justifying its name, you'll understand why we were so seduced by them. Their ultra-strong carbon sole, robust fastening systems, and durable upper with reinforced structures combine to make it the Best for Stiffness and Power Transfer.

There are a few tradeoffs for these qualities, though. You probably won't find a better road bike shoe when it comes to customized fit or adjustability. You can adjust so many different parts of the Wire 2, but it's not quite as easy to adjust them while you're riding - ahead of or after a sprint point or climb, for example. It might seem minor, but compared to a two-way BOA dial, the Sidi closures just don't beat the ease. They are a lot cleaner and low-profile, though. It's also worth pointing out that the shoe's sturdiness doesn't come without a little extra weight. It's actually one of the heavier shoes in the lineup, but we still think they're well worth the extra few ounces.

Read review: Sidi Wire 2 Air Vent Carbon

Best for Lightweight Racing


Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyre


85
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Comfort 8
  • Weight 10
  • Power Transfer 10
  • Adjustability 7
  • Durability 7
Weight: 18.8 oz | Upper material: Synthetic leather
Extremely lightweight
Comfortable
Super stiff
Fastening can be a hassle
Scuffs easily

The incredibly popular flashes of blue lightning you've seen powering the drivetrains throughout the pro tours of Europe and the A-rides at your local shootout are back with a slight revamp to make them even faster. The Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyre went through some design changes that took them from sweet and supple to serious and sharp. We'll admit that the comfort and visual finesse of the earlier model will be missed, but it's hard to deny that the newest iteration isn't a serious shoe that deserves its spot in the pro peloton. Where it's sacrificed a little comfort, it makes up in precision and efficiency. Its Teijin Avail microfiber upper is leaner to reduce energy waste, and its heel cup has been revised to improve lateral stability and overall power transfer.

The result of these refinements is a top-of-the-line performance road shoe for serious cyclists who don't mind dropping some of the extra room and softer niceties found in the previous model. That said, riders who lean to the leisurely side of riding might not be as happy in these bike shoes as they might in a mid-tier shoe with a little more padding and less rigidity. Certainly, it can make the feet ache a little for those not used to stiff shoes.

Read review: Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyre

Most Comfortable Overall Shoes


Specialized S-Works Ares


83
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Comfort 9
  • Weight 9
  • Power Transfer 9
  • Adjustability 7
  • Durability 7
Weight: 19.2 oz | Upper material: Synthetic leather
Excellent comfort
Improves efficiency
Lightweight
Heel cup might rub
Shape might not fit all feet

The Specialized S-Works Ares came out to be a surprising contender, picking up our nod for the most comfortable shoes. We were initially skeptical with the shoe's unique shape coming from the Form Fit last, designed to clasp the heel and midfoot while allowing more room for toe splay in the toebox. That's paired with a suite of design features meant to improve ergonomics and performance, which Specialized collectively refers to as Body Geometry. After testing for hours against other pro-level shoes, we can see why it's the shoe worn by the Deceuninck–Quick-Step professional team. It's stiff where it needs to be stiff and comfortable where it needs to be comfortable. It's also not super complicated with its closure. You get two halves that fold up and over the top of the foot to close along the middle where your foot is less susceptible to hotspots, and it's designed in such a way that you don't need to really fiddle around getting different parts of the shoe to feel right. It's a clean, snug fit.

That's not to say that the shoe is perfect. We all have different feet, and there are lots of different shapes out there. A few areas to watch out for with these are the heel, where the padding is a little thinner, allowing the bone to grind into the back of the hard cup, and the outside edge right where the pinky metatarsal starts for some foot shapes. It's otherwise hard to find flaws or performance drawbacks with the Ares. Serious riders will get a lot out of these high-flying carbon kicks.

Read review: Specialized S-Works Ares

Compare Products

select up to 5 products to compare
Score Product Price Our Take
85
$400
Editors' Choice Award
A high-performance premium road shoe without the gimmicks
85
$425
Top Pick Award
An awesome road shoe with a hardcore update
83
$425
Top Pick Award
Among the best pro-level bike shoes on the market
83
$375
A premium road shoe without the premium price tag
81
$500
Top Pick Award
An undeniably beautiful shoe with performance to match
68
$200
Best Buy Award
A durable, lightweight road shoe that we can all afford
59
$250
A classy design for the fashionistas who want to look good, but crank hard
58
$160
This is a shoe design that works with some feet and not with others
54
$150
Ideal for lower-intensity cycling and jumping on and off the bike, but still up to the challenge if needed
54
$120
Functional and affordable, not a bad choice for tight budgets

This is what we call cleat day at GearLab, when we try to get the...
This is what we call cleat day at GearLab, when we try to get the same adjustment across all the shoes in our review.
Photo: Ryan Baham

Why You Should Trust Us


This review and analysis of road bike shoes comes to you from GearLab Senior Review Editor and multi-sport athlete Ryan Baham. Originally from Florida, Ryan now resides in the endless summer of SoCal, where the hiking, running, swimming, and cycling just never stop and there's never an excuse not to rack up the miles. Chilly? Go find a climb til you're warm. Sad May Gray day? Wait a few hours. June Gloom? Arm warmers and an early cafe stop. He holds two bachelor's degrees from the University of South Florida and went on to pick up a master's in public administration and a graduate certificate in procurement from Old Dominion University. When he's not testing products for GearLab, he works as a business systems analyst consulting for companies like Genentech, Tesla, and Facebook.

We kicked off this review by examining what's currently on offer in the road shoe space. From there we pulled out the top shoes that fell in line with our selection requirements, which are designed to capture high-performing bike shoes across a broad spectrum of materials, styles, and price-points. Once we've narrowed down our models and have them in hand, we begin a testing regimen of our own devising meant to push the shoes to find weaknesses and limitations, as well as their strong points. Our test measures are designed to quantify cycling the shoe attributes most important to cyclists, which can also be used to more objectively compare competing road bike shoes.

Alongside substantial research, we use our experience and judgment to analyze the road shoes and whittle down the best applications and value. And of course, the way we get a good deal of the performance information is by getting into shoes and out on the road and the trainer with a notepad (or Google Docs on the phone from the side of the road). While the trainer can be a good approximation for rainy weather, we also do our best to travel and find unpleasant weather and hard conditions to make sure we capture a fuller performance picture of the best bike shoes.

Related: How We Tested Road Bike Shoes

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Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Analysis and Test Results


The remainder of this article delves into the details across our five performance measures: comfort, weight, power transfer, adjustability, and durability. These are the evaluative criteria we use to compare road bike shoes to each other with a more objective lens. To minimize unfair comparisons, we generally select similar shoes for a 1:1 match-up. You'll primarily see straight road bike shoes that use Speedplay or Look cleats with maybe a few commuter or courier bike shoes with SPD or some double-entry style. You'll see the best of the best under each of the subheaders below.

Related: Buying Advice for Road Bike Shoes

Especially in the COVID-19 era, we&#039;ve spent...a LOT of time inside...
Especially in the COVID-19 era, we've spent...a LOT of time inside on the trainer. Never have GCN and old pro tours been such sincere godsend. Here we are in the Shimano RC3s.
Photo: Ryan Baham

Value


When we consider the different areas of value, we tend to lean toward function or performance. No amount of beauty in a shoe or prestige in its designer will make up for poor performance, especially in comfort and power transfer. Not in a sport like cycling. We spend hours and hours smashing roads and trainers. There is very little room reserved for sentiment when the price might mean a terrible ride in a visually stunning work of art. Fortunately, lots of shoe companies spend lots of time on both sides of that equation.

As we look at performance, we also consider its purpose. We consider whether it's meant to get you an extra edge on the competition when you're redlining up a 20% grade or if it's meant to get you from home to work on a 15-minute commute. For the most part, commuter-type shoes use lower-cost materials and might not have the stiffness you'd want if you were racing or comfort you'd chase if you were a weekend century guy. In this section, we'll highlight the shoes we felt had the best value for their performance.

The Louis Garneau Course Air Lite II offers the best balance between performance and price. It scores better than all non-award winners, just behind the top road bike shoes, but comes in at a good discount compared to the very best bike shoes. This is one of the best road bike shoes on the market today and exemplifies what we mean when we talk about performance and value. If you're looking for something at the pro-level, one of the best cycling shoes you can find is the Fizik Infinito R1, but it definitely has a higher price of admission. If 1.5-2 ounces of weight savings is something you're after, another option to consider is the Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyre. These three options are clearly distinguished from the rest of the pack, and we believe one will meet your needs no matter your budget.


Comfort


Comfort in cycling shoes means something a little different. You're a cyclist because comfort isn't really your thing - you spend your leisure time inflicting pain on yourself, fighting traffic, and hammering in the blazing sun and cold because you need the edge. That said, no one begrudges a comfy shoe, whatever that looks like translated into a roadie. For our purposes here, we broke the measure down across a few parameters. We were looking for something that fit the form of the foot (with caveats and considerations given to aggressiveness of the lasting curve), while having a modest amount of cushion in the right spots with a snug, hugging heel cup. The toe box also needs to be negotiable. We recognize that your weird feet aren't like the average foot, so we kept you in mind too - all bike kicks need to be versatile enough to work for everyone.


Especially in the roadie world, lots of shoes are effectively just tough shells with but a suggestion of a lining to mitigate chafe and hotspots. To some extent, that makes sense in this world because there's such a premium on low weight in cycling. So finding a good, high-performance road shoe with anything approaching a comfortably padded upper is a huge feat. The best execution is typically seen with a sculpted heel cup protected by a layer of semi-pert padding rolling up to the heel collar where the bones grind. The risk in road shoes is that thicker padding and cushier lining often increases friction and heat as the ride goes on, so you get diminishing returns over time.

When you think about what makes road bike shoes comfortable, you're forced to consider the shape of the shoe. Narrow toplines and snug collars help keep the feet stable and prevent heel lift. Both the Fizik Infinito R1 and the Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyre do a fantastic job with that. One thing that sets them apart is their closure. The Infinito R1 uses a standard closure with the two halves of the upper coming together over the tongue to be tightened. The S-Phyre uses a burrito design that folds the upper over the foot and then uses a wire lace to secure the fold. While the Infinito R1s have superior padding and liner, the S-Phyres have a preferred closure.

The Fi&#039;zi:k Infinito R1 uses a fold-over upper to cover the top of...
The Fi'zi:k Infinito R1 uses a fold-over upper to cover the top of the foot with side-mounted BOA dials, making it among the most comfortable and easiest to adjust.
Photo: Ryan Baham

The premium Infinito is a form-fitting model that hugs the foot like the SH-RC9 S-Phyre, except its cut is different. Both models use a burrito design that folds over the foot and reduces hotspots. Fizik's Infinite closure system design also limits hotspots and improves fit by allowing each of the two BOA IP1-B dials to control different aspects of upper volume and foot support.

The big difference between the two is that the S-Phyres have a little more padding and don't feel quite as locked-in, while the Infinitos feel a little stiffer with a tighter fit. The area that might be most noticeable is in the heel. The S-Phyres have a looser heel that allows your foot to lift slightly, especially when you climb. The Infinitos allow you to lock in the heel a little better with their top BOA dial and an in-built arch support feature that stabilizes the foot even more.

Even when it&#039;s hot out and you&#039;re uncomfortably clad in a balaclava...
Even when it's hot out and you're uncomfortably clad in a balaclava in the sun to hopefully lower COVID-19 risks, the Shimano RC9s keep the ride nice and comfortable.
Photo: Ryan Baham

It was no big surprise here that the shoe worn by Julian Alaphilippe and Deceuninck-QuickStep turns out to be not just light and stiff but also among the most comfortable. That's the Specialized S-Works Ares. It also pulls from some of the more successful designs used by Shimano and Fizik, like the foldover burrito upper and fastening, but they lean on two big differences. The first is a Dyneema-reinforced sock that perfectly hugs the foot for a cushy, secure fit and the other is a suite of design features collectively called Body Geometry by Specialized. They include a supportive structure for the arch, a wedge built into the sole for ergonomic alignment of the hip, knee, and foot, and a footbed structure meant to relieve pressure on the metatarsals. It's truly among the nicest rides you'll ever experience.

The LGs&#039; high heel and smooth, cushy padding go a long way to...
The LGs' high heel and smooth, cushy padding go a long way to outcompeting other top road bike shoes in comfort.
Photo: Ryan Baham

The Louis Garneau Course Air Lite II uses a pretty unique design feature to relieve a potential hotspot on the outer edge of the foot that we wish we'd see in other high-end shoes. It's the X-Comfort Zone insert, and it enables the foot to expand out on the downstroke. A slightly relaxed fit also makes it a good choice for comfort without sacrificing much in the way of power transfer.

Weight


As we've already made clear, cycling is the natural habitat for weight weenies and they tend to drive trends at the higher end of the market, which is where you see the fancy materials like carbon fiber and titanium. GCN has some amusing videos that look at the marginal gains sacrificed by adding weight on a climb. Either way, we, as cyclists, are intensely obsessed with cutting weight, even going so far as to drill holes in componentry in what at least one enthusiast calls drillology. This is the very easiest measure for us to measure since it involves a scale. The harder part is tearing down the components and material to determine where the savings happened — or didn't, and whether the engineering and design choice was the right call from a performance perspective.


Typically, the lightest road bike shoes have a scaled-down, premium carbon sole, sometimes with a good deal of venting. They also tend to have thin uppers made of some sort of synthetic fiber with limited inner padding. There are certainly tradeoffs for having such light shoes, and usually, they come in the form of comfort, sturdiness, and longevity. The Sidi Wire 2 Air Vent Carbon is an interesting shoe here because we tend to associate high-end road bike shoes with super-low weight, especially with their fancy carbon fiber soles. Interestingly, the Sidis are among the heaviest in our group and the are the heaviest among the high-end premium racing shoes. Their carbon sole is super thick and heavy (relatively). The argument here is that the power transfer and durability are worth the difference in weight.

These thick boys come in at 22.9 ounces in men&#039;s 45. All things...
These thick boys come in at 22.9 ounces in men's 45. All things considered, it's not extreme, but compared to the other premium shoes, it's notable.
Photo: Ryan Baham

Typically, there's a tradeoff between comfort and weight. There's an inverse relationship between the two. The lighter the shoe, the less supple the upper materials and the less padding hugging and protecting your foot. Yet, there are exceptions to the tradeoff rule. The Louis Garneau Course Air Lite II is a masterful improvement over their earlier Air Lite I version, carefully excising all unnecessary attributes and adding in just enough padding and cushion to keep riders comfortable over the course of a century. They're just 18.7 ounces in Men's size 44. Granted, we tested this model a size under, given its snug fit.

But the rule exception is best exemplified by the Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyre, coming in at just 18.8 ounces in a pair of Men's size 45. They use a thin carbon sole and a thin Teijin Avail microfiber synthetic leather upper to achieve incredible lightness without seriously reducing longevity or sturdiness.

The 19-ounce pair of S-Phyres roughly equate to two hampsters...
The 19-ounce pair of S-Phyres roughly equate to two hampsters hitching a ride with this rider.
Photo: Andrew Ellis

Just behind is the S-Works Ares at 19.2 ounces in Men's size 45 using a super lean upper with a thin, premium carbon fiber sole. The Fizik Infinito R1 just barely slide in to get a top spot in this measure, coming in at 20.0 ounces in Men's size 44. Like the LG Air Lite IIs, the Infinito R1 was also tested a size smaller for their closer fit. They got there by limiting the padding and using a Uni Direction Full Carbon outsole. They were able to maximize strength and stiffness while reducing overall weight.

Those of us who do a lot of climbing tend to appreciate the lighter...
Those of us who do a lot of climbing tend to appreciate the lighter, leaner models like the S-Works Ares.
Photo: Andrew Crook

Power Transfer


One of the first things a seasoned rider notices when trying on a new pair of kicks is the power transfer. It's especially pronounced moving from a nylon or composite sole to a carbon sole, but the design of the upper also plays a major role. Most carbon soles will transfer power extremely well, but if the foot is kicking around and shifting in an upper that can't be locked down properly, power will be wasted.

We first looked at the general stiffness of the upper combined with the way it conformed to the foot. Then we looked at the heel cup and collar to see how much slippage happened at the heel. It's challenging to design a shoe that will eliminate heel slippage when standing and cranking, in an aggressive forward position, or lifting up hard on your upstroke, but a fair number of shoes did a good job of mitigating the slip.


One of the top-scoring kicks here is the Sidi Wire 2 Air Vent Carbon. What the Sidis bring to the table is a combination of great fit, great design, and excellent materials. They're well-shaped to the foot, so they work with the foot instead of allowing poor weight distribution, extra space, and excess material to interfere with hammering. The design ensures that the forefoot platform takes the brunt of the force and that the closure system, especially the Heel Retention System, doesn't sap wattage while the thick carbon sole and stiff Techpro microfiber upper transfer energy directly into the pedals.

The Sidis&#039; thick carbon sole is among the stiffest out there.
The Sidis' thick carbon sole is among the stiffest out there.
Photo: Ryan Baham

Alongside the Sidis sat the Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyre, with its fantastic carbon sole and well-designed upper. This is an updated version that's a little stiffer, faster, tighter, and tighter than the previous version. The cut is more aggressive and the upper is slightly more rigid while the throat is narrower. The rest is less movement, but more power transfer.

And it should come as no surprise that the Fizik Infinito R1 also came in near the top of this measure. To get it there, it had a few solid features that made it among the stiffest on the market and such a popular pick in the pro peloton.

Nothing makes you appreciate the power transfer of your road shoes...
Nothing makes you appreciate the power transfer of your road shoes like getting crushed at the local crit rides...
Photo: Josh Bonnici

The 1.2-millimeter Laser Perforated Microtex upper is the first major feature to make the shoe such a great transferer of power. The material is super strong and it's cut so that it folds over the top of the foot for better closure and fit, which translates into a closer, snug fit with less energy wasted moving around inside the shoe. There's almost no flex anywhere in the shoe.

The Infinito Closure System also goes a long way toward improving energy transfer. Its upper dial alters the way the arch support interacts with your foot, and the lower dial adjusts shoe volume. One of the only other shoes to execute this design quite as nicely is the Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyre. Both models have a nice fold-over clasping design that secures the foot and reduces hotspots.

The Shimano Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyres deliver the ideal mix of rigid...
The Shimano Shimano SH-RC9 S-Phyres deliver the ideal mix of rigid responsiveness and comfort.
Photo: Ryan Baham

The last and most important attribute is its unidirectional carbon fiber midsole. Producing this type of carbon simply involves aligning the fibers, you guessed it, in one direction (back/forward, up/down, left/right, etc.). It results in a lighter, stiffer style of carbon that's used in applications like aerospace where forces are primarily applied in one direction. The outcome in the Fizik cycling shoe is a superior bike shoe.

Fi&#039;zi:k&#039;s unidirectional carbon sole makes the Infinito R1 one of...
Fi'zi:k's unidirectional carbon sole makes the Infinito R1 one of the stiffest on the market.
Photo: Ryan Baham

We should also mention the success of the Specialized S-Works Ares in this measure. They're high-performers here with maybe a bit less adherence and stiffness than the Shimanos and the Sidis. That's not just attributable to their stiff FACT Powerline™ carbon sole. It also comes from the unique design features in their upper. This includes the suite of ergonomic improvements in the sole and footbed which Specialized calls Body Geometry. These are meant to boost efficiency and comfort. Their sock also improves fit, allowing for a tighter, more adherent upper that won't have your feet shifting and sliding around when you're trying to crank. And the lockpin to the design is the PadLock™ heel that cradles the heel without impeding it.

s-Works leans on its footbed inserts for much of its Body Geometry...
s-Works leans on its footbed inserts for much of its Body Geometry design to improve comfort and efficiency.
Photo: Ryan Baham

Adjustability


The best road bike shoes use all sorts of fastening systems: straps, laces, ratchets, buckles, dials, secured cabling, unsecured cabling, and every combination among them. BOA dials and their competing proprietary cousins are the newest fastening systems to spread across the industry and they're pretty fantastic. They use a fairly straight-forward design, but even they have a great deal of variation: unidirectional, bi-directional, pop to release, no release, large and grippy, small and sleek, low power, high power, and somehow more. We particularly look at the ability to micro-adjust shoes with the fastening system and the ability to tighten on-the-fly, so riders can reach down and make a quick tweak at a traffic light, or, if they're good enough, while in the middle of a group ride without causing carnage.

We also look at the design of the shoe to make sure that the fasteners can do their job. If the fasteners are top-notch, but the shoe is made of a material that doesn't flex enough to tighten, then what good is a fancy fastener? This tends to happen with super rigid uppers. A useless design that seems to pop up a lot on midgrade models and below is a stiff upper, typically a TPU laminated mesh, tight toe box, and something like a velcro strap. In this sort of design, the strap will never function beyond decoration.


The top honor here goes to the Sidi Wire 2 Air Vent Carbon, which uses two Sidi Tecno 3 Push buckles to fasten the upper. They allow for some serious micro-adjusting and quick release. The design of the upper also allows the shoe to adjust to the foot when the fasteners are tightened. The Sidis have the perfect mix of stiffness and flex in the upper to both transfer power and adjust to the foot.

You'll be pretty hard-pressed to find a shoe with more capacity to be adjusted — everything on the Wire 2 is adjustable, but when you look across the market at the other competitors, they seem to pull off sufficient adjustability without all the bells and whistles. As BOA dials have spread throughout the high-end road bike market, the once vanguard fastening mechanisms used by Sidi now seem overly complicated with lower functionality.

Road shoes come with all sorts of fastening options: Boa dials...
Road shoes come with all sorts of fastening options: Boa dials, Velcro straps, buckles, ratchets, laces, and lots of unpictured options.
Photo: Ryan Baham

As an example, to our undying chagrin, no matter how cool they are, the Sidis aren't the easiest to adjust on-the-fly. As much as we might love the Tecno 3 buckles for being so mechanistic and steampunk, they do require two hands to incrementally loosen, and it makes us wish Sidi would see if they can't come up with a new proprietary design that preserves their unique elegance while giving us comparable function to dials. Shimano and Fizik came in just behind them. All of them use IP1 BOA dials with bi-directional adjustment and a pop-out quick release. All three shoes are extremely easy to micro-adjust and adjust on-the-fly, though it can be annoying to reach down mid-stroke to try to get a quick turn tighter only to accidentally pop the quick release.

We were happy to see some of the incremental changes across versions...
We were happy to see some of the incremental changes across versions of the S-Phyres. The older version on the left had a tendency to lose its top cable from the anchor, but the new SH-RC9 fixed that problem.
Photo: Ryan Baham

For the Shimanos, the top dial is attached to the top strap, and the cable anchor is attached to the side of the shoe. That means when the top strap is open or loose and you try to tighten it with the dial, it twists the top strap unless you hold the strap down. The dial and strap are the inverse of the Tecno 3 Buckle on the Sidis where the buckle is attached to the side of the upper and the cable anchor is attached to the strap. When you twist the Sidi buckle, nothing moves other than the cable.

One of the primary advantages Sidi has over its biggest competitors is its Heel Retention System. The heel is already a bit of a weak point for most bike shoes. Sidi exploits that by fortifying its heel with an adjustable device meant to improve fit and power transfer. It is a substantial advantage that the Italian shoes have over competing companies like Shimano and Fizik.

The Sidis&#039; Heel Retention System is unique among cycling shoes...
The Sidis' Heel Retention System is unique among cycling shoes, adding a robust way to lock the heel down for a better fit.
Photo: Ryan Baham

Fizik and Shimano have a good deal of overlap between their Infinito and SH-RC9 S-Phyre models, which could be why they both perform so well here using just two dials. Neither is going to touch the Sidis with their additional adjustable Heel Retention System, but they're still outstanding while remaining relatively straightforward. They both use side-mounted bi-directional BOA dials that pull the upper over the foot like a burrito for a closer fit.

Adjusting the upper dial of the fi&#039;zi:k Infinito R1 increases the...
Adjusting the upper dial of the fi'zi:k Infinito R1 increases the impact of of the Dynamic Arch Support structure.
Photo: Ryan Baham

Durability


There's nothing more frustrating than dropping a few hundred dollars on gear only to have it break down before the year's out. The best road bike shoes will typically last at least a few years before showing any wear. We did a good deal of research, looked at materials and design to consider vulnerabilities, and monitored wear and degradation over the 150 or so miles we put in for each shoe. We also did a lot of checking customer reviews and complaints to see what was wearing down and how frequently.


Some of the most significant indicators were replaceable parts, how many pieces were in the upper, and toughness and thickness of the upper material. Understandably, a shoe that uses a thick upper material with limited seams and heavy glue and threading will do better than a thin upper with light threading and lots of seams. A shoe that uses plastic or nylon in its sole instead of carbon will likewise see performance degeneration well before the carbon sole.

One of the best parts of year-round gear testing is getting to see...
One of the best parts of year-round gear testing is getting to see how older designs hold up after a year or two of heavy use and then getting to see how new versions of those designs are improved - or not.
Photo: Ryan Baham

The Sidi Wire 2 Air Vent has the most durable features and topped this measure. Sidi uses a tough Techpro microfiber upper with heavy stitching that not only resists scuffing and tearing reasonably well but will also do a better job of holding its shape and resisting the elements than some of the other shoes. Its thick, full carbon sole will also take more abuse than some of the thinner soles and certainly some of the composite materials like plastic and nylon. What we're super stoked about its replaceable toe pad (which is also a sliding vent cover). The toe and heel are the two parts of the shoe that take damage every single time you stop (unless you're one of those monsters who insists on track standing at every light). The Sidis are the only shoe in our lineup to have a replaceable toe pad.

Superior designs often improve durability. Sidi has included more...
Superior designs often improve durability. Sidi has included more replaceable parts like toe pads in its Wire Vent Carbon (right), which vastly prolongs its life over its 5 year old cousin, the Ergo 4 (left).
Photo: Ryan Baham

After these comes the Fizik Infinito R1. The use of a clean 1.2-millimeter upper with minimal seams reduces the areas of potential wear and catastrophic damage. Their outsole is an interesting unidirectional build that bolsters strength against the typical lateral forces applied during cycling. The flipside is that the sole could be vulnerable to forces from other directions, but it shouldn't be a serious concern. They also use replaceable parts, which is always a good move for extending the life of a product. The heel pad is replaceable, and so are the BOA dials, something we can't say for the fasteners used by Sidi.

For folks like us who might spend 5 or 6 hours in the saddle every...
For folks like us who might spend 5 or 6 hours in the saddle every weekend, it's hard to find the right shoe, but when you do, it's magic.
Photo: Andrew Crook

Conclusion


Months on the road and at the desk sorting through notes and charts is what produced the work above. We put a serious amount of thought and effort into understanding what went into the design of shoes and how other riders are getting on with the shoes we select for in-depth analysis. The end product, we hope, is a comprehensive review of the best road bike shoes on the market today. The hope is that we've answered your questions and separated the wheat from the chafe so you don't have to spend your own time on the threshing floor.

Ryan Baham