This is a post about my epic quest for a comfortable cycling shoe. I have had some problems with comfort on the bike in this last eight months, which are getting progressively worse. I am looking for a pair of barefoot cycling shoes to ease the pain. What on earth does that mean? I’ll start at the beginning.

Warning: This article contain pictures of my feet. Persons with a fragile constitution may wish to have someone else read it to them.

The er…beginning

My kids have always worn barefoot shoes. My mother-in-law introduced us to the idea and has always insisted on buying all of their shoes for them. I never really paid much attention and I was happy to let her! Shoeing ones children can get very expensive when they grow out of them every six months!

About a year ago I happened across a pair of mens barefoot shoes on eBay and bought them. As soon as I put them on I knew instantly it was a game changer! They were the most comfortable shoes I’d ever worn. The fit was perfect!

I (predictably, for me!) fell down a marketing and biomechanics rabbit hole and decided to change all my shoes for the barefoot concept. My bank balance took a big hit changing all my shoes at once! Probably should’ve eased my way into it better to be honest.

My barefoot hiking boots
I suppose you could say I jumped in with two feet…

I sold or donated all my other shoes bar two snappy pairs of brogues. Young children have rendered my social life minimal at best so these rarely get a run out anyway!

So, my barefoot shoe arsenal now includes a pair for running, a casual pair, some shoes for work and some hiking boots.

What are barefoot shoes?

The idea

The idea of barefoot shoes sounds like a contradiction right out of the gate, the first time you come across it. I mean, you’re not barefoot if you’re wearing shoes are you?

The idea is for the shoe to follow the natural shape of the foot, and allow for the toes to spread. Barefoot shoes are easily recognised as they look a bit, well, ducky! They aren’t fashionable in any sense – which is why I’ve kept the brogues!

The soles are also incredibly thin. This allows the shoes to flex when walking over uneven surfaces, requiring strength from the foot in order to keep balance. There is absolutely no arch support and no raised heel. The idea is to help the foot feel and ‘grip’ the ground. This sensory feedback has become one of my favourite aspects of the new shoe collection/obsession.

The uppers are very flexible, there’s little to no ankle support – even in barefoot hiking boots. This took a while to get used to as I was having to work harder. My feet felt pretty battered by the end of the day, especially during the first couple of months. But they feel much stronger now and I think it’s had a positive effect on my movement and posture, generally.

The theory/marketing goes that our feet have been weakened by modern footwear as they provide lots of support. Our feet are lazy. We didn’t evolve needing arch or ankle support when chasing boar through the forest so why do we think this is necessary for strolling about town? Vivobarefoot are a good company if you want further info on the theory.

Vivobarefoot Shoespiracy
Vivobarefoot have built their brand around the barefoot principle

Isn’t this just marketing?

I know some of you may be eye rolling, but I love this ‘first principles’ type of thinking. There is definitely an element of marketing here, but my experience over the last year tell me there is substance there too.

As I’ve said – most comfortable shoes I’ve ever had.

But this has really messed with my comfort on the bike. My feet have definitely changed over the last 12 months. My feet have spread and toes need more room to move as they search for that sensory feedback.

Cycling shoes feel very cramped which they never did before. On a long or hard ride now I now suffer from some nasty hot spots and pain at the sides of my feet that I’ve never had in the last 15 years of riding.

So, time to change my cycling shoes to ones that fit my new feet! That is the new quest.

What about barefoot cycling shoes?

Sadly, a little searching for barefoot cycling shoes does not reveal very much at all. There are some blog posts on how a few industrious folk have hacked up their shoes to make something more foot shaped. Interesting reading, but if you are looking for a product designed to solve these problems then you’ll be disappointed.

Vibram PentiCleat barefoot cycling shoes
Vibram PentiCleat

It looks like it has been tried once before though. The ‘PentiCleat’ was developed by Vibram with Shimano as a cycling version of the popular Five Fingers minimalist shoe. The Five Fingers are a behemoth of the barefoot shoe world. If anyone could pull off barefoot cycling shoes they would be high on the list.

Unfortunately the web doesn’t show anything after 2014 regarding this shoe. I’m guessing it didn’t work out as I can’t even find a review of these or anything besides some preliminary marketing blurb. I have contacted them but don’t hold out a lot of hope here. Seems like it was a project abandoned a long time ago.

Lake have a new shoe for 2021 which is built to a slightly different shape in the toe area. The CX201 appears to be intended as a half step into the barefoot world. The product page on their website mentions a ‘wider toe box’, which could solve my issue. It’s not explicitly marketed as a minimal/natural/barefoot shape but seems to be a tentative move in that area.

Lake CX201
Lake CX201

I’m trying to track a pair down at a UK distributor as it’s quite new. It’s the only possible option I have so far which could be available this year so is top of the list at the moment. Well it is the list, I guess.

What are the alternatives to a barefoot cycling shoe?

Custom

As there is a dearth of barefoot cycling shoes I’ve been on the hunt for the best alternative. Obviously, fully custom is probably the way to go for maximum comfort.

Texas based Riivo are one of the few companies I can find that offer fully custom made cycling shoes. That is, they take a mould of both feet and produce shoes that perfectly match your shape. Their road shoes are the cheapest and they start at $1000. That is not a typo! If you need off-road shoes you can add $350 to that. Heel grips are extra, custom colour is extra – you get the idea.

Riivo Custom cycling shoes
Riivo Road Shoes

Rocket7 are another company who offer the same bespoke service for a similar price. Ben Greenfield is another barefoot enthusiast and he has a good post about this. He ended up at Rocket7 and they seem to have done the trick for him.

If you can stretch to this then fair play to you. They certainly look great and I’m sure they will be lovely. Like most people however, I just cannot drop a wedge like that on one pair of shoes. I need to find something less spendy, for now at least.

Mouldable

Another alternative to barefoot cycling shoes would be the heat mouldable type that are available from Bont and Lake. If you haven’t heard of these, the basic idea is you whack them in the oven and put them on your feet while still warm. As they cool the inner moulds to the shape of your foot.

I haven’t tried these but as far as I can tell they are still made to a conventional rounded toe shape. The sole and upper are shaped much the same as other cycling shoes. I have no doubt that they would be more comfortable but I am looking for something that is fundamentally different to standard offerings. The shot below shows how the sole shape of my road shoes is very different to my feet.

No wonder I’ve had sore feet!

Bont offer heat mouldable shoes and also a full custom at a similar price to Rocket7 and Riivo. Their website is pretty good and they have lots of options.

The Lake website is quite thin on the ground if you’re looking for details on their custom shoes. It’s not clear to what extent their custom shoes are really ‘custom’. I fired an email across to dig a little more and got a quick response explaining how their custom program works.

Firstly, Lake do not mould the customer’s foot. Their custom program basically allows you to pick from the size range they offer. However, left and right can be different sizes and their is a heat mouldable inner that fits the foot better but crucially “is mostly targeted in the heel area”.

Seeing as the toe box is the problem area for me I guess it’s back to square one.

Adjustable

Lintaman are a very interesting company. They have made a small range of adjustable cycling shoes. Their ‘Adjust’ shoe incorporates an extra boa at the toe box to tailor the fit in this area. Their ‘Adjust Plus’ adds another at the heel to adjust for foot length.

If I can’t get a pair of these to fit me then surely I need to give up cycling for good! Unfortunately, they don’t have my size! I’ll keep an eye on their site for new stock but again, no help to me right now.

Lintaman Minimal barefoot cycling shoes
Lintaman’s Minimal is currently under development

They are also developing a ‘Minimal’ shoe which looks quite promising. It features a totally flat sole, a heel adjustment and vastly more possible cleat positioning than a regular shoe. Sadly it’s not available yet and still being worked on so no good for me right now. Definitely something I am keeping an eye on and I’ll provide an update on this when it’s released.

Could a shoe modification be the answer?

If I were an avid tinkerer, I might be up for a bit of jiggery pokery with my current pair of shoes. I’m not, but I know some who are up for modifying their gear to suit them better.

If that is you then Robyn Hughes has an interesting article here describing how to butcher your cycling shoes to allow for a more natural foot shape. It’s pretty bonkers and not something I’m looking to try out any time soon!

I’d much prefer to lobby brands to offer something suitable. I think there is a market for a naturally shaped cycling shoe and I’m hoping to see something from the industry soon. I’ve fired out emails to barefoot brands in the hopes of starting a barefoot cycling shoe arms race!

What would the specification look like?

I guess everyone will have their preference on exactly what they want but I am broadly looking for the following:

Wide toe box but narrow heel area

This is the weird duck looking barefoot shoe shape I want to see. Narrow heel, wide at the toes.

Zero drop from heel to sole

Some cycling shoes are designed for walking also, so this should be considered. Barefoot shoe types will be used to the concept of a zero drop sole i.e. the heel is not elevated at all. They are likely to want this replicated in a barefoot cycling shoe.

Various cleat fixings available

One option for a barefoot cycling shoes right now would be to use barefoot shoes with flat pedals. However, cyclists who ride clipless will not want to go back into flat pedals. In order to appeal to serious cyclists barefoot cycling shoes must be able to accommodate a variety of cleats for clipless pedals.

A light, stiff sole

The soles on barefoot shoes are also very flexy, this being a crucial part of the design. This is at odds to what’s currently understood to be of benefit to cyclists. A stiff sole is one of the foremost characteristics of a cycling shoe for transferring power most efficiently. This will be one of the crucial differences between barefoot shoes for walking or running and barefoot cycling shoes.

Conclusion

One thing has become clear, I cannot go back to my current cycling shoes. My current road shoes are basically unusable, and my off-road shoes are getting worse over time. I’ve drawn a bit of a blank here I guess, but I know much more about the options than before. Running has been into more natural footwear for some years now and there are lots of options for runners. It just goes to show how slow the cycling industry, and indeed cyclists, have been to catch up with this trend.

First of all, I’m keen to try the Lake CX201 and will post a review up when I can get my hands on a pair.

I will be keeping a close eye on developments in this area but I think there is a long way to go. Follow me on Instagram or sign up for the newsletter for updates!

52 Responses

  1. Snap I’m the same .waring vivos for nearly 2 years plus sundried barefoot shoes only £21 from Amazon for living in everyday (Excellent shoes) my cycling shoes give me hell ,I’m thinking of trying the GIRO BERM mob shoe they have a wide toe box but they won’t look good on a £3000 giant road bike but my feet might be happier

  2. I’m a novice rider and while I ride regularly I do not ride with either clips or cages (or whatever you call them) because I am no longer willing, like you, to squeeze my feet into unnaturally shaped shoes anymore. I’ve been riding around wearing either Keen (sandals) or Xero and wonder… isn’t there a ‘barefoot’ shoe that’s better suited for cycling ie, a slightly stiffer sole and more protection from the weather (cold and wet)?

    • Hi Andryea! Trouble is, thin soles are often a key feature of barefoot shoes. Have you looked at Lems? They’ve been the stiffest soles I’ve seen, or you could try ones with thicker soles like Groundies.

        • Thanks for your article. I’m happy to take advantage of the of all the research you’ve done! My feet are killing me in biking shoes, as well. I’ve been wearing barefoot shoes for years and tried to pick back up my old love of riding but I haven’t figured out what to do about my shoes. I’ll be looking into some of these options you write about as well as those suggested in others’ comments. Thanks for the Post!

          • Hi there,

            Since some time has past since your original post, did you get anywhere in the is quest?

            I’ve seen something about SPD Crocs coming out, maybe there’s more?

            I think some things you look for in barefoot cycling shoes should not just be ‘copied’ from walking/running shoes.

            For instance, I would guess the need for zero drop is really negated by the fact you have rotation in de pedal axe? And as you are not rolling your feet but just loading them up vertically that might justify a bit of support, but I’m no expert.

            I guess width up front is the main concern.

            If anything new has come to you, please share!

            All the best, Tony

          • Hi Tony thanks for the comment! I have been giving a pair of Lake’s a thorough testing but struggling to find the time to get the review together.

            I fully agree with your points – many features of barefoot shoes are not suitable for cycling shoes and your comment on zero drop is perfectly logical. In fact, some drop could even be beneficial as once cleats are fitted a heel makes it easier to walk in the cafe!

            General shape is the problem and I’m realising is even more crucial for cycling due to the loading pattern (it all goes through the forefoot). Will try and update soon!

  3. The Lintaman Minimal shoes have been on the market for several years – they go in batches and then they develop a slightly newer model etc. I have had a pair for about 3 years. I also wear Vivos in daily life. I have the same problem – all modern cycling shoes are basically garbage and squash your feet.

    The Minimals have a very wide toe box and are the only cycling shoes I’ve ever worn that feel ‘wide enough’. They are very adjustable but a bit weird, more like a bunch of bits strapped together that cinch round your foot when they tighten. They are also quite industrial looking, not one for the style conscious. The sole is just flat carbon which I like.

    Overall there are some things I like about them, but they are not perfect. They are quite airy so not so good in winter, the upper is quite thin mesh. Also the small protectors you get at the front and back of the sole aren’t great and fall off quite quickly. I made up some protectors myself and glued them on.

    I ride recumbents as well using midsole cleat position and if you’re into that, they’re probably the only affordable shoe on the market that caters for you. Very adjustable, lots of cleat placement options, but more oriented to fair weather use. Not as well protected for walking about off the bike, but 1000% more comfortable than any ‘proper’ cycling shoe 🙂

    • Hi David! I have been keeping an eye on Lintaman but they always seem out of stock! It’s great to hear from someone for whom they work though and I will keep a closer tab on them. Thanks!

      • I have a pair of Keens that are an actual bike commuter shoe with a pretty wide toe box and stiff sole —very similar to their sandals—uthough I mainly still bike in my Vibram-5-Fingers Vi-B since they’re super comfy and my trips are usually only a couple miles each way.

  4. Really appreciate this article! I just bought a Specialized Diverge gravel bike and love it – have been using Xero HFS sneakers with the toe straps on my bike which was fine (was experiencing some tingling in my feet) Then my bike shop GAVE me a pair of (gently used) Specialized mountain bike shoes and my feet HATE me for it. Now I need to go back to my Xero’s and have the saddle lowered to accommodate for the thin sole. Will try out Lem’s as per the comment re the stiffer sole. Look for ward to following your journey. Thanks again.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post! If you ever look to convert to clipless check back here and hopefully I will have found a good solution!

      • I feel your pain. Litterally.
        I have been using vivo shoes for 10+ years with a very wide forefoot. Cycling shoes Are the worst 👎 However i very Much enjoy cycling, so i have tried pretty Much everything avalible at local dealer and various wide versions of shoes. They Are all not really wide at all.
        The least bad one i have tried so far is the bont shoes. They Come in different widths. You can Get Them in a double wide version that should give you the width needed. I have a oair of wide version, not double wide, that is a decent fit.
        They Are in general pretty barefoot shaped as such. I have the vaypor + one. The heat molding is not something you should rely on. Sure it can be changed somewhat in the shape, but not really made wider as such. It Will not expand Any, just mouldable.

  5. Hi,, thanks for this, I’m in exactly the same boat. All my shoes are barefoot apart from my cycling shoes. I’m a 45 in Vivo but wear a 47 wide Shimano mtb shoe for cycling. It’s ok but still not ideal and I can only just fit my toes into it if I’m wearing correct toes, but I keep having to return other ‘ wide’ cycle shoes because they are laughably narrow in the toe box so my toes are crammed in. I can’t believe that the mainstream manufacturers have not twigged on to this yet. I did see that you can get long pedals that support your heel and ball of your foot, but I use SPD and so it’s no good for me. I tried wearing barefoot shoes but it was to much continuous load for my feet tendons so I gave up on that. Please manufacturers stand up to the challenge!!!

    • Hi Chris! Yeah the thin soles of barefoot shoes don’t help too much on the bike do they. I am writing my review of the ‘wide’ Lakes I’ve been using this year and I think you will be able to relate. Never heard of the long pedals you mention but I’ll do some research on that thanks!

        • Hey Joe. Scan your feet with your iPhone I can see is a good idea but surely the use of tech should bring the price DOWN?!? £1400 for a pair is probably the most expensive I’ve seen even for fully custom. I’m sure they’re lovely and all.

  6. Bont have a length/width calculator on their site that is very good. As a barefoot-er for a long time, I assumed that they wouldn’t have anything in their standard range that would fit, but they actually have a lot of options that work with my width.

    Worth checking out – they’re definitely the most cost effective option down under.

      • I found that Bont’s “Double Wide” is a bit wider at the toe, but not quite sufficient in the midfoot for a “healthy” foot. Might work for you, given that your feet seem a lot less meaty than mine.

        • Thanks for your comment Richard! Will look at this, I’m spending a small fortune on cycling shoes right now!!

        • Hi Dan! Not thought of that – it’s so crazy it might just work!! Definitely a potential option for those using flat pedals – good thinking.

  7. It appears as though the mounting holes on the Lintaman A1 are still slightly forward of what would be necessary for cleats to be mid-sole. Is this so? If so, when may we expect a model on which cleats can be mounted mid-sole?

    • No the A1 looks to have a ‘traditional’ cleat position. Lintaman appear to keep things focused and I think they are concentrating on the A1 at the moment so wouldn’t hold your breath for anything else for now.

  8. Just ran across a web page that displays a Lintaman Minimal Cycling Shoe (Version 2.1). It appears to have ability to mount cleats at a mid-sole location. Unfortunately, it also appears as though this is an old web page. Are these particular shoes still available to those of us in the United States?

    • Not seen those Lintaman Minimal shoes available for over a year. I suspect they’ve been discontinued. Shame as they are were interesting, particularly offering lots of movement in the cleats.

  9. Finally, someone else on the planet that understands my cycling shoe problem! I’ve had an issue with the shape of cycling shoes for many, many years. I’ve spent way too much money trying to find a cycling shoe with a wide toe box that doesn’t force my toes to point inward, but to no avail. Brands I’ve tried include Bont, Lake, Specialized, Lintaman, Giro, Fizik, and Bontrager. Bont is the only cycling shoe company that comes remotely close to having a shoe with a toe shape similar to a human foot, however, my feet just don’t like the “bathtub” carbon soles. I currently ride Lake shoes, but even they force my toe into a pointed position instead of letting my toes lay naturally forward.

    Lintaman’s current offering is a shoe called the A1. It looks promising in terms of comfort, but only if doesn’t mind having squished toes as the sole has the same basic shape of every other cycline shoe on the planet. The Lake CX201s look like a step in the right direction with a slightly more blunt toe area, but it’s my understanding that they are also “high volume” in addition to wide as a few online reviewers comment on how wide the heal of the shoe is.

    I’m convinced that shoes are the reason why most people end-up with foot and toe problems as they age. It appears as though the look of the shoe trumps everything. I suppose it’s naive of me to think that shoes shaped like actual feet would actually sell since most people would view them as ugly or weird. If the shoe doesn’t sell, then they won’t be made… and here we are.

    • Hi Todd! Yes, you are right! Looks trump pretty much everything! I have the CX201 and will be reviewing them in a couple of months. For me, the crucial factor is the shape of the sole plate, if that is wrong then adjustable this or flexible that won’t move the dial enough for barefooters.

        • Hi Johan, I’m currently using the CX201 and they are indeed wider in the toe box. Best option I’ve tried so far.

          • Hi, thank you for your article. Having the same issues here.
            I completely switched from conventional to barfoot shoes about six years ago. Now I’m having the exact same issues with my cycling shoes like you. I went to a bike fitting and they convinced me to buy the Lake CX 219 (not the wide version) plus very expensive custom sole. Unfortunately they didn’t know anything about barefoot running and how the foot changes when you get rid of conventional footware.
            I’m very unhappy with the CX 219 so far. I tested them extensively, and it’s kind of a nightmare. Lots of pain, they are very uncomfortable. So I’m thinking about giving the CX 201 a try (cant get worse). Can you still recommend them?
            I really hope there will be a true barefoot cycling model someday on the market.

  10. Good to hear there are others struggling with the same issue. Long time barefoot wearer here that just got into cycling last year.

    I’ve had decently comfortable rides lately with an older set of Merrell trail gloves. I find they have a stiffer sole than i care for in an everyday barefoot shoe, so i don’t really wear them except for some infrequent trail hikes.

    I’ve ridden in Lems which I love as an everyday shoe but they are very flexible and not the most comfortable on pedals. Also tried Xero and some zero drop Altra running shoes. I like the Merrell’s best so far. Nowhere near as stiff as an actual cycling shoe, but definitely a move in the right direction from the others I’ve tried.

    I wonder if there are some other trail hiking style barefoot shoes out there that would work even better, I haven’t shopped around for any in a while?

    • Hi Jeff, not aware of any! Got some Lems last year and love them, they do have a thicker sole which is a bit more comfortable if walking a long way. Merrell appear to be more ‘performance’ oriented so not surprised they are better on the bike.

      • Great discussion, don’t spend loads on shoes, I have cycled for 50 years and been plagued with foot pain for many of them. I know now it is due to normal shoes and narrow cycling shoes. I have switched to flat pedals, use trainers with wide toe box and don’t give a monkey’s what others may think. Just cycled coast to coast and feet felt lovely. Any reduction in speed due to my age not my pedal/shoe setup!

        • Wholeheartedly agree with you! Flat pedals and trainers are perfectly fine for most people on bikes and a good solution to this problem.

  11. So nice to find other people in this boat. I have very wide feet and switching to barefoot shoes has been a game changer for me. I’m more an off roader so been using flat pedals. My 5 10 flat shoes became painful and unuseable after making the switch. The Vivo firm ground sole isn’t half bad on proper flat pedals. The lugs mesh fairly well With the pins.

    However my favourite shoes to ride in are a pair of cheap barefoot shoes from Amazon! They grip surprisingly well on pedal pins. I don’t miss the stiff sole. Im not convinced it’s necessary with a healthy foot. I think stiff soles atrophy our foot muscles as do arch support etc. I ride a 18mile each way commute once a week and no issues. The wide platform pedal certainly plays a part and I don’t expect SPDs would play well with a flexible sole. I’ve accepted that clips are out of my life until a better solution arrives.

    I also tried going back to toe clips but they were too narrow for the wide toe box!!

    Hoping one day soon someone released a range of barefoot bike shoes!!

    • Great comment Simon!

      I had always worried about the pins on mtb pedals slipping off trainers and making mincemeat of shins so it’s good to know you’ve found some joy with the Vivo FG soles. I have on occasion rode my bike (spd pedals) with Vivos and can confirm it’s not a good experience.

  12. Hi, thank you for your article. Having the same issues here.
    I completely switched from conventional to barfoot shoes about six years ago. Now I’m having the exact same issues with my cycling shoes like you. I went to a bike fitting and they convinced me to buy the Lake CX 219 (not the wide version) plus very expensive custom sole. Unfortunately they didn’t know anything about barefoot running and how the foot changes when you get rid of conventional footware.
    I’m very unhappy with the CX 219 so far. I tested them extensively, and it’s kind of a nightmare. Lots of pain, they are very uncomfortable. So I’m thinking about giving the CX 201 a try (cant get worse). Can you still recommend them?
    I really hope there will be a true barefoot cycling model someday on the market.

  13. Having been cycling for a while and just going barefoot, I’m in the same boat as you and many others here – with the added fun of trying to find options in size 15.

    Has anyone done a home-made custom option that works? None of the options mentioned above come in my size (aside from the uber expensive custom ones I’m not willing to shell out for), so I’m wondering if I can buy a normal barefoot shoe with a sturdy sole and add some clips and maybe extra straps?

    • Hi John thanks for your comment. If you do this I would love to see the results. You might struggle to find a barefoot shoe with a sturdy sole – it’s sort of antithetical to the idea of barefoot shoes. Good luck!

  14. May I play advocate by flipping this discussion on it’s head?

    Barefoot shoes are designed to have wider toe-box enclosures and be incredibly flexible;
    Cycling shoes are designed with cleats to clip into pedals and rigid soles to maximise power delivery.
    I’ve also seen the reason being to reduce foot fatigue.

    It seems we’ve been automatically accepting that barefoot cycling shoes should have rigid soles too, whereas we’ve happily/evangelically eschewed this for walking shoes as they support proprioception

    Whilst I don’t personally get on with Vibrams I loved the April mock-up, and would love to see a flexible wide barefoot shoe with cleats attached to reinforced adjustable straps around the metatarsal region of the shoe which would normally be in contact with the pedal.

    As a compromise to compensate for the -’ve heal drop the cleats would create (by raising the toes) maybe the rest of the sole (or heal at least) could be padded with a flexible segmented material.

    End of play

    For now I’ll stick with my Xero sandals, Saguaro’s and pedal straps

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