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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!