Triathlon Bike Shoe Review

By Tom Demerly.

Triathlon specific cycling shoes are lightweight, have excellent ventilation and drainage and unique uppers built for fast doning and doffing to shave seconds from your T1 and T2 splits.

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The triathlon bike shoe is one of the things that sets the triathlete apart from the rest of the cycling world. Triathletes have unique shoe requirements because of the need for fast transitions and also because of factors like running on tired feet.

The advanced generation of triathlon bike shoes includes features, benefits and materials that didn’t exist when the category was invented years ago. New shoes use carbon fiber soles, enhanced high speed closure systems and have lighter weight than any previous generation of triathlon cycling shoes.

Understanding what differentiates a triathlon cycling shoe from a road cycling shoe is your first step in the shopping process.

Differences between Triathlon Cycling Shoes and Road Cycling Shoes:

* Triathlon cycling shoes use an upper with fewer closures for faster transitions and a more comfortable fit.

* Closures on triathlon shoes are all Velcro and use no mechanical buckles for speed in donning and doffing.

* Closures hinge to the outside of the foot when clipped in to your pedal system so straps don’t get caught in your bike drivetrain.

* Triathlon cycling shoes usually have lighter construction that most road cycling shoes.

* Triathlon cycling shoes generally have enhanced ventilation and drainage features compared to road shoes.

Left: Notice how the straps on the road cycling shoe (black, left foot) open inward where your bike would be, while the silver triathlon shoe on my right foot has straps that would open away from the chain of the bike. A heel strap enables you to pull your shoes on while already clipped into your pedals, a fast transition technique that requires practice.

If your first pair of cycling shoes is a triathlon specific cycling shoe the first issue to address is fit. Cycling shoes fit differently than running shoes and street shoes. The fit needs to be tighter and more precise with less movement of your foot inside the shoe. Movement of your foot inside a cycling shoe, whether it is a road shoe or a triathlon shoe, creates symptoms that may lead you to believe the shoes are too smallwhen they are actually too large. If you experience numbness, hot spots or even blisters in a triathlon cycling shoe the likely cause is the shoe not fitting precisely enough. Movement of your foot inside the shoe creates friction, friction creates heat and the accumulation of heat creates hot spots and blisters. Numbness is often caused by repeated low level impact of the forefoot with the toe box inside the shoe due to movement from a sloppy fit. The foot usually goes numb first, in the first 30-60 minutes of a ride, then becomes painful.

Left: Triathlon cycling shoes need to fit snug and precise to prevent swelling, hot spots and foot movement. Notice the difference in size between my running shoe and my cycling shoe. Right: Symptoms of a shoe that is too large- wrinkles in the toe area of the upper; excess straps hanging off the shoe.

Foot Numbness in Cycling Shoes.

In very long rides feet can become inflamed, changing your shoe fit. A shoe that feels great in the first two hours can be agonizing in the fourth and fifth hour of a long ride. If your shoe fits precisely,  the likelihood of your feet becoming inflamed is reduced. Precisely fitted triathlon cycling shoes perform the same role as compression garments – resisting inflammation of the feet through graduated compression. If you have foot inflammation you may need to adjust the fit of your shoes on the fly by loosening the closures. In extreme circumstances, removing the insoles is a viable emergency remedy, but suggests you may not have the optimal footwear or pedal cleat adjustment to begin with. As you become more fit, acclimated to warmer weather, and better at absorbing fluids during a long, hot ride you may experience less edema or swelling in your lower extremities.

How do you Know your Triathlon Cycling Shoes Fit Correctly?

A few quick tests reveal if your triathlon cycling shoes fit correctly.

Never try on cycling shoes while standing, and do not stand in them to evaluate the fit. Standing in cycling shoes spreads the entire weight of your body over the surface area of the shoe sole. This will never happen on the bike, even when pedaling out of the saddle. Always remain seated while evaluating cycling shoe fit and do not stand up. The shoes will not fit or feel right when you stand in them.

Never try on cycling shoes while standing”

Your shoes will appear smaller than a standard running shoe in length. Once you don your shoes wearing either thin cycling socks or no socks close the Velcro closures beginning at the toe if your shoe has two closures. The hook and loop should match up within a few millimeters if the volume of the shoe is a good match for the volume of your foot. If there is an excess of Velcro pile strap extending beyond the hook section the shoe may be too wide for your foot, or, with Shimano triathlon shoes, the strap may need to be trimmed to length at one of the recessed cutting points. Once the straps are cut, you cannot return the shoes, so be certain of fit prior to cutting.

When trying on a triathlon cycling shoe, cross one leg over the other and pull on the heel counter. If you have movement of the shoe on the heel, move to a smaller size.

Once the shoes are on and the Velcro is closed, observe the upper/toe box of the shoes: does it lay flat with ripples, wrinkles or any deformity? If you see wrinkles in the upper of your triathlon cycling shoes they may be too wide, too large or both.

Check the heel counter of the shoe for fit. Cross you left leg over your right leg and grab the left heel counter. If you use your hand to pull on the heel counter, is there any play or movement of the shoe? If there is, the shoes are too large.

Movement of the foot inside the shoe will create friction and heat, leading to numb toes, hot spots and discomfort. This may also allow your feet to swell from edema during a long ride. A precisely fitted shoe mounted to a well adjusted pedal system resists numbness, hotspots and swelling with a snug, precise fit free from movement and hot spots. If you have hotspots, numbness, swelling and other foot discomfort it is likely a result of your shoe size, selection and or pedal cleat adjustment.

Once you have verified that the shoes are reasonably snug, the upper does not wrinkle when closed, the straps line up correctly and your heel does not slip when pulled it is time to mount your cleats and try the shoes on the road.

Comparison of popular triathlon cycling shoes with price, weight, pedal system compatibility and other relevant comparison metrics.

The Triathlon Cycling Shoes:

Sidi T2 Carbon.

Sidi's shoes are functional art: hand crafted, well designed and proven in years of previous versions.

Handmade Sidi cycling shoes are true racing equipment. Sidi also makes high end motorcycle racing boots. Their only business is racing. As an Italian hand-builder of racing equipment the company is steeped in lore and tradition. And style. The Sidi T2 Carbon upper is made of Lorica synthetic leather that outperforms all natural hides in consistent density, stitching retention and water resistance. Sidi chose a flashy reptilian finish for this shoe that mimics the hide of a desert viper, albeit an Italian one with the small tricolor of the Italian banner. It’s pure Italian bling. Out of T1 the T2 is light and precise in fit, like dipping your foot in plaster. For sprint and Olympic distance events the snug, performance oriented fit of this shoe combined with the two strap upper and fast donning design is the best shoe in category. For longer events or wider feet it may be a bit too precise in fit for some athletes, especially those prone to foot swelling.

The sole of the Sidi T2 is tuned with carbon impregnated, injection molded polymer. This is light and somewhat pliable to relive foot fatigue from your pedal cleats. This sole is actually lighter weight than the stiffer, more expensive carbon fiber sole T2.6. For some triathletes, the T2 with its carbon reinforced polymer sole could be a better choice with large platform pedal systems such as the new Shimano SPD Road pedals used over longer distances.

These hand crafted shoes are the high water mark in design and performance. They won’t fit everyone, but they do fit most average feet and return exceptional performance. At 277 grams actual weight per shoe (554 grams per pair) in a size 42 this shoe is relatively light. This shoe is compatible with popular three hole pattern pedals systems such as Time RXS, Look Keo and Delta, Speedplay X, Zero and Light Action and Shimano SPD/R Road (not two hole MTB).  Women’s specific version available.

Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★★★” 5 Stars of Five. Beautiful (if flashy) construction and precise fit. Proven durable over years of use even at Ironman distance. Expensive.

Sidi T2.6 Carbon Lite.

Sidi's T2.6 uses an enhanced stiffness carbon sole that adds a small amount of weight and noticeable stiffness.

The difference between the Sidi T2 (above) and the T2.6 is the full carbon fiber outsole on the T2.6. This sole is stiffer and thicker in the arch. It is slightly heavier in actual weight also. If you are using a small platform pedal such as Speedplay and have feet larger than a size 45 this shoe provides the extra stiffness you may need.

Built with the same upper materials but with a white (blanco) saddle area, heel counter and Italian tricolor flourish, the fit is identical but feels more precise due to the stiffer sole.

I’ve done too many triathlons in Sidi triathlon shoes to count. They are accurate and trim in fit, relatively light, have graduated sole stiffness for comfort and superbly simple closures for fast donning and doffing while clipped to the pedals. I’ve used these shoes with Look Delta, Keo, Speedplay Zero and Time RXS pedals (my current choice). The Sidis are expensive as is most Italian flare technology and bling, but like Ferraris for feet, these deliver in the victory circle.

Tom Demerly’s Rating: “ ★★★★” 4 Stars of Five. Every bit as nice as the previous T-2 version but slightly heavier due to stiffer sole. Additional $100 is hard to justify, hence the four stars instead of five.

Shimano TR-52.

Shimano's TR-52 may be the optimal convergence of value and performance for the average volume foot.

My pick of the litter from Shimano’s shoes for value and performance. The TR-52 uses a carbon fiber molded outsole and interfaces with the popular three hole pattern road pedal systems such as Look, Time RXS, Shimano SPD/R for road (not SPD MTB).

The upper closes with one wide Velcro strap leaving the toe box delightfully unconstrained. If the generous toe box fits you, it’s unlikely you’ll ever have forefoot numbness or hotspots with this shoe. A series of metal mesh vents allow great ventilation and drainage. This is a strong ultra distance shoe.

Straps on Shimano triathlon cycling shoes feature a simple, clever notch to hold the strap open for quick donning. (Right) The strap has molded perforations to facilitate custom sizing the length for optimal fit.

The straps on the TR-52, like all Shimano tri shoes, are meant to be cut to length buy the user. The strap has molded-in recesses to facilitate cutting to length. Be sure you have the correct length before cutting.

As with all tri shoes there is a heel tab for donning the shoes while clipped into your pedals, a skill that saves time out of T1 but must be practiced to master.

At 292 grams each in a size 42 (584 grams per pair) actual measured weight these aren’t bantam weight shoes, but the extra weight of the comfort features like the wide strap and ventilated upper may be worth the extra weight. I’ve done one Ironman distance triathlon in this shoe with no problems, either riding or running off the bike.

Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★★★” 5 Stars of Five. A category killer. Reasonable price for high performance shoe with carbon fiber outsole. Great fit and ventilation. Heavy-ish, but carbon fiber outsoles tend to be heavier (and stiffer) than plastic.

Shimano SH-TR31.

Inexpensive and well designed for quick donning and doffing, Shimano's TR-31 entry level shoe is a great first tri shoe.

Shimano’s value-priced, molded polymer outsole shoe is a strong entry level contender for a first pair of clipless pedal cycling shoes. With that theme in mind the shoes have mounting points for three hole pattern systems such as Look Delta and Keo, Shimano SPD/R Dura-Ace, Ultegra and 105 level road pedals, Time RSX and Speedplay X series and Zero along with two hole pattern pedal systems like Shimano SPD/MTB, Time ATAC and other two-hole pattern cleat pedal systems. This is a nice feature since you don’t have to switch pedals from a walkable MTB style clipless pedal to a higher performance shoe with the SH-TR31.

The TR-31 features reasonably light weight, an important factor considering this weight has to be rotated.

The fit is nice and a bit on the generous side, less intimidating to new clipless system users but also lowers performance. At only 269 grams for a size 42 actual measured weight the shoe is reasonably light despite the plastic molded outsole. The outsole is more flexible than a (more expensive) carbon fiber sole and may not be ideal above a size 45.

For a first pair of performance triathlon shoes at a reasonable price the Shimano SH-TR31 is a strong contender.

Tom Demerly’s Rating: “ ★★★★” 4 Stars of Five. This is as much shoe as you can buy for just under $150 from Shimano, and it is a good basic shoe. Oddly light given the price. Compatible with a variety of pedal systems.

Shimano SH-TR71.

Shimano's flagship shoe is their TR-71. It features dual closures, a carbon fiber outsole and custom moldable capability.

Shimano rep Bill Rehor molded my first pair of Shimano Custom Moldable cycling shoes years ago and I am still wearing them. The SH-TR71 has the capability to be custom heat and vacuum molded using Shimano’s “oven” and vacuum molding apparatus. This process must be done at your trained Shimano footwear dealer. Once molded, the shoes are custom fit using flow-packs inside the shoe. The moldable feature adds weight to the shoe but is a viable option for people who experience chronic foot numbness or hot spots.

Unlike the other Shimano tri shoes, the SH-TR71 is a dual Velcro closure upper. You only use the rearward closure for donning and doffing. The extra strap facilitates some degree of forefoot width adjustment, meaning you can open these shoes up a bit in the fifth hour of a long, hot ride when your feet are tired.

There is a minor weight penalty associated with the custom moldable feature but oddly shaped feet will find comfort with this option.

Great ventilation and good drainage are also built into the shoe. The molded carbon fiber outsole is extremely stiff making this a great choice for triathletes with very large feet. The shoes are expensive but very durable. My Shimano custom molded shoes have outlived several pedals systems and many sets of cleats and are still a favorite of my cycling shoe wardrobe.

Tom Demerly’s Rating: “ ★★★★” 4 Stars of Five. Good problem solver for hard to fit or oddly shaped feet. You need access to a dealer with the molding oven. Expensive. Heavy due to flo-packs for custom molding but custom fit makes up for weight if you need a moldable shoe.

Pearl Izumi Tri Fly III Carbon.

The Pearl Izumi Tri Fly is a very strong offering in this category on price, performance, fit and weight.

This is the sleeper slam-dunk of tri shoes in this review. The Pearl Izumi Tri Fly III Carbon is relatively light weight, has a carbon fiber, concave sole for minimal distance from foot to pedal axle (improves power transfer and lowers rocking torque), nice fit, an adjustable two strap upper and a moderate fit.

The shoe is used by Pearl Izumi sponsored athlete Tim DeBoom. If DeBoom contributed to the design of the shoe it is evident in the shoe performance.

Pearl Izumi has a long list of tag lines and buzz words to denote the shoe’s features and benefits but the bottom line is these shoes are a strong value at less than $200 MSRP and as the lightest weight shoe in our review, only 240 grams each actual measured weight in a size 42, 480 grams for the pair.

At 247 grams this shoe is exceptionally light, reducing rotating weight.

This is one of my favorite shoes in this review. It delivers on performance, comfort, light weight and fit. The shoe works with 3 hole patterns pedals. I’m impressed.

Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★★★” 5 Stars of Five. Fantastic fit, value and performance with a carbon fiber outsole. Lightest shoe in test even at a reasonable price. Hard to find fault with this excellent offering.

Louis Garneau Tri-Lite.

Great ventilation, fit and outsole design and materials make Louis Garneau's Tri-Lite a strong design.

Louis Garneau has triathlon cycling shoe fit figured out. This shoe fits great and leaves your feet reasonably fresh for running off the bike if you are a moderate width athlete. The two strap system allows some adjustment in the forefoot and the carbon fiber outsole is relatively thin and not too stiff. You only need the larger, rearward strap to put the show on and take it off. The horizontal orientation of the heel strap is a great detail since other brands are vertically oriented and trifle trickier to grab while donning on the bike out of T1.

At 259 grams for a two strap shoe this is a well ventilated, light weight pick.

There is good ventilation and drainage on the Tri-Lite, but the claimed weight from Louis Garneau is not accurate according to our scale which tipped at a reasonable 260 grams for a size 42.

As a high performance shoe this is compatible with all the three hole pattern pedal systems but no two hole pattern cleats. At well below $200 this is a super shoe without the sticker shock. Bang for the buck it may be the top performer in this survey.

Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★★★” 5 Stars of Five. My favorite of the Louis Garneau shoes, I like it better than their highest end shoe. Light weight with precise fit on most feet. Great ventilation.

Louis Garneau Tri-Speed.

The Louis Garneau price point shoe offers two hole and three hole pattern mounting options and a dual closure upper.

At less than $120 this is the best entry level shoe in category and a fine shoe even against the pricier offerings. The shoe is heavy at 343 grams, 686 grams for the pair. That is a factor when you consider your triathlon cycling shoes are rotating weight. However, the price, fit and function of these shoes temper the weight penalty.

At 343 grams this is a heavy shoe, but still a viable first tri shoe option especially for two-hole pattern pedal users such as Shimano SPD/MTB.

The upper design mimics the higher end Louis Garneau Tri-Lite with two opposing straps, the upper strap for donning and doffing in transition and forward strap nearest the toe for minor width adjustment, even on the fly. Garneau added a reinforced toe bumper on the Tri-Speed, although I’m not sure why- I’ve never perceived the need for this feature in a tri shoe.

A neoprene padded tongue is luxurious for barefoot users and the molded thermoplastic sole is stiff enough for larger pedal systems in moderate shoe sizes but might bite back above size 45 when using small pedals.

Tom Demerly’s Rating: “★★★” 3 Stars of Five. Least expensive (and heaviest) shoe in test. Serviceable starter shoe compatible with 2 hole and 3 hole pedal systems. You get what you pay for.

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