Cycling shoes are one of a cyclist’s most valuable tools. When you finally make the switch from wearing regular shoes while riding to a specific shoe designated for cycling in, it’s a momentous moment. Some argue it’s the first time you get to call yourself a cyclist.
There are two main types of pedals that are popular: clipless pedals and toe-clip pedals.
What are clipless pedals?
Clipless pedals are pedals that require cleats to fit into them so that the rider is physically attached to the bike.You would be excused for laughing in disbelief at the counter-intuitive name of clipless pedals, as the action of attaching oneself to the bike is ‘clipping in’.
Clipless pedals require special shoes that attach to the pedals themselves. There are a few different variations of these however, but the most common being SPD or SPD-SL - SPD means Shimano Pedalling Dynamics, although they were not originally invented by Shimano, the simple abbreviation remains. The main difference between these types of pedals is the way that you are able to release yourself - but in essence they work in a similar way.
Here is an example of some vintage Look clipless pedals from the 1990s.
Road bikes and mountain bikes will normally use different versions for each other and the shoes will vary too. Road shoes will have the cleats exposed on the sole for a more aerodynamic ride, whereas mountain shoes will typically have the cleats integrated into the sole to provide a more comfortable walking surface.
What are toe-clip pedals?
Toe-clip pedals consist of a metal cage that attaches to a pedal which is then tightened by a leather strap.
Although the rider is not as attached to the bike as clipless, the cage still provides enough strength to deliver a decent amount of power transfer with not as much being lost as regular pedals.
How did we get from using toe-clips to clipless?
The transitional period where the professional world departed from toe-clips to clipless pedals occured at the end of the 1980s.
Towards the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, some pedal manufacturers introduced cleats to secure the shoe in place within the clips, this sparked the research into whether the clips were entirely needed. Thus, the clipless pedal was born in 1984 when the Ski manufacturing brand Look adopted a similar mechanism to the one used in fastening one’s feet to a ski and put it on a bike pedal. The real explosion of this pedal onto the professional stage came in 1988 following victories in the Tour, Giro and World Championships all with clipless pedals being used.
The year prior to this, Stephen Roche achieved the triple crown (victories in the Giro, Tour and World Road Race Championships) with toe clips on his pedals - the last time anyone would win a professional race using them.
Here is Stephen Roche using toe-clip pedals in 1987, a very successful year for him.
The vintage era of road bikes lasted from the 1920s up to the 1990s, so the majority of that time was dominated by toe clip pedals. But the transition to clipless had been coming. For years brands had been trying to minimise power-loss in each stroke. The ways they did this was by fastening the riders foot into the pedal with the top clip and then a leather strap.
Advantages of retro shoes
The biggest downfall of modern cycling shoes is that they aren’t the most stylish shoes on the market. Although they provide a function, they can’t really be used as normal shoes: riders have to pack a second pair of ‘normal’ shoes to change into when they reach the destination.
Retro cycling shoes, on the other hand, are really beautiful and can be worn both on and off the bike. For the fashion-conscious, there really is no question. They adopt the style of a vintage cycling shoe but offer all the comfort of a new shoe too.
The technology of vintage and retro cycling shoes
The science behind vintage cycling shoes was to provide a stiff sole that would act almost as an extension of the pedal itself so that more power could be generated.
They were mostly made of leather - an extremely hard wearing material that was forgiving enough to the movement of the foot within the shoe whilst still being durable enough to withstand hours of use at a time.
The shoes were also perforated to allow air to reach the riders foot and not overheat.
The toe of the shoes were slightly firmer than the rest of it, as a way to relieve pressure on the toes against the clip itself.