Years ago, this test would’ve comprised 10 pairs of shoes billed as tri-specific. It made sense – tri is a sport with numerous products aimed solely at multisporters, such as tri-suits and tri-bars.
But unlike those proven innovations, tri shoes gained that multisport tag due to the most marginal of gains. How? Well, primarily down to a large heel loop for easier entry, greater venting to let out water from the swim (many of you will ride barefoot) and a reverse closure system. This means you can exit T1 with your feet atop of the shoes and happily ride away knowing the open strap flops away from the frame and chainring instead of into them (a neat idea but unless you ride with open straps for several minutes, reverse closures really aren’t of a huge benefit).
But these tri-specific tweaks provide such a minor difference to the majority of recreational triathletes that many manufacturers put forward their bike-specific models for this test, arguably relying on two far more important factors: fit and power transfer.
Power transfer derives from the shoe’s outsole. Originally, designers created a stiffer outsole as it was comfier than a shoe designed for walking, but now they create stiffer soles to maximise the flow of power generated from you, the triathlete, to your bike. It’s why carbon fibre is the material of choice for most high-end shoes; carbon enables the sole to be stiffer, lighter and thinner. Finally, all 10 pairs are compatible with Look and Shimano three-bolt cleat systems.
How we tested
With 10 pairs to test, we set up a mock sprint-distance course comprising T1, a set ride and T2. The ride was the most important aspect as comfort and fit were the key criteria – comfort particularly as, to mimic triathlon, we rode barefoot with wet feet. Speed and ease of foot entry and exit covered transition, achieved on the fly, although we’re well aware that many triathletes, especially those new to the sport, will slip into their shoes before rolling their bikes out of T1. That’s fine, and only highlights further the importance of comfort and fit. We assessed breathability via dampness of shoe and foot, and used the same Look cleats and Look Keo pedals throughout.
LOUIS GARNEAU TRI-400
These are one of the few shoes (284g) here billed as tri-specific, its name deriving from the reverse closure system of the main strap, the heel loop and impressive breathability via two sections of mesh upper, a perforated insole and further mesh spots on the outsole. Unusually for a ‘tri’ shoe, it also features a supporting Boa IP1 dial to lock down the midfoot, which is more practical in transition than the Boas seen on the Fizik as they spin bi-directionally to loosen or tighten. The carbon outsole features titanium; its impact is impossible to quantify but the cadence felt fast and efficient. Its profile is also low and produces a tactile connection with the pedals. Just watch the sizing, as our EU 46 was the tightest on test.
Verdict: a quality shoe, but slightly on the tight side, 82%
Buy from www.bikeinn.com
SPECIALIZED S-WORKS TRIVENT
A tri shoe complete with camo design and a drawbridge? Yep, the budgetary and creative powers of Specialized have been used to full effect in the Trivent (292g). And the drawbridge is potentially ingenious. A traditional upper-closing Boa system reaches back to the heel. When you release the Boa, the heel releases, too, which can be pushed back to cling onto the base of the heel via a magnet, ensuring a wide opening to slip your feet in and out of. It mostly works well, though the magnet doesn’t always stay put. Perhaps surprisingly, your feet still feel stable even when pushing it out of the saddle, but we found the heels dug in slightly. Another innovation is the plastic hook for keeping an elastic band in place in T1.
Verdict: ingenious foot-entry but score affected by comfort 78%
Buy from www.cyclestore.co.uk
Like the equally affordable Shimano TR5s, the Tri-Sonic’s (305g) most captivating feature is its comfort, especially around the heel cup. Northwave’s method of construction – thermowelding – also adds comfort by reducing stitch count. It’s a normal tri strapping system of reverse main strap and traditional second strap and, as exhibited by the majority of strapped systems here, is an ideal length.
The heel counter’s rather crude-looking yet does add strength and stability – as, to a degree, does the fibreglass and carbon-reinforced outsole, though a stiffness rating of eight highlights it lacks the power transfer of higher-end models. Venting in the upper and sole is adequate, while a heel loop nods to a swift T1.
Verdict: comfy and punches above its price tag, 81%
Buy from www.wiggle.co.uk
Shimano’s TR5 entry-level tri shoe is one of the heaviest on test (314g) but we’ll happily forgive it as we suspect that comes down to a soft foot entry, which is the most comfy on test. It’s a similar feeling to the most cushioned of high-mileage run shoes. The reverse main strap is huge but does the job. Despite the added thickness and comfort of the foot entry and the potential for water absorption, breathability is fine and we never experienced discomfort from sweaty or wet feet. A mix of mesh upper, and vented insole and outsole, helps here. The outsole’s a glass-fibre reinforced-polyamide, which is as you’d expect for the price. Overall, it feels bulkier than many here, which angles this towards newcomers. madison.co.uk
Verdict: great value and a mightily comfortable shoe, 86%
SIDI T-4 AIR CARBON
Sidi’s heritage is clear in this impressive shoe (320g) thanks to the blend of comfort and power transfer. The former’s ticked off via a mix of knitted felt and fabric that cradles your foot; it’s so well manufactured that you don’t feel a single in-seam stitch when barefoot.
The latter’s heavily down to the carbon sole that’s blended in nylon to produce a sole that’s stiffer than an ironing board. Your foot is clamped in place via two straps, the main one securing inwards and there’s no excess strap to catch on the crankset. Yet thinner-footed triathletes might find the upper fabric begins to fold over around that second strap. A reinforced heel prevents deformation and loss of power, while the heel loop’s ample enough for T1.
Verdict: impressive shoe, good price, but not for thinner feet, 84%
Buy from www.chainreactioncycles.com
PEARL IZUMI TRI FLY ELITE V6
The various tech of cycling shoes can often visually resemble a hotchpotch of materials. So it is with the busy Tri Fly Elite V6s (284g). That aesthetic clutter is partly down to the two-part main strap with metal buckle in-between, designed to reduce foot pressure – which it does – but at the sacrifice of looks. Initially it lacks the comfort a shoe over the £150 mark should deliver, yet the minor pain around the inside of the foot around entry disappears after a few rides. A low 5mm stack height adds a subtle feel to each pedal stroke, while a huge heel loop can’t be missed. A solid stroke is maximised by the stiff outsole, which garners a max stiffness rating of 13 – a fairly arbitrary scale that varies between manufacturers. madison.co.uk
Verdict: does the job, but lacks an aesthetic appeal, 78%
Trek’s component arm has produced an extremely light shoe (299g), which will be appreciated by pursuers of marginal gains as a light weight will slightly improve cycling economy. Fit is secure thanks to two straps, the main one following Pearl’s split design. It works fine, though isn’t the sharpest in transition. It’s not a biggy as it’s not reverse and so won’t catch the crankset when riding, but aesthetes won’t be pleased. They’re the cheapest here and that manifests itself in the outsole, a nylon composite that lacks the crisp power transfer of carbon models (it has a stiffness rating of eight out of 14), although the design improves stiffness without adding weight. Breathability’s good and there’s a heel loop for swift foot entry. trekbikes.com
Verdict: light shoe that’s worth the sub-£100 outlay, 80%
Buy from www.tritoncycles.co.uk
We continue our guide to this year’s best bike shoes…
FIZIK ARIA R3
The Aria 3 (301g) is at the higher end of Fizik’s range, one down from the top-end Infinito. As such it attracts a heavy price tag but one that’s justified by such an impressive ride. A perfect fit is guaranteed thanks to what Fizik call ‘Enhanced Volume Control’, two micro-adjust Boa dials that run steel-coated nylon laces via plastic guides. A simple press, rotate and your foot’s in place; a gentle tug up releases the dials, relieves the lace pressure and you can slip out. Yes, it might not be as quick as a basic strap mechanism in T1 and T2 but the difference is compensated by the fit. The uni-directional carbon outsole is lightweight and laterally stiff, with the discrete toe and heel stud adding purchase when off the bike.
Verdict: not cheap but extremely comfy and beautifully made, 88%
Buy from www.merlincycles.com
SCOTT RC ULTIMATE
Yes, near enough £350 for a pair of bike shoes. Even more remarkable is that the RC Ultimate (274g) aren’t the most expensive from Scott. That ‘honour’ goes to the £399 RC SLs, which feature carbon in the upper. Justifying that price is a near impossible task but they give it a good stab, and they’re incredibly comfortable. Scott’s ‘Wrap Fit’ is the reason why. It’s a layer of synthetic leather that’s reassuringly cosy. A carbon outsole with a stiffness rating of 10 maximises energy transfer between foot and pedal, while the Boa IP-1 system gives micro-adjustments for a perfect fit but slightly slower transition. Customisability comes in the form of Scott’s ErgoLogic footbed with pads supplied for high-, medium- and low-arched feet. scott-sports.com
Verdict: fantastic shoe but you’ll need to dig deep, 85%
Giant have spread their knowledge to these slick-looking road shoes (280g). Two Boa dials keep your feet in place; again, this mechanism ensures the shoe feels like an extension of your lower limb at the cost of a slower exit from T1. The upper’s constructed from a lightweight synthetic material with a small amount of padding, meaning comfort – especially when barefoot – isn’t comparable to a shoe like Shimano’s TR5. A carbon composite outsole ably transfers power, though whether it’s the material used, its thin composition or thin insole, we felt the cleat through the shoe, particularly when laying down the power. Five mesh vents allow cooling airflow and the heel studs are replaceable. giant-bicycles.com
Verdict: issues deriving from cleats loses marks, 72%
Buy from www.tredz.co.uk
The final verdict
This test starts from a high base as there are no poor shoes here,even when splashing out on a relatively affordable pair. In fact, Shimano’s TR5 shoes show that cost is no gauge of quality as, despite being the third cheapest on test, was one of the most comfortable. It might have been bulkier than the rest but that won’t faze newcomers who’ll appreciate its care for bare feet.
While Shimano stripped back its design to the fundamentals, Specialized’s offering sits at the opposite end of the evolution spectrum, its drawbridge heel the most jaw-dropping of its string of innovations. Unfortunately, a swift foot entry and exit comes at the expense of total comfort. Cost also prevents Scott’s RC Ultimate from taking the honours as, while an impressive shoe, £350 is a heavy price to pay.
Then again, Fizik’s Aria R3s are arguably wallet-unfriendly at £264.99 but that £85 saving over the Scott’s could go toward a bike fit. That’d complement these perfectly as they’re so well made, comfortable and beautifully fitting that they deserve to be ridden by the most efficient of bike set-ups. Yes, they’re not tri-specific but, on the factors listed alone, they’re deserving of this test’s winner’s medal.