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What’s the difference between road bike shoes and tri bike shoes?

With super-stiff soles, cleat systems and snug uppers, bike shoes are built for speed and comfort. Their triathlon-specific cousins offer all this and more, with a range of purpose-built features to aid speedy transitions and comfort into the run. Here, Janine Doggett looks at the key features of triathlon cycling shoes, and how they differ to road bike shoes.

Credit: The Secret Studio

Triathlon-specific bike shoes boast all the key features of road cycling shoes; cleat compatibility, stiff outsole and charming aero-looks, with some key differences to aid triathletes. The first and most obvious of these is the oversized fastening mechanism. While road cycling shoes are the home of Boa dial system, ratchet strap and elegant lace, triathlon-specific versions typically utilise a simple Velcro strap for super-fast transitions. The speedy-on-off design puts paid to fiddling with your feet while your nemesis glides elegantly through T1.

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While they’re quick, Velcro-only fastening might ‘give’ a little more than a ratchet leading to a marginal trade-off in power transfer, but there are options on the market combining a large strap with a Boa dial (which can be easily tightened once on the bike), like the Scott shoes worn by the Brownlees. If you’re racing Iron distance though, the extra few seconds it takes to fasten a tighter-fitting system could be worth it.

Heel loops

Another transition-focused feature is the heel loop. Just pop your fingers through, pull, and voila – your shoes are over your wet feet before you can say “I forgot my talc!” Heel loops also come in handy for fancy triathletes performing flying mounts by providing the perfect place to secure an elastic band.


There for you as you run with gusto through transition are carefully-positioned pieces of plastic called bumpers. Mounted to the toe and heel of tri bike shoes, they aid running and soak up the bumps and scratches – so your posh carbon soles don’t have to. Tri shoe bumpers work with another run-enabling feature, rubberised heels, to add traction… and abate fears of slipping with your Speedmax.

Moisture reduction

Onto the ever-glamorous subject, drainage. While road shoes seem increasingly focused on breathability that’s superior enough to cope with summer on Mont Ventoux, triathlon cycling shoes go the extra mile – vents or even a small hole in the sole to aid the dispersal of water from wet feet after the swim. This, together with upper ventilation, keeps feet as dry as possible while you’re on the bike.

Added comfort

But it’s not just about the bike portion of the race, there’s also the impending run to consider after a sock-free cycle. Triathlon cycling shoes employ added cushioning, seam-free support and comfortable lining. This clever combination keeps feet secure and rub-free to aid performance and reduce chance of injury into the run.

If you’re not hell-bent on shaving seconds, or even minutes when you add a towel-down and socks, then your cycling shoes can do the job. But for easy transitions, slick racing looks and comfort to the dismount line and beyond, the tri-specific cycling shoe pips its road cousin to the podium.

Janine is an Ironman triathlete, GB Age Grouper and an Ironman Certified Coach who has raced multi-sports since 2013. You can follow her @janinedoggett

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