September 16, 2013
If you run barefoot or in minimalist footwear (or want to), and you also ride a bicycle or are interested in getting into the sport of cycling, then today's post is for you.
See, in the article “How To Start Running Barefoot“, I present the myriad of benefits you get when you switch to minimalist running shoes or go “unshod” more often. The underlying concept is that you should simply to try to expose your feet to natural stress, rather than protect them with a constant bubble of built-up, protective footwear that leaves your foot ligaments, tendons and bones completely unable to function on their own.
It's just a more natural, ancestral way of treating your feet.
Problem is, when it comes to riding your bicycle, there can be a big trade-off between a minimalist approach and the amount of power you produce. This is because minimalist footwear simply isn't stiff enough to allow for an adequate power transfer from a foot to a pedal. That's why there's a stiff carbon sole on the bottom of the very best cycling shoes on the face of the planet – the cycling shoes used by professional cyclists and triathletes.
For example, when I hold the Skora running shoes in which I race Ironman triathlons and bend them, I can easily fold them in half with my hand. In a runner trained to run barefoot or minimalist, that type of freedom and flexibility works great – for running. If these shoes had a carbon sole like a typical good cycling shoe, I obviously wouldn't be able to do bend them like that.
So in the past, I've always worn a good, stiff cycling shoe with a carbon sole.
However, ever since I began two years ago to take a minimalist running approach, go barefoot more often, and avoid fancy, built-up running shoes, my feet have drastically changed. They've become more naturally shaped, they've become amazingly stronger and tougher, and they function and move differently. The feet actual undergo anatomical changes when you switch to minimalist footwear or barefoot running!
And this anatomical change has created a problem – a problem that you too may be experiencing if you A) run barefoot or in minimalist footwear and/or B) experience foot, knee, hip or back discomfort while cycling. The problem is that the change in the function and and anatomy of your feet will significantly affect the way your hips, knees and feet feel when you're riding a bike in a normal pair of cycling shoes.
And frankly, it's quite annoying.
My body simply can't seem to live happily with running barefoot and minimalist running, while simultaneously training in the average stiff, protective cycling shoe. I've tried wedges, shims and every other strategy you can see discussed in this LAVA Magazine article. The article points out the frustration, pain and subpar performance behind the myriad of issues faced by trying to get the average athlete's foot to fit properly into a shoe.
Many cyclists go years and years simply fighting the bike, fighting their feet, and fighting those pedals. They're simply never “comfortable” on a bike. This might describe you. It certainly describes me in the past two years.
So I've experimented quite a bit, unsuccessfully trying eight different brands of cycling shoes, including Specialized Body Geometry, Sidi, Louis Garneau and other fancy brands.
But unfornutately, there are “no rules” in designing performance cycling shoes. Most shoes are made with fashionable displays of colors and useless gadgets ablaze throughout the shoe, but the shoes are heavy with thick soles – making for a ridiculous, unnatural fit to the foot height and poor fitting toe box shapes. It seemed as though no shoe was focused on the ultimate combination of comfort and performance.
Material selection is another issue. Most cycling companies use a variety of nylon injected plastic for their bases, and many are now introducing a fiberglass/ carbon mixture for their higher-end shoes. However, the resin used is more “plastic” than “carbon” and the bases have to be sanded in mass in large tumblers, or sand-blasting rooms, then sprayed with clear-coat to retain any aesthetic value. The end result is a shoe base that is too thick and too stiff but has the “look” of a slick carbon sole. Then the cycling companies will top the shoes with materials that are targeted at fashion first, function second, resulting in poorly functioning “eye candy” shoes.
And I've also tried extremely “unconventional” approaches.
For example, I raced the Wildflower Half Ironman and Olympic distance triathlons this year in a pair of PyroPlatforms. These are literally platforms that attach to a regular set of cycling cleats, and then you wear your minimalist footwear or go barefoot on top of the platform. Here's what the PyroPlatform looks like:
This was a big mistake. These things broke repeatedly within two weeks of “normal” use, and snapped off during the transition of the Olympic distance triathlon, costing me nearly 5 minutes during the race. And they made the feet cramp as the toes curled in an attempt to “clutch” the platform. I'm sure it's a great group of folks that make the PyroPlatform, but they certainly didn't work as a viable minimalist cycling footwear approach for me.
In addition, I've attempted using cycling cages (non clip-on) pedals with my Skora minimalist shoes or with Vibrams. That works OK, but the power transfer is absolutely horrible, and no serious cyclist or triathlete who wants speed and efficiency would use this approach for anything except, say, commuting to the grocery store.
I've also read some very interesting comments on the Paleohacks forum, which tends to have an extremely ancestral approach to activity. Here are some of the more interesting anecdotes from that forum's thread about minimalist footwear for cycling:
“It looks like Teva had a flip-flop that was cleat-able. Here's an example with egg-beater cleats. You could get something like this, and maybe poke a few more holes in the sole to strap it to your foot a little more securely than just the flip-flop straps.
I'm also seeing a lot of stiff-looking leather sandals, such as here and here. Those looks stiff enough to bike in, but still zero-drop or close to it.
The problem with going too minimal, of course, is that the sole won't be thick enough for the cleat (I'm assuming you've got a cleat system, be it spd or egg-beaters) making walking on the other end difficult. There are some other less minimal options that still give your toes some air.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, too. I have been walking for my commute, but I'm racking up too many miles and my plantar fasciitis has come back. I'd like to start biking again, but my toes no longer fit in my old bike shoes, and my high arches don't have enough thickness to comfortably sit on top of the cleat. So thanks for this question, because it's reminding me I need to get new sandals to put my cleats on.”
“Assuming you don't have clip in pedals. I don't either. I've used Chrome bike messenger shoes for a couple years now. They have nylon reinforced soles to transfer power to the pedal and they look pretty cool, too.”
“I'm not surprised that biking in Vibram Five Finger's can cause plantar fasciitis–much of the energy from your legs is spent deforming your foot instead of moving the pedals. In cycling shoes, stiffer means more comfortable as well as more efficient.
I would ask you to consider a high tech maximalist approach to cycling footwear. Modern road cycling shoes are stiff, lightweight, and well-ventilated. The retail prices are admittedly expensive, but you can watch for specials and closeouts at sites such as Bike Nashbar and Performance Bicycle. As others have mentioned, Keen and Shimano have open-toed options that accept mountain bike cleats.
The main drawback to cycling shoes is that they're not made for walking, especially road shoes. “Rideability” and “walkability” tend to be inversely related.”
So you're probably getting the idea at this point: if you want minimalist cycling footwear you better be ready to sacrifice comfort, sacrifice speed, or sacrifice both.
A Solution For The Ultimate Combination of Foot Comfort And Speed While Cycling
So a few weeks ago, I had a final, desperate, last resort idea.
I read in a triathlon magazine about a company called “Rocket7“, which actually molds your foot with a custom casting that they send to your house, then creates a cycling shoe that is just as stiff as the nicest shoe out there, but is also 100% formed to your specific foot shape. They're actually designed for cyclists who deal with annoying issues such as numb feet, dying toes, bunions, stress fractures, nerve pain, back pain, knee pain and plantar fascitiis – but I immediately saw the value for a minimalist runner in actually having a cycling shoe that fits like a glove around the exact anatomy of the feet.
So I called the owner, KC, on the phone (he happens to be a US Olympic cycling champion), and explained that I was interested in trialing the shoes and letting my blog readers know about what goes into the process of fixing your feet with custom, prescription cycling shoes. He was game, and within a week, a box arrived at my house with:
-A foot sizer to determine the exact width and length, to the millimeter, of both my left and right foot…
-A crush foam impression box to get a custom mold of both my feet…
-A liquid cast to wrap around each foot and create a hard cast of each foot…
-All extra equipment I needed to do the casting process, like tape, scissors, a plastic footie bag, and gloves…
-A special form that that allows you to select finer details, such as colors, custom cleat placement holes, straps, cycling vs. triathlon shoes, etc.
It was all spelled out in the instructions that came in the box. Here's how the process went:
So first, I measured each foot and did the foam crushing mold…
Next, with the help of my wife, I casted each foot (it takes about 10 minutes per foot)…
Next, I cut off the casts and…Voila! A perfect mold of my foot…
Then I simply put all this in a box with a return label to Rocket7, and waited for the magic to happen.
A couple weeks later, here's what arrived at my doorstep.
I must admit that I was really drooling when I got my hands on these bad boys, especially when I saw the custom name stitching “B Greenfield” on the side, and the red, black and white colors to perfectly match my Team Timex racing uniform.
But the real magic happened when I threw my old cleats on and hopped on my triathlon bike for a spin down the trail.
I was literally blown away.
For the first time in my life, I truly felt like my cycling shoes were 100% compatible with the shape of my foot, I felt a completely seamless power transfer from my foot to the pedal, and the old, aching fight in my feet, my knees, my hips and my back was literally gone. Just like that.
My bike felt natural again.
For me, this turned out to be the ultimate solution – and my feet, knees, hips and back are happy once again. I was shocked at how much of a difference something as “simple” as a shoe could make, and I can't wait to rock these Rocket7's during Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii this year.
Now I do indeed realize that custom cycling shoes are spendy, but these really are one of the nicest pieces of cycling equipment you're ever going to own – and you're in this sport for the long haul, this would be one of the smartest investments you could make.
You get what you pay for, too.
Rocket7 uses the highest quality materials possible, with 3K tow carbon fiber and extremely high quality epoxy resins money. They integrate a very cool shock dampening system into each shoe that allows additional carbon fiber to stiffen up the shoe while keeping it extremely comfortable for the longer rides. As you can see from the photo of my shoes above, the upper part of the shoe is hand stitched using the finest micro-fibers – and they don’t mess around with high-fashion graphics or useless design.
In addition, no cycling shoe in the world is as light, lending even more to the “minimalist”, molded feel of these shoes. Of course, this is also important from a performance standpoint, since the shoe is a component of rotating mass. Rotating mass increases exponentially as your cycling cadence increases – so the heavier the cycling shoe, the harder your leg and foot muscles are going to have to work to maintain any given speed.
I wouldn't be writing this article unless I were thoroughly impressed with the fit, the look and the design of this shoe – and suddenly for me, cycling has once again become a 100% enjoyable experience, with absolutely no feeling of fighting the bike or fighting the pedals. It feels like…cycling barefoot – in a good way.
So if you are a minimalist runner who wants minimalist cycling shoes…
…or if you have wide or narrow feet, struggle with foot, knee, back or hip pain while cycling, or simply want a “one of a kind” custom shoe that you can put your name on, I'd recommend you consider adding these to your wishlist, your Christmas list, your birthday list, or just getting them now.
Full disclosure: I make no money if you buy these shoes, but I did receive a complementary pair of Rocket7's to trial. And I'd gladly pay for them.
Clarification: You don't have to get full custom prescription shoes from Rocket7. They also have stock shoes, and modified stock shoes. You'll find it all spelled out on the Rocket7 website.
Questions, comments or feedback about minimalist cycling shoes, custom cycling footwear, or the Rocket 7's? Leave your thoughts below!