Road cycling shoes for wide feet: what to do when you’re descended from ducks

I have been looking for cycling shoes to fit my wide feet for years. And I’ve finally found some. I’ve always wanted to wear the cool shoes. Topsiders, Cebos, Stan Smiths, pointy Oxfords, Doc Maartens. You name it. But most of the time, they never worked for me because my feet are really wide. I’d end up with Stride Rites, or Buster Browns, or Wallabees or other sensible shoes that came with a ‘Dork’ sticker you could apply to your forehead in case a glance downward was insufficient.

I had the same problem when I got into cycling. But the problem was far more serious than just looking like a duck. We’re talking serious pain.

You can pay a lot or a little, but they all tend to turn out the same shape. Road cycling shoes look like sleek, attention-getting torpedoes at the end of your legs. And never work for me. It’s my feet.

Not only are they wide, my feet are also different lengths. This is not unusual, I’m told, but my right foot is a half size shorter than my left.

Narrow shoes, wide feet = foot on fire

With most of the shoes I’ve owned, after three or so hours of riding, my right foot starts to feel like it’s on fire. And just the outside edge and baby toe. Applying pressure (as you kinda have to do) exacerbates it and wriggling my foot around in the shoe or jamming my heel back into the heel cup (I imagine to alleviate pressure on the surface of the foot, by pulling it away from the side of the toe box) has no effect. There’s only suffering.

Yes, but Chris, that’s what road cycling’s all about, no? Maybe so, but when it means you can’t put out the watts, Rule Number 5 can be waived. I feel.

My first pair of shoes were by Lake. They were black, with blue, plastic soles that flexed laterally when you pushed on them. They lasted a season. Right up until the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour where the ache in both feet was too much to bear. Road bike shoes should have no give in their soles at all. None. The pressure you put on them should be borne across the whole surface of your foot. Otherwise the force of your whole leg against the Girl Guide Cookie-sized area of the cleat will feel like standing on a spike before your ride is done.

Giro Empires
So pretty but for narrow footed gazelle riders

My next pair were Shimano. They had a rigid carbon sole and three velcro straps. They were maybe a bit awkward feeling, but for a few seasons they were great. But then the velcro started to give and so did one of the soles and it was mid arch agony until I replaced them.

With Sidi Ergo 3s. I still have these. They’re good for trainer rides and anything outdoors that is two hours or less. But as they are cool shoes, they’re thin and pointy and they set my right foot aflame on long rides. Especially on hot days.

But they gave me my only insight into the problem. In these, my left foot — the bigger one — is quite snug, more or less filling the toe box. And has no issues. The right one has air up front. Half a size-worth, I reckon. I experimented with the cleat position. Forward or neutral makes my forefoot ache. All the way back toward the heel produces the best results. No position affects the flaming foot issue. I thought maybe if I could let the uppers out on the side and pull them in at the front, they would more closely match my foot’s shape and alleviate the pain. Somehow. Did I mention I’m not a sports podiatrist?

Can’t I wear the cool shoes? No

But what kind of shoe lets you do that? Well wouldn’t you know it? The cool kids’ shoes, Giro Empires. Or so they say. The supple upper and the laces let you adjust the shoe incrementally, lace-hole to lace hole. They’re great shoes. I really wanted them to work. They come with a bunch of different arch supports and insoles and they look so cool. But I don’t think I made it 200km in them before they were up for sale. I was very sad to see them go.

Bontrager wide cycling shoes
Bontrager shoes – at least they took them back

Next I reckoned I would try wide model shoes. Instantly it was like a pall of grey descended over my day. Very few manufacturers make wide-sized shoes. I found two that interested me — Mavic and Bontrager. I wanted ones with enclosures you could adjust mid-ride. Bushtukah had the Bontragers (Velocis I think?) in my size so I put my card down and was off with them. I took them for one and only one ride — a summer afternoon to Dunrobin Shore. And that was it for them. They made no appreciable difference to the pain in my right foot. I will say, though, that they’re the only pair — because of Bonty’s customer satisfaction policy — which I’ve been able to return for a refund.

The closest I came that year was with a pair of Bont Vaypor-S shoes. I started looking at them because they’re heat-mouldable. But what I didn’t realize until I started talking to their Ottawa dealer was that they’ll also do a ‘semi-custom’ job for you wherein they will sell you a pair with different sizes. In my case 42.5 on the left and 42 even on the right. They charge more for that. And it takes ten weeks.

Bont will also take molds of your feet and a thousand or so of your dollars and make you full custom shoes. But for around the price of a high-end pair of Sidis you can get a split-size pair of heat-moldable Bonts with boa fasteners.

And they were very comfortable. So much so that for the first six months I owned them I didn’t bother moulding them. Mind you, it was fall by the time I got them, so my feet weren’t heating up quite so much. Over the winter I went back to my Sidis for the trainer — why put wear onto the pricey shoes when it won’t affect comfort etc. When spring and summer came around rides got longer, weather heated up and the shoe-fried toe phenomenon came back.

Bont Vaypor
Bont Vaypor: These ones I like but they don’t fix my problem.

I tried heat moulding the Bont shoes. It seemed to make things worse. I have Cross/MTB shoes too. And on long summer rides in them I would get the burning sensation in my right foot too. It seemed not as bad but there were days where all my morale and energy was pouring out through a flaming hole in my foot.

No returns on used shoes

I rode that summer resigned to just dealing with pain on long rides.

I was self-employed at that point and, with the exception of the Bontrager shoes, every experiment in footwear was costing me something. Stores won’t take back shoes of any kind if they’ve been worn outside and road cycling shoes are no exception. If you buy a new pair that don’t work for you, you’re selling them on eBay. And buyers will be looking for a nice discount if you tag them ‘used’.

Quoc Pham Midnights
Quoc Pham NIght

So time went by. But the discomfort was ruining cycling for me. I decided to try another pair of cool shoes — Quoc Pham Nights. These are gorgeous, retro slick and fast looking. I’d been Jonesing after them for some time and when I read in the reviews someone claim that they even fit his wide feet, I jumped. Impulsively, it seems. I ordered a half size up. Nope. All kinds of pain in these. They will fit someone perfectly who will be quite happy to purchase them off me for an absurdly deep discount.

Maybe it’s because I’m of the age where I realize the benefit of sensible shoes and have accepted that no one thinks I’m cool, that I expanded my scope a little bit and started looking for wide shoes that met my actual riding-based (as opposed to sartorial) requirements. To whit:

  • Rigid sole. All the way to 11. Or 12 if that’s a possibility
  • Two-way ratchet or boa enclosures for mid-ride adjustments
  • No velcro
  • Replaceable heel counters and other bits
  • Ventilation

But above all they had to have a wide forefoot. And what kept coming up in the forums and the reviews was Lake. “I must be truly desperate,” I thought to myself as I checked out their line. “The shoes that made me feel like my pedals were doing the lower end of a crucifixion are suddenly on my radar again.”

What I didn’t realize though, is that Lake has a full spectrum of product. And their CX402s are actually pretty serious shoes. Their soles are very stiff. They’re heat-mouldable, use two boa fasteners and have reasonable ventilation. They look like kleenex boxes, but plain black isn’t all bad. Road.cc liked them. And so I took the plunge.

I have to say my initial experience almost brought me to tears. Not the good kind. I couldn’t actually squeeze into the 42.5 without causing myself pain because the heel cup was so tight. I took out the puffy insole and was at least able to put them on but had already started thinking about getting the RMA number and would I have to pay to ship them back.

Heat-mouldable actually works

But I read the manual. Unlike the Bonts, Lake does not suggest you try riding the shoes un-moulded. They prefer you mould them before you even leave the store. Well that wasn’t happening but in the oven they went, cleats and all. (Bont wants you to mould your shoes without cleats).

What a revelation. Heat moulding actually worked, shaping the heel cup, instep and forefoot to my duck feet. I leaned on the outside of the right shoe for a bit to give ol’ Daffy a bit more room.

I took them out on a couple of shorter rides and pretty much decided that they were the ones. There remained but to truly test them. And what better way than a 235km so-called fun ride though the Ottawa Valley in 30 degree sun, aka the Granfondo Ottawa?

I will spare you the hourly blow-by-blow, but I first noticed that my feet were getting hot and achey at about kilometre 180, just after I got dropped by the lead group. But here’s the thing — both left and right feet were feeling it equally. And not bad. Just the sort of thing might expect after five-ish hours of energetic riding in the heat.

The only thing I don’t like about them is the boas. They only turn one way — tighter. If you want to loosen them you have to pull the dial up and start again. This makes in-saddle adjustments more difficult. In the Bonts I can catch the boa on an upstroke, give it a twist and keep pedalling, which is great in a group ride. To safely adjust the Lakes in-saddle, I have to drop off the back.