An Ode to SPD Sandals

Sep 11th, 2020

In my cycling life, there are certain things that I will not do. I will not call a water bottle a bidon. I will not consume any sort of energy gel unless I am over 50 percent certain that I am about to die. And I will not wear SPD sandals. 

Clipping in via sandal is the German-tourist-wearing-a-bucket-hat of the cycling world. It is the pocket protector, the taped glasses, the tuna salad sandwich in the cafeteria. SPD sandals are an affront to the style, the effervescent cool of bicycling. Oh, and one more thing: they are freakin’ awesome.

Earlier this summer, Shimano released a 25th anniversary edition of its iconic SD50 sandal, and a friend there sent me a pair. I scoffed, I stalled, and then I put them on. 

The SD50 looks like any other self-respecting (or not) piece of dad-esque footwear — two straps, rubber footbed, Velcro closure. I found the fit to be more like a cycling shoe and less like a regular sandal, which is to say a bit narrower. I’m a lock-down 46 in Shimano’s cycling shoes, but the SD50 in that size felt a bit on the small side because my toes were splayed wider than they’d be inside a sock and closed-toe shoe. 

Clipping in was a straightforward affair, and walking in the SD50s was comfortable and free of floor-scratching contact with the cleat. In fact, I found walking and clipping in to be incredibly easy — somehow the cleat is both recessed enough and given enough room to make both of those activities quite simple. Clipping out was more of a challenge as my foot moved around far more in the sandal than it would in a cycling shoe. The first few degrees of rotation weren’t helpful, and if you prefer a little more resistance, the SD50 is harder to wrench around because of how much your foot can move. I dialed the tension on my pedals back a few clicks after a handful of near misses.

On the bike, the SD50 feels like a regular cycling shoe, albeit in al fresco form. Support is firm but, as mentioned above, still very walkable. For someone who spends a lot of time in mountain bike shoes, the flex level will feel familiar. For roadies, it’ll be on the soft side. I suffered no issues with hot spots or rub points despite riding exclusively sockless, but other riders’ mileage will vary. On hot days, the sandal was a revelation compared to a closed shoe, and even on a few chilly rides, I surprised myself by remaining comfortable with exposed phalanges. 

SPD sandals in their natural habitat — astride ice cream.
Alex Strickland

Of course, sandals have limits. I found them extremely comfortable on roads both paved and not, but on detours onto singletrack I became extremely aware of the fact that a protruding rock or root might result in one of my little piggies not making it home. I can’t say I’d recommend them for any but the mellowest singletrack situations. 

But honestly, who cares about any of this? They’re airy, sure. Power transfer? You bought a sandal, my friend. How do these look, and how do you feel wearing them? For this cyclist who got hooked on bikes during the ’90s boom, the throwback yellow logos scratch a nostalgic itch I didn’t know I had, and the slate blue is actually pretty understated. Shimano will tell you that this version — technically the SD-501A — is the longest-running fundamentally unchanged item in the company’s lineup, and indeed they look the part. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to order them from a six-page ad in the back of a magazine. And I do feel a bit silly flashing my fishbelly white feet (and perhaps a smidge self-conscious about the potential to smell my hooves after a long ride), but the comfort is well worth it. Though you’ll want to extend your sunscreen regimen below your sock line.

One of the great things about touring cyclists is that function has always trumped form — wild cockpit setups alleviate pain for 1,000-mile rides, cat litter container panniers are waterproof and work as a camp chair, handlebar mounts for every accessory known to man — and indeed the devotion to SPD sandals has been steadfast (Keen’s long-running but now discontinued Commuter model was another favorite). And though I may be late, I’m happy to be joining the party. Who knows, maybe a DaBrim is next?!

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