Ally Mabry

An Ode to SPD Sandals

Sep 11, 2020
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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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Comments

Vickie B September 29, 2020, 2:44 PM

Sandals are too cool for California! But I have gone back to Iowa for 18 Ragbrais, and was initiated to sandal world there. They are fabulous in California summers, too. People here ask where did you get them? Seems backwards doesn't it?

I took my Keene's and one pair of MTB shoes on a tour to Alaska, 3000 miles. I wore the Keenes plenty, and always on cold rainy days with ShowersPass waterproof socks and toasty thick wool socks underneath. No water squishing out of my shoes! As I am sentenced to ride a recumbent by a past wrist-crushing accident, I have no issue with water getting in them, and my toes are toasty warm. The sandals dry fast.

I have extended the lives of my old Keenes to the point where I am so sad, they are falling apart. So, I guess a pair of Shimano's is in my near future. But Keene had colors, and style. Sandals rule.

Gary Leiendecker September 27, 2020, 3:45 PM

In reply to the comment on DaBrim, My wife is terrified of skin cancer, so I must wear one to be able to ride peacefully. I am amazed at how many people give good comments on DaBrim and want to know where to buy one. There is one positive thing about DaBrim, it builds strong leg muscles since you have a decent sized parachute tied to your head.

Craig Sternagel September 24, 2020, 8:49 AM

I chuckled overhearing a bike shop shoe salesman tell a shopper that sandals are only good for short rides. I circled Iceland in my Shimanos .. without socks. And across USA, circumnavigate Austria, etc, etc. Great thing about open end toes, when your feet get hot or wet, simply flex your toes off to get instant cool or dry. I have my expensive Sidis around here somewhere...but haven't seen them for many years.

MICHAEL GOLDWEBER September 24, 2020, 6:56 AM

I've been a Shimano sandal wearer since their first edition was released: after many long tours and tens of thousands of riding, they are the only cycling show I'll wear. Furthermore, being a member of the "ok boomer" generation, I find the styling fine: function over form. You can ride in the rain, shower in them and even swim with them. Can't improve on perfection!

Terry Takken September 23, 2020, 7:02 PM

I have used my Keen commuters for quite some time and bemoan the loss of replacements. But, one caveat, when the rubber sole begins to separate automotive weatherstrip adhesive does a great job of saving them from the trash bin. Yes - Keen, Please bring them back as the toe protection is critical for any conditions less than optimum.

Jilly Whiting September 23, 2020, 6:45 PM

I have used the SPD sandals since like 1985! I ONLY race triathlons (have done 20 Ironmans and a lot of others) EXCLUSIVELY in my sandals. (In my younger days usually had one of the fastest bike splits for my age group yeart after year.) Best stiff shoe ever, but never get "hot toe". I even once had one person find me before a race that had met me once a year earlier, and realized it was me by my "sandal tan". Best cycling shoe EVER! Long live the SPD sandal!!!

Tom Pattee September 23, 2020, 5:50 PM

My wife and I are non-traditional cross-country recumbent riders and have made several long trips in our Tevas and Chocos. We ride every day at home with them as well. I would never go back to traditional shoes. If there is a side hike to take, these shoes are just a versatile as any other shoe. Comfort!!! We highly recommend these sandals.

Richard Peterson September 23, 2020, 4:24 PM

I've put thousands of miles on my inexpensive Nashbar sandals (sorry, Shimano -- too narrow) and they are still going strong. They became my go-to touring shoes years ago. Cold feet -- wear some wool socks. Cold and wet feet -- silk liners and neoprene socks take care of that. Who needs expensive Gore Tex socks? Sandals are perfect for riding in the rain. Just hot and sunny? Guess what ... sandals are ideal. These are the most flexible cycling shoes -- in a good way -- that you can buy. Try putting heavy wool socks on with your Sidi's.

Alee Denham September 23, 2020, 3:32 PM

We welcome you to our highly-esteemed performance footwear club - don't be afraid to pair them with some socks too. ??

Dennis R. Blanchard September 23, 2020, 2:56 PM

On a recent ride from Oregon to Massachusetts, I wore my SD-501A sandals and they worked out great. One tip: on the really cold sections (yes, even in the summer in Montana!) I do confess to wearing hiking socks and plastic shopping bags. Not a great look, the bags cut the wind and the hiking socks are wool and dry easily.

One surprising thing about these sandals is, they are not light. They feel heavy and are, much heavier than a typical riding shoe.

I agree, these are not off-road footwear, but for the road and living in Florida, I don't wear anything else. You can see the sandals in various photos of the trip in the blog:https://i0.wp.com/xcbiketrip.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Motorcycle-trip-6-e1521495095302.jpg?resize=683%2C1024&ssl=1

Kevin Karplus September 23, 2020, 1:06 PM

Why doesn't anyone make an SPD dress shoe for bike commuters?

Michael Khaw September 23, 2020, 6:13 PM

I have a pair of Garneau Venturo shoes. They could pass for "business casual", though they have Boa laces

Alee Denham September 23, 2020, 3:35 PM

Check out the Dromarti Touring shoes.

Nisswa Bob September 23, 2020, 12:59 PM

I love Keen Sandals for walking around and would love it if they were adaptable to Speed Play Pedals. I use Speed Play Pedals because they have more rotation before releasing (necessary because I am "duck" footed) and my stance requires 1/4" longer than standard spindle length on my peddles (yes, I am bow legged too). I really dislike dismounted with my Speed Play Cleated Bike Shoes on and trying to walk. Hence, I'd immediately buy a pair of Speed Play Cleated Sandal like the SPD ones described above if someone made them. Does anyone know of such a manufacturer?

De Disch September 23, 2020, 12:49 PM

Oh please Keen, bring back your discontinued sandal. My 10 year old pair needs a replacement.

Bob Holder September 23, 2020, 3:34 PM

Agreed, agreed, agreed! I switched from Shimano bike sandals to the Keen version about 15 years and fell in love with them, especially how the toe covers fended off thorny weeds.

Bring em back, Keen!

John Supan September 23, 2020, 3:55 AM

Alex,

"It's widely believed that a longer second toe is associated with being ill tempered and it's recommended to keep one's emotions in check. On a cultural note, different parabola of the foot have been associated with various ethnic origins. For example, a second toe longer than the big toe is known to be linked to Grecian descent."

https://fixyourfeet.com/blogs/news/what-does-it-mean-when-your-second-toe-is-longer-than-your-big-toe

Do you ride like an angry Greek god?

Michael Khaw September 23, 2020, 6:08 PM

My left 2nd toe is longer than my left big toe, but not the right. Does that mean my left half is Greek? (I have zero European ancestry.)

Charlie September 20, 2020, 8:07 PM

We've toured with the Keen sandals for many years. In fact, if you have wide feet as my wife and I both do, these are the most comfortable way to get around by bike. Sure, I have the fancy road bike shoes though for many years, had to use mtn bike shoes as those were the only ones I could find that fit my feet. And as the author has discovered, on a hot day, the sandals are the shoe of choice even for the road bike. When it gets cold, out come thin or thick wool socks and their use is extended. The advantage of the Keen shoe is that the toe is closed making it great for klutzes like me who will stub a toe on any protruding object. We're really a bit distraught about the discontinuance and hope that AC and others can intercede!

Rick Diermeier September 17, 2020, 9:44 AM

Did I see that Wisconsin is joining the US Bicycle Route System and that the Great River Trail / La Crosse River Trail / Elroy, Sparta Trail and 400 Trail system is going to become a route?

Alex Strickland September 17, 2020, 9:49 AM

You did indeed! Details about USBR 30 and 230 here: https://www.adventurecycling.org/about-us/media/press-releases/the-usbrs-welcomes-new-cross-state-routes-in-wisconsin-and-california/

Wheeled Wanderer September 14, 2020, 11:13 AM

Cycling sandals are brilliant for touring. No longer do I need to carry extra footwear for loafing around camp, taking a shower, or walking around a new city on a day off. Honestly, I have never understood why so many cyclists turn their noses up at a common (outside of cycling), comfortable, functional piece of kit. If you want to wrap yourself up like a colorful, overstuffed, Lycra sausage for the supposed performance benefits, more power to you... just realize how silly it sounds to mock those of us in sandals while doing it.

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