Dr Hutch: The terrible truth about cycling shoes

An old footwear encounter leads the Doc to clutch his ankles and think back to a time less comfortable

I was tidying the garage recently. I have to do this in secret, so Mrs Doc doesn’t notice. She’s been telling me to tidy it for a decade, and I don’t want to look like I’m backing down. As I was arranging some tatty cardboard boxes in a teetering tower just inside the door to create the impression that the policy of dangerous chaos was still being rigidly adhered to, I found some shoes.

They were the first pair of cycling shoes I ever bought. I got them by something called ‘mail order’ the week after I got my first bike. (I filled in an order form, wrote a cheque, put them in the post and waited for so long that when the package arrived I had quite literally no idea what it was.)

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They were black and lurid green, and they had laces, which put me either three years behind or 20 years ahead of fashion, depending on how you look at things. Due to a mistranslation of UK to European sizing they were so small my feet went blue after half an hour. I just assumed they were supposed to be like that, and put up with it for three agonizing years.

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It occurred to me, as I found more and more of my old cycling shoes in the box that they are cycling in microcosm. A pair of cycling shoes will mark out a cyclist as surely as a pair of three-foot-long, bright-red brogues mark out a clown. You could tell the whole of someone’s cycling history from their shoes.

The test-card schoolgirl

In the same era as I was mail ordering shoes because I was too embarrassed to ask in a shop for something I didn’t understand, my friend Bernard was in a whole different mess. He was a rider long before me, and stuck with the old-fashioned toe-clips and straps for a long time. It might have been tight-fistedness, it might have been foresight of the coming hipster movement, it’s hard to say.

Photographs of him from that era show someone wearing terrible polyester jerseys in appalling bright colours and eye-bending patterns, accompanied by white ankle socks and little black leather shoes. From the knees up he was a television test-card, and from the knees down he resembled a Japanese schoolgirl. Caught between UK tradition and a more Continental modernity, he has, in some ways, never really moved on.

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Meanwhile, my next pair of shoes just confirmed me as a fool. They combined the stupidity of my first pair with an increasing awareness of cycling lore. That’s to say they were still two sizes too small. But this time I had read somewhere (let’s face it, it was probably one of this magazine’s occasional excursions into fantasy) that the tighter you fastened your shoes, the faster you could climb.

Ratcheting up the idiocy

That meant I’d exacerbated the size problem with a ratchet closure system that I could do up so tightly that my mind-boggling climbing was the result of nothing beyond a desire to make the torture stop by getting to the top and sitting down. There was so little blood getting into my feet that my ankles swelled up like snakes that had swallowed melons.

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Meanwhile, Bernard progressed to technology he didn’t understand with a pair of shoes he couldn’t take off without re-reading the instructions for loosening the ratchets. I adopted a sponsorship arrangement that had me wearing silver mirror-finish Italian shoes with my name embroidered on them in gold. I don’t know which of us looked a bigger idiot.

My shoes these days are sober and sensible. So are Bernard’s, because he’s currently wearing a pair he stole from me. Make of that what you will.