What do you do when your feet don't fit standard cycling shoes, or when you can't find shoes in the style you want that are compatible with the pedals you use?
This is a question I was asking myself back in the late '80s, before the introduction of SPD pedals, when I wanted to use Look road pedals on my mountain bike. The pedals were great, but there was no way I could hike up a rocky slope in Look road shoes with slick nylon soles. What to do?
Starting with a pair of army surplus store combat boots, I set out to make clipless riding boots.
A little experimentation showed that a standard wood-cutting router bit did a great job on rubber boot tread, too, so I cut the center of the forefoot tread flat in an area large enough for the cleat and pedal. I noticed there was a lot of sole thickness left, so I took off another 1/4" and ended up with a recessed flat spot, so that the cleats would not drag on the ground while walking. The cleat was surrounded at the toe and sides with full-height tread, for good traction while walking.
Look cleats, unlike SPDs, use stationary mounting nuts in the sole of the shoe, with position adjustment coming from the slots in the cleats. This makes it easy to attach Look cleats to any appropriate sole. You just drill holes in the sole and insert tee nuts from the inside of the shoe. (This ease of installation is not coincidental -- remember that back when Look introduced their pedal system, nobody else made Look-compatible shoes, and many riders still nailed their slotted cleats onto wooden shoe soles.)
One concern with the boots, though, is that they didn't have the stiff soles of cycling shoes, and plain tee nuts might pull through the sole in hard use. I made reinforcing insoles out of high-strength sheet steel roofing metal, and put the nuts through the steel insoles, spreading the load over a much wider area. If you don't feel up to that, just buy some stainless safety insoles from an industrial supplier like McMaster Carr Industrial Supply.
So, in an hour's work, I had walkable, recessed-cleat combat boots, perfect not only for off-road riding, but also for winter commuting.
The combat boots have had other, unexpected, advantages. When I sprained my ankle late one evening on the Olympic Peninsula, the tall, laced boot provided enough support that I didn't have to spoil the trip by getting to a doctor right away, and instead spent an enjoyable evening at the coast sipping port and eating smores by the campfire.
I used these boots with Look cleats for six or seven years before finally buying SPD pedals. I could have re-made the boots with moving mounting nuts, like most SPD shoes, but decided it was easier to simply make an adaptor plate that bolts to the Look-compatible sole and holds SPD pedals. They're pretty simple, just a short length of stainless steel that has slots, like a Look cleat, for adjusting the position on the sole, and tapped holes for the SPD pedal screws.
If metalworking isn't your cup of tea, Shimano now makes adaptors out of aluminum, and Syntace makes composite ones.
You don't have to use combat boots, of course. I've seen people do the same sort of conversion with leather loafers to make comfortable, semi-formal cycling shoes, and one mountain rider I met used soccer cleats for even better traction than my combat boots, though with less ankle support.
This page written by Josh Putnam. Please feel free to email questions, comments, corrections, suggestions, etc.