Black Widows

Here’s a recent bargain find from a vide grenier, a pair of classic leather cycling shoes, often nicknamed ‘Black Widows’.

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My Loano lace up black widows

To the untrained eye, they might look like Jazz dance shoes; lightweight, perforated and thin soled. They are designed to be used with toe clips and straps, which have been replaced on all but period replica bikes by automatic clipless pedals. Unlike steel tubes, downtube shifters and 5 speed freewheels, this is a throwback that I don’t really agree with. As toe clip and straps hold the feet in the pedals until the strap buckle is pulled by hand, they make unexpected dismounts trickier and as such are potentially dangerous. I therefore do not agree with period sportives and races banning the use of clipless pedals.

The bare soles - note the dark line worn in by the pedals.

The bare soles – note the dark line worn in by the pedals.

These are the kind of shoes worn by Coppi, Merckx, and Kelly, with their design varying little from the 1900s to the 1980s, when synthetic materials appeared, and then clipless pedals replaced toe clips. They were used with ‘trench’ cleats – cleats with a groove running along them that engaged the back plate of the pedal. A rider would generally ride them new for a few rides without cleats, after which time a mark from the pedal would be worn into the sole of the shoe, indicating where to place the cleats. The cleats were then nailed in by a bike shop or cobbler, and were not adjustable. Unlike modern pedals and cleats they did not allow any float (rotation of the feet on a vertical axis), potentially leading to knee problems.

Jacques Anquetil and Rik van Looy wearing black widows. (Wikipedia)

While the cleats may have been superseded, the style has not. There has been a spate of modern shoes designed with laces and perforated uppers, reminiscent of the glory days of cycling. The Giro Empire is one such example, which arguably kicked off the trend in the mainstream. They have been worn by Bradley Wiggins and Taylor Phinney, among others. While they are certainly stylish, bike tech supremo Lennard Zinn believes that laces are far less effective than velcro or ratchet straps at holding the foot in a comfortable, efficient position for any amount of time.

Giro Empire modern lace up shoes (

My pair didn’t come with cleats fitted (they never have been) and I don’t intend on fitting them. That way even if I use clips and straps I will be able to pull my foot out of the pedal. I will lose a small amount of power transfer this way, but in addition to being safer on the bike, they will be much easier to walk in this way too.

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Modern trench cleats for use with three bolt road shoes. (a bit of a silly idea if you ask me!)

The shoes were a great find, in great condition at a bargain price. Importantly, they are size 45 (UK10, US11) which is rather rare. Cycling is a sport that until recently was largely the reserve of 5 foot 6 Southern Europeans who weighed 120 lbs – finding vintage cycling shoes any larger than 42 is exceptional. Loano is actually a French brand, but with a definite Italian flavour to their shoes. Although these shoes have a fifties/sixties feel to them, they’re more likely a seventies or eighties low end model. I was in two minds whether to sell these of keep them, but I think I’ve become rather attached to them. They’ll come in handy for riding bikes with cranksets for French threaded pedals, which I can’t fit clipless pedals to.


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