Old School #520: Laces

Old School #520: Laces

You’re an #OldSchoolCyclist if you know why cycling shoes come with the laces too long.

Back before shoes had Boa closures or ratchets or dial tensioners or even Velcro, they had laces. And as any Old Schooler will tell you—whether you ask or not—those laces worked at least as well as any of the fancypants modern closure systems.

C-Vintage-Cycling-Shoes 500pxShoes were important. Not only did they mark the difference between civilians and tourists and real riders, they were the difference between racers and enthusiasts as well. This was partly because racers had access to hard-to-find brands like Patrick and Marresi and Rivat and wood-soled Duegis, and partly because their shoes were always shiny. Whether it was an actual rule or just tradition, racers were expected to arrive at the start line every week with shoes not just clean, but polished.

Shoes were persnickety, headstrong beasts that required constant attention, especially in the first few weeks of riding. Fixing cleats was particularly bothersome. Other than just guessing where the ball of your foot was going to be, best practice was to lace on your new shoes and ride around the block a couple times without cleats. Then you referenced the new cleats against the marks left by the pedal before hammering in the cobbler’s nails that held the cleat in place. There was this Italian brand, Sidi, with a new three-bolt adjustment system everyone was talking about, but no one was sure it would hold up in the long run. So we mostly just stuck to hammer and nails.

Vintage leather cycling shoes J.Anquetil cleats 500pxShoes had their own mythology. You guessed at the correct European sizing and tried to buy yours a bit on the tight side, because shoes were leather, and they stretched. If you got them too large or they stretched too much, you left for the next ride with a spray bottle of alcohol and water in a jersey pocket and misted your feet every couple of miles. Too small, and you just lived with the discomfort and waited until they stretched to fit.

And then there were the laces. They were the skinny rounded spaghetti type rather than the easier-to-tie flat type. That was wasn’t a problem, really. The problem was that many of the shoes came with absurdly long laces.

Newbies cut them to fit or just rode until they caught the laces between the chain and front ring and the problem solved itself. Which worked well enough for practical purposes, except the hapless rider was often left with a little stump of shoelace too short to tie at all. If you spotted a guy on the Sunday morning ride with different-length laces, you knew he was a Fred and to be avoided in all forms of close-proximity riding.

DromartiShoes_wo_500pxThe cognoscenti knew those laces were long for a reason, and that reason was to get themselves out of the way. Now that laced shoes are coming back into fashion (the real question, old timers will say, is why they ever left), younger riders may find it helpful to follow this three-part fashion guide:

Phase One is to tie the ends and loops more or less even and stuff them down into the into the space between shoe and sock on the outboard side, safe and out of the reach of predatory chain and chainrings. A thoroughly practicable method, and one well-suited to the domestiques or neopros.

Phase Two is to tie the knot over as far to the outside as practicable for easier insertion into the shoe. Phase Two laces are the mark of a rolleur.  Even on your street shoes. Heck, especially on your street shoes.

There was even one jumped-up perfectionist in our group who developed his own lacing system, a self-conscious attempt at a Phase Three technique. He bypassed the top set of eyelets with the outside lace and brought the inside lace across and through the vacant outside eyelet. Then he could tie the knot completely outboard of the tongue, on the shoe’s upper instead.

Needless to say, this act of supreme posemanship is to be avoided at all costs.

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22 comments


  1. Author
    Rick Vosper

    I agree the singular is Duegi. But by talking about the wood-soled version (as opposed to other Duegis) the plural is correct. Had the sentence been only about the brands “Patrick and Marresi and Rivat and Duegi”,the singular would have been appropriate.

    But “Deugi” is just a just-plain typo. Thanks for catching it. I’ll go in and make the correction.

    I blame everything on my editor.,

  2. peter

    You forgot to mention that when installing laces, one end went directly from one of the top shoe hole to the bottom hole on the other side and the was laced back to the top in a side to side manner. Then the two ends were tied. This was done so if the lace would untie, the shoe would hardly loosen


    1. Author
      Rick Vosper

      Very cool! I never did it that way, but let me ask some of my old buddies and see if they did it and just didn’t tell me.

  3. Stephen Barner

    I also laced my shoes the way Peter mentioned, after buying my Sidi Titanes way back in the late 1970s and they came laced that way.

    1. skip1515

      I’m #OldSchoolCylist enough to have worn cleats and tighten toe clips, but I cannot claim to be olden enough to have worn wooden Duegi, etc. (Well, I’m old enough, just wasn’t riding early enough.) Still, the one-side-of-the-lace-all-the-way-from-bottom-to-the-top method was a standard European lacing method for shoes, cycling or not. When I lived abroad in the 70s most shoes were being tied that way. I always took it as nothing more than a difference in systems (kind of like metric, only different), never realizing, Peter, that the point was to maintain lace tension. Thanks.

  4. Alan

    I hated those shoes. Hated hated hated.

    Sadly I threw them out and now I wish I had them back for L’Eroica rides. Even if I would still suffer in those awful things.

    1. peter

      Funny that you should mention the L’Eroica. I gave away my last pair of laced shoes- which my wife had nailed to the office wall-to a friend who used them in the California Eroica last year.

  5. Scott G.

    Looking at the lead pic, I was hoping for a lament for Simplex dual bottle cages
    and white socks.

    BOT
    Quoc Pham has a good diagram showing OCD lacing technique.

  6. Geoffrey Knobl

    Don’t know about these shoes. I started riding my mountain bike on the road with toe clips but found them a literal pain. I switched to straps that crossed from the front of the pedal to the opposite corner rear. These worked much better. My shoes didn’t slip out when I pulled up. The problem was, sometimes they got stuck there when I stopped too, and over I fell. So, when I finally upped for the “clipless” pedals, I didn’t find that supposed 30% more power but I did find more power indeed. The first attempts were with a poorly designed entry level Look system that cause a few crashes but when I changed from them, it did work well.

    Back to the shoes. I’d rather not have laces but velcro. I find it much better overall. And I’ve had issues with shoe size for a long time, every time I buy new shoes in fact. My last two pairs came with laces and no covering for them. It’s not that I’m burning up the road anymore but that covering did keep the laces from the chain and yes, I have had them caught and once that did cause an accident. So, I had to come up with a way to get those laces out of the way. Amazingly enough, I came up with Phase 1 by myself and soon modified it to Phase 2. Great minds? Probably not. But I do think of myself as a rolleur when I’m (very rarely these days) on form.

    That’s a fun read. Thanks.

  7. kojo

    Adidas Eddy Merckx, sprinter shoe, had a patent leather pair. Tuck the laces in between the eyelets under the laces, kept in place by the toe clips and Al Binda straps.

  8. Shawn in the Gorge

    Some techniques never go out of style. I still ski in a pair of lace-up XC skate boots with lacing described as per Peter. They (the lacing) work just as he indicates. I continue to use them to this day. I also still have a pair of lace-up cycling shoes that are too worn out to still comfortably wear. I don’t yet have it in my heart to throw them away (If anybody knows of a good recycling method for thoroughly worn out cycling shoes, let me know).

  9. Michael

    I agree about wishing I had a pair of my old Duegi shoes for L’Eroica. However, I don’t miss having to reach down to tighten or loosen the straps. It created problems in races and rides, but the worst was when I was bike touring through Yellowstone in 1981 and came around a corner and there was a big fat car from Iowa stopped in the middle of the road. With my old long-reach side-pull brakes and a full load of gear, I stopped just as my front wheel touched the rear bumper, with no time to pull the strap or get my foot out, so over I went. Laying on the ground, fiddling with my strap to get out and get the bike back up, I saw the reason they had stopped – to gawk at a big bison bull about 15 feet away. I definitely felt some vulnerability lying there on the tarmac looking up at him. I don’t think the Iowans ever noticed me.

  10. Jay

    I kind of miss those old shoes and cleats, along with toe clips and straps. In some ways I still long for them. Nowadays I ride on Speedplay pedals and Lake shoes, and they function extremely well, but I was hardly an early adopter. I resisted for quite a long time after Look pedals and their ilk became the standard. It would be nice to see a revival of laced shoes, cleats and pedals with toe clips all done with a modern touch.

  11. Sean

    I experienced everything in Rick’s terrific post, along with winding a shoelace around the pedal axle until the lace broke. When riding my old school bike, I love my recently purchased Vittoria 1976 Classic shoes. They come with European lacing and slotted cleats, and they look just as I remember riding as an ABLA Jr.

  12. Gummee!

    After I figured out that velcro and ratchets were SO much better than the laces on my Puma touring shoes (used to mtn bike), and the Nike CC-Xes, I swore I’d never go back.

    Now I catch myself eyeballing a pair of the flaming orange Giro Empires or a pair of reflective Empire road shoes.

    Next thing you know, bell bottoms will be back again

    M

  13. Mark Young

    I have a pair of Vittoria shoes (lace-up with 3-hole). They were always my favorite shoe,until i discovered they were a possible cause for some of my current foot problems because the toe box was a little narrow.

  14. David

    I can’t say that I miss laces, and am a bit mystified by their resurgence (although I certainly like the esthetic). Stuffing the laces in the shoes always was uncomfortable and rubbed or chafed against my feet, especially on climbs out of the saddle. I was so excited to get my first pair of Velcro closure shoes! Nevertheless, I, too have some nostalgia for my first pair of cycling shoes, back around 1980- ordered on line from Italia Velo Sport, they had the softest, most supple and comfortable leather uppers imaginable. And nail on cleats in the leather soles! This fall I got a pair of Sidi Wires, and they seem to have all of the virtues of fit of lace shoes with none of the downsides. I’m sold.

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