The Best Mountain Bike Flat Shoes Review
What are the best mountain bike flat shoes? We set out on a dirty, dusty, rocky, and muddy journey, sprinkled with snow and a little blood, to find out. Our test included six of the most popular flat shoes available, which we used and abused on cross country loops, extended hill climbs, technical downhills, and at a large bike park in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. We evaluated all of our test subjects for pedal grip, overall comfort, rigidity and power transfer, weight, breathability, and last, durability. Keep reading to discover which contenders came out on top!
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
It seems over the past couple decades that clipless pedals and shoes have been phasing out flat pedals to become the norm for mountain bike riders everywhere, other than downhill and park riders. While that may be true, we have noticed a resurgence in riders experimenting with flat pedals and the shoes that are made to work best with them. We've seen an increasing number of riders on flats, not just downhillers at resorts and park riders, but just your average riders out in varying terrain and conditions. Mountain bike flat shoes aren't your garden-variety sneakers or even skate shoes, but have evolved into a type of specialized footwear, much like their relatives, clipless mountain bike shoes. We already put clipless mountain bike pedals and shoes to the test recently and thought it was time to put some of the most popular mountain bike flat shoes through the OutdoorGearLab wringer.
Aren't these flat shoes clipless? While that seems to make logical sense…"I'm not clipped in so I'm clipless," but we have to look back a few decades to fully understand the terminology. It's actually pretty quick and easy. Until the 1980s, "serious" riders, primarily road riders, were riding with stiff-soled shoes, generally made of wood or Lexan, with a grooved cleat that nested onto the rear of their pedal cages. That didn't provide enough security and power, so toe clips and straps came to be, and a rider's feet were actually physically strapped to their pedals. During this same era, "modern" mountain bikes came into existence and many mountain riders simply rode with sneakers or running shoes, which quickly proved inadequate for more serious riders and racers. With that, mountain bike riders began using toeclips and straps like their road cycling counterparts and as you'd guess, carnage ensued. Imagine riding your mountain bike while actually being strapped to it – your fun ride now turns into a terrifying proposition.
Finally in the mid-80s, an alpine ski binding company, Look, came up with a revolutionary idea, mounting a cleat to the cycling shoe which allowed the shoe to be locked in securely, and just as importantly, to be released at will. This effectively began the phasing out of toeclips, hence the term "clipless" came into existence. Mountain bike racers began experimenting with riding their road pedals and shoes, but just like today's equipment, it just wasn't too practical and something better was bound to come along. By the 90s, companies like Shimano and Time had begun refining clipless technology, now gearing it to mountain bike riders as well as road riders. Since then, the clipless pedal and shoe world has continued expanding and the gear has gotten really good. With the proliferation of clipless mountain bike shoe and pedal options, why would anyone want to go back to a mountain bike flat shoe and pedal? There are actually several potential reasons; it just depends on the rider.
Let's start with riders who are new to the world of mountain bikes and trail riding. A great positive for flat shoes and pedals versus clipless shoes and pedals is in the ability to escape the mountain bike with greater ease. Aside from the physical aspect of this characteristic is the psychological security a newer rider can feel. We've likely all seen riders with their new clipless pedal and shoe combo, out for one of their first "real" rides on their shiny new gear, but rather than joy and excitement, we see nervous apprehension instead. The consequences, either real or perceived, can really get into the head of a newer rider. If they haven't already developed basic bike skills and good habits, locking in to a pedal can be a terrifying proposition. Mountain bike flat shoes and pedals can really assist a new rider with easing in to a new sport.
Moving on to more experienced riders, let's start with an easy one: Flat shoes and pedals are fun! With the easy escape hatch provided by not being physically locked to your bike, trail sections and features that were previously too committing to comfortably try look a little more realistic. Erasing or at least minimizing the potential for a slow motion tip-over gives some piece of mind that clipless riders don't have. Another major factor in the decision to run flat pedals is that they reinforce good habits and punish bad habits.
By this we're talking about things like the way clipless pedal users are able to lift the big when jumping and clearing obstacles, primarily with a toes-down, body-forward position, which does work, but is not nearly as stable in the long run. Watch a good flat pedal rider and you'll just the opposite of the clipless rider position we just mentioned, position is a heels-down, body-back position which creates more stability. Riders on flat pedals are capable of ridiculously difficult riding that clipless riders generally don't even attempt. Other positives are improved cornering and bike control through the ability to move shoes around on the pedals, like more outward positioning on the outside leg while turning. Braking can be more effective as well, simply by dropping the heels, which is almost a forced movement when riding flats.
While riding flat pedals may not be for everyone, the newer and improved shoes, combined with more advanced pedals may be worth revisiting. Some of us who have sworn by clipless shoes and pedals longer than we'd care to mention are now sporting new flats. Back to basics?
Types of Mountain Bike Flat Shoes
When researching types of mountain bike shoes, the primary difference is between flat and clipless shoes. Beyond that, each type of shoe, whether clipless or flat, has its own subcategories of shoes that are geared toward one type of riding or another, such as skate and BMX style, all mountain shoes, and downhill shoes. You can read more about these styles in our buying advice article. With that in mind, many shoes bridge the gap from one discipline to another, and while maybe not ideal for all styles of riding, the shoes may perform well enough from one type of riding to another. With this crossover ability, it's difficult to definitively label a shoe and we'll generalize the shoe types.
Criteria for Evaluation
After riding our test shoes for several months through a wide range of terrain and weather, we determined the most important metrics to measure the performance of all the shoes and graded them side-by-side. Our test subjects were evaluated for grip, comfort and arch support, rigidity, weight, breathability, and durability.
When comparing and grading mountain bike flat shoes, grip is the most important metric. Unlike clipless shoes and pedals, there is no hard connection between rider and mountain bike, but a more temporary connection which relies on rubber compounds and tread patterns. A good positive grip, like the Five Ten Impact VXi has, provides an effortless and fun ride, whereas a less positive grip, like the grip found on the Zoic Prophet, can make for a frightening and shin-scraping ride that nobody would be envious of.
Generally speaking, a flat shoe can't have enough grip, until it comes to time to adjust foot position or hit the ejector seat button. Too much grip can make for a bit of an awkward ride, too. A good mountain bike flat shoe strives to find the perfect balance between not enough and too much grip, like the grip found on the Five Ten Freerider Contact, which was the only contender to score a perfect 10 out of 10 in this metric. One wild card that came into play was the issue of moisture; not all shoes performed the same when the pedals or ground became wet or snowy. We had the good fortune to test grip in conditions that ranged from hot and dry to cold and wet. After comparing shoes and conditions, not all shoes had the same grip between dry and wet days. Shoes with a finer tread pattern like the Zoic Prophet, Giro Jacket, and the Five Ten Freerider Contact did not perform on wet surfaces as well as the Five Ten Impact VXi or even the Five Ten Freerider.
Comfort and Arch Support
This category can be a difficult metric to measure, as there are so many things that factor into comfort, from basic shoe construction to weather and climate where the shoe is used, and even the rider's foot shape and volume. When considering comfort, we looked at the support that the shoe offered, padding, and cushioning for riding and walking, as well as shoe shape and volume. Shoes that are constructed with less porous materials in the midsole tended to have a better feel over the long haul when we racked up the miles.
Test shoes like Five Ten's Freerider Contact and Five Ten Impact VXi are made with a stiffened, compression molded EVA midsole which provides added stiffness, support, and shock absorption, ultimately increasing comfort, especially for longer rides. Shoes like the Five Ten Freerider, without this added midsole reinforcement performed well for for shorter rides, but pedal pressure becomes increasingly present as the miles add up.
Arch support also becomes a factor when either riding or walking longer distances. The Five Ten Contact and Five Ten Impact Vxi, as well as the Shimano AM7 provided more arch support than the skate-style shoes like the Five Ten Freerider. Extra midsole materials tend to make shoes less walk-friendly and less sensitive, so one rider's ideal may not be another's.
For riders with wider or bulkier feet, a higher volume shoe will be more comfortable by allowing the foot to maintain a more natural position. We found that all of our test shoes from Five Ten possess a higher volume fit, especially in the forefoot. The Five Ten Impact VXi is actually designed with extra space in mind and is made with a "wider toe box". The Contact's fit was also roomy in the toe box, though not quite as voluminous as the Impact. This not only increases comfort but also overall efficiency through a more relaxed and natural foot position and increased circulation, especially to the toes.
Conversely, a rider with lower-volume feet, which tend to be narrower and thinner overall, may have difficulty in lacing shoes tightly enough to feel truly connected to the pedals. This too can result in an uncomfortable ride with poor circulation to the foot and toes. We found some of our test shoes had a lower-volume fit, like the Shimano AM7, Zoic Prophet and the Giro Jacket. Even though we graded all of our test shoes as objectively as possible, keep in the mind the type of riding and use you'll typically expect to encounter.
After miles of riding and with all of the factors above in mind, we found the Five Ten Contact and Shimano's AM7 to be the most comfortable overall. Both shoes provided great out-of-the-box comfort that was maintained even after riding the longest and most technical rides we encountered; the comfort was consistent through all conditions, both on and off the bike. The skate styled shoes, like the Five Ten Freerider, Giro Jacket, and Zoic Prophet, generally felt good out of the box, but with less support overall, this initial comfort diminished as our ride times increased.
Rigidity and Power Transfer
Power transfer, most directly related to shoe rigidity, is crucial to a shoe's performance, especially as the time in the saddle increases, particularly when climbing and pedaling through cross country rides. While flat shoes take a conscious effort to make sure foot placement is in the optimum position, ball of the foot over the pedal spindle, clipless shoes are an automatic. As a result, flat shoes do take more rider input and judgment.
We did find that with some of the flat shoes, like the Editors' Choice Five Ten Freerider Contact and the Shimano AM7, our ride times were on par with past rides with clipless shoes and pedals. This is seemingly linked to the shoes' overall rigidity and stickiness of the shoes' rubber. Other shoes, like the Five Ten Freerider and Giro Jacket, slowed our times slightly which seemed to be correlated to the lesser degree of stiffness and overall support of these shoes.
As is the case with a shoe's grip, usually more is better, but for the more rigid shoes in our test, pedal and walk sensitivity was somewhat diminished. The added rigidity of the stiffer shoes, especially the Five Ten Impact VXi, decreases sensitivity on the pedals and on the trail, feeling more like a hiking boot than a riding shoe. For riders who do more hike-a-bike terrain or wear shoes off the bike, this may be a factor in shoe selection.
Virtually every item a rider uses or carries is under scrutiny for weight penalty. This portion of our testing turned out to be less important that we originally thought. We knew all of our test shoes claimed weights were very close, but we chose to perform our own independent weigh-in. We found that from the lightest, the Five Ten Freerider Contact, to the heaviest, the Zoic Prophet, the weight difference was only a total of 2.25 oz total for a men's size 9. With such a minor difference, little significance was given to this category. However, if you're a weight weenie that insists on having the highest pair possible, give a good hard look at the Five Ten Freerider Contact.
A mountain bike shoe's breathability becomes increasingly important as the length of rides increases. For a short ride, particularly in cooler temperatures, breathability becomes unimportant, but as the clock ticks more and more through longer rides, the more a shoe breathes, the better. Shoes with uppers found on the Shimano AM7, Freerider Impact Vxi, and Zoic Prophet kept our feet warmer on cooler days but with this decreased breathability, our feet felt the heat on warmer days.
Conversely, the partial mesh upper on the Five Ten Contact and Five Ten Freerider, performed better in warmer conditions due to the nature of the open-weave material and its subsequent increased air flow. With those observations in mind, we rode in temperatures varying from 25F to 85F, and overall, our feet were relatively comfortable no matter the shoe, especially with the use of a warmer wool sock on cooler days and a thin cycling sock on warmer days.
As is the case with the other criteria in our test, keep in mind your use and environment. If your rides take you into cooler climates, the Zoic Prophet, Giro Jacket, Shimano AM7, and Five Ten Impact VXi will keep your feet warmer than the more ventilated options like the Five Ten Freerider and Freerider Contact. For wetter conditions, the Shimano AM7, with its synthetic leather upper, reinforced toe cap, and extra lace shield, will help keep your feet drier than our other test shoes.
Shoe durability is a crucial part of a shoe's overall long-term performance and brings into play economics and rider satisfaction. The world's most high tech, feature-loaded and expensive shoe quickly loses its appeal if it falls apart shortly after purchasing, especially if it leaves you stranded on the trail in the middle of nowhere in a storm. All of our test shoes feature primarily synthetic materials, with the exception of the suede trim of the Five Ten Freerider. After using and abusing our test shoes for over two months, we didn't experience any catastrophic failures and most shoes showed only minor wear.
Our Editors' Choice, the Five Ten Freerider Contact, sustained the most signs of wear, showing a lesser level of durability. However, its higher level of performance offset this shortcoming. For riders seeking the most durable option, a shoe like the Five Ten Impact VXi should be considered. Its solid synthetic upper and beefy sticky dot Stealth Mi6 sole displayed almost no signs of wear. Each rider should decide how much emphasis they place on durability versus performance versus comfort and choose a contender accordingly.
Other than choosing an enduro mountain bike itself, shoe selection is likely the next most important item influencing your overall ride satisfaction. There are several factors that come into play when making a mountain bike shoe purchase. When deciding which shoe is the right choice for you, make sure to keep in mind the type of riding you intend on doing most often, where you ride, and when you ride. Our Mountain Bike Flat Shoe review is intended to help you negotiate through the shoe purchasing process by providing solid information on the many options available. Please read through our Buying Advice article for additional assistance. Click on the help link at left for more tips and guidelines for each section of your main Best in Class review.
— Jason Cronk
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