The Best Mountain Bike Shoes - Clipless Models Compared
We took 7 of the best clipless mountain bike shoes available and put them through months of abuse and testing to help you find the best model for you. Working in tandem with our Mountain Bike Pedal Review team, we were able to test the shoes with a multitude of pedals and during different styles of riding. From trail rides, bike park laps, to XC and cyclocross racing, these shoes have seen it all. Which shoes came out on top after months of head-to-head testing? Read on for a detailed analysis.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Our award-winning products have seen recent updates from their respective manufacturers. A new version of the X-Project is now available. A new version of the Giro Privateer is also available, and new colors are available for the Giro Terraduro. For all of the info on the new versions and updates see our detailed reviews of the respective products.
Best Overall Mountain Bike Shoes
Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro
New version now available — March 2017
New on the market for 2017 is the X-Project Pro, pictured above. With notable updates to the sole and upper, the new version should rival the original. A full review of the X-Project Pro is in progress, and the differences between the old and new versions are highlighted in the individual product review. We loved its predecessor, and after researching this updated model, we expect performance to improve.
The Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro is the winner of our Editors' Choice Award. It is truly a unique shoe, with a level of versatility that is unmatched by any other shoe we tested. It is well suited to cross-country, enduro, and even cyclocross. The carbon sole gives the shoe excellent power transfer characteristics, with a stiff feeling under even the hardest out-of-the-saddle pedaling efforts, while still maintaining a surprising amount of flex when off the bike walking or running. The tacky rubber outsole almost completely covers the carbon midsole, protecting it from wear and rock strikes, and utilizes an aggressive lug pattern that clears mud well. A well-designed Boa retention system uses two dials and allows for an unmatched level of micro-adjustability while riding or racing. The upper is seamless with lots of mesh panels for ventilation. An adjustable insole system, with different arch and various inserts, complements the well-designed upper for an unmatched level of comfort and customization. The Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro should be on your shortlist no matter what type of rider you are.
Read full review: Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro
Best Bang for the Buck
Read full review: Giro Privateer
Top Pick for the Enduro Racer
Read full review: Giro Terraduro
Analysis and Test Results
In the early days of the mountain bike most people were using flat pedals and sneakers, and maybe some toe clips for the skilled and brave. In 1990 Shimano released the SPD Pedal and everything changed. Shimano was not the first to bring a clipless mountain bike pedal to market, but they were the first to make one that took the market by storm. Overnight the mountain bike shoe market was born. In order to reap the benefits of the new clipless SPD pedal, a purpose built shoe with a slotted sole was needed to mount the cleat that would interface with the new SPD pedal.
Clipless compatible mountain bike shoes are now ubiquitous equipment for use with every type of mountain bike. Riders from every discipline of the sport have found the benefits of increased pedaling efficiency and better control. Many of us at OutdoorGearLab discovered the sport on flat pedals with tennis shoes but you wont catch us riding without Shimano or Crankbrothers cleats stuck to our shoes now.
In the early days of clipless mountain bike shoes, there were not many options. Most brands only offered one shoe for mountain biking. As time has gone by, mountain biking has diverged into many sub-disciplines. So, in the same way that bike manufactures design bikes differently for cross-country racing than they would for enduro, shoes are now produced to excel for demands of different disciplines. All of the shoes we tested are clipless, with a standard two-bolt hole pattern for mountain bike specific cleats. There are many approaches when it comes to shoe construction, soles vary from rigid carbon to semi flexible nylon and retentions systems run the gamut from laces to BOA closures.
Not sure if clipless is what you want? Refer to our Buying Advice article for a more in-depth description of where this name came from and what this means for your shoes.
We tested a wide range of shoes, some of which are clearly marketed for specific disciplines, such as enduro racing, or cross-country rides. Often the shoes also have specific design characteristics intended to improve upon performance, or to appeal to the style of the intended user. For more on how these shoes stacked up in head-to-head testing, read on.
Types of Clipless Mountain Biking Shoes
Shoe for biking are typically tailored to different specific styles of riding. Here we briefly elaborate on the primary types. Wondering which style shoe is right for you? See our Buying Advice article.
Cross-Country Mountain Bike Shoes
Sidi Dominator 5 Fit, and the Shimano XC31.
Enduro and Downhill Mountain Bike Shoes
Downhill riding and racing has grown in popularity as more ski areas have added lift-serviced trails. The explosion of enduro racing has seemingly happened overnight, and spawned a range of shoesFiveten HellCat look casual and are designed to provide a pedaling platform while maintaining a high degree of walk-ability, they are ideally paired with pedals that have a platform. Enduro oriented shoes such as the Giro Terraduro, and the Fiveten Kestrel provide very impressive power transfer, excellent walk-ability and traction, as well as a high degree of foot protection.
Blurring the Lines
Criteria for Evaluation
After months of tests on different styles of bikes and a wide range of terrain, we evaluated these shoes on what we deemed as the most important metrics of comfort, weight, power transfer, traction, and durability.
When it comes to mountain biking shoes, there are not many things more important than comfort. No matter how great they look or how amazing the power transfer is, if the shoe feels like a medieval torture device you are not likely to wear it, or notice any of the shoe's other attributes. How do we measure comfort? If you try out a new shoe on a ride and quickly forget about them, that is always a good sign. Ideally, your shoes should be the last thing on your mind when you are riding. Many factors are at play when it comes to comfort: the design, construction, and materials of the shoe all play a roll. Our highest rated shoe is the Pearl Izumi X- Project.
Does weight matter? There is no piece of cycling equipment that is not subject to weight analysis. After all, the cumulative weight of the rider, his equipment, and the bike all impact the speed a rider is able to climb, and the amount of energy that will be expended to accomplish a ride or race. Lighter gear means less work, which to us means more riding, and potentially feeling fresher later in your ride. That being said, we have placed less emphasis on weight than on other criteria such as comfort, because the relative differences in weight are not huge, and other factors are likely to make a larger difference in your satisfaction with a pair of riding shoes.
Conveying power from your legs to the pedals and on into the drive train starts with your shoes. One of the biggest benefits of clipless shoes and pedals over flat pedals is that the shoe is always positioned over the pedal in the optimum position to deliver power. In order to take full advantage of shoe positioning, you need a shoe with a minimal amount of flex in the sole, particularly in the forefoot area directly above the cleat. The idea being that as the stiffness of the sole increases, the potential to lose power into the flex of the shoe decreases. So all things being equal, a stiffer sole equals superior power transfer and less wasted energy. Road biking shoes are designed to be extremely stiff, and high-end cross-country mountain bike shoes are often equally as stiff as a top-end road shoe. Carbon fiber is the material of choice when it comes to achieving stiffness, with minimal stack height and low weight. Various types of plastic and nylon composite materials are also used in sole construction and can offer a good degree of stiffness, but often at the expense of increased weight. Our top rated shoe is the Pearl Izumi X Project, which uses a variable thickness carbon sole that is quite stiff and offers excellent power transfer. Other top rated products include the Giro Privateer, with a Zytel Nylon sole and the Sidi Dominator Fit with a plastic sole.
Traction, Walkability, Running
It would be great if we all had the skills to negotiate every steep rocky climb, and the nerve to clean every technical descent. But let's face it, most of us occasionally have to do a bit of hiking with the bike, or at the least get off to preview the gnar before we ride it with ease. Beyond that, many of us mix it up in the fall with a bit of cyclocross, and that requires intentional running. So what makes a shoe good off the bike?
Traction. There is nothing worse than getting off your bike, intentionally or unintentionally, and finding that walking in your shoes is more dangerous than staying on the bike. If you ride in terrain that includes rock features, such as Moab or Tahoe, you will want a shoe that offers security and traction when navigating over rocky terrain. The tread design and outsole material determine the traction qualities of the shoe. Some shoes we tested, such as the Giro Terraduro, offer great grip on slick rock, but are not the best when it comes to muddy trails or cyclocross courses. The ideal shoe combines a semi aggressive tread that can clear mud with a softer rubber material that can grip rock. Our top rated shoe is the Pearl Izumi X-Project, its aggressive tread lugs comprised of soft rubber combined with a unique carbon sole designed to flex in the right places provide unparalleled off the bike performance. Another top contender is the Giro Terraduro, which is the only shoe we tested with a full Vibram Rubber outsole. The Five Ten Kestrel has a Stealth rubber outsole, and it great on rock, but lacks the more aggressive tread that gives the X-Project the edge in muddy conditions.
Shoes are not cheap, and a longer lasting shoe provides more bang for the buck. Beyond cost considerations, a durable shoe is less likely to leave you stranded on a ride, or without a pair of functioning shoes after an untimely rock strike. We took several factors into consideration during our durability assessment of our test shoes, including outsole durability, abrasion resistance of the upper, and type and position of retention system. It stands to reason that shoes with harder rubber lugs would wear less quickly than those with a softer outsole. In general, we found this assumption to be correct, but the shoes in our test with hard lugs such as the Sidi Dominator Fit and the Giro Privateer also have exposed unprotected sole material that is prone to abrasion from missed pedal entry attempts and rock strikes while walking. The shoes in our test with softer rubber soles such as the Pearl Izumi X project show tread wear more quickly, but also feature a rubber coated midsole which protects the portion of the shoe that provides structure and stiffness with a barrier against abrasion.
All of the shoes we tested use some form of synthetic upper. The abrasion resistance of the various materials varies widely. The shoes with the best performing uppers have some wrap-around rubber protection from the sole or patches of rubber or tougher material in areas that are prone to abrasion and wear. The Giro Terraduro is a good example of a shoe that relies on an extension of the outsole to better protect the abrasion-prone areas of the upper.
The type of retention system used by the shoe has a big impact on the overall durability as well. Ratcheting straps are the most common amongst our test shoes, and they are often the most economical choice.
Our highest rated shoe for durability is the Giro Terraduro, which features a durable Vibram sole that wraps up and over the toe of the shoe, providing excellent protection and wear resistance. The Pearl Izumi X-Project also receives top scores with a well placed BOA closure system and a carbon sole that is well protected with a layer of rubber.
There are a number of things to consider when deciding what mountain bike shoes are right for you. Depending on the type of riding you enjoy, whether it be cross-country, downhill or gravity riding, you will benefit from the features of different shoes. This review is designed to help you answer those questions and sort through the available options to make your decision. Read through our Buying Advice article for more information on what to consider before making your purchase.
— Curtis Smith
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