Our testing lasted a combined total of six months, during which we gauged the shoes' similarities and differences, at times wearing a different shoe on each foot. We found that wearing shoes back to back or having a different shoe on each foot to be the best way to really decipher the small differences in power transfer, impact absorption, and breathability. During our testing, we examined six different metrics: grip, comfort and protection, rigidity and power transfer, breathability, durability, and weight. Read on to learn more about how we scored each metric.
Grip is one of the most important factors to consider when purchasing a flat pedal mountain bike shoe. Flat pedal shoes have rubber soles designed to grip the pins of the pedal, creating a connection between the shoe and pedal. When a shoe's sole is too soft, the pins and pedal can be felt underfoot, sometimes painfully so. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a shoe can be so rigid that all sense of the pedal underfoot is lost, and individual rider preferences typically lay somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
When considering a shoe's grip, we examined the material which the outsole is made of, the tread pattern, and the rubber's ability to grip the pedal. We took into consideration personal preferences how much grip a shoe has, if the grip changed in wet conditions when climbing or descending. Overall, shoes with the best balance of these factors earned the highest score in this metric.
Comfort and Protection
Comfort is a subjective metric, as everyone has different feet and qualities they do and don't like about shoes. We did our best to speak to what actions companies take to increase comfort for the consumer. To begin, we examined the shoe's sizing, as there is a relative sizing standard with some deviation between brands. We ordered our normal bike or street shoe size in each brand and made notes regarding if the shoe's size was accurate or not. In most cases, we found the sizing to be the same as we would expect, but have noted in our reviews when we needed to size up or down for an ideal fit.
After sizing we looked at the shoes' internal volume and width and if it would fit a variety of foot shapes and sizes. Next, we considered the shoe's arch support and footbed, understanding that it is easy to change footbeds to find that best fit. We also considered if pressure points were caused by the shoe, or if we had hot spots or circulation issues. Lastly, we considered if the shoe is comfortable on extended all-day rides.
Mountain bike shoes come with a variety of levels of protection, from sleek slippers to beefy, downhill shoes. We gauged the midsole's ability to absorb and dissipate impacts from the trail, the amount of protection from rock strikes or crashes to the toe box and forefoot, in addition to the amount of mid-foot and heel protection. Some shoes offer additional support in the way of asymmetrical ankle collars, gusseted tongues, or neoprene ankle gaiters designed to keep dirt and debris out of the shoe.
Shoes that scored high in both comfort and protection earned the highest marks. We understand not every rider needs a heavy, downhill-specific shoe for their after-work laps, and have noted shoes that offer additional protection for those who may be seeking it.
Rigidity and Power Transfer
Rigidity is how much flex the shoe has underfoot and correlates to a shoe's power transfer, as shoes that are more rigid typically allow the rider to transfer power into the pedals better. To test this we rode on a variety of trails ranging from steep, technical climbs to fast cross-country laps and gauged how much effort it took us to transfer power from our foot into the pedal and ultimately the crankset. We also wore two different shoes on our feet for side-by-side analysis of power transfer.
To test rigidity we examined how the shoes felt while pedaling. Could we feel the pedal through the shoe's sole and midsole? How much flex did the shoe have on a hike-a-bike? Did our feet cramp because the shoe is too rigid? Shoes which had the best power transfer and most rigidity scored highest in this metric, which is important to note as not all riders are seeking a rigid shoe.
Our reviewers spent quite a bit of time on the bike in hot and humid conditions. Temperatures in Minnesota in May ranged from the low 50's to the mid-90's, with dew points in the 60's, and June brought more hot and humid weather to the Midwest. In Lake Tahoe summer temperatures are frequently in the 80's, meaning our testers spent a fair amount of time riding in hot conditions which really test a shoe's breathability.
All the shoes we tested offer some type of ventilation, be it perforations, mesh panels, or a combination of the two. Shoes with more protection are generally a bit less breathable, as protection usually means reinforced material, double layers, or additional rubber. We found lighter shoes to typically be more breathable than their heavier counterparts. We considered if our feet felt hot during a ride, and how damp our socks were after a ride to determine breathability.
It's hard to discern a shoe's long term durability over the course of six months. We tried to replicate long term use by riding frequently and when possible in a variety of weather conditions and on a variety of terrain. We hiked our shoes, did trail work in them, crashed in them, and scrapped them against our pedals to see how they held up. We examined the soles after our test period for scarring and holes and looked at seams and stitching, and uppers for delamination, torn threads, holes and more to provide you with a general idea of how durable we think they will be long term.
Weight affects one's ability to spin the pedals and fatigue and is the easiest metric to score. Each pair was placed on a scale and weighed. Shoes weighing the least scored highest while the heaviest shoes scored lowest.
We examined a shoe's overall performance in relation to other shoes in our testing to determine its value. Sometimes a lower-priced shoe performed nearly as well as a more expensive model and sometimes more expensive shoes simply stood out from the crowd due to their performance and features. Value is somewhat subjective, as it can be worth spending more upfront on a product that has long term performance and durability and tried to provide you with the best options for your hard-earned dollar.