Why are we even worried about flat mountain bike shoes anyway, aren't those being replaced with clipless shoes and pedals? Well, yes and no. The mountain bike world has been transitioning overall to favor clipless equipment and it seems almost an expectation that if you're a "serious" rider you have to go that route. While that may have been the overall trend, we noticed there has been an even more recent trend to go back to riding flats and even highly seasoned riders are doing just that.
It seemed the normal way to progress with mountain biking was to start off with a flat pedal and running shoe, but inevitably the switch would made to clipless. With improvements in technology, both in flat pedals and shoes, and a recognition by experienced riders that flats may be a good thing, what's old is new. Experienced riders have realized that while clipless shoe and pedal combos is very efficient, especially when climbing on the bike, but many are now realizing that flat pedals open up new possibilities by allowing more freedom without the sometimes terrifying commitment that being clipped in creates.
Flat shoe and pedal technology is now creating products that actually feel very similar to being clipped but without the actual hard connection. Beyond that, riding with flats is fun; not being locked to the bike creates a better sense of playfulness than clipless riding offers. We found that with shoes like the Five Ten Freerider Contact and the Shimano AM7, riders can clock uphill times that are just as fast as clipless times.
When it comes to downhill, shoes like the Five Ten Impact VXi really connect the rider to the bike with it's extremely sticky dot rubber made with Stealth Mi6 compound. Even though the rubber is exceptionally grippy, riders are able to lift off pedals with relative ease, encouraging better foot positioning or putting an inside foot down for stability when cornering. Another benefit to flat shoe and pedal use is in added comfort and efficiency when encountering hike-a-bike trails. Clipless shoes tend to be stiffer with significantly less traction than flat models offer.
Types of Mountain Biking Shoes
Skate and BMX style
These shoes are typically the lowest-profile shoes and while now are made specifically for mountain bike riding, or at least bridging over from the skate world; they still retain the looks and style of a typical skate shoe. This shoe style is definitely most at home in a bike or skills park, as well as the skate park, big lift-accessed parks, or even shuttling road-accessed downhill terrain. While not typically the greatest shoes for the uphill, they are still capable of some climbing, especially if they're not expected to keep up with more aggressive riding shoes.
Skate style shoes generally have a softer sole, hence the one of the differences when it comes to uphill riding. The rubber compounds tend to be a little more firm, which makes the soles quite durable, but as a result don't tend to stick to pedal pins quite as well. They're not quite a pure skate shoe either, as the rubber is more firm than the gum rubber generally found on skate shoes. A bonus of these shoes is their street-friendly style. You can wear these for non-riding uses and not stick out like other types of shoes in that "I just got off my bike" sort of way.
All Mountain Shoes
All mountain shoes are the one shoe wonder of the mountain bike shoe world. Can they handle riding in the park? Check. How about extended cross country riding? Check. Can they climb efficiently? Yes they can. Will they stand up to enduro bike riding and racing? Definitely. Okay, if they're able to handle all of that, surely they can't function for REAL downhill riding, can they? Oh yes they can!
These shoes may not excel at any one mountain bike discipline (or do they?), but they're fully capable at all disciplines. They possess durable uppers, most frequently in a synthetic leather and synthetic mesh blend, well-padded midsoles with shank plates to stiffen things up for pedalling, soles with great grip for that clipped-in feel, and some have additional features. Unlike the skate shoe descendents, these aren't usually something you'd throw on in the morning instead of a regular street shoe, although if there's a tasty beverage waiting at your favorite pub after a ride, they're up to that task, too.
These are the heavy hitters of the mountain bike shoe world. They're made for…well…downhill. What is downhill? Aside from the obvious, downhill shoes aren't necessarily intended for extended pedalling and climbing. When the word "downhill" comes up, we have visions of rock gardens, big drops, even bigger air, huge features, high speeds, and fill-in-the-blank energy drink challenges. Realistically though, the majority of riders are riding some variation of those exciting things.
For some, downhill riding involves some cross country riding to access the good downhill, or even road-accessed shuttle riding. Downhill-oriented shoes tend to be heavier, with more durable materials made for extra abrasion resistance and shock absorption. With that durability, breathability takes a backseat and the shoes tend to keep the feet hotter than all mountain shoes. They'll handle use and abuse in stride and come back for more. These shoes aren't made for a lot of climbing, but some will hold their own just fine, only requiring a bit more effort with a bit more sweat.
Not necessarily a true riding advantage, but post-ride, should you need to walk around town, and grab lunch or a beverage, flat shoes like the Zoic Prophet make things more convenient in those situations.
If you've made it this far in your mountain bike shoe purchasing process, you've undoubtedly made the choice between clipless shoes and pedals and the more traditional flat shoe, which is what we're here to discuss. We tested six of the best mountain bike flat shoes available and compared them side by side over the course of several months in varied riding styles, terrain, and weather, making your own shoe selection easier.
The single most important factor in a shoe purchase is in deciding what type of riding you're most likely to participate in. Are you a casual rider who primarily rides less aggressive trails, someone who enjoys skills and park riding, or are you the type of rider who wants to push their abilities in all conditions? The shoe that is good for one type of riding may not be ideal for the other. If you're the former, there's no need to spend a ton on the latest, greatest, toughest shoe when a more entry-level all mountain or even a skate style shoe would be a better fit. And alternatively, if you're a hard-charging enduro racer, choosing a stylish streetwear-friendly shoe will leave you in the dust.
For more casual riders as well as park riders, a shoe like the Giro Jacket may be a good choice with its solid performance across the board. It has enough rigidity for good power transfer when pedaling, a good durable sole for shoe longevity as well as great street style, and it's available in several colors. If the price is a bit steep, the Zoic Prophet provides many of the same features, but with a lower price tag.
Riders who tend to ride longer distances in mixed terrain, including technical ground, will appreciate a more supportive shoe with superior pedal grip and good durability. Breathability may also be a consideration if those longer rides take you into warmer locations. For wetter locales, a shoe with more weather resistance may be appealing with a shoe like the Shimano AM7 or even the beefier Five Ten Impact. For more moderate climates, the Five Ten Freerider Contact is a great choice, with its higher degree of breathability in conjunction with its overall high performance.
For riders who prefer lift-served riding or simply want the most durable and grippy shoe available, the Five Ten Impact would be a great choice with its substantial sole and uppers.
A great happy medium in flat shoes, good for everything from light downhill use to off the bike street wear is the Five Ten Freerider. It has standard-setting Five Ten Stealth rubber soles along with durable upper materials, but has a softer construction enabling easier walking and mixed use performance.
Like many riders, after you make the decision to invest in your first real mountain bike shoes, you may find yourself picking up more than one pair of shoes. While some shoes are able to perform across the spectrum of mountain bike riding, having shoes that specialize in more than one area may be appealing as your riding repertoire expands. If you're looking for more in-depth information on all the shoes we tested, take a look at our Mountain Bike Flat Shoe Review.