In the early days of mountain biking, every rider rode with flat "rat trap" style pedals wearing running or hiking shoes. Around the same time, road cyclists were beginning to embrace clipless pedal technology, which slowly transitioned over to the mountain bike world. For many years, it seemed like almost an expectation that if you were a "serious" rider, you'd be riding clipless pedals. And for many riders, depending on your riding style and environment, clipless shoes and pedals might be the best choice. While the mechanical connection of clipless pedals is great for some, many riders prefer the feel and freedom of riding flat pedals. With improvements in materials and technology, in both pedals and shoes, riding flats is currently better than it has ever been.
Clipless vs. Flats
There are two basic styles of pedals and shoes used by today's mountain bikers. Some riders prefer clipless pedals, others swear by flats, and some people ride both depending on the bike or style of riding. Many riders start their mountain bike careers riding flat pedals and eventually move on to clipless, while others may ride flats for their entire life. There is no right or wrong, it really comes down to personal preference and what works best for your riding style. Since you've landed here, it's safe to assume you're looking for flat pedal shoes, but we'll briefly describe the differences between the two styles below.
"Clipless" is a sometimes confusing term to describe pedals that have a mechanism that you actually clip a cleat on the sole of your shoe into. Clipless mountain bike shoes are designed with a cleat mount area in the sole and come in a huge range of styles for various types of riding. Being clipped-in ensures that your foot is in the optimal position for pedaling and maximizes power transfer throughout the whole pedal stroke. It also provides a feeling of security and an actual connection to the pedals so that they are less likely to slide off unexpectedly. Riders need to consciously twist the foot to disengage the cleat from the pedal. There are various styles of clipless pedals for different styles of riding and preferences.
Flat pedals are made from composite/plastic or aluminum alloys with large platforms, thin profiles, and strategically placed traction pins. Unlike clipless pedals, the only connection between shoe and pedal is the rubber sole/tread and the pedal body/pins. Many riders prefer flat pedals for a variety of reasons, including foot mobility, pedal feel, and the ability to remove/replace the foot with ease. Modern shoe and pedal designs have brought the performance of flat pedals to a very high level, with some coming close to the same "locked-in", connected feel of clipless pedals.
Do You Need Mountain Bike Specific Shoes?
"Are these shoes really any better than my running or hiking shoes?" Of course, you can ride flat pedals with any old shoe you want, and many people do, but there are serious performance advantages to using shoes designed specifically for mountain biking. Grippy rubber compounds, optimized tread patterns, sole rigidity for efficient power transfer and support, ventilation, and protective features, are just some of the ways that modern flat pedal shoes have been designed to enhance performance on the bike.
What Type of Riding Do You Do?
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 whether it be uphill or downhill? The shoe that is right for one type of riding may not be ideal for the other. If you're in more of a casual mindset, 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 might leave you bleeding in the dust.
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. Trail riders covering lots of distance and vertical will likely appreciate a stiff sole that provides efficient power transfer. Breathability may also be a consideration if those longer rides take you into warmer locations.
Trail and All-Mountain Shoes
All-mountain shoes are the one shoe quiver of the mountain bike shoe world. Can they handle riding in the park? Check. How about extended cross country riding? Yup. Can they climb efficiently? Definitely. Are they tough enough for enduro riding and racing? Oh yeah! Okay, if they're able to handle all of that, surely they can't function for REAL downhill riding, can they? Yes, they can, although they typically aren't as protective for the feet as dedicated gravity shoes, they'll still get the job done.
These versatile shoes can work for virtually any mountain bike discipline, but they are typically the best best for everyday trail and all-mountain style riding. They possess grippy soles and tread designs for a positive grip on the pins of your pedals, durable synthetic uppers that dry quickly when wet, well-padded midsoles with shank plates to stiffen things up for efficient pedaling and downhill support, and some foot protection. These shoes 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.
Skate and BMX style
These shoes may resemble skate shoes, and some can even bridge over to the skate park, but these are riding shoes. This shoe style is most at home in a bike skills park, the pump track, or the dirt jumps. These are a good option for the rider who prefers a little more foot mobility or likes a less rigid sole. While these aren't the most efficient 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 overall, which allows them to flex around the pedal and is primarily why they're not the most efficient choice for 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.
These are the heavy hitters of the mountain bike shoe world. Downhill shoes aren't necessarily intended for extended pedaling and climbing due to their heavier weight and beefier, more protective construction. 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. 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, foot protection, and shock absorption. With that durability, breathability takes a backseat and the shoes tend to keep the feet warmer than their cross country riding cousins. 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 and sweat.
The rubber compound used on the outsole of a flat pedal mountain bike shoe is one of the primary factors that influences its grip. Softer rubber compounds tend to be "stickier" and grippier than firmer rubber compounds. Soft rubber allows the pedal pins to penetrate and grab a hold of the sole. One drawback to soft rubber soles is that they tend to wear out faster than firmer compounds, a durability tradeoff for its grip performance. Those who seek the most connected feel will likely want to find a shoe with a softer sole, while those who value foot mobility may enjoy a somewhat firmer rubber compound.
Five Ten's Stealth rubber soles have set the bar for flat pedal shoe grip for many years. More recently, some shoe brands have created their own proprietary rubber compounds or partnered with tire manufacturers like Michelin and Goodyear to try and crack the grip code. Ride Concepts has partnered with a company called Rubber Kinetics to create the DST rubber compounds for their shoes, and they have done an excellent job challenging Five Ten's dominance. Likewise, Specialized's new SlipNot ST rubber compound is among the grippiest we've tested, rivaling the grip of Stealth.
What About Pedals?
The pedals you use can also play a role in the performance of your shoes. There are lots of flat pedal options on the market, so do a little research and find the pair that best suits your needs. Some pedals are better for trail riding, while others are intended for shredding DH and burly free ride lines. Getting the right size (yes they come in different sizes) can make a difference in comfort and control. Riders with larger feet can often benefit from having a larger platform underfoot, while those with smaller feet will likely prefer a smaller platform. The layout and sharpness of the pedal pins can also significantly affect the grip. An old worn-out pedal with dull pins won't grip as effectively as new, sharp pins. The pins on many pedals can also be replaced, improving performance without having to replace the whole pedal.
There are lots of flat pedal shoes on the market, and finding the right pair can be a challenge. We hope the information presented here helps to make the decision a little easier. The most important thing to do is find a pair that fits and that works for the type of riding you do. Good Luck!