Wondering which clipless mountain bike shoes are right for you? We took nine of the best models available and put them through months of abuse and side-by-side testing to help find the best model for you and your style. Over the course of several months, countless hours and thousands of miles, we put each pair of shoes through its paces to find their strengths and weaknesses. We compared them to each other so that you, the consumer, can be better informed. From XC races, trail rides ranging from casual to all day epics, enduro laps, shuttle runs, gravel grinds and bike park laps, these shoes have done it all. Which shoes rose to the top after months of head to head testing? Read on for a detailed analysis.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated August 2017
This summer, our experts peddled their hearts out, putting each model through the wringer. What emerged from the dust was a series of new award winners, including the Giro Empire VR90, our best overall model. We've discovered a new Top Pick, the Specialized 2FO Cliplite and the Giro Privateer R remains our reigning champ as the Best Bang for Your Buck.
Best Overall Mountain Bike Shoe
Giro Empire VR90
New to the OutdoorGearLab clipless mountain bike shoe test this year, the Giro Empire VR90 took top honors and earned our Editors' Choice award with a combination of light weight, outstanding power transfer, incredible comfort and surprising durability. The Empire VR90 was the most comfortable shoe we tested, with a supple synthetic upper that fits like a glove and customizable insoles for a personalized fit. It was also the lightest shoe we tested by a significant margin, which truly makes a difference for extended days in the saddle or out on the race course. The shoe's Easton EC90 carbon sole is uncompromisingly stiff providing pedaling efficiency nearly unmatched in our testing. The Empire VR90 didn't take top honors for its traction and walkability, but a slight amount of flex in the toe coupled with a grippy Vibram rubber outsole proved to be very capable off the bike considering this shoe's weight and sole stiffness. The Empire VR90 also surprised us with its unmatched durability, showing almost no signs of wear after being smashed with rocks, scraped on stumps, and abused for weeks on end. They are far from inexpensive, but we feel that the Giro Empire VR90 is an incredible shoe that is worthy of your attention.
Stiff carbon soles
Lugged Vibram rubber outsole
No on-the-fly adjustments
Minimal foot protection
Read review: Giro Empire VR90
Best Bang for the Buck
Giro Privateer R
The Giro Privateer R returns once again as the winner of the Best Buy award for its combination of light weight, comfort, power transfer, durability and improved traction and walkability, all at a reasonable price. Recent updates to the Privateer R include a reinforcement in the toe for added protection and durability, as well as a new rubber outsole that dramatically improves the bike traction and walkability. It is an entry-level shoe, but we feel that riders of all abilities, especially those on a budget, will enjoy the fit and performance of the Privateer R. The styling and features of the Privateer R are geared more towards the XC side of the mountain biking spectrum, but we found it capable and comfortable enough for most types of riding — with the exception of taking shuttle or chairlift DH laps. With a look nearly identical to that of Giro's high-end carbon-soled Code shoe, the Privateer R uses a nylon sole which isn't carbon stiff, but stiff enough to please most riders. Power transfer isn't as good as our Editors' Choice award winning Giro Empire VR90, but is still impressive, especially for half the price. The Privateer R is also the second lightest weight shoe we tested, lighter than models that cost twice as much. With a retail price of $150, the Privateer R isn't the least expensive shoe on the market, but we feel it is a great value and challenge you to find a better shoe in this price range.
Improved grippier rubber outsole
Minimal foot protection
The sole could be stiffer
Read review: Giro Privateer R
Top Pick for Enduro Racers
Specialized 2FO Cliplite
It was a tight battle for the top step of the podium and our Top Pick for the Enduro Racer. Three shoes duked it over months of riding, and in the end, it was the Specialized 2FO Cliplite that beat out the Giro Terraduro and Shimano ME7 by the slimmest of margins as our award winner. In the end, it was the 2FO Cliplite's combination of light weight (for an enduro shoe), power transfer, comfort, walkability and durability that made it our champion. To pigeon hole this shoe or the other enduro oriented shoes in this test as for enduro racing only would be a mistake; these shoes excel for all types of riding with unmatched versatility. While not as lightweight or as stiff as our Editors' Choice award winner, the Giro Empire VR90, the 2FO Cliplite probably won't make the top of the list for XC racers out there, but everyone else should give this shoe a look. Whether you race on the enduro circuit, go for trail rides, long XC rides, bike park laps, shuttle runs, or just like to be comfortable on and off the bike, the Specialized 2FO Cliplite is a worthy option. With impressive power transfer, excellent foot protection, grippy full coverage rubber soles, competitive lightweight and durability, the 2FO Cliplite is the total package that meets the needs of a broad range of riders.
SlipNot rubber could be grippier
Roomy toe box
Read review: Specialized 2FO Cliplite
Analysis and Test Results
After months of testing and thousands of miles of riding over a variety of terrain, we evaluated these shoes on what we consider the most important metrics of comfort, weight, power transfer, traction and walkability, and durability. We tested a variety of shoes from covering a range of disciplines and styles. We put a good cross section of XC race shoes up against Enduro/All mountain shoes to see what works best and how they compare to each other. For more on how these shoes stacked up in head-to-head testing, read on…
Nowadays, clipless pedals and mountain bike shoes are used in every sub discipline of the sport. From gravel grinding, cyclocross, XC racing, enduro racing, trail riding and downhill, people enjoy the benefits of increased stability, control and pedaling efficiency they get with clipless pedals. Of course, there are plenty of folks who prefer to ride on flat pedals, but we're more likely to be riding clipless almost all of the time.
Where once our options were limited, we now have hundreds of clipless contenders to choose from made by different brands, for different disciplines, from different materials and at various price points. As the sport has grown and various disciplines of mountain biking have emerged, so too has footwear for each particular task. That said, modern clipless mountain biking shoes are becoming increasingly versatile as well. In this test, we put nine pairs of clipless competitors through their paces to help you choose the pair that's right for you.
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.
When it comes to mountain biking shoes, comfort is among the most important things. The more comfortable the shoe is, the more comfortable you are, and the better you can ride. Lack of comfort can be a distraction, and when you're riding the only thing you should be focusing on is the trail ahead of you. So how do we measure comfort? If a shoe inspires confidence right out of the box and becomes an extension of your body, that's usually a good thing. Ideally, the only thing you should notice about your shoes when you are riding is how little you notice them.
A variety of factors are at play when it comes to comfort: the design, construction and materials of the shoe all play a role. The overall comfort of each shoe was rated based on the material of the uppers, closures, and distribution of tension over the foot, footbeds, ventilation and protection of the feet. Our highest rated shoe is the Giro Empire VR90. The supple synthetic uppers and simple, lightweight lace-up design tighten uniformly around the foot for a best-in-class glove-like fit. In contrast, the Sidi Cape, which does not rate as high, has stiffer synthetic uppers that are closed using a crisscrossing Boa system and a wide ratchet strap, and we found it much harder to achieve even tension. Insoles also make a big difference in comfort. The Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro utilizes a class-leading customizable insole to dial in the fit to meet almost any rider's needs, while insoles seem to be an afterthought in other shoes we tested. Other highly rated products for comfort include the Giro Privateer R, and the Specialized 2FO Cliplite, which both feature comfortable insoles, quality closures and an all-around great fit.
Of course weight matters. It may not be the most important thing to all riders out there, but this is mountain biking, and pretty much everything is subject to weight scrutiny. Let's face it, all other things being equal, the lighter something is, the better it is for mountain biking. When we ride, we are moving the weight of ourselves and all of our equipment. The less our combined weight is, the faster we can travel, the longer we can ride…you get the idea. That 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.
The lightest pair of shoes we tested are the Editors' Choice award winning Giro Empire VR90 at 676g or 1lb 7.84oz for the pair, followed somewhat closely by our Best Buy award winner, the Giro Privateer R at 772g, or 11.2oz. The Five Ten HellCat Pro sits at the other end of the spectrum weighing in at 1130g or 2lb 7.86oz, a full pound heavier than the lightest shoes we tested.
Your shoes are the only thing between your legs and your pedals and are therefore a critical interface between rider and machine, The stiffness of your mountain bike shoe dictates how efficiently they transfer your energy and power directly into your drivetrain. One benefit of clipless mountain bike shoes is that your foot is always positioned in the optimal spot during the pedal stroke, increasing your pedaling efficiency. Stiff soles with little to no flex from the ball of the foot back are preferred to enhance your pedaling efficiency even further. The stiffer the sole of your shoe is, the less opportunity there is for energy to be lost or wasted due to the flex of the sole under power. Carbon fiber is typically the sole material of choice to create the stiffest and lightest soles, generally found in high-end cross country race mountain bike shoes. Soles are also constructed using various other nylon and plastic composites that provide excellent stiffness and are less expensive to produce.
We tested the power transfer of each shoe using simple flex-in-the-hands testing, and over the course of thousands of miles of riding in our test shoes. The differences in stiffness are noticeable, especially when switching between shoes frequently. Our top rated shoe is the Giro Empire VR90, which uses an Easton EC90 carbon sole that is impressively stiff and offers excellent power transfer. Other top rated products include the Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro with a carbon sole, and the Specialized 2FO Cliplite with a nylon composite plate.
Traction and Walkability
For some years getting off your bike and walking on rocks was a treacherous undertaking. Most shoes felt a bit like ice skates or tap dancing shoes, and you were probably more likely to injure yourself walking over that obstacle than trying to ride it. Over the past several years, mountain bike shoe manufacturers have started making shoes that perform well not only on the bike but also during the inevitable dismounts and hike-a-bikes that most of us encounter on a regular basis. The new breed of enduro and all-mountain oriented shoes offer an excellent blend of on the bike performance and power transfer while providing enhanced features for off the bike use. Many modern cross-country mountain bike shoes are also improving their outsole designs while still offering unwavering stiffness and pedaling performance.
Testing the traction and walkability involved walking in each pair of shoes on a variety of surfaces, rocks, logs, dirt and mud to see how well each one performs off the bike. This portion of the testing involved gratuitous hike-a-bikes and going up to that vista point that we always ride past.
Outsole material and tread design are the biggest factors in the traction that a shoe has to offer. Some shoes we tested, such as the Giro Terraduro, provide an incredible grip on dry surfaces, but the closely spaced narrow lugs tend to pack with mud in wet conditions. We've found the ideal shoe to have a semi-aggressive tread design that doesn't hold onto mud or debris made from a grippy rubber compound for grip on hard surfaces. Mountain bike specific shoes are also being designed to offer flex in the toe, from the ball of the foot forward, to enhance walkability without sacrificing underfoot stiffness or power transfer.One of our top rated shoes for traction and walkability is the Shimano ME7 whose widely spaced soft rubber lugs coupled with a stiff sole that flexes through the toe provides an exceptional combination of power transfer and traction in all situations. Other shoes with impressive traction such as the Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro, the Specialized 2FO Cliplite, and the Giro Terraduro are part of a new breed of shoes designed to blend impressive power transfer with off the bike traction and walkability.
Mountain bike shoes are an investment, and a longer lasting shoe provides a greater return on that investment. The shoes in our test ranged in price from $150 to $350, and if you're spending that much money you would hope to get a few seasons of use out of any given pair. There are many aspects to the durability of a given pair of shoes We considered several factors during the assessment of our test shoes, including abrasion resistance of the uppers, placement and wear or damage to the closures, wear of the outsole material and quality of craftsmanship. We went out of our way to use and abuse these shoes, scuffing the uppers on rocks, intentionally stumbling around while walking, tightening and loosening the closures more than was necessary, all to see how they stood up to the abuse over time.
The various rubber compounds that are used in mountain bike outsoles all wear differently. As we expected, we found softer rubber compounds to wear more quickly. For example, the soft and tacky Stealth Rubber of the Five Ten Hellcat Pro shows signs of wear from the pins of pedals while the harder SlipNot rubber of the Specialized 2FO Cliplite looks nearly brand new even after months of use. All of the shoes we tested use some synthetic leather-esque material for their uppers. The abrasion and tear resistance of each varies between the different models of shoes. Many shoes have additional abrasion resistant materials placed strategically around the uppers to prevent damage.
The closures of a shoe may also have an impact on its durability. Numerous types of closures are used to provide retention in modern mountain bike shoes. Laces are still used on many models including our Editors' Choice award winning Giro Empire VR90 and the Five Ten Hellcat Pro. Laces are simple, lightweight, efficient and easily and inexpensively replaced; the only drawback is the inability to adjust the tension of your shoes on-the-fly quickly. Ratcheting straps have long been used on mountain bike shoes, and they are relatively inexpensive; they work quite well but are prone to damage if positioned vulnerably on the lateral side of the shoe. Fortunately, most ratchets and straps are fully replaceable in case of damage, and shoes like the Shimano ME7 are using innovative reverse low-profile ratchets to reduce the risk of impact and damage. Velcro straps are a simple, lightweight and inexpensive system that has been used on mountain bike shoes for years. Unfortunately, Velcro is one of the quickest retention systems to break down, although it usually takes a few years, and sometimes your shoes will outlast your Velcro. Dials and cables like Boa or Sidi's Tecno 3 are a more modern style of lightweight closure that pulls tension evenly from both sides and offers easy on-the-fly adjustment. Closures like these can occasionally fail or break from impact, but shoes like the X-Project Pro have done an excellent job of placing the dials in on top of the tongue in a less vulnerable position.
We weren't surprised that our one of our highest rated shoes for durability is the Five Ten Hellcat Pro. This burly model features a full coverage rubber outsole and thick rubber protection for the abrasion prone toe area of the uppers. We were astonished, however, that the Giro Empire VR90 was as durable as it was. It got high marks for its incredibly abrasion resistant uppers, simple closures and durable Vibram rubber outsole.
There are some things to consider when deciding what mountain bike shoes are right for you. Depending on the riding you enjoy, whether it be cross-country, all-mountain or gravity oriented 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 help make a more informed decision. Read through our Buying Advice article for more information on what to consider before making your purchase.
— Jeremy Benson
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.