After researching over 50 of the top mountain bike shoes of 2018, we selected 13 of the best to buy and compare side by side. Over the past year, we've put these models through their paces during rigorous real-world testing to expose the strengths and weakness of each. We chose a selection of shoes for the full range of riding disciplines and styles, from cross-country, all-mountain, enduro, and downhill. We also looked at shoes ranging from high-dollar to budget. Our testing process included everything from cross-country races, long gravel grinds, shuttle laps, all day trail rides, even some laps at the bike park — there's nothing these shoes didn't do as our testers analyzed every aspect of their design, comfort, and performance. Read on to help you find the best pair for your needs and budget.
The Best Men's Mountain Bike Shoes - Rated & Ranked
This Spring, we made sure our previous test results were still relevant and added four new contenders into the mix. We emerged with three new award winners, including the Giro Chamber II, our Top Pick for Clipless Gravity Riders, the Shimano S-Phyre XC9, our Top Pick for XC Racing, and an all-new Best Buy Award winner in the inexpensive and lightweight Specialized 2FO Cliplite Lace. Our previous award winners remain, with the Giro Empire VR90 as our Editors' Choice award winner and the Specialized 2FO Cliplite as our Top Pick for Enduro Racing. We also add in a few recommendations from our MTB Flats Review.
Best Overall Mountain Bike Shoe
Giro Empire VR90
The Giro Empire VR90 took top honors in our tests, earning our Editors' Choice award with a combination of outstanding power transfer, incredible comfort and surprising durability in a lightweight package. 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 fair 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 excellent pedaling efficiency.
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.
Read review: Giro Empire VR90
Best MTB Bike Flat Shoe
Five Ten Freerider Contact
The Freerider Contact has been our Editors' Choice in our MTB Flat Shoe Review for three years straight. It's so sticky you'll almost think you're clipped in. This year, it got it's first real competition from the Shimano GR7, which shared the Editors' Choice award. Both shoes are amazing.
The Shimano edged ahead in the scores by offering slightly more comfort, arch support, and breathability. It's also way more durable and costs $20 less than the Contact. However, the Contact is still the top choice if sticking to the pedals is your top concern. See our flat pedal shoe for more in-depth analysis.
Read review: Five Ten Freerider Contact
Best Bang for the Buck
Specialized 2FO ClipLite Lace
The Specialized 2FO Cliplite Lace emerged as the winner of our Best Buy Award. Costing only $120, this shoe is $30 less expensive than any other shoe, with no apparent reduction in quality or performance. Similar to its more expensive sibling, our Top Pick for Enduro Racing, the 2FO Cliplite, testers found this shoe to offer an impressive blend of comfort, power transfer, traction, and walkability, with a versatile all-around performance. The Cliplite Lace uses traditional laces instead of the Boa dials found on the more expensive version. Thus it lacks the convenience of on the fly tension adjustment and suffers a slight reduction in power transfer. That said, the Cliplite Lace has a stiff nylon composite sole that delivers good power transfer while still allowing the toe to flex for normal walking off the bike. A full coverage Slip Not rubber sole also enhances traction. A simple lace-up closure and Body Geometry footbed help make these shoes comfortable, and the impressive lightweight, for a trail shoe, won't slow you down.
While the Cliplite Lace does have good power transfer, it can't quite compete with the more race oriented carbon soled models in our test like the Shimano S-Phyre XC9, or the Giro Empire VR90 in that department. The Cliplite Lace is undoubtedly versatile and could be used for riding from XC to downhill. More aggressive gravity oriented riders might want to check out shoes with a little more heft and foot protection like the Giro Chamber II or the Five Ten Hellcat Pro. That said, if you're on a budget, or even if you're not, the Cliplite Lace is a comfortable, versatile, and high-performance shoe at an unbeatable price.
Read review: Specialized 2FO Cliplite Lace
Best Value In a Flat Shoe
Five Ten Freerider
The Five Ten Freerider is one of the least expensive shoes we've tested, but it still performs well. It doesn't offer the power transfer or protection of the Freerider Contact or GR7, but it also costs $20 to $30 less. If you want a softer and more sensitive shoe, this is it. Because it looks great off the bike, it seamlessly fits into your daily routine. Bike commute to work, take a quick shuttle lap and then go out to dinner, all in the same shoes. It's hard to say the same about many other mountain bike shoes.
Read review: Five Ten Freerider
Top Pick for XC Racing
Shimano S-Phyre XC9
After months of testing, the Shimano S-Phyre XC9 has emerged as the winner of our Top Pick for XC Racing Award. This is a top-of-the-line cross-country race shoe, with a price to match, which offers an uncompromisingly stiff sole that truly delivers in the power transfer department. They don't skimp on comfort either, with a well ventilated, supple one-piece upper, Boa closures, and customizable arch support insoles. These insoles provide an outstanding fit and enhance the performance of these carbon-soled rocket ships. They're also impressively lightweight, the second lightest in our test selection, just a touch heavier than our Editors' Choice award winner, the Giro Empire VR90.
Versatility isn't the S-Phyre XC9's strong suit, although these shoes also work great for road and gravel riding. Their minimal foot protection and poor walking performance aren't well suited to gravity oriented riding or adventurous cyclists who hike-a-bike regularly. A lugged but minimalist Michelin rubber outsole does enhance the traction of the soles, but the incredibly stiff carbon sole makes walking in them somewhat awkward regardless. That said, these lay down the power, so if you're a competitive rider looking for a well made, comfortable shoe with outstanding power transfer the Shimano S-Phyre XC9 is worth some serious consideration.
Read review:Shimano S-Phyre XC9
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. Several shoes duked it over months of riding, and in the end, it was the Specialized 2FO Cliplite that beat out the Giro Terraduro, Shimano ME7, and the Five Ten Kestrel Lace by the slimmest of margins. In the end, it was the 2FO Cliplite's combination of low weight (for an enduro shoe), power transfer, comfort, walkability and durability that made it our champion. To pigeonhole this shoe or the other enduro oriented shoes as enduro-racing-only would be a mistake. These shoes excel in all types of riding. They have unmatched versatility. We also tested the 2FO Cliplite Lace, roughly the same shoe but with a simple lace closure as opposed to Boa dials. The lace version is less expensive and slightly lighter weight, but lacks the on the fly tension adjustment and provides marginally less power transfer.
We could use stickier rubber on the soles for walking, and the toe box is on the roomy side. The 2FO Cliplite isn't as lightweight or stiff as our Top Pick for XC Racing award winner, the Shimano S-Phyre XC9 and 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, this shoe is the total package that meets the needs of a broad range of riders.
Read review: Specialized 2FO Cliplite
Top Pick for Clipless Gravity Riders
Giro Chamber II
The Chamber II is the newest version of Giro's popular Chamber gravity oriented clipless mountain biking shoe. Our new Top Pick for Clipless Gravity Riders, the Chamber II proved to be comfortable, confidence inspiring, and no slouch when it comes to laying down the power. Giro's Tri-Molded composite shank provides an excellent platform from the cleat area to the heal for stomping on the pedals while climbing or sprinting. This sole design still allows flex through the toe and have a full coverage Vibram Megagrip outsole. As a result, these shoes provide great off-the-bike performance during those inevitable dismounts and hike-a-bikes. The simple lace and velcro strap closure offers a secure and comfortable fit, and the burly design and construction offer some of the best foot protection in our test.
The gravity-focused design of the Chamber II doesn't do it any favors in the weight department, and it tips the scales at 525g per shoe. That said, these shoes are 40g lighter than the Five Ten Hellcat Pro, the other most similar gravity oriented shoe we tested. This is in stark contrast to the weight of the XC race style shoes we tested, which are roughly 150g lighter. Most riders considering these shoes probably aren't all that concerned with their weight, as these shoes are designed for crushing the descents with confidence. If you want to dominate the descents with authority and be comfortable and look good doing it, then we suggest checking out the Giro Chamber II.
Read review: Giro Chamber II
Analysis and Test Results
Over the course of thousands of miles of riding, we tested these shoes on a variety of terrain and trail types. We evaluated each model on comfort, weight, power transfer, traction and walkability, and durability. We included shoes that cover the full range of riding disciplines and styles. We put a good cross section of XC race shoes up against Enduro/All mountain and gravity oriented shoes to see what works best and how they compare to each other.
These days, clipless pedals and mountain bike shoes are used in every sub-discipline of the sport: gravel grinding, cyclocross, XC racing, enduro racing, everyday trail riding and downhill. Not sure if clipless is what you want? Check out our Buying Advice article for a more in-depth description of where this name came from and what this means for your shoes.
See the product names by hovering over the dots below. The 2FO Cliplite Lace is the least expensive and it performs well. The other standout value is the Privateer which scores well overall and has one of the lowest MSRP's. It was the previous winner of our Best Buy Award, although the Cliplite Lace edged it out by coming in $30 less expensive with similar scores in bike performance and greater versatility, at almost the same weight. It is worth mentioning that the 2FO is much harder to find online at a discount while the other shoes are more widely carried and on sale more often.
Your shoes are the only thing between your legs and your pedals and are one of only three places where your body makes contact with your bike. This is a critical interface between rider and machine, and sole stiffness dictates how efficiently shoes transfer your energy and power directly into your drivetrain. A benefit of clipless mountain bike shoes is that they position your feet in the optimal spot during the pedal stroke, which helps increase your pedaling efficiency.
Shoes with stiff soles with little or no flex from the ball of the foot back enhance your pedaling efficiency. The stiffer the sole of your shoe, the less opportunity there is for energy to be lost or wasted due to the flex of the sole under power. Carbon fiber often creates the stiffest and lightest soles, generally found in high-end cross-country race mountain bike shoes. Soles are also made of 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 by feel and observation over thousands of miles of riding. While subtle, the differences in stiffness are noticeable, especially when switching between shoes frequently. Our stiffest shoe is theShimano S-Phyre XC9 followed closely by the Giro Empire VR90. The Giro 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.
When it comes to mountain biking shoes, we think comfort is among the most important things. The more comfortable your shoe is, the more comfortable you are, and the better you can ride. Discomfort can be a distraction. When you're riding the only thing you should be focusing on is the trail ahead of you. How do we measure comfort? When a shoe inspires confidence right out of the box and becomes an extension of your body, we think that's usually a good thing. Ideally, the only thing you should notice about your shoes when you're riding is how little you notice them.
To rate comfort, we consider the material of the uppers, types of closures, 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 doesn't rate as well, has stiffer synthetic uppers that are closed using a crisscrossing Boa system and a wide ratchet strap. We found it harder to achieve even tension despite the fancy closure system.
Insoles also make a big difference in comfort. The Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro uses a best in class customizable insole to dial in the fit to your preferences, 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, both of which feature comfortable insoles, quality closures, and an all-around great fit.
Traction and Walkability
For many years, dismounting your bike and walking on rocks or other hard surfaces in clipless mountain bike shoes was a treacherous undertaking. Most shoes felt kinda like tap dancing shoes, and the likelihood of getting injured trying to walk over obstacles was probably greater than if you'd just tried to ride them.
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. This blend of on and off the bike performance is most evident in the new breed of enduro and all-mountain oriented shoes. Many modern cross-country mountain bike shoes are also improving their outsole designs while still offering unwavering stiffness and pedaling performance.
To test traction and walkability, we hiked our bikes in each pair of shoes on a variety of surfaces, rocks, logs, dirt, and mud to see how well each one performs. This portion of the testing involved gratuitous walkarounds and finally walking up to that vista point that we always ride past.
A shoe's outsole material and tread design are the most significant factors in the traction it provides. Some models, such as the Giro Terraduro, provide an incredible grip on dry surfaces, but the tightly spaced narrow lugs tend to pack with mud in wet conditions. We've found the ideal shoes to have a semi-aggressive tread design that doesn't hold onto mud or debris that is made from a grippy rubber compound for traction 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. Its widely-spaced, soft rubber lugs and stiff sole that only flexes through the toe provide an exceptional combination of power transfer and traction. Other shoes with impressive grip and power transfer include the Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro, the Specialized 2FO Cliplite, and the Giro Terraduro.
Let's face it, all other things being equal, the lighter something is, the better it is for mountain biking. Our weight while riding is the sum of ourselves, our bike, and other equipment. The less that combined weight is, the faster we can travel, the longer we can ride… you get the idea. That said, we've placed less emphasis on weight than on other criteria such as comfort because the relative differences in weight aren't huge. Factors other than weight are likely to make a bigger difference in your overall satisfaction with a pair of riding shoes, but it is certainly worthy of consideration.
The lightest pair of shoes we tested is the Editors' Choice award-winning Giro Empire VR90 at 676g or 1lb 7.84oz for the pair. The Empires are followed somewhat closely by our Top Pick for XC Racing Award winner, the Shimano S-Phyre XC9 at 718g or 1lb 9.33oz. Our Best Buy award winner, the Giro Privateer R comes in at 772g, or 1lb 11.23oz. 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, a trade-off for their enhanced foot protection and durability.
Mountain bike shoes are an investment, the longer they last, the greater your return is on that investment. All of the shoes in our test ranged in price from $120 to $400, and when you spend that much on anything, you hope to get at least a couple of seasons of use out of them. There are a number of aspects to the durability of a given pair of mountain bike shoes, and we considered several factors during the assessment of our test shoes, including quality of craftsmanship, the abrasion resistance of the uppers, placement and wear or damage to the closures and wear of the outsole material.
During testing we went out of our way to put extra abuse on 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 use over time.
The outsole rubber compounds used by the different shoe manufacturers 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 Vibram Megagrip rubber of the Giro Chamber II looks barely used even after months of use. Every model we tested also uses some synthetic leather-esque material for their uppers. The abrasion and wear resistance of each varies between the different models of shoes, and many have additional abrasion resistant materials strategically placed around the uppers to prevent damage.
A shoe's closure system is also an important consideration in the overall durability. There are many different closure styles on the market designed to provide comfort and retention of the shoes in various ways. Shoelaces are used on many models including our Editors' Choice award-winning Giro Empire VR90 and our Best Buy Award winner, the Specialized 2FO Cliplite Lace. Laces are simple, lightweight, efficient and easily and inexpensively replaced. The only drawback is the lack of on the fly tension adjustment.
Ratcheting straps have been a popular closure system for some time, as they are relatively inexpensive. They work quite well, although they can be 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, or hook and loop, straps are a simple, lightweight and inexpensive system that has been used on mountain bike shoes for years. Unfortunately, Velcro is the retention system that is quickest to break down, though it usually takes a few years. Sometimes a shoe will outlast the Velcro closure.
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 quick 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. These dial and cable closure systems are often fully replaceable and sometimes covered under warranty.
It's not surprising that the heavier shoes in our test were also some of the highest rated shoes for durability. The Five Ten Hellcat Pro is a burly model with a full coverage rubber outsole and thick rubber protection for the abrasion-prone toe area of the uppers. The Giro Chamber II also scored highly in this metric due to its similarly hefty and beefy construction. We were astonished, however, to find 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's lots to consider when choosing a pair of clipless mountain bike shoes. The shoes you pick depend on the type of riding you enjoy, whether it be XC, all-mountain, or gravity oriented riding, you may benefit from the features offered by different styles of shoes. This review is intended to help you answer any questions you might have 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 tips.