Choosing the Best Pair of Mountain Bike Shoes

mountain bike shoe testing pics
Article By:
Jeremy Benson
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Wednesday
June 27, 2018

There's a lot to consider when looking for a new pair of clipless mountain biking shoes and our goal is to assist you in the process. Modern mountain bike shoes vary significantly from performance specific features to price. We're here to guide you to the pair that is best for your riding and budget. Not sure why or if you need clipless mountain biking shoes? We cover that too. Read on to learn more.

If you already know you want clipless MTB shoes and know what kind, but you don't know which one, head over to our mountain bike shoe shootout. We tested the best models on the market for several months to help you make a more informed decision.

What's the Difference?


Why should you get shoes specific to mountain biking? Of course, you can ride a bike in shoes that are not unique to mountain biking, and many people do, but there are several reasons to get shoes made for the task. Think of it like having the right tool for the job. Certainly, you can pound a nail into the wall with the head of a crescent wrench, but isn't it so much easier to use a hammer? Mountain bike shoes are made to pair with specific types of pedals, offer foot protection, and have stiff soles that enhance your power transfer and reduce fatigue.

There are two types of mountain bike specific shoes, those made for use with flat pedals and those made for use with clipless pedals. Please note that the information presented here is unique to clipless mountain bike shoes.

Clipless mountain bike shoes clip into your clipless pedals  confusing we know...
Clipless mountain bike shoes clip into your clipless pedals, confusing we know...

The term clipless can often be confusing since we are referring to shoes and pedals that clip together. This makes more sense with a brief bike pedal history lesson. In the early days of both road and mountain biking to increase performance, pedals had a cage and strap on the front that your toes would fit into, known as a toe clip. The toe clip was designed to keep your foot from slipping forward while also generally securing the foot for greater pedaling efficiency. As time went on, in the early 1990's Shimano's SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) pedal became the first "clipless" mountain bike pedal to take the market by storm. These new pedals were referred to as clipless because they no longer featured the toe clip.

There are many benefits to using clipless mountain bike shoes and pedals. The soles of clipless mountain bikes shoes are designed to mount a cleat under the ball of the foot. This cleat is what clips into your mountain bike pedal and ensures that your foot is always in the optimal spot for the most efficient energy transfer, assuming they are set up correctly. In addition to proper foot positioning, most clipless mountain bike shoes also have stiff soles to transfer as much of your energy and power as possible directly into your pedals. Since your shoes connect to the pedals, you get more power out of each pedal stroke as your feet can push down and pull up on the pedals with each rotation. The right pedal and shoe combination will also give many riders an enhanced feeling of stability and control because you connect to the bike through the pedals. It becomes easier to manipulate the bike's position, bunny hop, or pull the back end of the bike up and over obstacles while using clipless pedals.

The soles of the Sidi Cape  note the cleat mount area positioned under the ball of the foot.
The soles of the Sidi Cape, note the cleat mount area positioned under the ball of the foot.

You've probably heard horror stories of friends toppling over or crashing while trying clipless pedals for the first time, and as with anything in mountain biking, there is a learning curve. Clipless pedals take a little getting used to, but it takes just a short time before using them, and most importantly clipping out of them, becomes second nature.

Types of Clipless Mountain Bike Shoes


Traditionally, mountain biking shoes have varied widely to meet the demands of various riding and trail styles. Today's shoes are more versatile and capable than ever before. Below we briefly describe the primary types of mountain biking shoes.

Cross-Country Mountain Bike Shoes


Cross-country shoes are typically designed with a stiff sole to provide maximum power transfer and feature minimalist, lightweight designs.
Cross-country shoes are designed to be lightweight and stiff to propel you to the finish line more efficiently.
Cross-country shoes are designed to be lightweight and stiff to propel you to the finish line more efficiently.
Often they sacrifice foot protection to reduce weight, and they tend to be less pleasant to walk in than a more gravity oriented shoe. Modern cross-country mountain bike shoes are beginning to blur the lines between performance on the bike and walkability off the bike. Examples of cross-country shoes in our test include the award-winning Shimano S-Phyre XC9, Giro Empire VR90, the Pearl Izumi X-Project Pro, the Giro Privateer R and the Sidi Cape.

Trail and All Mountain Shoes


All-Mountain and Trail riding are terms that are often used to mean roughly the same thing. Long days on the bike in the mountains call for a lot of climbing and descending, but most folks still focus on the descent.
All mountain shoes for all mountain riding.
All mountain shoes for all mountain riding.
Shoes meant for this riding style are designed to pedal well and work well off the bike. They are also typically lighter weight than their more gravity oriented counterparts. The best all mountain and trail shoe options combine impressive power transfer, excellent walkability and traction, moderate foot protection, and are lightweight for the long haul. If this sounds similar to enduro riding that's because it is, although everyone likes lighter shoes to promote efficiency during extended periods in the saddle.

Enduro Mountain Bike Shoes


Enduro racing has grown exponentially in recent years, driving innovation in bicycle technology and spawning an entirely new breed of mountain bike shoes. Enduro riding is fast-paced downhill riding where you typically earn your descents by pedaling uphill. In general, enduro riding is much more focused on the descent than the climb, and riders are often willing to pay a weight penalty for a shoe that offers a bit more foot protection than a cross-country shoe provides. Some riders may opt for full-on gravity shoes while others will choose somewhat lighter weight options which offer excellent performance but slightly less foot protection than their downhill counterparts.

Downhill Mountain Bike Shoes


Gravity oriented mountain biking has been growing in popularity for years. Mountain bike parks, lift served trails, and shuttle runs are in with the downhill crowd. Downhill oriented shoes such as the Giro Chamber II and the Five Ten Hellcat Pro are designed to provide a solid pedaling platform while maintaining a high degree of foot protection and walkability. They work best with pedals that have a large platform. Gravity shoes usually weigh more due to their beefier construction and enhanced foot protection.

Choosing a Mountain Bike Shoe


The mountain bike shoe you choose should be based primarily on the riding you do or intend to do. Do you like long rides where you earn your descents or enter the occasional cross-country mountain bike race? If so, then a cross-country or lighter weight trail shoe is probably right for you. Do you mix it up, going for trail rides, occasionally shuttling, and often find yourself in adventurous terrain where you're off the bike frequently? If that's your style, then trail, enduro or all-mountain shoes are probably what you want to be wearing. If you live for gravity and spend less time going up the hill than down, then you'll probably be happiest with a gravity oriented shoe for enduro or downhill.

If you live to spin up hills you'll prefer a fast and light shoe with excellent power transfer.
If you live to spin up hills you'll prefer a fast and light shoe with excellent power transfer.

Cross-Country Riders


If you earn your descents, enjoy the uphill as much as the down, or like to enter the occasional cross-country race, then you'd probably benefit from a cross-country oriented shoe. Cross-country riders on a budget will want to check out the Giro Privateer R. This is one of the less expensive shoes in our test but still wowed us with its excellent fit, stiff soles, and grippy rubber outsole that provides excellent traction and walkability.

Cross-country riders looking for the absolute highest level of performance should look no further than the Shimano S-Phyre XC9. The S-Phyre XC9 is one of the lightest, stiffest, and more comfortable shoes we tested, perfect for long days on the bike or dominating at the next race.

Versatile enduro and trail riding shoes can often pull double duty as a cross-country shoe for those who are willing to sacrifice a small amount of power transfer for enhanced walkability. Shoes like the Specialized 2FO Cliplite, Shimano ME7, and the Giro Terraduro are an excellent choice for cross country riders looking for a shoe that also performs well off the bike.

Riders who live for the ups and the downs will want protective shoes that are on the lighter side.
Riders who live for the ups and the downs will want protective shoes that are on the lighter side.

Enduro and Trail Riders


Enduro and Trail riding have roughly the same needs regarding footwear. Enduro racing has done wonders for the sport of mountain biking from an innovation standpoint. An entirely new breed of high-performance shoes now exists to meet the demands of this segment of the competition. Blending efficient power transfer, moderate foot protection, and grippy rubber outsoles with enhanced walkability — enduro shoes are ideal for most types of riders. While they may not be as stiff or as light as cross-country shoes, many riders are willing to trade these attributes for the comfort, and off the bike performance that these shoes are known for.

In the end, it was the Specialized 2FO Cliplite that edged out the others as our Top Pick for the Enduro Racer. This versatile shoe was light enough for long XC trail rides, yet offered good foot protection and the solid power transfer you need in an enduro race situation. The other similar shoes in our test selection such as the Giro Terraduro, Shimano ME7, and the Five Ten Kestrel Lace provide similar levels of performance with varying weights and degrees of foot protection.

Downhill Riders


If you spend your days shuttling or riding lifts so you can let gravity take over as you bomb down the hill, then a downhill oriented shoe is right for you. Our Top Pick for Gravity Riders is the Giro Chamber II, which impressed us with its solid power transfer, incredible foot protection, durability, and off the bike walkability. It's followed closely by the Five Ten Hellcat Pro. We also feel that Enduro shoes like the Specialized 2FO Cliplite, Giro Terraduro, Five Ten Kestrel Lace, and Shimano ME7 can handle double duty as trail riding shoes as well as the occasional lift served day of downhill shredding.




You Might Also Like