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 some reasons to get shoes that are made for mountain biking. 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.
The term clipless can often be confusing since we are referring to shoes and pedals that clip together; this makes more sense if you get 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 setup properly. 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 are connected to the pedals, you also get more power out of each pedal stroke as your feet can also 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 are connected 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.
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, shoes for mountain biking have been particular to the various disciplines of the sport. Today's shoes are becoming more versatile and capable than ever before. Below we will briefly describe the primary types of mountain biking shoes.
Cross-Country Mountain Bike Shoes
Cross-country mountain bike shoes are typically designed with a stiff sole to provide maximum power transfer and feature minimalist, lightweight designs.
Enduro and 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 Five Ten Hellcat Pro and are designed to provide a pedaling platform while maintaining a high degree of foot protection and walkability, they are ideally paired with pedals that have a platform. Meanwhile, Enduro racing has grown exponentially in recent years driving innovation in bicycle technology and spawning an entirely new breed of mountain bike shoes.
Enduro oriented shoes such as the Specialized 2FO Cliplite, Giro Terraduro, and the Shimano ME7 provide very impressive power transfer, excellent walkability and traction, moderate foot protection, and are typically stiff enough to be used with all types of clipless pedals.
Choosing a Mountain Bike Shoe
The mountain bike shoe you choose is a decision that 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 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 enduro or all-mountain shoes are probably what you want to be wearing.
Cross Country Riders
If you earn your descents, enjoy the uphill as much as the down, or like to enter the occasional cross country mountain bike race, then you'd probably benefit from a cross country oriented shoe. Cross country shoes are typically lightweight and stiff providing the rider with excellent power transfer and less weight to carry around in the mountains on those long climbs and rides. Cross country riders on a budget will want to check out of Best Buy Award winner, the Giro Privateer R. This was the least expensive shoe in our test but still wowed us with its excellent fit, stiff soles, and grippy rubber outsole with excellent traction and walkability.
Cross country riders looking for the absolute highest level of performance should look no further than the Giro Empire VR90. The Empire VR90 was the lightest, stiffest, and most comfortable shoe we tested, perfect for long days on the bike or dominating at the next race. Enduro and All Mountain shoes are becoming increasingly versatile as well, and most can 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.
Enduro and Downhill Riders
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 at 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.
We tested three models of enduro specific shoes in our most recent mountain bike shoe test and all three are excellent. In the end, it was the Specialized 2FO Cliplite that edged out the others as our Top Pick for the Enduro Racer. 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. Downhill shoes are typically heavier, bulkier, and offer significantly more in the way of foot protection.
The most gravity particular shoe we tested is the Five Ten Hellcat Pro which impressed us with its solid power transfer, incredible foot protection, durability, and off the bike walkability. We also feel that Enduro shoes like the Specialized 2FO Cliplite, Giro Terraduro, and Shimano ME7 can handle double duty as trail riding shoes as well as the occasional lift served day of downhill shredding.