As gravel bikes and gravel riding grow in popularity, so too has the amount of gravel-specific kit for those who want to get off the beaten track.
Over the past year, we’ve seen many big manufacturers turn their attention to producing gravel-specific footwear. These are the best gravel bike shoes of 2021, as rated by our expert testers.
Gravel-specific shoes, are they really necessary?
The natural crossover between the riding conditions and pedal systems used in cross-country mountain biking and gravel riding means that a lot of mountain bike footwear is already well suited to gravel.
For that reason, you’ll find some of the shoes in this list were originally designed for mountain biking.
However, the likes of Specialized, Shimano and Fizik are all now producing gravel-specific footwear.
This new generation of discipline-specific footwear tends to go without the considerable sole, heel and toe protection more commonplace on cross-country shoes, naturally making them lighter. The styling is often – but not always – more casual, too.
Keep reading to the end for our full gravel shoe buyer’s guide.
The best gravel bike shoes 2021, in order of score
- Fizik Terra X5: £150
- Giro Privateer Lace: £124.99 / $140
- Lake MX176: £135
- Mavic Crossmax Elite CM: £160 / €179.95
- Shimano RX8: £219.99 / $250
- DMT KM1 shoes: £310
- Giro Sector: £200
- Shimano XC5: £120 / $150
- Shimano XC501: £140
- Sidi Jarin: £340 / €435
- Specialized S-Works Recon: £340 / $425
- Triban RC 520: £70
- Quoc Gran Tourer: £219 / $275
Fizik Terra X5
- £150 as tested
- Efficient pedalling
- Good fit
- Comfortable on the bike
The Fizik Terra X5 shoes are rugged enough for off-road exploits and have a balanced and secure fit thanks to a wide tongue and an asymmetric Boa dial.
The shoes have carbon soles with deep treads and TPU-injected studs. This makes for a pair of stiff shoes that shed mud well, but when walking they lack flex and do feel like beefy road shoes.
On the other hand, this does mean that when it comes to climbing the Terra X5s put more power through the pedals than some other gravel shoes. So if you’re riding doesn’t require you to hike-a-bike that often, these will likely be a good choice.
Giro Privateer Lace
- £124.99 / $140 as tested
- Comfortable yet efficient
- Generous sizing
- Great looking shoes
Originally designed for mountain biking but also great for gravel riding are the Privateer Lace shoes from Giro.
They’re comfortable, with a sole that provides a good compromise between efficiency and comfort. We found the sizing on these to be rather generous, so try before you buy, if you can.
We also think they look the part.
- £135 as tested
- All-day comfort
- Excellent fit
- Mountain bike inspired rubber outsole
Billed as shoes that deliver all-day comfort and will work equally well for off-road adventures and cycle couriers, the Lake MX176 shoes cover a lot of bases. But they do this well and at an excellent price too.
The shoes have a rubber outsole with deep treads delivering plenty of grip.
The Boa dial and toe strap pairing make for a secure fit and efficient pedalling, and although the sole feels stiff in the hand the fit of the shoes makes walking easy.
The MX176 shoes are by no means a road racing shoe but there’s no power compromise for all the comfort.
Mavic Crossmax Elite CM
- £160 / €179.95 as tested
- Truly weatherproof
- Stiff soles
- Not too weighty
The Crossmax Elite CM shoes are a favourite among mountain bikers who brave wet and wintry conditions, so naturally work well for those who gravel grind through the colder months.
Unlike most weatherproof winter boots, these have a stiff sole and, at under 900g for a size 44, aren’t too heavy either.
The solid toe and tongue sections make a real difference in cold conditions and the neoprene collar keeps ankles warm even when it’s wet.
- £219.99 / $250 as tested
- Impressively light
- Superb ride quality
The RX8 is Shimano’s dedicated gravel shoe and a close relative of the excellent S-Phyre XC9 mountain bike shoe. However, it manages to save over 100g (in a size 45) from the aforementioned despite a lower retail price.
Once clipped in, the RX8s are superb and combine the qualities of the best road and mountain bike shoes.
Rubber grip sections on the sole allow you to dab your feet without damaging the shoes and provide plenty of grip, even in muddy conditions.
- £310 as tested
- Stiff yet light
- Supremely comfortable
- Twin stud mounts
Officially a design for mountain bike marathon racing, the DMT K1 also works superbly as a gravel shoe.
These are very comfortable shoes that breathe well. The stiff carbon soles feature rubberised protection from tyre specialists Michelin, which makes the shoes a pleasure to walk or run in.
Cyclocross racers and some XC riders will really appreciate the extra traction offered by the twin stud mounts, though most of us will likely keep them in the box.
They’re not heavy either, our EU45 test pair weighed 682.5g.
The high retail price is still a bitter pill to swallow, though.
- £200 as tested
- Long-ride comfort
- No break-in required
- Double Boa dial system
The Giro Sector comes from the world of mountain biking, but does a great job as a gravel shoe thanks to its all-day comfort, power transfer and lightweight upper.
The Sector closes with a dual Boa dial system that allows for precise adjustments while the supportive footbed is better than many. The toe box is also roomy.
The tongue and collar are padded and the one-piece, lightweight upper moulds to feet well.
The carbon composite sole helps with efficient pedalling, which will pay dividends on climbs and when gravel rides involve stretches of tarmac.
When it comes to walking, the rubber outsole provides a solid platform but the smaller lugs don’t do so well in the mud.
- £120 / $150 as tested
- Michelin rubber outsoles
- Lace-up closure
- Carbon-reinforced mid-sole
Not strictly a gravel shoe but one that remains very capable is the Shimano XC5.
They’re well priced with a grippy sole and supple uppers that allow for plenty of comfort.
The carbon-reinforced sole is coated in Michelin rubber, providing useful midsole grip if you miss your pedal, while raised toe, heel and forefoot tread blocks make for secure walking.
The lace-up nature of these – as with the other lace-ups on this list – does mean they take a little longer to put on and aren’t adjustable on the fly, but they do look good.
- £140 as tested
- Comfortable upper
- Good power transfer
- Snug fit
The Shimano XC501 is primarily a mountain bike shoe, but its racing pedigree means it can take on gravel duties with ease.
The stiff sole makes for immediate power transfer and provides a solid pedalling platform. This might not be ideal if your gravel riding involves a lot of walking, because the XC501 isn’t very flexible, but if efficiency on the bike is the aim then this shoe will serve you well.
The synthetic upper has mesh perforations for breathability and closes with a Boa dial and top strap, helping the shoe achieve its extremely comfortable fit.
- £340 / €435 as tested
- Replaceable grips and closures
- Robust but still well ventilated
This olive green version of Sidi’s premium Jarin is aimed at the gravel market. At 760g for a pair of size 45s, it sheds over 100g from the weight of Sidi’s previous range-topping off-road shoes, but has the same replaceable grips protecting the carbon sole.
Sidi’s microfibre uppers are tough with decent weather protection, but there’s still good ventilation from the laser-cut pinhole vents.
You get two of Sidi’s Tecno 3 Push dials for retention, with the top one working in tandem with a strap across the instep. We don’t find Sidi’s dials quite as simple as the two-way micro-adjustment of the latest Boa dials but they are still easy to use and hold firm over long rides.
Volume is generous for comfort, though the roomy fit won’t suit everyone, while the stiff heel cup aids stability.
Specialized S-Works Recon
- £340 / $425 as tested
- Twin alloy Boa dials
- Seriously lightweight
- Premium price tag
The S-Works Recon is a fantastic mountain bike shoe that’s very suitable for gravel duties.
Aside from the eye-watering price tag, these shoes are difficult to criticise. The twin alloy Boa dials mean you can cinch the uppers to your preference while a Velcro strap over the toes further refines the fit. The carbon sole is the stiffest Specialized makes and features a bonded dual-density grip section.
At 665g (for a pair of EU46), they’re also seriously light.
Triban RC 520
- £70 as tested
- Excellent value
- Very comfortable
- Decent adjustability
The design team at Decathlon has kept things simple with these shoes and they’re all the better for it.
Costly significantly less than the next cheapest shoe on this list, the RC 520 shoes from Triban are a true bargain.
While there’s some protection on the sole, these are not well equipped for walking on treacherous terrain or thick mud.
They’re also a little heavy at 798g for a pair of size EU42s, but they are excellent value.
Quoc Gran Tourer
- £219 / $275 as tested
- Stylish design
These stylish shoes from Quoc are designed specifically for gravel riding.
The lace-up uppers are manufactured without stitching, making them superbly comfortable but also usefully water-resistant.
The SPD compatible soles are another highlight thanks to a stiff carbon-composite midsole and grippy rubber outsole that’s been designed to protect your cleats while walking.
Although not the lightest, they’re a comparable weight to many cross-country mountain bike shoes.
These gravel shoes scored fewer than four out of five stars when they were tested by our expert reviewers, but they are still worth considering.
- Rapha Explore Powerweave shoe
- Rapha Explore shoe
- Specialized Recon 3.0 shoe
- Bontrager GR2 shoe
- Lake CXZ 176 shoe
- Northwave Rockster shoe
- Suplest Crosscountry Pro gravel shoe
Buyer’s guide to gravel bike shoes
The best gravel shoes depend very much on how you interpret ‘gravel’.
For some of us, gravel is simply a jaunt down a few green lanes, while others regard gravel as anything that mixes tarmac and dirt in one ride – even if that dirt calls for what are effectively mountain bike skills but on drop bars.
Location is often a factor too. In the UK, ‘gravel’ is more likely to mean country lanes and bridleways compared to in the USA where the well-maintained gravel roads of races like Unbound are more commonplace.
But however you choose to define gravel riding, it is more likely than not that your gravel shoes will need to balance stiffness and efficient power transfer with comfort for longer rides and walkability for rugged terrain or off-the-bike use.
So just like the best gravel bikes, the best gravel bike shoes often feel subtly different to kit designed specifically for other riding disciplines.
Compared to road shoes, gravel shoes are designed for walking comfort and are a bit more forgiving. They also differ from many road shoes as they use two-bolt mountain bike style cleats as opposed to three-bolt road cleats.
At the other extreme, flat-soled mountain bike shoes might have off-bike comfort but their flexible soles aren’t the best for power transfer.
Performance XC (cross-country) mountain bike shoes make for the closest match, which is why we’re seeing some styles badged as mountain bike and gravel hybrids. In fact, the difference between the two is often so small it might as well be non-existent and either will work fine for the other.
Five things to consider when looking for gravel shoes
The best place, as with everything bike related, is to start by considering your own skills, fitness and preferred riding in order to understand whether you might want to trade off some walking ease for stiffness or if comfort still means everything.
But, in general, there are five main things to consider when looking for a pair of gravel shoes:
- Fastening and closure
- The shoe’s uppers
- The sole of the shoe
Fastening and closure
Technology has gifted us the Boa dial, which gives a rock-solid fit that’s easy to adjust even when riding, but less room for variation in tension through its length.
A common combination is a strap over the toe section that allows it to be independently tightened, with a Boa dial or similar over the mid-foot. It’s a construction that generally works well, as long as there’s enough adjustment in the toe strap.
Old-school laces have their fans, though. If you have a high instep, you probably find that they allow for the differentiation in tension that gives a snug forefoot fit combined with ease over the instep that you need for best comfort.
The downside of laces is that they have a habit of working loose over the course of a ride especially if walking is involved, which is likely on more technical gravel rides.
The gold standard is the double Boa, which allows you to independently tighten the forefoot and instep. In our experience, this creates a fit that’s both secure and comfortable, yet stays solid throughout your ride.
We demand a lot of the uppers of any cycling shoes – gravel shoes perhaps more than most.
Gravel shoe uppers have to help deliver power transfer like road shoe uppers but have to have enough stretch for walking. They also have to be particularly durable and resistant to any scuffs from clambering over rough terrain.
Synthetic uppers are common across the price spectrum. Often synthetic uppers rely on perforation and mesh inserts for breathability. They don’t mould to the shape of your foot in the same way that leather does, but they don’t cost as much either, and fastening paired with other factors such as insole choice can practically circumvent this issue.
When trying on gravel shoes, try not to assume initial discomfort will disappear with wear. Check that adjustments don’t cause wrinkles that can rub, the tongue sits smoothly with no pressure points, the collar isn’t so high that it nudges against your ankle bones and that there are no prominent interior seams.
If we ask a lot of the upper of cycling shoes in general, we expect the impossible of the sole unit of gravel-specific shoes.
These need to be stiff enough for us to put the power down but flexible enough to walk in, and light enough not to feel uncomfortable but sufficiently stable and grippy to keep us grounded.
The first thing you’ll learn if you test a lot of shoes is that simply flexing them between your hands is no indicator of how comfortable the shoe will be to walk in. The second is that fit is more important than how stiff the sole is.
Ideally, the sole should be rigid through the mid-foot, with the flex being apparent in the toe section past the cleat. If the toe section has some spring, lifting up from instead of being flat on the ground, this will also enable the rolling action of your foot.
Outsoles made from rubber or TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) add grip and durability, with gravel shoes tending to have a more open lug pattern than the outsoles of off-road shoes. In theory, this provides enough grip while still enabling them to shed mud faster.
In practice, on rougher terrain an all-over lug pattern is best for stability. The question of whether or not to add studs is a personal one, though for us it’s not crucial unless we’re racing cyclocross, where the extra grip could make or break a race.
The fit of a gravel shoe needs to be snug but not tight, comfortable but not loose. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that pulling the fastenings tighter will overcome a shoe that’s slightly too big, or that you can wear in one that’s too tight.
Once you’ve fastened a gravel shoe you should be able to walk without your heel pulling out.
Pay particular attention to the shoe’s width as well as its length. Some shoes suit wider feet and, if there’s too much volume, you will not only lose efficiency on the pedalling upstroke but you’ll have less stability walking.
What’s inside a shoe is almost as important as what’s on the outside.
For many gravel riders in the UK, puddles, water and mud are probably going to feature on rides for a chunk of (most of) the year.
A sealed footbed is a must-have to prevent water ingress from the cleat holes. Remove the insole, take a look and run your fingers over the surface. The smoother it feels inside the forefoot section, the less chance that you’ll be aware of the cleats.
In some shoes, insoles feel almost like an afterthought: thin and offering little discernible support. Yet a cushioned insole with a shaped arch adds another degree of comfort and can help you to dial your fit.
Shoes from some brands, such as Rapha, come with different arch inserts, so you can customise the support you need. Other brands, including Specialized, have premium insoles as part of their footwear collection that you can buy as an upgrade.
Insoles are an easy upgrade to a budget shoe and can rescue expensive fit mistakes.