Mountain bikers have two options when it comes to footwear: clipless shoes or flats. What shoes you choose is up to you, and both types have their benefits. But picking the right type is important because different styles work better in different situations.
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To figure out which pair is right for you, the first decision you'll have to make is whether you want to go with flat-pedal shoes or clipless-pedal shoes.
There's no right or wrong answer but it's well worth considering what type of riding you'll mostly be doing — XC (cross-country), trails or gravity orientated — as this will influence your decision.
Flat-pedal shoes tend to be orientated towards trail, enduro and DH riders, where feel and grip on the pedals, as well as protection, is important. Some flat-pedal shoes have soles that are stiffer than others, but none are as stiff as a dedicated XC shoe.
Clipless-pedal shoes come in a wider variety of forms, catering to virtually every sort of rider. They range from XC shoes, which are much like road shoes but with a little bit of tread on the soles, all the way to DH shoes that resemble their flat-pedal counterparts, save for cleat mounts.
So what do I need to look out for?
No matter what style of shoes you choose, if they don’t fit correctly they'll be uncomfortable and won't perform as well as they could.
We definitely recommend you try before you buy because everyone's feet are different and manufacturers use different lasts to build their shoes.
Ensure there's enough wiggle room for your toes and a decent hold on your heel for comfort and power transfer. You should also make sure there are no hot spots or parts that dig in as these will become painful on longer days in the saddle.
The retention system is what keeps the shoes on your feet. Laces are the traditional option, but there are alternatives.
Laces give you great control over a shoe's feel and fit, but can't be adjusted on-the-fly and can get claggy with mud — unless they're protected by a lace flap.
Boa systems use a ratchet dial and a wire that's looped through the shoe's opening for quick, easy and accurate closure and adjustment. They're found on pricier shoes and tend to be specced to help save weight.
Velcro straps and ratchet buckles are more common and pretty rugged, but weigh a bit more. They tend to come on cheaper and mid-price shoes.
The sole is key in defining how the shoe performs. XC riders will want a stiff sole that transfers every watt of power to the pedals. A stiff sole also helps when the shoe is perched on a small clipless pedal. Pricier shoes will benefit from a light and stiff carbon sole, while cheaper ones use plastic, which is heavier and more flexible.
Trail and enduro riders tend to go one of two ways: either an XC-style shoe with a more protection and a more aggressive tread, or a gravity-orientated shoe with a more flexible, comfortable sole and a construction that performs better with clipless pedals that have a platform.
Generally speaking, weight and sole stiffness are of no concern to gravity-orientated riders, so they tend to go for shoes that offer plenty of pedal feel and foot protection.
Tread pattern is also important. Some shoes offer a lightweight minimal tread, which is great for racing, but will come up short if you need to run or walk anywhere while out on the trail. Others offer more grip and protection, but obviously weigh a little more as a result.
Lover of flats? Scroll a bit further down for our favourites
Best clipless pedal shoes for mountain bikers
- Price: £160 / $200 / AU$280
The Shimano ME7 is the Japanese company's high-end trail and enduro shoe, and it's packed full of features.
Unlike some bulkier shoes, the ME7 is a slimmed down racy set of shoes with Shimano's Torbal sole, which gives decent power transfer without feeling wooden and uncomfortable. Underneath there's a grippy Michelin sole, great for hike-a-bikes, while the upper is well ventilated and features some protection.
The main strap is a ratchet, which never dug in to our ankles, while under the mud flap there's a 'quick-draw' elastic loop and toggle closure.
Perhaps our favourite feature is the roost guard, the neoprene flap around the heel, which does a surprisingly good job of keeping grit and mud from inside the shoe.
Shimano S-Phyre XC9
- Price: £320 / $400 / AU$450
This is Shimano's top-level XC shoe, featuring Boa dials for the first time on a Shimano shoe, along with a super lightweight construction and stiff sole.
The upper is flexible enough to give a great fit without feeling wallowy, meaning they're as comfortable as XC shoes come. The sole is stiff, as you'd expect, so if you venture over to even skinny XC tyres, these shoes are a great match for race-day situations — they'll even accept studs should you wish for more traction in the mud.
Buy these and you get a pair of socks to match the colour, sole, and fit. Yep, Shimano has engineered a sock to work best with the S-Phyre, so you know you're wearing the best of the best.
Scott MTB Pro
- Price: £100 / $125
These are some of the cheaper XC shoes out there, but don't let that trick you — they still perform well on the bike.
The plastic sole is stiff enough to give efficient pedalling, while the insole is adjustable for a better fit. The ratchet strap might be relatively bulky, but it does a good job of strapping your feet securely into the shoes.
Perhaps our favourite feature though is the low stack height on offer, which brings your feet closer to the pedal. This gives great feel through the pedals, making you feel truly connected to the bike.
Northwave Extreme XC
- Price: £250 / $330 / AU$450
These aren't shoes to shy away in, but if you don't mind standing out from the crowd you'll be rewarded with a high performing XC race shoe.
Northwave has put a lot of development into these shoes, shown most obviously through the 100 percent carbon sole.
The Michelin lugs on the sole offer reasonable levels of grip on the ground, though if you spend a lot of time hiking with the bike you might want a softer sole. If, however, power transfer is key, the sole delivers plenty of performance.
While there are plenty of performance-orientated features, the cat-tongue-like material at the heel is a neat touch that reduces heel lift by adding a little bit of grip to this crucial area.
- Price: £100 / $140 / AU$189
The AM9 was first seen under the feet of the Athertons, so it's pretty obvious that this is a shoe for riders who get their kicks out of making the most of gravity.
The sole has a bit of flex in it, which means there's plenty of feel through the shoe, which makes them great for knowing what's going on with the bike. With that flexier sole we'd recommend using a pedal with a platform, for a little extra support.
The shoe might look bulky, but it feels relatively light and comfortable, and the large splash guards do a reasonable job of keeping the worst of the weather off your feet.
Laces secure the shoes, but they're backed up with broad Velcro straps for extra security — we detected very little heel lift.
- Price: £50
Is B'Twin the coolest brand in the world? No. Does that matter? Not one bit, especially when the B'Twin 500 shoes perform as well as they do and for so little money.
It's an XC shoe with a reasonably stiff sole, but not so stiff that it's uncomfortable to wear all day and is impossible to walk anywhere in.
The sole has a pretty low stack height, which feels great on the pedals. For £50 we can forgive the shoes' slightly less refined fit; it might not be sock-like, but it's more than comfortable enough for those longer days in the hills.
While Velcro might not be super high-tech, it does mean getting the tension right is easy, both on and off the bike, it's also likely to remain reliable for a long time.
These shoes have a very similar women's version, at the same price.
Giro Terraduro MidAddi
- Price: £159 / $190
The Terraduro Mid is the mid-top version of the popular Terraduro, which got top marks from BikeRadar when it first appeared in 2015. With the mid-top version you get a touch more ankle support and protection, and frankly they look bad-ass.
Along with this extra protection you also get a roost guard, to keep your feet free of annoying gravel.
The Vibram sole offers decent levels of grip in mixed terrain and the shape of the sole makes it great off the bike. We'd like a slightly wider cleat channel to aid engagement, but otherwise, we like what's underneath.
The upper is well ventilated and the lacing gets a full splash guard cover. With the laces taking care of how the foot sits in the shoe, the sole's stiffness is just the right blend of pedalling stiffness and comfort.
We'd recommend trying these shoes before you buy, especially if you've not had Giro shoes before, as they have a relatively narrow fit — some will love this, others won't.
Best flat pedal shoes for mountain bikers
Five Ten Freerider Contact
- Price: £110 / $150 /AU$230
Five Ten is almost the undisputed master of the flat pedal shoe, thanks in the main to its incredibly grippy soles. Some reckon they're almost too grippy, but if you're smart with what pedals you pair them with, you can tune the feel of your feet on the pedal easily enough.
With long pins we reckon they feel almost as connected as a clipless shoe, whereas if you like a bit more manoeuvrability of your feet just run the pins a touch shorter.
The Freerider Contact is its lightest Freerider model and comes with the super grippy Mi6 rubber on the sole. The material used for the uppers does a good job of resisting scuffing, so they stay looking smart for a while, and there's a protected toe box for nadgery trails.
The sole is relatively stiff, so they feel good through the pedals, and the smooth sole is great for gripping pedals. But if you're a committed hike-a-biker you might find the lack of bite a problem in the mud.
There's also a woman's version of the shoe.
- Five Ten Freerider Contact review
- Specialized Women's 2FO vs. Five Ten Freerider Contact Women's Flat MTB shoes
Specialized 2FO 2.0 Flat
- Price: £130 / $150
If you prefer less of a vice-like grip on your pedals you might want to give the Specialized 2FO 2.0 a look.
After plenty of development with both pro riders and data logging tech, Specialized updated the 2FO, and in doing so made it one of our favourite flat pedal shoes.
The sole is grippier than the previous generation, with little vagueness in feel. It's also well padded — not to the extent that feel is compromised, but enough to aid grip and comfort on long, rough descents. It's also relatively shallow, again boosting feel of the pedals through your feet.
The shoe is light (736g for size 43) but there's still plenty of protection built in. If we had to be picky, the sole is wearing relatively fast.
If the £130 / $150 price is too high for you there's also the 2FO 1.0, which offers decent performance at a cheaper (£100 / $110) price point.
Adidas Terrex Trail Cross (and Trail Cross Project)
- Price: Trail Cross: £95 / $140
- Price: Trail Cross Project: £105 / $150
Adidas might not be the first name you think of when it comes to MTB gear, but given that the German company owns Five Ten, it's no surprise that it makes a great pair of flat pedal shoes.
The Trail Cross comes in two versions: the regular and the mid-top 'Project' version.
They both use the same Stealth Rubber sole, borrowed from Five Ten — it's as grippy as you might imagine it would be on flat pedals, leaving the shoes sure-footed on the trail. There's also a touch more profiling to the sole, most obviously at the toe, meaning scrambling up muddy slopes is a touch easier.
The upper looks lightweight, but there's plenty of trail protection built in and, while thin, the upper is reasonably weather proof. When it does get wet though, the lightweight build means it dries relatively quickly, which is great for regular riders cycling through the winter (and summer in the UK…)
The last suits those with narrower feet, so try before you buy if possible.
Those who want a bit more stability and protection should look at the mid-top version. The Velcro strap improves the fit around the ankle and there are D3O inserts to offer a little bit of extra protection from flying rocks and your cranks.