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If you have been riding a bicycle for any length of time, you have undoubtedly run across “cycling shoes”.
In this article, I will discuss whether these shoes will help your mountain biking, and what to look for when purchasing your first pair.
I also discuss the best shoes to buy for every price point. There are literally hundreds of shoes to choose from, so hopefully, this article will make things easier and save you both time and money.
Why You Need Mountain Bike Shoes
There are 3 reasons why you can benefit from going with specialized shoes (and pedals)
- Less Injury When Riding: The shoe has a stiff sole that delivers power efficiently across the entire pedal surface. By contrast, those tennis shoes you have been using actually “fold” around the pedal and transfer the bulk of the pressure to the balls of your foot. This folding effect can actually be quite detrimental to your feet and create the feeling of “hot spots”. With a stiffer sole, your feet are supported more naturally and greater force can be applied without injury.
- More Efficient Pedaling: most of these shoes are designed to clip into pedals. These clip systems make it easier to not only push down on the pedal but also allow you to exert force on the upstroke. With practice, this can actually allow you to pedal with about 20% more power. However, the greatest benefit of this system is that it helps you to balance your workout so both sides of your legs get to work out.
- Keeps Your Feet In Place: Mountain biking can get really crazy with the bike, pedal, and rider all bouncing in different directions. By being clipped in, your feet can stay engaged with your pedals and keep them from slipping off. It’s a heckuva lot easier to pedal when your feet stay on the pedals.
Mountain Bike vs Road Shoes
As you shop, you will run across both road and mountain bike shoes. What is the difference?
With mountain bike shoes, you will have some tread for walking. There is the very real chance that you may need to dismount and climb over obstacles from time to time. So the shoes will have some tread to enable you to do this, and the cleat is more recessed.
Road shoes are all about pedaling hard and fast. They incorporate a huge cleat area for pedaling efficiency. But they are very hard — if not impossible — to walk in.
It is easy to distinguish between the two because road shoes have no tread and a 3-bolt pattern for the cleats (although some of these also have both the 3-bolt and the 2-bolt pattern). Mountain shoes have tread and a two-bolt recessed pattern for the cleats.
What To Look For In A Mountain Bike Shoe
One of the first things to consider is how stiff you want your shoe to be. They use different materials for their soles and they all cause different levels of stiffness. For cycling, you can say “the stiffer the better”. However, some people do as much walking in their shoes as they do riding, and for those folks, they might want a less stiff shoe (although none of these shoes are really good for walking).
The other aspect you tend to get a lot of control over is how much tread the shoes have. Some shoes have huge, meaty tread for off-road living, while others have a more benign, “urban” tread. If you mostly ride off-road, you will probably appreciate the grip of the off-road shoe.
Most importantly, you have to consider how durable they are. There are a lot of cheap shoes on the market and a lot of stingy people. The end result is a shoe that doesn’t last more than a season before it spectacularly separates at the sole. I’ve seen a lot of these and if you stick with the major brands, you will be just fine.
If you are looking for more of an urban, commuter, or indoor shoe, click here for those reviews.
Top 3 Mountain Bike Shoes
Now the moment you’ve been waiting for: the reveal of the best mountain bike shoes that your money can buy right now.
Top All-Around Pick: The Shimano SH-XC501
You don’t have to be on my blog for long before you realize how much I love Shimano. Their shoes really are top-notch and they just last and last. Plus, their toe box seems to be normal-sized, as opposed to some of the “ballerina”-sized toe boxes a lot of their competitors seem to favor.
The XC51 is an absolutely gorgeous pair of shoes. The reinforced nylon midsole delivers incredible power over any terrain and the huge, rugged lugs around the outside edge of the sole make walking much easier when off the bike. I also love how they minimize the amount of tread right around the cleat, making it easier to clip in and out. This design also seems to minimize the amount of mud that will stick to your shoes and makes them much easier to clean.
The XC51 is also unique in that they are more enclosed than the rest. Most mountain shoes incorporate as much mesh as possible to make the shoes extremely breathable. However, this has the downside as also allowing every drop of water in. The end result is that — except on the hottest, driest days of the year — your feet are going to be wet. With the more enclosed XC51, your feet are better protected from the elements, resulting in a much more comfortable ride, during the springtime, early fall on rainy days and anytime there is dew on the ground.
The downside of these shoes is that on extremely hot days, your feet may want to sweat more than usual. If you mostly ride in Arizona, you may not like these shoes as well.
The ratchet buckle closure is another nice feature for on-the-fly tightening, and they seem to last very well with no maintenance. The velcro straps are wide and balance the pressure across the top of your feet very nicely. They also stagger the straps so that they don’t create hot spots or pinch points across the top of your foot, making these the most comfortable shoes you can choose for those longer rides.
This isn’t the stiffest shoe out there, but for the average rider who loves the trail and doesn’t want to overthink his shoe, this is an incredible choice that is designed to give years of muddy fun.
A High-Performance Shoe
If you want to spend $300 on a mountain bike shoe, you don’t need me. There are only 4-5 pairs of top-dollar shoes on the market and every one of those is going to be stiff, lightweight and the epitome of awesome.
I personally like the SIDI shoes because they fit like a glove, but you couldn’t go wrong with any of them.
Since I have enjoyed the unique privilege of riding in shoes that most others will only ever dream of, I feel especially qualified to help you find a shoe that feels like much more than it costs.
And the Giro Privateer mountain shoes are just that.
I love Giro because they make an incredible product but don’t market it very well. Sure, we all wear their helmets. But few cyclists know that they make other items.
So, in a way, Giro is the “hidden gem” of the industry. They also tend to have better pricing as they try to seek out a market share.
The Privateer has everything you would expect in a high-end shoe: durable synthetic uppers with plenty of mesh breath-ability inserted throughout. The ratcheting close strap allows for easy one-handed operation.
Giro also goes overboard on their tread. So if you are tired of slipping in the sub-par tread as you climb the ski slope for your next downhill run, the added lugs on the toe of the sole allow for drastically improved traction. The DuPont Zytel nylon compounds their soles are made out of also seem to be the perfect balance between traction and comfort which makes the shoes great on any terrain.
The Giro Privateer offers a lot of value that you won’t find anywhere else. It isn’t flashy, but it is stiff, lightweight, and durable.
I’m firmly convinced it is one of the best shoes any serious rider could go for.
Best Cheap Mountain Bike ShoeAs I mentioned earlier, there is a real risk with choosing a shoe that is too cheaply made. And because of that, I recommend that you try to find a brand-name shoe like Shimano, Mavic, Pearl Izumi, Giro, or Sidi. Of course, the challenge is finding the right size that is still in stock.
So if you wanted to know what a good, cheap mountain shoe was, I would recommend the Shimano SH-RP1. This is a pretty nifty shoe, actually. The two-strap closure design stays a lot cleaner if you are in heavy mud (and it is faster to get in and out of). Plus, it is more comfortable for the beginner rider who is looking for their first shoe.
These have the tread you need for off-road living and a sole that is sufficiently stiff to improve your efficiency.
The ventilation on this shoe is also stellar, with large vent areas for keeping your feet cool.
While this shoe is going to hold up to some really aggressive riding. Shimano is extremely durable and I’ve seen some of their shoes last for over 5 years of regular riding. But this isn’t a shoe for the serious rider.
The biggest downgrade from the more expensive models is that is a heavier shoe that uses fiberglass instead of lighter polymers or carbon. But it still has the offset strap design that is so comfortable and the well-designed upper that works well in any weather condition.
So this shoe is ideal for those who are beginners or even regular mountain bikers.
But if you are so into the sport that you introduce yourself as a “mountain biker” to other folks, you should scroll back up and grab one of those two earlier models we talked about.
And, for those of you who are scared by this price… know it may cost more than the really cheap models out there, but I am firmly convinced that it is money well-spent. And, in my opinion, you won’t find a better shoe in its category.
Can you wear sneakers when mountain biking?
While you can wear any type of shoe while practicing this hobby, keep in mind that only the best mountain biking shoes will offer you the utmost comfort and performance.
What should a beginner mountain bike enthusiast wear?
All of the protective gear that people usually wear when going biking through nature. That includes helmets, goggles, shorts or waterproof trousers (depending on the weather), knee pads, gloves, socks, and other similar items.
Other Mountain Bike Buying Guides You Might Like:
- Cheapest Mountain Bikes
- Diamondback Mountain Bikes
- The 5 Mountain Bike Types
- Fat Tire Options