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You want the very best mountain bike shoes for playing in the dirt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean splurging on the latest tech. To help you cut through the marketing, we tested every shoe on this list on XC and enduro-style trails and compared them against each other to find the strengths and weaknesses of each.
There are basically two types of mountain bike shoes: those which use cleats (clipless) and those that don’t (flat), and the debate as to which is better will continue as long as mountain biking exists. Whichever style you prefer, there are lots of options available—from super-stiff and light XC shoes to rugged, heavily protected enduro kicks. The current trend is to mix and match closure systems—dial, lace, and hook-and-loop (a Velcro-like closure). Whether you prefer clipless or flats, laces or dials, rugged or racy, there is a shoe on this list for you.
See at-a-glance reviews below of five of our top-rated shoes, then scroll deeper for more helpful buying info and full reviews of these and other high-performing options.
Flats for a Faster Escape
These skate-style shoes have a sticky rubber sole for better grip on the pedals and when walking on slippery or rocky terrain. They have a firm midsole to provide a good pedaling platform and some flex for more-comfortable walking. They are used with flat pedals, some of which are studded with small pins to provide extra grip. Because you are not locked into the pedal (like you are with clipless shoes), the ride feel can be more fluid. The sacrifice: Without the ability to pull up on the pedal, you have to put forth a greater effort on climbs.
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Flat shoes do one thing very well: They remove a level of fear for both beginners and experienced riders. New shredders can focus on fundamental technique without having to worry about the motion of clipping in and out of pedals, or slamming to the ground when they can’t free themselves in time. Experienced riders can practice control and hone their technique because, knowing they have a faster escape route, they might be more daring on technical terrain than they would if they were attached to the pedals.
Clipless for More Efficient Climbing
If you want more control, better power transfer, and a heck of an easier time on climbs, clipless is the way to go. A two-bolt cleat pattern and dual-sided pedals double your chances of clipping in, compared to road systems. Having the ability to pull up on a pedal stroke increases pedaling efficiency and bunnyhop-ability. Clipless mountain bike shoes come in two basic styles: cross-country and trail/enduro.
Cross-country: These are the ones that look most similar to road shoes. They’re typically lightweight with a stiff nylon or carbon sole and have minimal tread, just the bare minimum needed should you find yourself walking. Although they are made for maximum power transfer (read: really stiff), soles are designed around the occasional need to walk. Custom shoe maker Don Lamson, of Lamson Cycle Shoes, engineers the soles of his cross-country shoes with a little flex in the heel and front of the toe, and maximum stiffness everywhere else. He says that without that extra give, your heels won’t stay put in the shoe if you have to walk. Lamson also suggests that cyclocross shoes need a little more flexibility in the toe than XC shoes because you’ll be running more. The upper on both XC and cyclocross shoes is usually soft and supple, with a small amount of protection around the heel and toes.
Trail/Enduro: Burlier than XC shoes, because of their heavy-duty upper that is designed to withstand more rugged conditions, these are thicker around the sides and have armoring on the toes and heels to protect from rock strikes.
Choose the Right Closure
Laces: Simple, effective, and easy to use, laces are found almost exclusively on flat shoes, although some XC-style shoes like the Giro Empire have lace closures. They provide even pressure across the whole foot and are less expensive to replace than other closure systems. The downside is that they are difficult to adjust midride and can take some time to dry once they get wet.
Hook and loop: This Velcro-style, sticky closure comes on shoes at every price. Adjusting a strap’s tension and position until you find the best fit is a breeze. The downside is that they can get clogged with mud and other debris and lose their grip over time.
Dial: The most popular dial closure system is Boa, and it’s often found on mid- to high-end shoes. Other systems, like Tecno 3 (Sidi) and Northwave’s SLW2, are similar to Boa in the way they look and operate. Dial closures are micro-adjustable and offer the most closing force. They’re also the most weather- and mud-resistant and the easiest to adjust midride. The downside is that they can get jammed or damaged. Fortunately, repairing or replacing them isn’t a huge deal, and often a warranty will cover the replacement.
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How We Tested
Every shoe on this list has been put through hours upon hours of hard use by our team of test editors at enduro, cross-country, cyclocross, and gravel races and on the trails around the Bicycling office. We research the market, survey user reviews, speak with product managers and designers, and use our own experience riding in these shoes to determine the best options. We evaluated them on performance, price, comfort, value, reliability, durability, and of course looks, to come up with this list of shoes that will best serve the needs of anyone looking for new mountain bike kicks this year.
Shimano S-Phyre XC9
Shimano has taken the same principles it used in designing the road-oriented RC9 and applied it to a mountain shoe. The XC9 is lightweight and breathable with adjustable fit thanks to a Boa dial/Velcro strap combo. A super-stiff sole is thin and wrapped in a minimalist tread for good grip. This shoe isn’t best suited to hiking on rough trails, but for cross-country and cyclocross races it’s a winner. The synthetic leather upper dries quickly, and the glove-like fit of the shoe is comfortable and resists stretching.
Giro Empire W VR90
The sleek, off-road Empire wraps your foot in a lightweight Teijin microfiber upper and a stiff Easton EC90 carbon sole. The Vibram rubber lugged outsole came to the rescue on slippery mud sections, and the lace-up design let me dial in fit to eliminate gaps and pressure points (though the shoes do fit small and narrow, so be sure to size up or, better, try before you buy). I wore these anodized plum-colored kicks during a local dirt crit right out of the box—they turned pedals as swiftly as they turned heads. And even though they held up to abuse and were still shiny at the finish line, I learned that they scuff easily when scraped against rocks. Which means I’ll be skipping them on regular mountain rides and saving them for ’cross, gravel, and mixed-terrain adventures.
Specialized S-Works Recon
The magic of the Recon is largely in the materials. At the bottom, where your foot meets the pedal, Specialized uses its stiffest, lightest FACT carbon footplate. The insanely light and strong upper is made of Dyneema Mesh, a super-strong material that’s light enough to float on water. An added bonus is the shoes don’t get that much heavier when soaked with water, and they dry really fast on hot days. The shoes have a nice roomy toe box and incorporate Specialized’s Body Geometry design, which the company claims reduces injury risk, improves efficiency, and, of course, boosts power. If you have small feet, don’t fret: The Recon is available in sizes as small as 36. At $425, the Recons are not cheap. At all. However, they’re extremely durable and should last several seasons of seriously hard wear.
15-Month Update: These shoes rock. Even with lots of abuse, they won’t break down—they’ll only show visible signs of wear and tear. Despite getting numerous other shoes to try, our tester keeps coming back to her Recons because she asserts they are her favorite off-road shoe ever.
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Fizik Vento Overcurve X3
The Vento Overcurve X3 features a single Boa closure at the top of the shoe and an asymmetrical shape that wraps the shoe tight around our feet in a way that feels surprisingly natural for a shoe with a single dial. However, the single Boa dial doesn’t offer the same adjustability you get with multiple dials. The easy-to-clean Microtex upper—important if you feel the need to have white mountain bike shoes—is durable and has minimal seams. After a few rides, it broke in nicely. And once broken in, the shoes felt sublime. The sole is as stiff as we’d want for XC racing, comfortable enough for all-day adventures and grippy for the times we were forced off the bike. This shoe quickly became one of our favorites for cyclocross racing and long days on the mountain bike because the sole feels like it’s not as stiff as some of the superlight and super-stiff XC-specific shoes. That reduces hot spots on long trail rides and feels good during cyclocross run-ups. As an added bonus, after a year of use, they are still, shockingly, white.
Sidi is the undisputed King of Bling when it comes to cycling shoes, and function certainly matches form in the Tiger—its top-of-the-line carbon sole is as stiff as those on top-flight road shoes, with none of the flex that some brands build into the heal or toe. This shoe isn’t made to feel good while walking your bike, it’s a racing shoe through and through. The Double Tecno 3 Push System closure, with both dials on the tongue, is a noticeable improvement over the Drako 2 SRS and makes for a much more uniform and snug fit. However, each turn of the dial is a big adjustment, and we frequently found ourselves stuck in that space between one click harder being too tight and one click lighter being too loose. The tongue has raised ridges on the upper edges that grip against inverse ridges on the inside of the shoe. They do such a good job of holding the tongue in place you have to pull them apart before removing your foot from the shoe. The plastic heal cup guards against the usual bumps and scratches that come along with trail riding, and the synthetic upper is also surprisingly abrasion resistant—after more than a few brushes with large rocks our shoes are no worse for wear. The upper also cleans up quite nicely after major mud baths. And since these shoes represent a significant investment, replaceable cleat plates and tread lugs go a long way toward keeping your shoes working like new through miles and miles of abuse.
After a year of abuse: Like a pair of fine Italian kicks, these shoes have broken in nicely, and the upper that previously felt stiff is now as soft and supple as a well-worn baseball mitt. Our only complaint is the paper-thin footbed leaves a lot to be desired. For sub-two hour rides, like an XC race, they’re perfect. But longer rides have left us wishing we had a more comfy insert.
Pearl Izumi X-Alp Elevate
Pearl Izumi has been refining its X-Alp mountain bike shoes for over a decade (all of its mountain bike shoes get the X-Alp designation) and this is the best one yet. Built for everyday riding on rough or smooth trails, the Elevate is one of the most comfortable shoes we’ve tested. The Boa dial is located on the top of your foot, which is uncommon, but doesn’t create any unusual pressure points thanks to a little extra padding under the tongue. The big Vibram lugs are great when you’re walking around or hopping over rocks and don’t interfere with clipping into or out of SPD pedals. The shoes are burlier than the sleekest XC models, but lighter than they look. At 405 grams (size 43), a single shoe weighs less than some similar models from other brands. And it comes in versions for men and women.
Giro’s latest mountain bike shoe is light, firm, comfortable and has a great grippy sole. It also happens to be designed for gravel riding, which you might have guessed from the name. But don’t dismiss it for trail riding, either. The Sector is made with Giro’s premium Synchwire upper, which the company uses on its $400 Imperial road shoe. Two Boa dials give it a tight fit, and there’s a stiff-enough carbon composite plate. Giro co-injects the chunky rubber sole, which binds the rubber to the sole during manufacturing (instead of glueing it) so it won’t peel away as easily. There’s some protection around the toe and heel, but probably not enough for aggressive riding where you’re banging your feet on a lot of rocks. And large vents keep you cool (though won’t do much to keep water out). At 342 grams (size 42) it weighs just about an ounce more than Giro’s lightest XC shoe. Maybe it’s the thin upper, but this shoe fits truer to its size than some other Giro models, which often require us to go up a half size.
Shimano XC5 Women’s
These subtle kicks are an affordable way to upgrade your next mountain bike ride or ’cross race. The upper and tongue are constructed from one piece of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), which tightens snugly around the midfoot with a Boa dial. The stiff Michelin rubber sole has large, grippy, mud-shedding tread, as well as a spike mount for messy conditions (if you’ve ever missed your cleat when stepping back onto the pedal, only to slip when the pedal meets the slick carbon or plastic in the midsole, you’ll appreciate the full-length rubber covering on these shoes). Even with all this reinforcement, the shoe remains lightweight and comfortable. The women-specific last doesn’t just mean they are available in smaller sizes, in this case you get a lower and smaller heel cup for more ankle movement without slippage or unwanted pressure on your ankles.
Bontrager calls the GR2 a “gravel” shoe. But like many so-called gravel shoes, it’s compatible with two-bolt (SPD) cleats, so there’s no reason it can’t be a mountain bike shoe (or any other type of shoe for that matter). The GR2 even has toe and heel reinforcements, stud mounts, and a sole with fairly chunky and soft lugs. The fit is slightly roomy—more so than a “race” shoe—with generous vertical space in the toe box. The laces slide easily through the eyelets so you can wear this shoe tight, and the pressure spreads evenly. Compared to some laces found on other cycling shoes, the GR2’s seem to have less stretch. Once you pull them taught and tie them, they stay put. The shoe’s materials and finish provide reasonable comfort—they’re not magic slippers, but they’re a decent place for your feet to hang out for a few hours. At 325g per shoe, the GR2 is light, especially at $140. The soles offer moderate stiffness (they’re rated six out of 14 on Bontrager’s in-house scale)—vertical stiffness is decent, but twisting stiffness is a little lacking. You will feel some give when pedaling hard, landing hard, or pumping through a big g-out.
Giro Privateer Lace
Giro’s Privateer Lace is for those who don’t like bulky and overbuilt mountain bike shoes. A crossbreed of the Privateer MTB shoe and the Empire road shoe, these shoes feature a simple, lace-up design and a comfortable, foot-conforming fit. In other words, there’s no extra fat—just a soft, microfiber upper with a reinforced toe cap to protect you from your own clumsiness. Compared to the ultra-stiff Empire road shoe, the Privateer is a bit more flexible, but power transfer still felt immediate during hard climbs. Rubber treads are nicely shaped for walking out of the pedals and offer enough grip for muddy off-bike adventuring. The fit is true-to-size, although the forefoot might not agree with wide-footed riders. Buy them if you like lace-up shoes that feel natural from the first ride.
Giro Sica Techlace
The Giro Sica Techlace is a sharp-looking shoe with a high-tech closure system. It employs one Boa dial, which tightens the upper in 1mm increments, as well as two Velcro tabs that cinch up the laces on the lower half. The carbon soles help maximize power transfer, but aren’t so stiff that they’re uncomfortable for a few hours on the pedals. The soles are coated with a Vibram tread for excellent off-the-bike grip and durability, and the upper is generously perforated for ventilation. The ventilation holes also help your socks dry faster if you happen to get them wet crossing a stream, and rubber reinforcements on the heel and toe box help protect your toes from rocks on the trail.
Five Ten Freerider Pro
Five Ten has become a dominant brand for flats. Its shoes can be seen at the Enduro World Series, in the bike park, and on your local trails. The Freerider Pro pretty much perfected the category. The Stealth S1 sole is stiff enough for riding and has enough flex for walking, plus it sticks to your pedals like glue. The latest version of the Freerider Pro vents well, dries quickly, and has enough protection on the toe and around the heel. These shoes are light and comfortable, and won’t look out of place if you find yourself in an unexpected social situation.
Crank Brothers Stamp Lace
The Stamp Lace is a new, gravity-oriented flat pedal shoe from Crank Brothers, the brand more commonly known for making pedals. These kicks use the brand’s high-friction, low-rebound rubber compound it calls MC2, and the “on pedal area” shape of the lugs was designed, the company claims, for optimum pin connection and surface contact with Crank Brothers’s flat pedals. One interesting detail: The lugs have rounded corners because CB’s testing showed that lugs with squared corners wore faster. The sole lugs in the “off pedal areas” in the toe and heel were optimized for hiking up and down slopes. These are superb flat-pedal shoes, with great grip, excellent pin security, and a good feel. They’re well-padded and comfortable, and ventilation is pretty good too.
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