How To Buy Cycling and Mountain Biking Shoes

Road Shoes (Skip down farther for mountainbike shoes)

When looking for road cycling shoes, there are a number of factors to take into account: How many days will you spend in them every season? Will you be racing? Is comfort or performance paramount? And how much do you want to spend? And of course all of these factors are interrelated…with lower weights comes increased cost; high-performance shoes are made strictly for riding, not walking; and shoes for triathlon won’t be appropriate for every-day riding. Weight reduction, like carbon base plates in the uppers, is the primary innovation in road shoes. Nowadays, the stiffness found in road shoes is doing the work that the pedal used to do. And as with other sport-specific shoes you may have in your closet, fit is king, including biomechanics and the way the shoe engages with the pedal to enhance the power of your stroke. This guide will help you choose the best bike shoes for your needs.

Types: Road biking shoes are typically broken down into three primary categories: recreational, high-performance race, and triathlon. Many manufacturers offer their shoes in tiers, for example the Pearl Izumi system of Pro, Elite, and Select, with Elite hitting that sweet spot of performance and affordability. Triathlon shoes are made to be worn without socks with the lightest weight possible while still maintaining a good fit and stiff, powerful shank.

Shank: The shank is the supportive structure between the insole and outsole of the shoe that provides stability, attaches to the cleat, and helps drive power to the pedal. Shanks are made from carbon, plastic, or a poly-carbon composite. The lighter and stiffer the shank, the better performing the shoe.

Outsole material: The outsole is the part of the shoe that comes in contact with the ground. On road shoes, the outsole is essentially non-existent because the shoes are not made for walking. Again, whether you’re looking for a high-end, mid-range, or entry-level road shoe will determine how much “extraneous” outsole material you’ll find. Even the most high-performance road shoes will typically have some outsole on the heel to balance the cleat on the front of the shoe when walking. These heel lugs are made from dual-density rubbers to provide a little bit of durable grip.

Insoles: Most of the higher-end road shoes come with a specialized insole designed to minimally support the foot while helping to drive power to the shank and pedal. In striving for lighter weights, fancy road insoles are quite thin and breathable, with integrated pads or bumps to support the foot in crucial power spots. There are also many fine after-market insoles for road shoes designed to assist with power transfer. Insoles are extremely important in all shoes because they help translate the micro-muscles in the foot for control, finesse and power into your pedals, bindings, etc.

Upper Material: The upper is everything that sits above the midsole. In road shoes, weight reduction and form-fit is paramount, so the rule is the more minimal, the better. Some top-end shoes feature uppers made from one piece of lightweight plastic or composite. While comfortable, especially when the shoe conforms perfectly to the foot, they do take some getting used to. A nice heel cup helps keep the heel seated, which reduces rubbing (blisters, hot spots) and helps transfer power to the pedal. Upper materials range from leather to plastics to mesh to carbon fiber, usually in various combinations depending on the manufacturer. Since there is no impact with the ground in a road shoe, mid-soles are virtually non-existent.

Waterproof: Road shoes are not known for their waterproofness. Waterproof linings and materials do not breathe well, which leads to a build up of sweat and moisture inside the shoe increasing the chances for blisters to form as well as micro-organisms. Instead, roadies use an insulated or waterproof bootie on the outside of the shoe.

Cleat compatibility: Almost every major brand of road shoe has models that are compatible with all the major pedal makers. The cleats do change slightly over seasons so when replacing your cleats, be sure you are getting the version that matches your pedals.

Closure system: The mechanism that closes the shoe to your foot is one of the most critical parts of the road shoe. A nice snug fit will prevent blisters, be adjustable as the feet swell during a ride, and transfer power to the pedals in the most effective manner. Ergonomics and weight are the critical factors here.

Velcro straps: Velcro straps have been around for a long time and are still one of the best ways to close a road shoe, allowing for infinite adjustability that can be easily adjusted even while on the bike.

Mini ratchet systems: The ratchets feature micro-adjusting plastic straps (some even have micro-loosening) that close like a snowboard binding.

Dial systems: Primarily used by BOA (and some proprietary dial systems), dial system typically use Kevlar laces to distribute pressure evenly from the top of the shoe throughout the foot.

Weight: Take a look at the weight of the high-end, most expensive shoes, and then decide where you would like to fall in the weight-to-price compendium. Just like when you purchased your bicycle or componentry, the lighter the weight, the higher the cost. Don’t get too anal retentive about it, unless you’re a serious competitor or triathlete, in which case you probably don’t need us to tell you this. Also be aware that the stated weight is typically based on an average size such as a Men’s US 9.

Width: Each shoemaker has a typical last that fits either a thin, medium or wide foot. Most manufacturers tend to fall in the mid- to wide category, but some European brands tend to be on the thin side. If you know your foot requires a certain width, ask about the brand’s typical fit because an overly narrow tight fit while biking for miles is miserable.

Mountain Bike Shoes

Because mountain biking shoes take more abuse and require more ground contact, the story behind them is about functionality more than lightness and direct-power transfer (although in racing MTB shoes, these are still important factors). Mountain biking shoes require a blend of fit, durability, traction and pedaling performance – a seeming complex balance made possible by high-tech materials and ever-evolving design innovation. Many times in cycling and shoe technology, innovation starts on the road and trickles down to the trail. As roadies came up with new ways to attach themselves to their bicycles while constantly reducing weights and increasing stiffness, mountain bikers took the technologies that worked for them, and added things they needed such as versatile outsoles and more comfortable midsoles.

Types: Mountain biking shoes are generally broken down into two categories: clipless or flat pedal.

Flat pedal: Flat pedal shoes are a carryover from BMX and have surged in popularity with the advent of downhill (DH) mountain biking and freestyle bike parks.

Clipless pedals: Clipless pedals evolved from straps to plastic clips that attach the shoe to the pedal. Cross country riders and cyclocross racers typically look for clipless pedals, ensuring maximum power transfer throughout a pedal stroke.

Flat Pedals with cleats: There’s also a new breed of flat pedal shoes with cleats for clipping in, combining the best of both worlds for competitive freestyle riders.

Parts of the Shoe

Mountain biking shoes are just like any shoe, with a outsole, midsole, and an upper, but they designed differently to help you perform in different environments.

Shank:The shank is the piece in the midsole, made of carbon fiber (lighter and more expensive) or plastics (heavier and more affordable) that transfers power from the shoe to the pedal. The stiffer the shank, the less the flex and the harder the shoe is to walk in. If you do rides that require hike-a-bike, climbing, and pushing uphill, consider a shoe that is less about power transfer (ultra stiff) and more about versatility. Some have found a balance in composite midsoles that provide great power transfer without adding too much weight.

Insoles: Mountain bike insoles need to provide comfort, power transfer from the foot to the pedal, and heel hold to reduce rubbing. Many shoes come with an EVA insole that is ready to ride. Because you might be walking more on your mountain bike than on your road bike, comfort is more important than weight. Insoles are an important aspect of any performance shoe as they help translate the small muscles of the foot into power and control.

Outsole: The features of the outsole will depend on your style of riding and if you need traction. All of these factors are about finding a balance between traction, durability, power transfer, and weight.

Material: Manufacturers combine carbon, nylon and specialized rubber or plastic in varying placements and thicknesses. Some racing shoes have carbon outsoles, intended for those who like to stay on their bike.

Lugs and cleats: Lugs and cleats are made from dual-density rubbers to provide a balance between grip and durability. Traction lugs on a mountain biking shoe are extremely important to consider.

Tread patterns: Tread will differ based on the type of riding. Downhillers (because they often don’t ride their bikes uphill) want well-tractioned shoes. Cross country shoes have trail-runner inspired mid-sole/out-sole with cleats on the toe and heel. Keep in mind – the more hardcore the tread, the heavier.

Upper: Mountain biking shoes require a stable upper to withstand the torque and abuse of dirt, bushes and rocks, as well as the need for climbing, hiking, or running with the bike. Again, this is where you’ll have to balance weight, beefiness. Flat pedal shoes feature an upper essentially like that of a skate shoe. Uppers are padded just like any other shoe with breathable liners, compressed foams, collar and tongue. Toes and heels will almost always be reinforced with some kind of TPU or plastics to reduce wear and tear.

Closure system: Most mid- to high-end mountain bike shoes feature some combination of ratchet and Velcro closure. Dial-type lacing systems are also now being used on competitive mountain shoes. Most freestyle, flat pedals shoes still use laces, some combined with Velcro straps for added power, since full-rotation pedal stroke power is less important than is finesse and versatility. Anatomically shaped straps, good placement to eliminate rubbing, and on-the-fly, infinite adjustment are primary factors to consider.

Features and specs: Here are some features to weigh when picking out the right mountain biking shoes.

Waterproof: Some mountain biking shoes feature waterproofness while others emphasize the ability to drain. Waterproof linings and materials do not breathe well, which leads to a build up of sweat and moisture inside the shoe increasing the chances for blisters to form as well as micro-organisms. If stream crossings, mud puddles and the like are in your plans, it might make more sense to drain a shoe rather than have it completely waterproof.

Cleat compatibility: Cleat compatibility depends on the model of the shoe and the pedal manufacturer. Almost every major brand of mountain bike shoe is compatible with SPD cleats, as well as all other major mountain bike pedal makers. Cleats can change over seasons so when replacing your cleats (they are typically made to last about a full season), be sure you are getting the version that matches your pedals.

Weight: Again, there’s a universal weight-to-price teeter totter in cycling gear that applies to shoes as well. Find a brand and shoe that does what you need it to do in terms of climbing, traction, durability, fit, and power. And if you plan on racing with that shoe, consider the highest-end version or model. The high-tech materials available today have brought the weights down in even entry level models, so it’s really hard to go wrong.

Width: Each shoemaker has a typical last that fits either a thin, medium or wide foot. Most manufacturers tend to fall in the medium or average width category. If you know your foot requires a certain width, inquire what the typical fit is of each brand you are considering.