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.