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How To Choose Bike Shoes - Mountain, Road & More

Biking seems simple on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a whole complicated world of cycling-specific apparel and accessories. The challenge comes when it’s time to figure out which bike gear you need, and which you can do without. That’s especially important when it comes to footwear. Bike shoes might seem like an unnecessary luxury, but they’re actually one of the top ways to increase your comfort and efficiency while riding.

Good bike shoes will help you transfer energy from your foot to your pedal more efficiently,and they’ll stay comfortable without developing hot spots or blisters over a long day in the saddle. There are as many types of shoes as there are types of riders, along with a whole load of technical features and designs, which can get overwhelming as you try to navigate this crowded market as a new cyclist. So we’ve put together this guide to help you figure out what type of bike shoes you should be shopping for, and how to choose the best bike shoes for you.

Why Wear Bike Shoes?

But why do you even need bike shoes in the first place? As we mentioned, the biggest two reasons are efficiency and comfort. When you’re riding, your body and your bike are working together as a machine to take you places. One of the weak points in that combination is the interface between your pedal and your shoe. As you push your foot down on the pedal, any slipping or flexing in the sole of your shoe translates into wasted energy. So bike shoes have stiffer soles, and cleats or other tech to keep you firmly planted, and deliver all that power to your bike’s chain, without wasting any.

Bike specific shoes are also much more comfortable for longer rides. Normal shoes are designed to walk, or run in. But on a bike, your feet are moving differently than they would when you’re walking, and you’re flexing different muscles. Bike shoes are designed with that in mind, they fit securely, while also keeping your feet from rubbing and getting blistered. So if you’ve just been riding in street shoes, you owe it to yourself to try a good pair of cycling shoes.

types of bike shoes

Types of Bike Shoes

There are two main categories of bike shoes: Road, and Mountain. Beyond that, Mountain bike shoes break into two more categories, “clipless” and flat. We’ll break down all these categories, and explain the differences below. There are also some categories that can fall in between mountain and road, like gravel bike shoes, and commuter bike shoes - we’ll break these down as well.

How to choose road bike shoes

How to Choose Road Bike Shoes

Road bike specific shoes are designed to be ridden on the road, and only on the road. They have a stiffer sole than mountain bike shoes, less tread (if any), and take a different cleat system. All of those features combine to make them supremely efficient, you’re not wasting any power. However, that also means they’re less versatile than mountain bike shoes.

Road bike shoes are not designed for walking in, at all, they are designed to be ridden in. This, combined with their bigger cleats, means that even walking short distances, like into a coffee shop during your ride, is difficult. They just don’t have any traction, and their stiff soles make them feel like ski boots on slick or sloped surfaces. Only shop for road bike specific shoes if you’re committed to long, regular road rides. Otherwise, you’ll be better suited by an XC mountain bike shoe.

The flipside of that, is that by eliminating the need to walk, road shoe designers can really hone in on power transmission. Their cleat systems aren’t as easy to get in and out of as a mountain bike pedal, but they provide more surface area, and a rock-solid platform.

If you are looking for road shoes, the most important thing to shop for is fit. Sure, there are minor differences in stiffness and weight between shoes, but those differences don’t matter at all if the shoe hurts every time you wear it. Most road rides take a long time, you’ll often be wearing these shoes all day, so make sure they fit you really well. A good step to dial in your fit is to use custom inserts, molded to your instep, to support your foot in the shoe.

Road Bike Shoe Laces & Closure Systems

Most road bike shoes will have a special closure system instead of laces. This can either be BOA cables, or ratcheting straps. Both offer a more precise fit than laces and last longer. Which you choose is really a matter of personal preference, whichever is more comfortable on your foot is the right choice for you.

Road Bike Shoe Compatibility

Most road shoes have a three-hole cleat system. That means they only work with road-specific cleats and pedals. Make sure that’s what you’re committed to using, if you’re shopping for new bike shoes. Mountain bike shoes, cleats, and pedals work just fine on road bikes, but road bike gear doesn’t cut it on your mountain bike.

How to choose mountain bike shoes

How to Choose Mountain Bike Shoes

Mountain bike shoes can be split into two main categories: Clipless, and Flat. The name “clipless” is actually counter-intuitive, it refers to shoes that have a cleat that “clips” into the pedal. The name comes from the early days, when most riders used toe clips to hold their feet onto their pedals. When someone designed shoes that used cleats instead, you could ditch the clips, and thus “clipless” pedals were born.

Generally, the choice for clips or flats while mountain biking comes down to personal choice. Clipless pedals are a little harder to get on and off but offer a more efficient ride and a little more control over the bike. Flats are easier to move your foot around on but don’t give you that “locked-in” feeling. For new riders, flats are usually the best choice, and then you can decide if you want to transition to a clipless setup.

How to Choose Clipless Mountain Bike Shoes

The biggest question to ask yourself when choosing clipless bike shoes is, how often do you get off and walk during your rides? Most clipless shoes can be graded on a sliding scale: the more stiff and efficient they are, the worse they feel when walking, and vice versa. So if you barely ever get off the bike on your rides, you may as well shop for something stiff and light, with minimal tread on the bottom. But if you’re often adventure riding and carrying your bike up steep sections or off trail, you’ll want something with a softer sole and more grip.

Clipless mountain bike pedals made for DH and enduro-style riding often have a larger platform around the cleat. This makes them more comfortable on long descents and can give you some extra grip when you’re on the pedal, but not clipped in. It’s important to think about how the shoes you choose do or don’t interact with the platform when you’re trying to choose shoes. This means that enduro and DH mountain bike shoes often have flatter soles with sticky rubber, similar to flat pedal shoes.

Beyond that, make sure they fit you well, and are suited for the climate you ride in. If you’re often riding in the wet and cold, several brands make very good clipless shoes designed for winter riding that offer more coverage, and waterproof materials. But for mostly summer riding, you want something with better ventilation and airflow.

Clipless mountain bike shoes offer a lot of closure options. Many come in both a “lace” and a “Boa” version. Which you choose is a personal question. Some riders like the flexibility of a traditional lace up shoe, others love the precision and fast on and off of a BOA system. Additionally, some shoes use ratchet straps or velcro. No matter what you choose, just make sure it feels good on your foot.

Clipless Mountain Bike Shoe Compatibility

All clipless mountain bike shoes have a two-hole cleat system that works with any pedal manufacturer’s cleats. They won’t work with road cleats, but anything that has two holes in it will work just fine. When combining shoes with big tread lugs, and clipless pedals with wider platforms, you may have to trim a little rubber to get them to interface smoothly.

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How to Choose Flat Pedal Mountain Bike Shoes

In the past, flat pedal riders were left with few options, and most ended up riding rebranded skate shoes. However, more brands bring good flat pedal shoes to the market every year. The two big things to look at when choosing flat pedal mtb shoes are grippy rubber, and flex. How soft and grippy the soles of flat pedal shoes are translates directly to how secure you’ll feel on your pedals. So look for something like a Five Ten rubber sole, or another brand’s equivalent. It’s hard to have too much traction in a flat pedal shoe.

The flex of a flat pedal shoe is a really personal choice. It’s less important to efficiency than on a clipless shoe, so it comes down more to your comfort. Some riders like a really stiff sole, to protect them from impacts and feel planted on the pedal, while others look for a more flexible sole that allows them to bend their foot around the pedal, and feel every bit of trail through your foot. If you don’t know what you like yet, get something with a medium flex and see how you like it.

Traditionally, flat pedal shoes have all been lace up. However, more and more brands are making higher-tech shoes with BOA closures, or the ratchets and flaps found on clipless shoes. The longer and muddier your rides are, the more you might benefit from a non-lace closure that won’t get gummed up with grit.

Flat Pedal Shoe Compatibility

Flat pedal shoes work well with any platform pedal designed with pins to grip the rubber sole. The amount of grip varies a lot between flat pedal designs, so it’s worth trying a few and finding a level of grip hat you like. While you might be able to pedal around the neighborhood on clipless pedals with your flat shoes, it’s not a good idea to go on a long ride like this - the small platform is easy to slip off of and will cause uncomfortable pressure points on your feet.

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How to Choose Casual, Urban, or Commuter Bike Shoes

When it comes to casual, or commuter bike shoes, the world is your oyster. For many riders, their bike commute is relatively short, so they don’t need the efficiency of a clipless shoe system, and can instead commute on flat pedals. For those folks, there are a ton of options, with different styling that all have grippy rubber soles and cycling fit, but look classy enough to wear in the office.

If you’re commuting further, and want to ride clipless pedals, there are casual styled options that work with cleats, and also look good at work, or you can just ride in more technical mountain or road bike shoes, and change them at work - just make sure that the type of shoe you get is compatible with your pedals, remembering mtb and road clipless systems differ.

How to Choose Gravel Bike Shoes

The relatively new phenomena of gravel riding has led some riders to a dilemma. It’s sort of a middle ground between road riding and mountain biking, so which bike shoes should you choose? For almost all gravel riders, a clipless, lightweight, XC mountain bike shoe will be your best choice. You don’t need the extra padding and weight of an enduro or all-mountain clipless shoe, but you also don’t want to go full roady, since the stiffness of those soles can become really uncomfortable on rougher roads. For most riders getting into gravel, your current clipless mountain bike shoes will serve you well on gravel rides. There are also some gravel-specific shoes being released that try to strick the balance described here.

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