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What are the Best Shoes for Mountain Biking?

Updated on July 13, 2011

These days with the variety of cycling shoes available and the increased specialisations in their designs, picking a good pair of biking shoes can be a daunting task.  Although it is not necessary to ride with shoes specifically designed for mountain biking, having the proper gear can make a difference to your cycling efficiency. 

For a beginner rider or an infrequent rider, it is probably not worth the extra expense to get a pair of mountain biking shoes as a good pair of sneakers or sports shoes can serve just as well.  It is unlikely that a beginner rider or infrequent rider would notice the increased pedalling efficiency of riding with specialised shoes.  Additionally, a decent pair of cycling shoes can set you back by a hundred dollars or more which might be better spent upgrading your bike.

Cycling shoes are designed to attach to the pedals of the bike to improve pedalling efficiency by allowing the biker to pull up and push down during the full 360 degree pedal stroke.  The attachment, which is often referred to as “clipless”, allows the rider to be “one” with the bike, making it easier to move with the bike while negotiating technical terrain.  Being attached to the bike however involves an initial learning curve as the rider must learn how to release their feet quickly to get off the bike.  Infrequent riders may not want to devote the time to learn how to use them, while a beginner rider is already tasked with learning too many other new skills. 

As your skill level improves or if you begin to ride more frequently, you may find it worthwhile to invest in a good pair of cycling shoes.  Cycling shoes are usually lightweight, breathable and closely adhere to the foot.  They have carbon or plastic rigid soles which allow for more efficient transfer of energy to the pedals.  Most also have a cleat that attaches the shoe to the bike pedals.  The stiff sole and cleat make it unsuitable for walking in.

Mountain bike riders who often have to walk in their cycling shoes wear a slightly different type of cycling shoe with recessed cleats and a somewhat softer sole.  The soles also have threads that make it easier to navigate steep and muddy terrain without slipping. 

There are a variety of mountain biking shoes to accommodate the different riding styles of mountain biking – competitive, downhill, cross-country, or freeride.  The main differences are the degree of rigidity and type of attachment to the pedal.  In general, the stiffer the shoe, the easier it is to pedal.

The race cleat is a rigid clipless shoe that is designed for performance racing.  The hard plastic sole offers great pedalling performance for competitive mountain bike riders however these shoes are not designed for walking around in. 

Recreational clipless shoes are more appropriate for cross-country riders who may have to carry their bikes over obstacles and will need to be able to hike in their cycling shoes.  These shoes are designed to be used with or without clipless pedals and have a more forgiving sole to make it easier to walk in.

Freeride and downhill mountain bikers generally require less rigid, more comfortable biking shoes that provide both absorption and support when landing after a jump.  They often come with reinforced toe-caps and ankle support in the form of high-tops and may be compatible with clipless pedals.  Brands like Five Ten are non-clipless, but made with hard soles molded from sticky rubber which help the rider adhere to the pedals without locking their feet in.

Depending on the style of mountain biking that you do most you will need to select the type of shoes that provide the appropriate balance between performance, comfort and function.

What are the best mountain biking shoes to get?

The best mountain biking shoes to get is the one that suits your riding style and needs, and fits well. It is important to have cycling shoes that fit well: the heel cup should be snug enough to hold your heel in place while you pedal; there should be a bit of toe room at the end of the shoe; there should be even pressure on the instep when the shoe is worn; and it should hold your foot stable without pinching it. Just as for any other pair of shoes, your biking shoes should also accommodate the anatomical features of your foot, such as arch height and foot width.

It is important to be aware that there is a compromise between shoe performance and comfort. For instance, tighter shoes allow for more efficient energy transfer but can be uncomfortable to wear. Likewise, the more rigid the soles of the shoes, the better the pedalling efficiency however it comes with a price of increase in pressure (and pain) on the forefoot.

Even though you will never be able to get a true idea of how well a shoe fits by standing in it in a bike shop, it is still important to try out different shoe models and sizes. To test the fit of your heel, stand on your toes and make sure your heels remain firmly in place. It is important to focus on the fit of the forefoot because this is the area where more cycling-related foot discomfort occurs. When your shoes are firmly fastened, make sure there are no pressure points that restrict blood flow. You may want to select a shoe with a removable insole in the event that you need to modify the shoe later for improved comfort.

You should check the soles of your shoes to see how mud and debris are cleared from the cleats when clipping back into your bike pedals. Finally, also check to make sure there are no loose parts that can get caught in your bike chain, such as the laces.

If you are a serious mountain bike rider, a good pair of mountain biking shoes will make a difference in your overall riding performance. Finding the best pair of shoes depends on your style of riding and your overall needs. Just like any other sports shoe, it is important to try out various brands and styles to find the one that fits your foot best. It is important to get a shoe that fits your foot well or you will not be able to realise the full benefits of having proper mountain biking shoes, no matter how expensive or high-end your shoes are.


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