Trail shoes differ from your road variety on a few key points.
Four mountain bike shoes built to perform—and play rough
Trail shoes differ from your road variety on a few key points: Their outsoles are beefier, covered in rugged lugs for traction when you jump out of the saddle; their uppers are made out of mud-shedding materials, sacrificing some ventilation to keep your feet clean; and their midsoles tend to offer a bit of flex around the toes to make walking easier. Here, four top models to try.
Sidi MTB Drako
The draw: Unparalleled stiffness, narrow fit
These Italian purebreds are meant for all-out racing. Crazy stiff carbon soles won’t lose a watt, but they can also be slippery should you need to hike-a-bike. The dials and wires are solid but not super simple to adjust on the fly, so expect to take a few extra seconds in transition. An adjustable heel-retention device lets you dial in the perfect fit, and like most parts on this shoe, it’s replaceable. The soft, lightweight microfiber upper is comfy sockless and meant to last years, turning that $500 into a smart investment. (Note: Tested and pictured in women’s version.)
Shimano found the sweet spot between stiffness and comfort in these sleek competition kicks. The carbon-reinforced sole leaves no energy wasted while the slightest flex around the toe and heel keeps feet and knees happy—and makes it easy to run for it, if you need to. The Boa entry system makes them quick in transition, while gritty fabric keeps heels from slipping. (Don’t worry, no chafing while riding sockless.) The shiny, synthetic upper wipes off easily and earns our kudos for understated style. A roomy toe box accommodates wider feet, but that Boa system locks down skinny feet just as well.
Giro Code VR70
The draw: Easy arch adjustment, wide fit
The VR70s make customizing arch support a breeze with three different-sized inserts that Velcro onto the insole. The carbon composite sole gives solid power transfer while the Vibram-lugged outsole gives great grip off the bike. Riders with wider feet will appreciate the roomy toe box, while those with slimmer feet will probably find they can’t cinch the shoes down tight enough. The buckle closure paired with the Velcro straps made for the fastest in-and-out of the shoes we tested. Perfectly comfy sockless.
Pearl Izumi X-Project Elite
The draw: Well-rounded performance, street style
Like the XC7, the X-Project Elite marries stiffness and comfort perfectly. The carbon midsole is totally rigid when standing to sprint, but the toes have enough give that our tester said he could “run a mile in them.” The PIs get top billing for style and customization options: They come with two pairs of arch support that fit into the insoles, as well as forefoot shims designed to help reposition the foot for ideal knee alignment. The Boa lacing system cinches them down fast for a snug fit, and the X-Projects feel just fine sockless.
Cleat Cheat Sheet
- Mountain bike cleats are smaller than road cleats.
- They use a two-bolt rather than a three-bolt system to attach to your shoe.
- The tinier cleats recess into the shoe’s tread so you can walk easily.
There are a few models on the market, but XTERRA pro Will Kelsay says beginners would do best grabbing a SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) cleat and pedal system. “They work well, you’ll have lots of pedal options (platform, no platform, light, cheap, etc.), and they are pretty common so if you have problems, they are easier to fix and find parts for than other options. It’s common to bash pedals while riding, so it’s important to have a durable pedal and one that’s easy to fix.”