For some of us who have made the switch from clipless pedals back to flats, a couple of questions are pretty common. The first is: "Why are we even worried about flat mountain bike shoes anyway, aren't those being replaced with clipless shoes and pedals?" The answer is "Maybe?". The mountain bike world has transitioned from most mountain bike riders using flats or even more frightening, from toe-clips and straps (some of our readers may need to look up that thankfully outdated technology) to favor clipless pedal and shoe combos. It seems like almost an expectation that if you're a "serious" rider you'll be locked in. For some riders, depending on your riding style and environment, clipless might be the best choice for you. If you're not sold on clipless riding and are interested in learning more, read on to see why the freedom of flat pedals and shoes may be for you.
With improvements in technology, both in flat pedals and shoes, and a recognition by even the most experienced riders that flats may be a good thing, what's old is new!
That brings us to the next question many of us have heard: "Are these shoes really any better than my running or hiking shoes?". To answer that, you can explain that flat shoe and pedal technology is now creating products that actually feel very similar to being clipped but without the actual hard connection. While some experienced riders and racers have found the efficiency of clipless shoes and pedals is the way to go, others have realized the freedom of the flat might just be the ticket. This is especially true when the riding gets more technical. For anyone familiar with clipless riding, remember those moments when you've committed to that technical line and the fear you felt when you looked at the consequences of a fall. Wouldn't it be nice if you could just put your foot down? Well, you can do just that and more easily if you're on flats. Beyond that, riding with flats is fun; not being locked to the bike creates a better sense of playfulness than clipless riding offers.
We've also found that with shoes like the Five Ten Freerider Contact and the Ion Raid Amp II, riders can clock uphill times that are just as fast as clipless times.
If flat pedals and shoes are capable of shining on the uphill, the downhill may be even better! The freedom and security (that seems counterintuitive, doesn't it?) that comes with being able to adjust foot position and easily take a foot off if need be can make downhill riding even more fun than it is when you're locked in. Today's flat shoes are extremely grippy, using sticky rubber compounds for a clipless-like hold on the pedal pins. Even though the rubber is exceptionally grippy, riders are able to lift off pedals with relative ease, encouraging better foot positioning or putting an inside foot down for stability when cornering. Another benefit to riding with flat shoes and pedals is when you're not riding. Clipless shoes tend to be stiffer and with significantly less traction than flat models offer. Even the clipless shoes that are more similar to flats have the cleat and its cutout that can be pretty slippery. A full rubber sole makes hiking on trails more natural and you don't need to worry about gumming up your cleats or damaging them on rocks, etc.
Types of Mountain Biking Shoes
All Mountain Shoes
All mountain shoes are the one shoe wonder of the mountain bike shoe world. Can they handle riding in the park? Check. How about extended cross country riding? Check. Can they climb efficiently? Definitely. Are they tough enough for enduro bike riding and racing? Oh yeah! Okay, if they're able to handle all of that, surely they can't function for REAL downhill riding, can they? Oh yes they can!
These shoes may not excel at any one mountain bike discipline (or do they?), but they're fully capable of any style of riding. They possess the grippiest of sole materials for a positive grip on the pins of your pedals, durable synthetic uppers that dry quickly when wet, well-padded midsoles with shank plates to stiffen things up for pedalling, and some have additional features like lace keeper loops. These shoes aren't usually something you'd throw on in the morning instead of a regular street shoe, although if there's a tasty beverage waiting at your favorite pub after a ride, they're up to that task too.
Skate and BMX style
These shoes may resemble skate shoes, and some can even bridge over to the skate park, but these are riding shoes. This shoe style is most at home in a bike skills park, lift-accessed bike parks, or even shuttling road-accessed downhill terrain. While these aren't the most efficient shoes for the uphill, they are still capable of some climbing, especially if they're not expected to keep up with more aggressive riding shoes. For a good example, check out the Five Ten Sleuth.
Skate style shoes generally have a softer sole overall, primarily in the mid and insole, which is primarily why they're not the most efficient choice for uphill riding. The rubber compounds tend to be a little more firm, which makes the soles quite durable, but as a result don't tend to stick to pedal pins quite as well. They're not quite a pure skate shoe either, as the rubber is more firm than the gum rubber generally found on skate shoes. A bonus of these shoes is their street-friendly style. You can wear these for non-riding uses and not stick out like other types of shoes in that "I just got off my bike" sort of way.
These are the heavy hitters of the mountain bike shoe world. Downhill shoes aren't necessarily intended for extended pedaling and climbing due to their heavier and stiffer construction. When the word "downhill" comes up, we have visions of rock gardens, big drops, even bigger air, huge features, high speeds, and fill-in-the-blank energy drink challenges.
For some, downhill riding involves some cross country riding to access the good downhill, or even road-accessed shuttle riding. Downhill-oriented shoes tend to be heavier, with more durable materials made for extra abrasion resistance and shock absorption. With that durability, breathability takes a backseat and the shoes tend to keep the feet hotter than their cross country riding cousins. They'll handle use and abuse in stride and come back for more. These shoes aren't made for a lot of climbing, but some will hold their own just fine, only requiring a bit more effort and sweat.
If you've made it this far in your mountain bike shoe purchasing process, you've likely made the choice between clipless shoes and pedals and the more traditional flat shoe, which is what we're here to discuss. We tested several of the best mountain bike flat shoes available and compared them side by side over the course of several months in varied riding styles, terrain, and weather, making your own shoe selection easier.
The single most important factor in a shoe purchase is in deciding what type of riding you're most likely to participate in. Are you a casual rider who primarily rides less aggressive trails, someone who enjoys skills and park riding, or are you the type of rider who wants to push their abilities in all conditions whether it be uphill or downhill? The shoe that is right for one type of riding may not be ideal for the other. If you're in more of a casual mindset, there's no need to spend a ton on the latest, greatest, toughest shoe when a more entry-level all mountain or even a skate style shoe would be a better fit. And alternatively, if you're a hard-charging enduro racer, choosing a stylish streetwear-friendly shoe might leave you bleeding in the dust.
For more casual riders as well as park riders, a shoe like the Five Ten Freerider may be a good choice with its solid performance across the board. It has enough rigidity for good power transfer when pedaling, a good durable sole for shoe longevity as well as good style, and it's available in several colors.
Riders who tend to ride longer distances in mixed terrain, including technical ground, will appreciate a more supportive shoe with superior pedal grip and good durability. Breathability may also be a consideration if those longer rides take you into warmer locations. For wetter locales, a shoe with more weather resistance may be appealing with a shoe like the Ion Raid Amp II. For more moderate climates, the Five Ten Freerider Contact is a great choice, with its higher degree of breathability in conjunction with its overall high performance.
For a great happy medium in flat shoes, good for everything from downhill and enduro use to cross country riding, check out the Ride Concepts Livewire. The proprietary rubber compound and high-quality construction from this smaller Lake Tahoe-based company make this shoe a great jack of all trades shoe.
Like many riders, after you make the decision to invest in your first real mountain bike shoes, you may find yourself picking up more than one pair of shoes. While some shoes are able to perform across the spectrum of mountain bike riding, having shoes that specialize in more than one area may be appealing as your riding repertoire expands. If you're looking for more in-depth information on all the shoes we tested, take a look at our Mountain Bike Flat Shoe Review.