We sometimes forget that the idea of mountain bike shoes would have been completely alien to the cyclist of just a couple of decades ago. Actually, not only would MTB shoes have been unusual, the mountain bike itself has only really been with us since the late seventies! Think of it, the old boneshaker, modified to ride up and down mountains! And now imagine – special shoes for riding this so-called ‘mountain bike’! Why on earth would you need special shoes to ride any bike? And what is so special about mountain bike shoes? Well, mountain-bikers know why – but for the rest of you, here is the low-down on MTB shoes: what they are for, why they are needed and what makes them different from other shoes, and indeed other cycling shoes.
Firstly we have to clear up the reason why special cycling shoes exist at all. Without going into the whole story (you can read more about the SPD cycling shoe system here), at some point cyclists realised that they could get more efficiency out of pedalling if their feet were attached to the pedal in some way.
First this was done with a toe clip on the pedal which did not require any special type of cycling shoe. The first real ‘clipless’ pedals (LOOK’s 1984 system and Shimano’s later SPD system) required a cleat to be fixed to the sole of the shoe and so gradually the shoe itself became more than just a glorified sneaker/trainer. More and more features came to be added that were specific to cyclists’ needs and to their specific style of riding.
Why MTB shoes?
So what’s so special about MTB shoes, specifically, and why can’t you just use any cycling shoes for riding MTB?
Well, you could wear any shoes, no-one is stopping you. But there are a few things to note:
- SPD pedals (i.e. rather than SPD-SL) tend to be preferred for mountain-biking, as explained in our article about SPD cleats. So the shoes need to be compatible with the two-slot SPD system.
- Mountain-bikers are a lot more likely to get off and walk/push/climb in the course of their off-road exploits. So on mountain-bike shoes, the smaller SPD cleat is recessed in the sole so that it does not impede walking or climbing.
- Similarly, MTB shoes will typically have a lugged sole, much like a hiking boot, for the same reasons described above.
- Some mountain-biking shoes have a couple of holes near the toe where additional studs can be screwed in to give even better grip when climbing.
- Shoes for mountain-bikers, even when they have a hard composite or carbon sole, usually have a little flex built into the toe area, again, to allow for climbing on foot – that would be very difficult in a road cycling shoe with rock-solid soles.
- MTB shoes are generally more rugged in order to withstand the considerable extra abuse they will suffer.
- MTB-specific shoes also come in some interesting ‘hybrid’ designs, such as Shimano’s All-Mountain/Enduro and Mountain Touring ranges, which resemble hiking boots as much as cycling shoes, with high sides covering the ankles for additional support, protection and comfort, and soles which are just as suited to walking as to cycling.
Some of the major manufacturers of mountain-bike shoes are Pearl Izumi, Sidi and of course Shimano.