The Disney-fied story of Cinderella has deep roots — the first version of the tale has been traced all the way back to ancient Greece, where 2,000 years ago "a Greek courtesan named Rhodopis has one of her shoes stolen by an eagle, who flies it all the way across the Mediterranean and drops it in the lap of an Egyptian king." Ever since then, each one of us has had our Cinderella moment: a desperate search for the perfect-fitting shoe.
If you've ever experienced an ill-fitting mountain bike shoe, you know what I'm talking about.
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What makes a great mountain biking shoe?
The ideal mountain biking shoe is a mix of utility and comfort: you don't necessarily want a super-squishy pair of shoes, because although they'll feel great off-trail, you need some stiffness and rigidity to help maintain balance and power going downhill or up.
You'll want to keep an eye out for features like reinforced toe and heel caps, breathable and durable upper materials, a grippy and strong rubber outsole, and quick-lace systems that allow for micro-adjustments on the go. The best mountain biking shoe should be tailored to your specific riding style and should be able to hold its own in varying conditions.
Should you ride with a clipless or flat-specific shoe?
There are two pedal types in mountain biking, and whichever you choose to ride will inform which mountain bike shoes you pick. Flat pedals are just as they sound: it's the type of pedal almost everyone learned to ride on, and consists of a flat, even surface where you can place your foot wherever you want. Clipless pedals (which, contrary to their name, have clips) secure your foot to the pedal via a locking mechanism between shoe and pedal.
If you're a casual or recreational rider who prizes flexibility and maneuverability, flat pedals will be the way to go; you can wear a flat shoe with any flat pedal, and hop on and off the bike with ease. If you plan on both riding and walking, flat pedals will offer more comfort off the bike. Conversely, if you're looking for pedaling power and efficiency, clipless pedals will be the move for you. Just make sure the clipless shoes and pedals you choose work together as a system.
Over the course of months (and in some cases, years) our testers took to the trail in a variety of mountain bike shoes to find the very best on the market. We tested in sandy, washed out conditions, threaded our way through rock gardens and sent it downhill — all the while keeping in mind materials, fit and comfort, and features like lacing styles, pedal type and durability. After plenty of time winding up and down trails, fire roads and just about anywhere you can imagine, we've landed on our top picks.