Some beginners question if they really need mountain bike shoes. Maybe the idea of being clipped into their bike pedals is a bit daunting. Or maybe they aren’t confident enough in their riding ability to think the benefits of using mountain bike-specific shoes would apply to them.
If you’re relatively new to mountain biking, or cycling in general, we recommend sticking with flat pedals until you feel comfortable pedaling on moderate trails. However, if you feel fairly comfortable on beginner and intermediate trails, read on.
Types of Mountain Bike Shoes
While there are many mountain bike shoe options to choose from, there are two main categories, depending on your style of riding: downhill or freeride and cross country or all-mountain. Downhill or freeride shoes tend to be compatible with flat pedals, while cross country (XC) and all-mountain shoes are generally compatible with clipless pedals. Clipless pedals are actually called clipless because they lack a toe clip (the cinch-down basket and strap system used in past eras), these pedals secure your foot, allowing more control and power. The clipless pedal and shoe system is the category I will be addressing.
Advantages of Clipless Mountain Bike Shoes
Clipless mountain bike shoes tend to have a stiffer sole, a lugged outsole and snug, firm upper. The stiff sole translates into more efficient energy transfer to the pedals. Depending on what type of riding the shoe is geared toward, the sole will vary in stiffness. Extremely stiff soles are valued by mountain bike racers while trail enthusiasts tend to look for mountain bike shoes with a medium-stiff sole, which are more forgiving on long rides and hike-a-bikes.
Lugged outsoles provide traction. After all, even the most experienced mountain bikers will get off and walk at some point, and you don’t want to be slipping on steep, rocky terrain. While road cycling shoes tend to have slick outsoles, even the most race-oriented mountain bike shoes will have minimal traction to make them more versatile.
A stiff upper with a snug fit allows less energy to be lost during pedaling. Most mountain bike shoes use a combination of hook-and-loop closures and ratcheting buckles for a secure fit.
While clipless systems may appear to be scary to newcomers, they actually allow more control over the bike. When clipped into the pedals, your feet assist in pointing your bike in the right direction, and clipless systems allow more pedaling efficiency, using power from a full turn of the crank arm instead of just the down stroke.
Starting out Riding on Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals
Practice, practice, practice! Start out slowly on clipless pedals—don’t jump straight to advanced trails you aren’t comfortable on. For your very first time, make sure the spring mechanism is on its loosest setting. Shimano SPD pedals are easily adjustable with an Allen wrench, but others, such as Crank Brothers and Time systems, are non-adjustable. Test them out in a grassy field—you’ll want a nice, soft surface to fall on in case you do get stuck and topple over. Practice getting out of both sides quickly, not just your dominant side.
Once you get the hang of clipless mountain bike pedals, begin on a mellower trail, preferably one that you have ridden before. Trails with plenty of space on the sides will be less intimidating, while trails with a drop off on one side will force you to unclip on the uphill side which might not be the side you are most comfortable on. This is good practice, though, and should be worked on later down the road.
Beginner Mountain Bike Shoes
Newcomers to clipless mountain bike pedals and shoes should look for shoes with a slightly flexible sole and a comfortable fit. The Jans experts recommend the Giro Chamber II shoe for its durability and comfort. The abrasion-resistant upper protects against scuffing on rocks and roots, while the Vibram outsole perfectly balances stiffness for pedaling power with flexibility for comfort while walking. Hiking over rocks, roots, and mud is a breeze with the Chamber II’s aggressive lugged outsole.
If you’ve spent the summer pedaling on flat pedals and feel ready to take the leap, now is the perfect time to upgrade to clipless pedals. Swing into White Pine Touring on Bonanza Drive or Jans on Park Avenue and check out our selection of mountain bike gear on sale.
Evelyn Dong, content writer
*Post updated on May 13, 2020