If you want to be comfortable on the bike, the most critical things to consider are the contact points between bike and body: hands to bars, rear-end to saddle, and feet to pedals. The latter may be the most neglected in this trifecta. While a high quality, properly fit shoe can be pricey, the increased fun factor on the bike that comes from comfort will quickly repay the investment.
The three most important characteristics of a good mountain bike shoe are stiff and grippy soles, a good pedal interface, and a durable build. A rigid sole, which usually comes from a carbon fiber shank in high-end shoes and fiberglass or plastic reinforcement in less expensive models, insures that all the power you generate goes into propelling you forward.
The stiffness also stabilizes the foot, thus relieving tension in the calves and keeping your legs fresher. Ditto that with the pedal interface: if the cleats don’t make solid contact with your pedals, the extra movement or slop can lead to unnecessary fatigue. As for durability, trail riding puts your feet in contact with rocks, branches, mud, and water, which can quickly tear holes in or shred cheaply built shoes.
Newcomers may prefer to start out on flat pedals rather than clipless because they allow you to develop skills and balance without anxiety over crashing if you can’t unclip your feet. The Teva Pivot ($150) offers the best of both worlds.
The lugged rubber outsole grips all the flat pedals like Velcro. And though the Pivot might look like a skate-inspired street shoe, there’s a plastic plate in the midsole for stiffness and a cutout under the ball of the foot that accommodates cleats. They aren’t as stiff as cross-country mountain bike shoes, but the Pivot is pretty darn good and better than similar offerings from other companies.
The contoured heel cup and instep strap keep the shoe snug on the foot and help with stability and power transfer. And since the cleats are recessed and the stiffening shank stops short of the toes, the Pivot is as comfortable walking as it is on the bike, making them solid for hike-a-bike or rides that end at the coffee shop or bar. In the long run, these shoes will grow with you and, given the burly upper, should last as long as you care to ride them.
On the other hand, though clipless pedals can seem intimidating at first, they add efficiency. And the breadth of options for getting started, including Shimano’s multi-release cleats and their new superlight action Click’r pedals, makes going clipless easier than ever. Provided you won’t need flat-pedal functionality, a more dedicated cross-country riding shoe such as the Shimano SH-XC30 ($90) may be a better option.
With a fiberglass shank, the SH-XC30 is significantly stiffer than the Pivot, though the molded plastic lugged outsole make it a lot trickier to walk in. It’s built around the same last as Shimano’s excellent top-shelf offerings, so it fits and feels like a more expensive shoe. The heel cup is nicely sculpted to hold the foot in place, while the roomy toe box keeps even the widest feet from tingling or numbness. The shoe works with any brand of clipless mountain bike pedal, but the interface is snug and seamless with all Shimano SPD pedals, arguably the most time-tested and reliable design on the market.
For riders who want a bit more security, the SH-XC50 is virtually the same shoe except for a ratchet top closure. The upper material is a bit more robust, and the shoe is also toe spike compatible, so these are a bit better suited to wetter and more rugged conditions. However, three Velcro straps work just fine (and allow for ultimate adjustability), so for standard use the $70 upgrade may not be worth it.
No matter which shoes you purchase, save money for a pair of after-market insoles, such as the excellent Specialized Body Geometry Footbeds ($30) or a custom-fit option like Fi’zi:k’s 3-D Flex ($85). Most bike fitters will tell you that many fit issues and injuries stem from a poor foot foundation caused by pronation and supination, rotation, and inappropriate arch support. After-market insoles correct for all of these issues and can make even an average shoe feel like a bespoke fit. And that, in the end, will mean longer and more enjoyable days in the saddle.