Mountain bike shoes can really improve your mountain biking performance. While it is certainly possible to ride a bike with sneakers or hikers, mountain bike shoes will improve your riding experience, regardless of your style or ability. There are a few different types of mountain bike shoes to consider, depending on when, where and how you are riding.
The main reason to use specific mountain bike shoes is to utilize clipless pedals. These pedals require that your shoe has a cleat that snaps into the pedal. Clipless pedals make pedaling much more efficient. If you use a flat pedal with or without toe clips in place of a clipless pedal, you do not need specific mountain biking shoes and may be just as comfortable in lightweight sneakers, hiking shoes or other athletic footwear. Shoe category names vary by company, but there are a few classifications that describe the majority of mountain bike shoes and offer a look at their characteristics.
The most serious, bike-specific shoe is the race cleat. These shoes are firm and have a hard plastic sole, and generally use several Velcro straps to secure tightly to your foot. Race cleats are designed for performance racing and cross-country riding. Due to their rigidity and bike-specific design, race cleats are not suitable for extended walking or any other activity. These shoes may utilize expensive materials like carbon and are generally the most expensive mountain biking shoes on the market. These shoes are comparable to ski boots or baseball cleats-serious athletic equipment with a single purpose.
Like all equipment for downhill or freeriding, these shoes are burlier and made to offer support and protection. They are generally a high-top with a hard, flat sole that accommodates the larger platform of a downhill clipless pedal. They definitely look cleaner and more casual than race cleats.
Hybrids are clipless shoes that double as a more casual shoe for use with flat pedals. These shoes have a flat rubber sole with a removable rubber patch where cleats can be installed. Hybrid shoes are as comfortable for hike-a-bike sections of trail as they are on the pedals. They generally use a regular lace system and look more like a hiking shoe than a race cleat. Hybrids employ more standard shoe materials such as leather and suede, and offer a comfortable, stylish look.
Non-SPD Mountain Bike Shoes
There are a few mountain bike-specific shoes designed for riding without clipless compatibility. These shoes, such as the Five Ten Impact series, have a hard, flat sole with special sticky rubber meant to adhere to pedals without fully clipping in, offering mountain bike performance with increased flexibility and range of movement. They are suited to more freeform types of riding or for anyone who wants additional performance without having to be clipped in.