Best gravel and cyclocross shoes: ridden and rated

best shoes for gravel and cyclocross
(Image credit: Future)

While the best road cycling shoes are focused on stiffness and efficiency for swift pedalling performance, slick carbon soled footwear wouldn't get you very far off the beaten track. Foot dabbing, hopping on and off the bike, and generally spending more time off the bike and not riding, means something more rugged is required.

Until recently, most gravel bike and cyclocross bike riders have just had to pick their way through mountain bike shoes, but with an upward surge in drop-bar off-road riding, more kit specifically honed to the needs of the gravel bike rider (including grave bike clothing) is gradually becoming available.

Picking out what shoe best suits you and your riding can be hard work. This guide is designed to help you find the right shoe to match your riding and at the right price point. There will still be mountain bike shoes in the mix, as well as gravel and cyclocross specific shoes for depth and breath of option; to ensure you get the right shoe for you.

Key shoe variables will be sole construction and grip, closure systems and of course fit. We've gone in to more detail on all of these areas after the product pick, helping you to create your very own Cinderella moment.

We've split our guide up into shoes we'd recommend for gravel, and shoes we'd recommend for cyclocross racing - the differentiation is mostly based on sole material - but of course, there's nothing stopping you seeking comfort for a cyclocross race or a stiff carbon sole for your gravel adventures. 

All of the shoes in this guide have been tested by Cycling Weekly, and we've only included pairs that got high ratings, click the link after each to read the full review.

Comfortable shoes for gravel

Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4 gravel cycling shoes

(Image credit: Future)

Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4

Specifications
Sizes: 36-48
Reasons to buy
+Wide toe box+Adjustable fitting+Robust+Great looking
Reasons to avoid
-Velcro strap overhang

The velcro Powerstrap design has been used on other Fizik shoes in the road range, which is essentially an elasticated ribbon that attaches via Velcro. Here you can tighten the midfoot and instep independently, for greater comfort. This might seem primitive in the age of Boa dials, it’s actually incredibly strong. In our test, this Powerstrap closure worked well, although the velcro straps were a but too long and collected dirt, although this can be remedied with scissors and a lighter!

The tread is thick enough to shed some mud and provide some grip when walking, but isn’t as deep or aggressive as the Fizik Terra X5s. With dry conditions this was ok, but the X5 would be better for year-round conditions.

The Terra Powerstrap X4 shoes weigh 339g for a size 42 according to Fizik, and are available in three colours in sizes 36 to 48 EU including half sizes.

Read more: Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4 gravel shoes review

giro privateetr gravel cycling shoes

(Image credit: Toby Martin for Future)

Giro Privateer Lace Shoes

Specifications
Sizes: 39-50
Reasons to buy
+Seriously tough+Good for all year use+Practical+Comfortable
Reasons to avoid
-One size fits all insole

The Privateer lace up shoe might be middle of the range from Giro, but it's certainly a performer. Although a huge slice cheaper than Giro's flagship Empire VR90, these shoes certainly don't compromise on comfort or durability. They weigh in at 355g (size 42) per shoe.

A nylon sole gives a good level of stiffness for pedalling but enough give for some off-road hike-a-bike as well. The rubber lugged outsole gives ample grip, no matter what kind of surface you're scrambling over.

Read more: Giro Privateer lace shoes reviewed

rapha explore gravel cycling shoes

(Image credit: Future)

Rapha Explore shoes

Specifications
Sizes: 36-47
Reasons to buy
+Very comfortable+Quality construction+Easy to walk in without losing pedalling efficiency
Reasons to avoid
-Laces can’t easily be adjusted when riding

We highly rated Rapha's first foray with in-house design (rather than their former collaboration with Giro) when we tested a pair of their Explore shoes, a well designed, quality option for the off-road rider. The pair were exceptionally comfortable with laces providing a secure fit, although this closure system does make adjustment more tricky than a dial, ratchet or full velcro closure.

The microfibre upper has an element of ventilation, but not enough that your foot will get soaked when splashing though puddles.

The natural rubber sole with deep tread is grippy enough for most terrain, and as the carbon shank doesn’t run the full length of the shoe, there's just enough give to make the shoes comfortable to walk or run in off the bike, although it's worth mentioning that there are no removable toe studs.

With a weight of 340g for a size 42, the Explore shoes are not the lightest option on the market. They are available in four colours across the range (although the signature pink seems a rare find).

Read more: Rapha Explore shoes reviewed

Specialized Recon 1.0 gravel cycling shoes

(Image credit: Future)

Specialized Recon 1.0 Mountain bike shoes

Specifications
Sizes: 36-49
Reasons to buy
+Stiff sole for efficient pedalling+Lightweight upper+Bombproof metal Boa dial closures
Reasons to avoid
-Stiff sole makes off-bike action awkward-Uppers are not as robust as they look-Expensive

The S-Works version of the Recon shoes with its dual BOA system was launched in 2019, but the £340 price tag somewhat limited their appeal. The Recon 1.0 (as well as the 2.0 and 3.0 models) however are significantly more accessible, although this has meant a redesign.

This version comes with a triple velcro closure, and a synthetic upper with reinforced toe box zone. Minimal ventilation should keep feet warm, although again something to consider if riding in hot weather.

Specialized say the nylon sole provides a good level of stiffness for on the bike, and thanks to its own STRIDE toe-flex system should help with walking off bike. The deep rubber lugs are also coated in Specialized SlipNot compound to help with traction on all terrain.

The shoes weigh in at 331g for a size 42, and are available in three colours and in sizes 36 to 49EU.

Read more: Specialized 1.0 recon shoes reviewed, or if you've got a little more cash burning a hole in your pocket (but not quite enough for the S-Works!) check out our review of the Specialized Recon 2.0 shoe review

Giro Empire VR90 shoes for gravel

(Image credit: Future)

Stiff shoes for cyclocross racing

Giro Empire VR90

Specifications
Sizes: 36-48
Reasons to buy
+Sole stiffness+Aesthetics+Grip+Comfort
Reasons to avoid
-Laces can get clogged with mud

Combining old-school looks with new-school tech, the Giro Empire VR90 is a very desirable shoe. When tested, we found the shoes to be a great mix of performance, comfort and efficiency. The one-piece microfibre upper comes with a rubber toe cap for extra protection and a full lace retention system. These laces made it hard to get the perfect retention on the first attempt, so can add an element of mid ride faff.

The sole uses a sticky Vibram rubber tread with an Easton EC90 full carbon sole unit. This provides the Empire with an incredibly stiff pedalling platform and ample grip in most conditions, too. For those conditions and races when you might slip and slide, Giro provide steel toe spikes for extra grip.

It's worth noting that Giro tend to come up slightly narrower than some other manufacturers, and as such the fit around the whole foot is a little tighter, so it might be worth going up a size if you have wider feet.

The VR90s weight in at 345g for a size 45 and are available in four colours across men's and women's range and in sizes 36 to 48EU.

Read more: Giro Empire VR90 shoes reviewed

Best shoes for cyclocross and gravel

Shimano S-Phyre XC9

Specifications
Sizes: 36-48
Reasons to buy
+Very stiff +Comfortable+Good grip +Lots of size options
Reasons to avoid
-Prone to heel lift unless worn tight-Spike surrounds are fragile -Dimples are hard to clean-Expensive

Watch any UCI cyclocross race and you'll see a fair amount of blue streaks amongst the top riders as they pedal to top finishing positions wearing the Shimano S-Phyre XC9 shoe.

The S-Phyre range has been the elevator for Shimano shoes, as prior to that, we all knew they were jolly well comfortable and technically some of the best out there, but the design had always let them down. Until now.

Made from microfibre synthetic leather, a dual BOA IP1 dial system allows for minuscule adjustment. Perforations along the front and sides as well as a mesh insert means these are one of the more ventilated shoes on the off-road market, and are certainly aimed at intense cyclocross racing rather than hours of cruising on the bridleways.

A low stack height and carbon sole rated as a stiffness ranking of 11/12 helps pedalling performance when on the bike. Featuring aggressive tread with Michelin rubber and stud or spike options, off the bike grip is just as performance led.

These are available in a range of sizes from 36 - 48 EU and widths, as well as three colourways and weigh 359g for a size 42 EU.

Read more: Shimano S-Phyre XC9 shoes reviewed

Lake MX 238 Supercross shoes

(Image credit: Hannah Bussey)

Lake MX 238 Supercross shoes

Specifications
Sizes: 37-48
Reasons to buy
+Water resistant+Real leather+Heal grip+Toe box design+Carbon & Rubber sole+Boa closure system+Regular and Wide fit+Huge size options
Reasons to avoid
-Warmth-Limited versatility-Limited colour options

Lake uses real leather to construct its shoes, and the outer here is extremely soft to the touch. However, that's where the softness ends: these are race shoes, with a stiff carbon sole to boot. They're also water resistant, with rubber sections to help when you need to run or walk.  

Being race shoes, these are designed to be worn when you're working hard - if you're a cyclocross racer, that might be perfect, but gravel riders may find that the ample venting isn't ideal for winter off-road adventures. 

The size range is huge, with wide options to suit those with wider feet. 

Read more: Lake MX 238 Supercross shoes reviewed

What to look for in gravel and cyclocross cycling shoes

Cycling shoe fastening systems

There are basically four different systems used to tighten cycling shoes: velcro, ratchets, laces, and dials.

Many shoes at the lower end of the price rage will use velcro straps for fastening, as it's a cheaper production method. While this is great to get you started, you will find that the longevity of the shoe can be shortened due to the mechanics of the hook and eye system getting clogged with mud and then failing to function. That said, it is a lightweight option, so even some of the top end shoes will use the odd velcro strap, generally at the less adjusted toe box area. Just be aware that all velcro straps will require an element of house keeping to ensure they remain fully functioning, especially after very wet and muddy rides.

The next step up in the fastening system food chain comes in the form of laces and ratchets. Laces are great at providing lots of fit adjustability and help keep the shoe weight down, but are close to impossible to adjust on the move, and trying to un-tie wet and muddy laces post ride with cold wet hands will soon become one of your most hated things.

Ratchets, on the other hand, offer a good level of adjustability, security and are reasonably robust to mud, although there can be the odd panic moment when they become clogged and fail to open, meaning a contortionist style cleaning requirement whist still wearing them or help from a cycling friend. They are super easy to adjust on the bike, although this also makes them more vulnerable in crashes. Ratchet systems can be heavy, and after the sole will be one of the factors in accounting for the weight of the shoe.

At the top end of the cycling shoe closure systems are dials. The cable and mini-barrel winch system provides very secure retention, easy micro-adjustment for a precise fit, a crash damage minimising profile and all for an impressively low weight. Dials are hard to beat, however, in the famous words of Mr Keith Bontrager "strong, light, cheap - pick two". Owing to the more complex construction methods to enable dials to be used, shoes tend to not so much on the cheap side.

Soles of cycling shoes

As with the fastening systems, there are various different materials and methods used for sole construction for cycling shoes, and the choice will largely come down to style of riding and price.

While one of the biggest choice factors in road shoes will be out and out stiffness, off road shoe choice is a more 'horses for courses' approach - much like bike tyres.

Like tyres, depth and pattern of the sole ideally needs to match the sort of riding/hiking/running terrain. The chunkier tread will perform best in wet mud and slippery conditions, while a thinly spaced out tread pattern is better on rocky land, and saves you having to get a friend to act as your farrier to remove wedged chunks of stone from the sole of your foot.

Don't be too hasty to write sole stiffness off for the mud market; many of the top end performance cyclocross shoes will err more towards pedal power than mud or sand running prowess. If you are wanting a more run friendly balance, opting for a stiff midsole with a slight flex in the toe box would be a good compromise, as would be the ability to swap out studs for spikes for when the course gets very muddy.

Stiffer soles are also a good option if you intend to ride more rocky routes, as, a bit like walking boots, you'll want support from the sole when off the bike and walking over uneven terrain.

At the more casual riding and touring end of the spectrum, the focus will be more on comfort on and off the bike. The shoes will still provide stiffness enough for efficient pedalling, but allow enough flex for walking the trails as well as riding them.

Entry level cycling shoes will generally come with nylon plastic soles, but if you pay a bit more you will get shoes with carbon composite soles (i.e. a mixture of carbon and plastic), which will help to bring the weight down a little.

For those seeking performance specific options, then carbon-soled shoes will be the ones to look out for, as these will be stiff and light, but with that comes a risk of discomfort over longer periods on the bike and of course, the wincing as you scrabble about on anything rock or gravel like when off the bike and the underside of your shoe gets scratched and gouged.

If your gravel riding potentially contains an element of hike-a-bike, you may find that a softer compound rubber sole might be more up your (dirt) street for overall grip and durability.

Cycling shoe cleat types

All off-road clipless pedals come with cleats that use a two-bolt mounting system. There are plenty of different brands that offer pedals but on the whole, many use a Shimano SPD style cleat. Some other brands such as Time and Crankbrothers use a slightly different cleat but still with a two-bolt mount.

What two-bolt pedal system you run shouldn't impact on what shoes you choose, but you do need to ensure that the shoe offers enough adjustment to ensure you can get the cleat in the right position for you.

Most shoes will offer an element of fore and aft adjustment, and your cleat should allow for side to side, but if you like to ride with a less common angle or position, double check the adjustability is there and that the treat pattern doesn't interfere.

Heat moulding of cycling shoes

There are a number of different shoes and insoles on the market, such as the Bont Vaypor Gand the Lake MX rangethat can be customised through heat moulding to fit the shape of your feet. This means that the shoes should perfectly support the arch of your foot, giving an almost bespoke fit.This is a major plus point if you do have an above average foot support requirement. Heat mouldable shoes can provide enhanced comfort of all foot shapes, as well as helping with power transfer from a performance aspect.

What conditions will you be riding in most?

In an ideal world we'd have a difference pair of shoes for every discipline of cycling and variety of riding and weather condition. In reality we probably have to stick to thinking about what an average ride looks like for you.

While a pair of road shoes can be beefed up in cold and wet conditions with the addition of pulling on an waterproof or neoprene overshoe, this isn't quite as practical off-road, although there are options out there, from experience they don't survive longer than a single season, maximum.

If cold and wet weather is a constant with your gravel riding, then you might want to look for waterproof features or winter boots, or if you suffer with cold feet go up a size to ensure a thermal sock and insole will fit.

With cyclocross racing being a winter sport in Europe, bad weather is almost a given, but as the duration of time and pace spent riding is shorter and higher, cross shoes are purely performance focused. Likewise with XC specific shoes, as well as not being designed for spending much time off the bike, like any performance shoe, they will offer foot ventilation, so don't just assume that because it's got grip it's going to be suited to bad weather.

Try before you buy

The best way to check the fit of a shoe is to try it on in your local bike shop before purchasing (hopefully you’ll make the purchase in the shop too). It is better to do this in the afternoon or evening as your feet can expand slightly during the day.

Shoe sizing can be pretty inconsistent across brands, particularly when compared to other pieces of cycling clothing – just because your old and worn out size 46 shoes were comfortable, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can jump straight into a different brand in the same size.

Arch heights, shoe widths and different fastening systems can all mean that you may find yourself going a size up or down when buying new cycling shoes.

As well as the custom fit that the above mentioned heat moulding allows, some brands offer women's-specific or wide options that will help you get the best fit for your foot.

 

Hannah Bussey
Hannah Bussey

Hannah Bussey is Cycling Weekly’s longest serving Tech writer, having started with the Magazine back in 2011.

She's specialises on the technical side of all things cycling, including Pro Peloton Team kit having covered multiple seasons of the Spring Classics, and Grand Tours for both print and websites. Prior to joining Cycling Weekly, Hannah was a successful road and track racer, competing in UCI races across the world, and has raced in most of Europe, China, Pakistan and New Zealand. For fun, she's ridden LEJoG unaided, a lap of Majorca in a day, win 24 hour mountain bike race and tackle famous mountain passes in the French Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites and Himalayas. She lives just outside the Peak District National Park near Manchester UK with her partner, daughter and a small but beautifully formed bike collection.