While 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.
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Until recently, most gravel and cross 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 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.
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Best shoes for gravel
Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4
- RRP: £149.99
- Review score: 8/10
- Pros: wide toe box, adjustable fitting, robust, great looking
- Cons: velcro strap overhang
- Sizes: 36-48
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 37 to 47 EU including half sizes.
Read more: Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4 review
Buy now US: Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4 at Wiggle for $180.00
Giro Privateer Lace Shoes
- RRP: £124.99
- Review score: 9/10
- Pros: Seriously tough, good for all year us, practical, comfortable
- Cons: one size fits all insole
- Sizes: 39-50
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 review
Rapha Explore Shoes
- RRP: £220
- Review score: 9/10
- Pros: very comfortable, quality construction, easy to walk in without losing pedalling efficiency
- Cons: laces can’t easily be adjusted when riding
- Sizes: 36-47
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 shoe review
dhb Dorica MTB shoe
- RRP: £80
- Sizes: 39-48
With its classic lace up closure system, the dhb Dorica MTB shoe clearly take design cues from models further up the bike shoe food chain.
The synthetic upper has an element of ventilation in the form of side perforations, but with no mesh panels, they won’t be exceptionally breathable. Something to consider for hot days, but probably a better fit for UK riding 90% of the time.
dhb claim that the nylon sole offers a good compromise between pedal efficiency and compliance, the perfect balance for performance and all day comfort. Chunky tread and the option of fitting front studs make these a good option for muddy or slippy off-bike sections.
There’s plenty of fore/aft adjustment, and the shoes are available in either black, white or green camouflage. Sizes range from 39 to 48EU, and dhb recommend dropping down a shoe size to ensure the right fit.
Buy now: dhb Dorica at Wiggle from £56
Specialized Recon 1.0 Mountain bike shoes
- RRP: £90
- Sizes: 36-49
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 S-Works Recon review
Buy now US: Specialized Recon 1.0 at Jenson USA for $110
Giant Sojourn MTB shoe
- RRP: £74.99
- Sizes: 41-46
The Giant Sojourn is definitely aimed at the leisure end of the gravel market, with a trainer-like aesthetic, laces and velcro strap retention. They offer more ventilation than some of the gravel shoes on the market, thanks to a part mesh construction.
The sole isn’t as rugged as other options and there’s no option for studs either, but these will still fit a two-bolt off-road cleat. Considered a man’s shoe, it’s only available in sizes 41 to 46EU.
Liv Fera off-road shoes
- RRP: £79.99
- Sizes: 37-42
Giant’s women’s specific sister brand Liv doesn’t have a gravel offering as yet, making the Fera off-road shoe the closest offering.
The nylon upper is more ventilated than most and is secured with triple velcro straps, including a reversed front strap which Liv say should offer more comfort.
The nylon sole features Liv’s Motion Efficiency System (MES) which Liv say keeps the forefoot stiff for pedalling efficiency while enabling torsional movement of the rear and mid-foot. Rubber lugs offer good traction off the bike. Available in size 37 to 42 EU.
Best shoes for cyclocross
Giro Empire VR90
- RRP: £249.99
- Review score: 9/10
- Pros: sole stiffness, aesthetics, grip, comfort
- Cons: laces can get clogged with mud
- Sizes: 36-48
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 review
Buy now US: Giro Empire VR90 at Wiggle for $138.00
Shimano S-Phyre XC9
- RRP: £319.99
- Review score: 8/10
- Pros: very stiff, comfortable, good grip, lots of size options
- Cons: prone to heel lift unless worn tight, spike surrounds are fragile, dimples are hard to clean, expensive
- Sizes: 36-48
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 review
Buy now US: Shimano SPhyre XC9 at Backcountry for $425
Lake MX 332 Supercross
- RRP: £330
- Sizes: 39-50 including half sizes
Lake is another favourite amongst the cyclocross racers, and there are a few cross-specific options on their books. The Lake MX 332 is the range topper and comes with a slimmed down sole for riders that rarely get off their bike.
Known for being incredibly comfortable, there are multiple fits to choose from, all made from a Packer kangaroo leather. They also feature Lake’s Outlast temperature regulating heal and tongue liner with a dual BOA IP1-S closure system. The Supercross version of the MX238 comes with a wider toe box and tighter heal cup for when off the bike and running, and also has a Thermaform carbon fibre heel cup which allows you to shape it specifically for your foot.
The outsole uses what Lake term as the Competition sole, make from 100% carbon fibre with its own Mountain Race X real rubber sole and has replaceable toe and heel spikes.
In theory they’re available in a huge range of sizes from 39 to 50EU, including half sizes. For the Chamelon Blue colourway, as pictured above, I’d expect some to be a special order from the brand directly.
Buy now: Lake MX 332 shoe at Tredz for £315
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 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 G and the Lake MX range that 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.