Best gravel and cyclocross shoes 2020: a buyer’s guide to comfort and performance footwear

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.

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 stiffness, 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.

With each product is a ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Best Deal’ link. If you click on this then we may receive a small amount of money from the retailer when you purchase the item. This doesn’t affect the amount you pay.

DHB Dorica MTB shoe £80

With it’s 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 say the nylon sole offers a good compromise between pedal efficiency and compliance for performance and all day comfort. While chunky lugs and the option of fitting front studs or spikes make these a good option for muddy / slippy off-bike sections.

Plenty of fore/aft adjustment and in either black, white or green camouflage. Available in sizes 39 to 48EU, dhb recommend dropping down a shoe size to ensure the right fit.

Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4 £149.99

Designed specifically for gravel riding the Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4  has a Velcro closure system that uses two straps to wrap around the entire foot. This design, according to Fizik, allows for the instep and midfoot fit to be adjusted independent of each other.

The synthetic upper should be reasonably water resistant, and minimal ventilation will mean that your feet won’t be chilled to the bone on the first rainy outing, although perhaps something to consider if your planning less UK based, warmer climes adventures.

The sole of the X4 has been specifically developed for the shoe, and promises to be the perfect blend of Nylon, with targeted stiffness, with rubber tread for effective grip and durability.

Plenty of fore/aft adjustment and a claimed weight of 339g for a size 42. Available in three colours in sizes 37 to 47 EUR including half sizes.

Giro Empire VR90 £249.99

Combining old-school looks with new-school tech, the Giro Empire VR90 is a very desirable shoe. When we tested the shoe we found it 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. Something we found made it hard to 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 when you might slip and slide, Giro provide some steel toe spikes for extra grip.

It’s worth noting that Giro use a slightly narrower last 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 narrow feet.

Plenty of fore/aft adjustment and a weight of 345g for a size 45. Available in four colours across men’s and women’s range and in sizes 36 to 48EUR.

Rapha Explore Shoes £220

We highly rated Rapha’s first foray in to the off road market when we tested a pair, finding them a well designed, quality option for the off-road rider. We found them to be exceptionally comfortable with the laces providing a secure fit, although, again this closure system does make adjustment more tricky than a dial or full Velcro closure.

The Micro fibre upper has an element of ventilation, but not enough that your foot will get soaked on the first outing.

The rubber sole with deep lugs is grippy enough for most terrain, and as the carbon shank doesn’t run the full length of the shoe, there’s 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.

Plenty of fore/aft adjustment and a weight of 340g for a size 42 means it is not the lightest option on the market. Available in four colours across the range (although the signature pink seems a rare find) and in sizes 36 to 47EUR.

Specialized Recon 1.0 Mountain bike shoes £90

The S-Works version with it’s dual Boa system was launched in 2019, but the £340 price tag somewhat limited their appeal. The Recon 1.0 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 it’s 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.

Plenty of fore/aft adjustment and a weight of 331g for a size 42. Available in three colours and in sizes 36 to 49EUR.

Giant Sojourn Gravel shoe £74.99

The Giant Sojourn is definitely aimed at the leisure end of the gravel market with a trainer like aesthetic and its laces and Velcro strap retention. Offering more ventilated than some of the gravel shoes on the market thanks to a part mesh construction.

The sole isn’t as rugged at others and there’s no option for studs, but it will still fit an off-road cleat. Considered a man’s shoe, it’s only available in sizes 41 to 46EUR. Weight tbc.

Liv Fera off-road shoe £79.99

Women’s specific Giant sister brand Liv doesn’t have a gravel offering as yet, with this, the Fera off-road shoe the closest offering.

The nylon upper is more ventilated than most and is secured with triple hook-and-loop (aka 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 while enabling torsional movement of the rear and mid-foot. Rubber lugs feature ForceDrive, which promise to offer good traction off the bike. Available in size 37 to 42 EU. Weight TBC.

Buy now: Liv Fera off-road shoe at CycleStore for £71.99

Shimano S-Phyre XC9 £319.99

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 based synthetic leather, a dual Boa IP1 dial system allows for minuscule adjustment, both on and off bike. 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 hard, short cyclocross riding rather than hours 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. While the aggressive lugs with Michelin rubber and stud or spike options make off bike grip just as performance led.

Available in a range of sizes, 36 – 48 EU and widths, as well as three colours and weigh around the 330g mark for a  size 42 EU.

Sidi Jarin gravel shoe £340

The Jarin are Sidi’s first gravel specific cycling shoes and promises to be at home both on and off the bike. Made from TechPro microfibre, the upper uses a twin Techno-3 dial closure system (very similar to Boa dials) should allow for a easy incremental fit adjustment, on and off the bike, and a rubber toe box to help protect the shoes from necessary trail dabbing.

Underneath is a carbon sole and chunky replaceable lugs, which also have spike compatibility for really slippery off bike sections.

It’s worth remembering that Sidi always come up small, so worth going up one or two sizes if you can’t try before you buy. Available in three colours in sizes 38 – 48 including some half sizes. Weight tbc.

Read more: Review due soon. 

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 come in the form of laces and ratchets. Laces are great at providing lots of fit adjustability, 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 hand will soon become one of your new 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 vulnerable in crashes. Also 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 low crash damage minimising profile and all for an an impressively low weight. Dials are a hard system 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 that come on different 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 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/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 swop 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 meandering, casual riding 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 wanting performance specific options, then carbon-soled shoes will be the one to look out for, as these will be stiff and light, but with that comes an element of discomfort for long 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 containing 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 in the whole, many use a Shimano SPD style cleat. Some other brands such as Time and Crank Brothers use a slightly different cleat but still with a two bolt mount.

What 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 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, bad weather is 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 bad weather ready.

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 a women’s specific and wide option that will help you get the best fit for your foot.

This content was originally published here.

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