We can’t all be Eddie Masters and send it 60’ sideways in a pair of flip-flops. Most of us prefer to have a nice, comfy shoe securely attached to their pedals. For some people that’s a pair of flats, but for me... well, I’ve never really been a flat pedal kind of rider despite numerous attempts. Instead, I prefer the comfort and security of a clip shoe; knowing my foot’s not going to bounce off my pedal in a rock garden or that I’ll slip a pedal on a hard landing is pretty reassuring.
Picking a shoe type is easy. An XC shoe is stiff for better power transmission to the pedals and to reduce foot fatigue from pushing tiny XC style pedals for hours. But they pretty much suck to walk in. DH shoes are generally the opposite; typically those are a softer flexing shoe for better traction on flat pedals. They tend to be a lot more comfortable off the bike, too. But spend a few hours spinning a tiny XC pedal in them and your feet will be screaming. So pick a shoe type that suits your riding style first. From there, it’s a matter of personal preference on whether you prefer a loose fitting shoe, etc... Then it's price. And just saying in advance: good fitting, good performing shoes usually aren't cheap, but they should last a season or three, depending on how much abuse you dish out.
My personal preference is for a shoe with a moderately stiff sole for efficiency and comfort pedaling the bike on long missions, but I like a bit of a rockered sole and gobs of traction for easy walking off the bike. I like a snug fit with that just right
amount of wiggle room in the toe box. Too much room will give me blisters, not enough and I'll get flashbacks to ski racing in boots that were way too small. I usually ride 3-5 days a week when I’m not on the road, although I’ve been slacking of late. I’m not particularly brand loyal, but once I find a shoe that my feet like I'll keep buying that until they quit making it. I typically kill two pairs of shoes per year, but a huge part of that is how much time I spend off the bike looking for angles or snapping photos.
These are all short-term tests to determine fit, function, and performance for both on and off the bike. For each shoe I did an initial two hour ride, and then a few shorter follow up rides to really nail down details. As a result, I can’t swear as to long-term durability for any of the shoes here; I’d need an entire season to be able to assess that. But hopefully this review will point you in the right direction for a shoe that works for your feet. I’ll do my best to try and dumb down all the trademarked buzzwords, too, but shoes are complicated and there’s a fair bit of tech that goes into making shoes.
About the tester: Colin Meagher
Height: 5’9” (176 cm)
Inseam: 30.5” 9 (77.5 cm)
Weight: 165 lb (75 kg)
Waist: 33” (82 cm)
Chest: 40” (101 cm)
Foot Size: Between US 9.5/10 or EUR 43.5
Colin Meagher primarily works in the bike industry as a photographer. His foot size measures between a US 9.5 and a US 10, right about a 43.5 on most conversion charts, but depending on the shoe manufacturer, he wears anything from a 42.5 to a 44.5. Colin has a pretty neutrally shaped foot, so pretty much any shoe will fit without creating hotspots, pinching, or other kind of issues as long as it's close to his size. Like most people, one foot is a touch larger than the other, so he fits for that foot first. "My daily driver for the past year and a half has been a Giro Terraduro in size 44, but I step into Shimano SH-MW 70s when it’s cold and miserable out; that shoe tends to run a bit big, so I wear a size 43." He tested all shoes on Crankbrothers Candy and Mallet3 pedals.
Full disclosure: Colin’s worked as a photographer in the industry since 1996, and while he has no industry affiliations (i.e. sponsorships) nearly every company making bikes, bike apparel, or gear has at some point been a client. This doesn’t mean he has any particular bias either for or against any of the clothing or gear reviewed here.
Deemax Elite Shoes
Sizes 6-13.5 US/38.5-48 (tested size 43.5/US 10)
Colors: Black/Safety Yellow, Black/Fiery Red (tested), Black/Smoked Pearl
Weight: 530 grams for a size 44
Opening a box shipped to me from France was a treat. Nestled inside was a Ferrari red pair of Mavic’s DeeMax Elite, a durable, speed lace adjustable shoe with a Velcro power strap at the base of the ankle. The DeeMax Elite includes a perforated neoprene cuff for ankle protection, an “Ergo Fit Cushion” midsole for on bike and hike-a-bike comfort with the new “Energy Grip AM” Contagrip outsole (Contagrip is a bit like Maxxis’ 3C tire compound; it has harder rubber in higher wear areas, and softer, more grippy rubber for areas requiring more traction). It’s got an Ortholite insole stashed inside. As near as I can tell, the only difference between this and the top tier DeeMax Pro is that the Elite has a covered speed lace system and the “Pro” has a slightly stiffer sole for better pedal energy transmission. The shoe does have a long and deep cleat pocket, but Mavic includes a pair of 1mm metal shim plate for riders wanting easier cleat engagement and release.
I tested these in a size 43.5 (US ten on Mavic’s site). Mavic’s site advises that these shoes are designed for a high volume foot but that they run small, and that one should “choose a size above your usual size”. As I said, I typically run a size 43-43.5 but I don’t have a particularly high volume foot so I opted to test a size 43.5. I should perhaps have stepped up to a 44, as I received a shoe that had a smaller toe box than I like. Despite that, the overall fit of the shoe was all good. There were no hot spots, the speed lacing was super easy to use, and it breathed well despite the neoprene cuff. Heel cup retention was excellent. That cleat pocket is pretty deep, so I used the supplied shims and had zero clip issues.
This is a surprisingly stiff shoe compared to some others I reviewed, but not too stiff. My power to the pedals was pretty good, and I got zero foot fatigue. I did a bit of hike-a-biking—nothing too serious, just a bit off the bike to see how they felt—and the Deemax Elites offered excellent traction and good walkability despite the somewhat stiff sole. The neoprene cuff in a previous version of this shoe tended to chafe the back of my ankles when off the bike but this latest version had none of that. I liked the fact that the laces never loosened up, either, even when I was off the bike.
I only wore these for just over two hours, but the Deemax Elite shoes during that time frame seemed to offer the right balance of stiffness required for hours of pedaling mixed with just enough flexibility to be super comfy off the bike. My only complaint was the tight toe box, but Mavic was upfront about the sizing on their website, so that’s my fault. They’re light, perform great, and seem to be built for the long haul.
Line MES Composite Off-Road Shoe
Sizes: 40-48 (tested 44/11)
Color: What you see is what you get
Weight: 492 grams (size 44)
Giant has quietly been dabbling in apparel and footwear for a number of years. The Line MES (Motion Efficiency System) Composite Off Road shoe is the current apex of Giant’s trail riding shoes. At first glance it’s the usual two Velcro straps with an “exo wrap” style of closure (the straps pull from opposite sides for a form-fitting wrap) and an upper ratchet strap for secure closure. But Giant also uses a “MES ExoBeam”—a molded nylon beam that stretches fore-aft in the shoe—to offer that Goldilocks combination of stiffness and flexibility to maximize performance in technical terrain both on and off the bike. There’s a hydrophobic, ventilated upper for breathability and an armored, rubber toe box to protect the piggies from rocks tossed off the front wheel. The single density “ErgoComfort” insole is removable (and washable). Seems as if it’s ticking all the boxes, right?
My first impression was that these shoes fit pretty damn well. I really liked the way that the exo wrap straps cradled my foot vs the standard doubled over straps typically found on shoes like this. Heel cup retention was good, and the toe box had just the right amount of wiggle room to allow the foot to flex comfortably when off the bike. The sole has a bit of rocker to it, too, to make walking fairly natural. The tongue has a nice split to it that allows a nice, natural movement on and off the bike. The release for the buckle is intuitive and easy to use. The metal buckle offers a nice, reassuringly solid feel, too vs. the composite buckles found on some other shoes.
I took these for a good, two-hour spin, and they were a solid performer. I had zero foot fatigue, and they breathed well. I did, however, get a weird pressure point on the top knuckle of my big toes which turned out to be a seam in my socks—note: these are not a high volume shoe. Follow up rides confirmed that solid performance, minus the pressure point. Off the bike they were pretty good for billy goating about, offering reliable grip on slick, wet rocks. I did experience some slippage climbing back uphill in thick, greasy mud, but short of full toe spikes that’s to be expected. The cleat pocket is a bit longer than most, offering a wide choice of cleat placement. Overall, the Line MES Composite is a nice, solid choice as a trail shoe.
sizes 7-13 (tested size 43/10)
Colors: Black/Gold (tested), Black/Heathered, Black/Turquoise, Black/Red
Weight: 492 grams (size 42.5)
Afton is a young, California based company founded by a TJ Parcells, a product manager and designer with a lot of miles in the industry who wanted to step out on his own after wandering Eurobike for a day in 2015 and not being able to find a shoe he wanted to mountain bike in. He started Afton with the goal of taking urban styling to the woods, and creating a shoe he personally wanted to wear—and one that didn't "look like puffy skate shoes from the early 2000s." Afton makes two shoes: the flat pedal oriented Keegan and the clip oriented Vectal. Can you guess which one I tested?
The Vectal is a low cut shoe designed for performance and is meant to fit snug. It’s a lace shoe with a split power strap, and features Afton’s proprietary Intact rubber for optimized durability and traction. The clip zone is said to be 35% larger than most shoes, allowing more engagement positions (I have no way to measure that, so the grain of salt index is a seven on a scale of one to ten, but visually it's definitely a bit longer and wider than most). The shank thickness varies from 4 to 12mm to offer maximum support for both pedaling and walking. There are reinforced toe and heel boxes to protect the foot from impacts, and an anti-microbial insole that will combat foot stink and resist break down for a consistent feel on and off the bike. There is venting to keep the feet cool, too.
My first look at the gold trimmed Vectal shoes had me laughing—I am so not the guy who wears gold anything. Rolling my eyes, I slipped these on and... Oh. Wow. Super comfy. Definitely NOT the fit I was expecting, as they looked big. However, the fit was pretty much spot on, cradling my foot as if custom made for me. They laced up easily, and the split power strap secured my laces nicely. Pedaling was nice—zero foot fatigue, although the shoe flexed a bit more than most in this review. Off the bike, the shoe is easy to walk in, too; the shank design is the key there. It's tapered in the toe to allow for flex there, but it also allows the heel to flex.
This makes them super comfy for walking but keeps them stiff for pedaling. Despite that heel flex, the foot stayed securely in the heel pocket, making the shoe fit and feel like a low cut approach shoe, not a bike shoe, when off the bike. Traction off the bike was good, too; Afton put good rubber on the bottom. I have misgivings about traction in mud—the sole has lots of square edges for tons of grip on rocks, roots, and loose over hard kitty litter; but no deeper lugs to bite into softer soil.
I rode these shoes the most, trying to get them sorted out in my head. They aren’t particularly stiff, but they offered a surprising amount of pedaling support—the kind of support I typically expect from a stiffer shoe. They breathed well despite the lack of massive venting, too. And they were incredibly comfortable. The only weak point was the power strap. The split made it difficult to add a lot of pressure to the top of the shoe (a strap that doubles back like those on the Giro Chamber IIs allows one to use more leverage when cinching that strap down). It’s also worth noting that the cleat plate is a lot looser in the sole than some other shoes. That, combined with the longer cleat pocket, made cleat mounting a bit finicky (on a plus note, the cleat plate is replaceable should you ever strip one). But overall the fit and performance were great. If you’re in the hunt for a stylish clip shoe for park, DH riding/racing, or everyday trail riding that doesn't even whisper "bike nerd", the Vectal is your shoe.
sizes 35-50 in whole sizes (tested 43/US 9.5)
colors: Dark Shadow/Black (tested) and Blue Jewel/Midnight
Weight: 510 grams (size 44)
Following Giro’s 2019 MTB catalog shoot in Hurricane, UT, last April, I snagged a pair of their 2018 late release (but available now) Chamber II shoes for testing. This is the re-tooled version of the original Chamber, and is the same shoe seen on Richie Rude and Aaron Gwin’s feet. Its design is the direct result of their feedback. In addition to its predecessor’s secure fit and water resistant upper, it now offers more cleat set back (10mm) for optimal stability and control in technical terrain, a Megagrip Vibram outsole, an updated SPD Shank, lace upper with power strap, and an EVA footbed with arch support. Oh, and a camouflage sole. Can I say “Hell yeah?!?”
Typically I wear a 44 in Giro shoes. I was advised that the Chamber IIs tend to run a bit large, so I downsized to a 43. Good call - they fit perfectly. The laces allowed for a custom fit, and the power strap cinched down securely. The cleat pocket was the longest by far of any of the shoes tested, but at the same time, the narrowest cleat pocket of the shoes I tested. The actual cleat track was also the shortest in the test. The heel pocket is deep and comfortable.
Again, I took these on about a 2-hour tour with a lot of pedaling, one creek crossing, and a steep, kinda loose pitch that I opted to hike. There was also a 30 minute stop at a local bar in order to test the shoe’s ability to blend into an urban crowd (camouflage sole, ya know). While riding, the shoes were reasonably stiff resulting in minimal foot fatigue. Breathability was great. Cleat engagement when stepping onto the pedals was super intuitive—I never had to hunt for that sweet spot despite the larger cleat pocket. They also released from the pedals easily despite the narrow cleat pocket. Heel retention while pedaling and when off the bike was solid—I had zero chafing or unwanted heel movement.
The big surprise for me, though, was the Megagrip Vibram outsole. The traction it delivered blew me away, and on the slick as snot rocks of the creek crossing they offered the kind of grip I’ve seen nowhere else other than on a pair of FiveTen water shoes.
These were my star performers from the review (although the Afton Vectals were a close second). They fit and performed flawlessly. With some Giro shoes I’ve needed a shim under the cleat to easily engage/disengage the pedals but neither I nor my body double had any issues with this shoe. I did shift my cleat back further than normal to take advantage of that extra cleat setback and liked it quite a bit; the forefoot of the shoe is a bit flexy for easy walking, but the set back cleat is in the stiffest part of the shoe. My only nitpick is that while the Megagrip offers great traction, even in wet conditions, like most shoes in this review, there are no deep lugs to penetrate goopy mud. But that’s a nitpick I can live with - for overall fit and function, these things are pretty damn bomber.
$150 USD (although online it’s currently offered at $120)
Sizes: 6-12 US (tested 42.5/US 9.5)
Colors: Onix/Yellow, Black/Red (tested), and Black
Weight: 461 grams (size 44)
The Kestrel Lace is Five Ten’s answer to enduro racers and trail rider’s desire for a more streamlined shoe that offers the same clip in performance of Five Ten’s other clip compatible shoes while still offering Five Ten’s legendary Stealth rubber grip and ease of walkability. The original Kestrel kinda failed: it was stiff as hell which was great on the bike but not so much off the bike. This latest version has a more flexible shank for better walkability but still retains the rigidity required for time on the pedals. The upper uses a polyurethane mesh for improved breathability over its predecessor, too, as well as a non-slip heel for greater torsional rigidity. There’s also a wider SPD pocket for easier clip in/out performance. It secures with standard laces and a power strap. These were the lightest shoes of the test bunch.
I tested the Kestrel Lace in a size 42.5/US 9.5. The initial fit was as if they'd been molded to my foot. It was stiff and snug, but offered that "just enough" wiggle room for my toes. The laces allowed me to customize the fit around my foot, while the power strap locked everything down securely, except the heel. I definitely noticed a bit of movement in the heel after first slipping them on, but only off the bike. The cleat pocket was long and deep but the width of the pocket made clip in/clip out nice and easy—no shim required.
I rode these on a pretty hot day (30ºC) but the mesh top breathed well so my feet were super comfortable. Torsional flex was pretty minimal, as was fore-aft flex, reducing foot fatigue and offering good power transmission to the pedals. Despite that stiff sole, walking was still reasonably comfortable; the sole had just the right amount of flex combined with a bit of rocker in the forefoot to give an almost street shoe feel. The looser fit in the heel was a non-issue when pedaling on the bike, but I definitely noticed it when pushing the bike back uphill a few times to session a harder section of trail.
The Kestrels are another solid performer. Fit and function were spot on, both on and off the bike, minus the loose heel cup. Stealth rubber is still the standard for traction (although that Megagrip Vibram is pretty damn close), and it shines on the Kestrels; they offered reliable traction on the wet, slimy rocks of the same sketchy creek crossing that I tested the Giro's on. Like most of the shoes in this review, though, they don’t have the lugs required to dig into loose muck with absolute confidence, so pick and choose your hike-a-bike battles accordingly.