Road Cycling Shoes VS MTB Shoes: What should you buy and WHY?

road cycling shoes vs mtb shoes

You may think that choosing between road shoes and mountain bike shoes, would be decided by what type of bike you ride. If you ride a road bike, you wear road shoes, and if you ride a mountain bike, well… you wear mountain bike shoes. I am here to make the case that you do not have to choose a cycling shoe based on what type of bicycle you ride.

ROAD shoes VS Mountain bike shoes

First, let us look at the benefits of using road shoes. For the sake of this article, when I compare road shoes to mountain bike shoes, just assume that I am comparing the top of the range road shoes to top of the range MTB shoes. It is of course possible to find a top of the range MTB shoe that is far superior to a low-mid range road shoe in every way, shape and form.

There are a few reasons why the best road cyclist in the world do not use mountain bike shoes while racing the Tour de France, or any other race for that matter. One reason is that it would make their shoe sponsor look ridiculous. Imagine being a pro cyclist and snubbing your shoe sponsors top of the range road cycling shoe for the mountain bike version. I imagine you would not have a contract for much longer. Another far more important reason, is that road cycling shoes are better for performance than mountain bike shoes. How much better? Well, not as much as you may think. Road shoes are better for performance because they tend to be lighter and stiffer than mountain bike shoes. Road shoes also allow for a wider contact area between the cleat and the pedal, which would allow for a greater power transfer. I can not tell you exactly how much more power that is. An experiment would have to be done, which compares the top of the range road cycling shoe to the top of the range mountain bike shoe. It would be interesting to see the results!

pro cycling peloton

I have not noticed a significant performance benefit from using road cycling shoes over mountain bike shoes on a road bike. I am sure there IS a benefit, it is just not a noticeable one. This is coming from someone who will brag about how light his bottle cages are! I am definitely all for marginal gains, but I am just being honest when I say that I do not believe anyone will get dropped because he or she is using MTB shoes in a road cycling ride or race. It just does not happen.

Take the example of a cycling race and write down all the possible reasons why someone would get dropped. Whatever you write down, be sure to put “The rider was using mountain bike shoes” at the bottom of the list. You are 100 times more likely to get dropped, because you are bonking or because you are simply not fit enough to go with the attacks, than because of what cycling shoes you are wearing.

I think a lot of it has to do with the social stigma involved with using mountain bike shoes, while taking part in a road group rides or event. If everyone is wearing road cycling shoes then why would you go against the grain and buy mountain bike shoes? I have my reasons.

chris froome
Did someone say MARGINAL GAINS?

Why I choose mountain bike shoes over road shoes:

Road cycling shoes are horrible to walk in! Seriously, anyone who has used both road cycling shoes and mountain bike shoes will tell you that this is true. Technically, you can walk in road shoes, but it is not safe nor comfortable to do so. They also make a horrible “click, click” sound when you walk in them. If you live in a country where you need to be wary of hit and runs and road rage incidents, road cycling shoes are a horrible idea. Mountain bike shoes at least allow you with the opportunity to defend yourself in case of attack.

Walkability is a big reason why I recommend mountain bike shoes for 99% of cyclist. I prefer the safety and security that comes with using mountain bike shoes. They are great for when you want to walk around the supermarket mid-way through a long training ride and even better if you want to go bicycle touring. I did an 3-month long bicycle tour in Europe a few years ago… I could not imagine doing so while using road cycling shoes. I was constantly walking in my cycling shoes and I imagine I would have worn out my road cleats within a week or two! That brings me on to my next point:

cyclist walking

Road cleats do not last long. If you are using road cycling cleats you need to replace them every month, or two. They are not expensive, but it is more the inconvenience of having to replace them so often that I do not like. On the other hand, mountain bike cleats last a lifetime.

road cycling cleats

MTB shoes offer greater flexibility than road cycling shoes. For example, last year I rented a gravel bike to take part in the Swartberg Gran Fondo gravel bike race. All I had to do was take my MTB pedals off my road bike and put them on the rented gravel bike and I was good to go. You can always use mountain bike shoes on the road and off-road, but you can only use road shoes on the road. I mean, you can try and use them on mountain bike trails, but what if it starts raining and the road gets muddy? Then you get mud in your road pedals and cleats and you can no longer clip in. If this happened during a gravel or mountain bike race you would have to stop and clean them and your race would be over, at least from a competitive standpoint.

I speak with conviction on this topic, because in recent years I have used both mountain bike shoes and road shoes. I currently own a pair of the Fizik R1 Infinito road shoes. They look and feel amazing! The problem is that they are perhaps the most impractical pair of shoes I have ever worn. I own the knitted version of the shoe, so when it starts raining (or even drizzling) it takes a good 2 minutes before my feet are soaking wet. This is just an example and I know that it is probably not the case with your road cycling shoes. What I am trying to explain is that in the cycling industry, looks and status trump all. My Fizik R1 Infinito shoes cost a lot of money. After I bought them, I was complimented by all of my cycling friends on how awesome they look! However, the truth is when I am wobbling around the supermarket and I hear that “click-click” sound; or when I am replacing the cleats; or when it starts raining during my ride… I wish I was back in my old Giro mountain bike shoes again.

fizik r1 infinito
The Fizik R1 Infinito Knit

So in short, road cycling shoes tend to be lighter and stiffer than mountain bike shoes, but they are terrible to walk in, require constant cleat maintenance and offer little flexibility as to where you can and can not ride. If I was a professional cyclist and the ONLY thing that was important to me was my performance on the road, then I would definitely use road cycling shoes. Otherwise, I will happily trade all the marginal gains associated with road cycling shoes, for the safety, reliability and practicality that a pair of mountain bike shoes provide.

I am getting a gravel bike soon and I have used this as an excuse to transition back to mountain bike shoes, as my primary pair of cycling shoes. In fact, I bought the Pearl Izumi X-Project 1.0 earlier last week. I can not wait to try them out!


5 thoughts on “Road Cycling Shoes VS MTB Shoes: What should you buy and WHY?

  1. I have the exact same shoes in both MTB and road versions. From a ride perspective, used MTB cleats for years. When I switched I noticed exactly zero difference. The only reason I moved from MTB shoes to road shoes was because I bough powermeter pedals.

Leave a Reply