Road vs. Mountain Bike Shoes: A Comparison

Bike shoes are not cheap. For many people, having a separate pair for riding on the road and mountain biking is not affordable. It’s natural for many of these people to think if having a dedicated pair of shoes actually makes a difference. Can’t we use road bike shoes for mountain biking and vice versa? Such thoughts are also true for people who are trying out the other riding style. You can use road bike shoes for mountain bikes and vice versa. But for optimum comfort, performance, and riding pleasure, you should stick to dedicated road and mountain biking shoes. Both types of shoes have a different feature set that is best suited for their respective riding styles.


The following overview would provide you with a better picture of the differences between road and mountain bike shoes.

Road Bike Shoes

Road bike shoes are made for fast riding on smooth surfaces. They are made of lightweight materials with a sleek design for comfort and aerodynamics for long-distance pedaling. Efficiency is key in road riding. The stiff soles of road riding shoes have very little flex. It ensures that most energy from the legs is transferred to the pedals and not absorbed by the shoes.

In budget road shoes, the outsole is made of nylon while the insole is made of plastic. In high-end shoes, the outsole is made of carbon fiber and the insole is made of wood. Road bike shoes are more ventilated due to lighter materials and more mesh panels. Ventilation is required during long periods of high-intensity pedaling to dissipate sweat and heat buildup.

Clipless shoes are more popular for road riding than flat pedal shoes. They make road riding more efficient. The rider has to put in less effort while more energy is transferred to the pedals. The large SPD-SL or 3-bolt cleats are common in road bike shoes. 3-bolt cleats spread the area on which the feet apply pressure on the pedal due to the cleats’ larger surface area. Some road bike shoes also support 2-bolt or SPD cleats but they are not as common as 3-bolt cleats.

Mountain Bike Shoes

Mountain bike shoes are beefier and heavier to handle rough terrain. The reinforced toe boxes and heel cups of these shoes provide more protection against hard objects like rocks and tree branches. Unlike road bike shoes, mountain bike shoes have softer insoles and outsoles. Mountain biking can involve a fair amount of walking so mountain bike shoes need to support walking. The soles are mostly made of rubber materials to provide grip on uneven surfaces as well as allow walking easily.

Among mountain bike riders, flat pedal shoes are as popular as clipless shoes because many mountain bikers prefer the freedom of feet. You can find a clipless and flat pedal model for most mountain bike shoes. Even if mountain bike shoes are clipless, they use smaller two-bolt SPD cleats.

Small cleats allow for small clipless pedals reducing the chances of the pedals hitting rocks and trees during riding. They are also easier to release than 3-bolt cleats. Unlike the 3-bolt cleats, 2-bolt cleats are made of metal for tough riding conditions. The cleats are also recessed in the outsole to provide ease when walking.

Mountain bike shoes are made of leather or synthetic upper material which is more durable. The upper is often water and mud resistant as these elements are common on off-road tracks. But the thicker upper material is not as breathable and well-ventilated as in road shoes.

Can I use road bike shoes for mountain biking?

Using road bike shoes for mountains has its advantages. The lighter and breathable construction of the road shoe makes it suitable for uphill pedaling. Energy transfer is more efficient and the larger cleats put less pressure on the feet. But the disadvantages of using a road bike shoe for mountain bike riding far outweigh the advantages.

Road bike shoes don’t provide adequate protection during riding on rough terrains. You don’t get reinforced toe boxes or heel cups. Hitting a rock or a tree trunk or any other hard object would be painful. It is common for off-road riders to repeatedly put their feet down and make quick adjustments to avoid crashes. The 3-bolt cleats require more force to release the shoe from the pedal. These cleats have been developed under the assumption that once the rider starts riding, they won’t have to put their feet down for a long period. But such an assumption can lead to a crash while riding off-road.

The stiff soles are also not meant for walking which is, again, common in off-road riding. But road bike shoes are not meant for walking. In fact, it is very uncomfortable to walk with road bike shoes. The tread is also minimal and doesn’t provide the grip needed when riding on uneven terrain.

The cleats on a road bike shoe are also protruded and feel like you are wearing high heels the wrong way around. Not only are they uncomfortable but walking also makes the cleats wear out faster or even break them. Another problem with protruded cleats is that they collect more dirt and mud after which they don’t engage the pedal effectively. With all the downsides, please avoid using road bike shoes for off-road riding.

Can I use mountain bike shoes for road riding?

Mountain bike shoes are versatile and can easily be termed all-terrain shoes. They can be used for multiple types of riding. Their less stiff soles and recessed cleats allow you to walk more easily. But don’t get your hopes high though. Mountain bike shoes are still stiffer than walking or running shoes. So, while they do allow walking more easily, don’t try to hike in them.

But on that point, certain mountain bike shoes are made for hike-a-bike adventures like the Five Ten Trailcross LT. So if you think that you would be walking a fair amount while on your bike trip, then mountain bike shoes are a suitable option.

However, there are downsides to using a mountain bike shoe for riding on the road. The heavier weight of mountain bike shoes is not meant for long rides. You would have to put in more energy and you will get tired faster. The smaller 2-bolt cleats are not good at spreading the surface area required to pedal like 3-bolt cleats. Applying pedaling force with a smaller surface area would put pressure on your feet which can get painful after some time.

The thicker durable upper of a mountain bike shoe doesn’t allow much ventilation. Another reason why you can’t pedal for longer periods is with these shoes. But mountain bike shoes would work fine for short-distance riding. If you are on a budget with only one shoe as an option, choose a mountain bike shoe. Although it won’t perform as well as a road bike shoe on the road, it won’t hold you back either.

Final Thoughts

Road and mountain bike shoes are different from each other. The differences are obvious at first glance. Road bike shoes have a sleeker design that gives an impression of being lightweight. Mountain bike shoes have a more robust design that gives a protective feeling. Both types of shoes are made with features that provide optimum performance for their respective riding styles. Mountain bike shoes can be used for multiple types of riding and they can be used for road riding as well. But you shouldn’t use road bike shoes for off-road riding because they lack protection. For best performance, you should use dedicated road and mountain bike shoes.