Gravel riding has gone from something a bunch of gluttons for punishment did in the Flint Hills of Kansas; to an idea, everyone from Velominati-type roadies to pyjama pant-wearing mountain bikers want to try out — it is well and truly here to stay.
Owing to the rise in popularity of gravel riding and the culture that accompanies it, we're starting to see a wave of clothing and equipment designed specifically for long rides on dirt roads, including shoes. In the same way that a 'cross bike will work fine for gravel grinding, mountain bike shoes will also get you through a gravel ride; however, there is a growing range of purpose-built gravel bike shoes hitting the market, and there are some MTB shoes that are better for the task than others.
The best gravel bike shoes are an amalgamation of the best cycling shoes for road and mountain bike shoes, cherrypicking key features from each to create the perfect mix of weight, stiffness, durability and grip.
Scroll down for our look at the best gravel bike shoes, or if you're after buying advice, you can skip to our guide on how to choose the best gravel bike shoes.
Best gravel bike shoes
The best-looking gravel bike shoes you can slip your feet into, that ride pretty darn well too
Sizes: 34-50 | Closure: Lace | Sole: Nylon
Giro's Privateer is a toned-down version of its uber-successful Empire shoes, trading a bit of stiffness for improved overall comfort at a price that's not offensive. They are technically MTB shoes; however, the toe and heel armour is minimal and the microfiber upper breathes well and dries fast too. Using laces to tie everything together keeps the weight low, and allows the upper seven points of adjustment to conform around the wearer's foot.
The lugged outsole is substantial on top of the nylon sole, and we're big fans of the tread through the centre section for the purchase it adds when you miss or slip a pedal. One also can't look past the aesthetic; these are most definitely some of the best looking cycling kicks you can buy.
Specialized S-Works Recon
Some of the fastest gravel bike shoes money can buy, assuming your ride doesn't include much hike-a-bike
Sizes: 36-49 | Closure: Boa | Sole: Carbon
Specialized’s S-Works Recon shoes are the company's latest lightweight, low-profile performance-above-all-else off-road shoes. Although they are technically labelled XC MTB shoes, they fall in pretty well with our definition of a gravel shoe.
There is minimal armour around the toe and forefoot, and the TPU lugs are just enough to walk on — though there's also a pad under the arch of the foot. The Recon is based around the brand's Body Geometry sole and footbed which aims to optimise foot, knee and hip alignment, which works for some but not all.
With Dyneema, no-stretch panels and the same carbon plate used on the S-Works 7 road shoes, the Recon are some of the most efficient gravel bike shoes you can slip your feet into, until it's time to get off and walk. With the suction cup-like heel cup, that keeps your foot locked in the back of the shoe, and the no stretch or flex upper and sole they can become pretty uncomfortable when you're pushing your bike up a fire road.
Featherweight gravel bike shoes
Sizes: 38-50 | Closure: Boa/Velcro | Sole: Carbon
Shimano's RX8 look like road shoes from the top and paired down XC MTB shoes on the bottom, with nearly the whole carbon fibre sole covered in TPU. With minimal armour and more conservative tread, the RX8 gravel shoes pull attributes you need from the best road and MTB shoes and get rid of everything you don't.
Weighing a hair over 600g for the pair in size 45, they are lighter than some road shoes, and rate 10/11 on Shimano's stiffness scale. Even with this rigid base, Shimano has built-in a flex zone in front of the cleat plate to limit the penguin steps on your hike-a-bike.
If your feet get along with Shimano's other high-end road or MTB shoes, you'll feel right at home in the RX8, with the perforated microfiber upper providing heaps of support for your foot as you spin along — plus they are camo.
What you would get if a road shoe and a mountain bike shoe had a baby
Sizes: 39.5-49 | Closure: Tecno 3 dials | Sole: Carbon
The gold standard in cycling shoes is a hard one to pin down but Sidi is often close to the top of the list in terms of quality and performance. The Jarin is the brand’s first gravel-specific shoe and, in Sidi's own words, combines the best elements of its high-end road and mountain bike shoes.
The upper is borrowed from the Wire 2 shoes and utilises the soft instep strap and two of the brand’s Tecno 3 dials while the SRS Carbon sole is the same as you'd find on Sidi’s Flagship mountain bike shoes.
In typical Sidi tradition, the tread blocks are replaceable, however we'd like to see a bit more protection on the carbon plate itself. The front of the toe box is reinforced to deflect errant debris, and so is the heel cup, but that's for power transfer and hold.
Heat mouldable high performance gravel shoes available in sizes and widths to fit any foot
Sizes: 36-50 | Closure: Boa | Sole: Carbon
Aesthetically, Bont's shoes are some of the most polarising in the bike industry but also they take a bit of work to achieve foot Nirvana. Bont's take on cycling shoes is a bit different to the rest of the industry using a wide bathtub shape and last, which includes longitudinal arch support and lateral forefoot support — this keeps all your joints running smoothly.
The trick up the Australian outfit's sleeve is the resin used throughout the shoes that hits its glass transition temp at 70-degrees Celsius, meaning you can mould them at home. It can take a few tries to get them just right but, when you do, they are some of the most comfortable shoes on the market.
The Vaypor G is built around the Chassis of the Vaypor + with the addition of replaceable lugs bolted onto the bottom. They are supremely stiff which is great when you're on the bike, but a little awkward if you have to walk around or scramble up a steep hill.
Fizik Terra X5
Reasonably priced well-trimmed gravel bike shoes
Sizes: 36-48 | Closure: Boa/Velcro | Sole: Carbon
Fizik offers the Terra X5 in a synthetic and Suede version; for gravel riding, we think the synthetic upper is a better option as it holds its shape for longer and is more abrasion resistant than the natural material. To further the durability, there is light armour around the heel and toe to fend off scrapes but the laser-perforated upper still breathes in the heat.
The shoes feature an LP1 Boa dial and velcro strap to cinch the upper; while underneath is a nylon sole which maintains stiffness to help you power up that nasty fire road climb but has enough flex to make walking feel natural when you run out of steam part of the way up.
Mavic Allroad Pro
Knitted gravel bike shoes, but nothing like that itchy sweater you grandmother knitted for you
Sizes: 36-48 | Closure: Lace | Sole: Nylon
Mavic's Allroad Pro features a knitted upper using a material the French outfit calls Matryx. Using a patented technology and Kevlar fibres Mavic says the Matrix fabric is five times more resistant to abrasions than synthetic fabrics and ten times more so than other knits; but even with its robust nature is breathable, fast-drying and supple enough to contour around your foot.
Mavic has also woven in reflective fibres for some added low light visibility. While the laces offer heaps of adjustability, keep in mind these are still Mavic shoes and are built around a narrow last.
On the bottom is an off-road version brand's Energy Comp nylon sole, which garners an 80/100 stiffness rating and will only take two-bolt cleats. The rubber lugs aren't as aggressive as some, but they are plenty grippy and contour as to not disturb your gait.
Giro's top-of-the-line Synchwire material in a gravel shoe
Sizes: 39-50 | Closure: Double Boa | Sole: Carbon
Giro uses its breathable triangulated weave Synchwire mesh upper for this gravel Sector shoe. The Syncwire is overlaid with a web of bonded rubbery ‘Exo Structure’ for additional support. Two rubber wrapped Boa L6 dials tension stainless steel laces over a lightly padded split tongue. Thick padding secures the heel and the insole has a medium arch support orthotic. The heel top is reflective, too.
The lightweight mesh construction does an impressive job of assuring a comfortable fit and providing a very uniform closure. The heel is well shaped to avoid any lift at the back of the foot. Wider- or tall-footed testers found them equally comfortable and they come in a women’s fit as well. The insole orthotic is noticeably supportive without being divisively obvious like some lumpier shoes.
The sole is decently stiff as well, assuring plenty of power transfer should you need to gun it without becoming fatiguing or punishing after many miles of gravel riding. The tread is very familiar to Giro shoe fans and does a decent job of gripping the ground if any portaging is required.
Northwave’s stylish entry into the gravel shoe market
Sizes: 39-50 | Closure: Lace | Sole: Carbon composite
Northwave hasn’t been shy about its styling since it rolled out deliberately mirror-imaged colourways on its 90s race shoes. The white microfibre upper with grey or orangey laces (spare in the box) plus natural gum rubber soles will undoubtedly turn some people off.
The upper features laser-cut three-point perforations on the flanks that help with foot fitting stretch and ventilation. A dovecote arrangement of tiny triangular holes over the toe box adds cooling over your pinkies without flooding at the first sign of a splash or shower. They clean up and dry quickly if you do drown them, too. Synthetic leather heel cuff, tongue and lace top detailing increase durability, add grip to the inner heel to stop lift. The cool two-tone styling continues with grey rubber reinforcing on the heel’s outside edge and a full TPU toe lining. The front sole tread also wraps up onto the toe tip to increase durability and grip.
You certainly won’t be at much of a disadvantage when it comes to racing either as the Rockster’s carbon-reinforced sole has a Northwave stiffness rating of 10 (the ranging-topping full carbon race shoes are a 14). That means power delivery feels very solid without risking numbness on long days and the enhanced support ‘race’ footbed also helps on extended rides.
Which gravel shoe is the best?
While the shoes above are all excellent options how do they compare against each other? Luckily for you, Cyclingnews has a full group test pitting eight of the most popular gravel shoes head to head to find out which shoe is the best for you and your riding.
How to choose gravel bike shoes
1. Wait, aren't these just mountain bike shoes?
Short answer, no. Gravel shoes are not the same as mountain bike shoes.
Most mountain bikes shoes are well armoured to fend off abrasion pinging through rock gardens (and crashes) and to protect your feet from high speed stubbed toes.
It's not often we're sending the same type of terrain on our gravel bikes that we are with 130mm+ of suspension (unless your name is Yohann Barelli) and with that, the same level of protection is just extra weight that your legs have to drive in a circle.
The XC mountain bike shoes that a lot of people are using on gravel rides also have provisions for toe spikes, used for sprinting uphill — and are especially useful in CX racing. It's unlikely that you'll need spikes for gravel riding, or really mountain biking outside of racing, so again this becomes an unnecessary weight.
When you take these elements away, you have gravel shoes. They still utilise the same two-bolt cleat pad as mountain bike shoes and will have lugs on the bottom which protect the carbon or nylon plate, but also provide traction for walking.
That said, there are plenty of lightly armoured XC shoes and some without mounts for toe spikes, like those found in this round-up, which perform just as well as a gravel-specific shoe.
2. Stiffness is not the end all be all
When we talk about road shoes, stiffness is often the headline; when the riding surface gets rough that ultra-stiff carbon sole does little to dampen the vibrations coming into the bottom of your foot. Take that rough surface and pedal over it for three-plus hours, you'll be about ready to chop your feet off in the pursuit of comfort.
Gravel shoes aim to find a balance between stiffness and damping; those designed for all-day gravel adventures tend to opt for nylon or carbon-reinforced plates. In contrast, the shoes designed for pulling turns at the front of the Dirty Kanza will be full carbon and rate highly on its respective brand's stiffness scale but may not be quite as stiff as their flagship road kicks.
Some gravel shoes will even feature a built-in flex zone in front of the cleat plate to make walking a little bit less awkward.
3. Fit, construction and fastening
Fit is the most critical aspect when buying shoes for any discipline of cycling because if your feet aren't happy, you're not going to have a good ride. Gravel bike shoes designed for the racing end of the spectrum will have a slightly lower volume fit so that no energy is lost to your foot swimming inside the boot. Endurance-oriented shoes will have a bit more room to accommodate when your feet begin to swell as the miles tick away.
For the most part, the uppers of all gravel shoes are made with synthetic material, including knits, but some are still using leather and even suede. While leather offers more comfort, it neither dries as fast nor breathes as well as many of the synthetic options
As with road and mountain bike shoes, gravel shoes come with retention systems such as laces, boas, and Velcro depending on the shoes. Laces offer heaps of adjustability and low weight, but you can't easily adjust them on the fly.
Boa dials (or similar) use a cable to cinch down the shoe and offer easy one-handed micro-adjustments and minimal weight, the downside is they are more susceptible to damage. Velcro is the lightest of the bunch and makes for easy on the fly adjustments; however, can be stymied by mud and does deteriorate over time.
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