Gravel has been around for long enough now that it isn’t surprising to see many brands looking for ways to create gravel-specific clothing and shoes. As gravel bikes became more mainstream the specific demands of gravel riding started to become clearer.
In the past, the go-to options for the best gravel shoes were cross-country mountain bike shoes. Rugged and durable with cleat systems suited to muddy conditions, they are more than capable of taking on miles of gravel road. However, as gravel gained popularity manufacturers soon started to see areas that could be improved upon.
Despite being an off-road pursuit, gravel riding shares many similarities to road riding, so it’s unsurprising that gravel-specific shoes started to borrow features from the best road cycling shoes and became lighter and stiffer, shedding unnecessary armour which was designed for protection on singletrack trails, adding more ventilation and increasing sole stiffness to maximise power transfer. This has left us with a wide range of gravel-specific and mountain bike crossover shoes on the market.
We have chosen a selection of the most popular shoes for gravel riding and pitched them head to head to see which shoes are the king of the gravel grinders.
Best gravel bike shoes reviewed
Best lightweight gravel shoes
Weight: 565g (actual) | Closure: BOA® IP1 | Sole: Carbon | Sizes: 38-50
Shimano went all-in on gravel around the release of its GRX groupset and now offers a wide range of gravel-specific componentry and apparel, including the RX8 gravel-specific shoe.
The first thing you notice when picking up the RX8’s is that they are very light for a gravel shoe. The slim wrap-around tongue and uppers provide a secure fit and the Boa IP1 ratchet is intuitive to use and easy to tighten or loosen while riding. The heel cup is well moulded to eliminate heel lift and the toe box is reasonably roomy. Shimano fits the RX8s with medium arch supports and includes large inserts in the box.
On the bike, the sole (rated 10 out of 11 on Shimano’s stiffness scale) provides an excellent pedalling platform. With a stiff yet lively sole and a tread that pairs well to the Shimano XT pedals, the application of power is stable and efficient. The sole features TPU lugs and an anti-slip pad to aid walking but the narrow tread profile means they do have a tendency to roll ankles on uneven ground.
They aren’t cheap but the price is very reasonable considering the quality of the shoe. The RX8s are best suited to those looking to gravel as an extension to road riding rather than an exploration into the wilderness. The lightness really makes them akin to road shoes allowing you to dance on the pedals up climbs. When it comes to descending, the stiff yet comfortable sole filters out the worst of the vibrations. Shimano has done an excellent job refining exactly what is needed from a performance gravel shoe.
Best for gravel and mountain bike racing
Weight: 611g (actual) | Closure: BOA® S3-Snap | Sole: Carbon | Sizes: 36-49
Specialized made the bold proclamation that its S-Works Recon’s were the “fastest off-road shoes on the market”. Designed as a cross-country race shoe, the Recon's staggeringly stiff sole and light weight means that it is also one of the best all-round off-road shoes available.
The hard-wearing Dyneema uppers are secured over the top of the foot with two premium aluminium Boa S3 Snap dials. The non-stretch uppers and rigid heel cup offer an aggressive fit which is more comfortable in use than it is off the bike. The S3 Snap dials don’t have a pop release but the cables can be unhooked for fast shoe removal. You need to be careful of tongue placement as it can dig into the front of the ankle but overall it didn’t cause much discomfort.
The sole is the crux of the Recon which boasts the same stiffness as the road equivalent. Power transfer is staggering, driving every bit of power into the cranks. On the flip side they have a very wooden feel and on longer rides can begin to feel a bit fatiguing as every vibration through the crank is transmitted to the foot.
If you are looking for a shoe that will give the top-level performance, the S-Works Recon is a shoe ready to race on anything no matter if its gravel road, cyclo-cross course or cross-country mountain bike trail. The overall quality of the shoe has so far been excellent with only the exposed carbon sole showing any marks from use. The sole will likely divide opinions, for power transfer it is unmatched on test but the rigidity does nothing to isolate vibrations and for endurance riders, it might be too harsh.
Best for sole stiffness
Weight: 727g (actual) | Closure: Tecno-2 Push System and Tecno-3 Push System | Sole: Carbon | Sizes: 38-48
Sidi has been making road and mountain bike shoes for a while now but the Jarin is its first gravel-specific shoe. Packed with an unusual design and outrageous iridescent colour scheme, the Sidi Jarin’s are quite unlike any of the other shoes we have on this test.
Using Sidi’s own ratchet design, closure on the front of the foot is handled with a central dial while an instep closure system tightens across the top of the shoe. The dials are fiddlier than the Boas on the other shoes as they require you to push a button to release a lever. They also cant be backed off, instead using releasing levers that need to be squeezed on the side of the dial. I found the fit a bit odd, I have slightly narrow feet and I wasn’t able to cinch the Jarin’s down at the front as much as I would have liked. Saying that, they still felt secure on my foot and I didn’t suffer any lift or movement while riding although I did while pushing. The tongue also dug into the front of my ankle, although this is possibly due to tightening the top strap more to compensate for the looser fit at the front. Sidi does advise in the included instruction booklet that the tongue can be cut to create a gentler edge.
Where the Sidis shine is the sole which is a perfect balance of stiffness and comfort. This perfect blend is best on the test and while the RX8s come very close, the Jarin’s are just a little better. Unfortunately, it isn’t all positives for the sole: while the lugs are replaceable, they don’t feel particularly sure-footed and combined with the exposed carbon sole means that in situations such as river crossings, if the lug misses there is no additional rubber to stop you slipping. I also found clipping in and out of the pedals somewhat vague. I used the same Shimano XT pedals throughout testing and every shoe was fitted with brand new cleats, yet the Sidis were the only ones to have this issue. The Jarin’s are also not light, weighing in at 727g they are noticeably heavier than many of the other shoes on test.
While the sole and outrageous colourway really appeals to me, the complicated Techno System dials and odd fit were detracting. Fit is personal and if you are already a fan of Sidi then these are going to be an excellent choice. If unsure, I would recommend trying before you buy.
Best for adventures with hike-a-bike
Weight: 694g (actual) | Closure: Laces | Sole: Carbon | Sizes: 36-47
Rapha’s Explore shoes have been designed specifically for gravel, adventure and ultra-endurance racing and have been designed to accommodate for the fact that all great adventures by bike involve a bit of walking. They have proven their capability on the feet of Lachlan Morton during his staggering ride of the GBDuro in 2019.
The carbon sole provides a stiff platform for pedalling but is only used in the mid-section so that there is some flex around the heel and toes and sees a distinct advantage when compared to the Recon, RX8 and Jarin. This is further helped by the rubber coating and huge treaded knobs: the rubber, which can also be found on hiking boots, provides plenty of grip on rocks and dirt.
The uppers use a one-piece microfibre construction that is doubled over to form the lace eyelets. The closure is no more complicated than tying a pair of shoelaces and a piece of elastic keeps the knot loops tidy and away from your drivetrain. Comfort across the foot is good but the outside edge around the ankle did cause painful irritation that lessened over time, so the shoes may need to wear in a bit more.
If you are a rider that likes to go back and beyond the Rapha Explores with their very grippy sole and stiff pedalling platform are a great choice. Laces are easily replaced and offer a much wider scoop of adjustment should feet swell or extra socks be worn. Only time will tell whether they break in but in the time that we have been riding them there does seem to be a gradual improvement.
- Rapha clothing range 2020: details, pricing and specifications
Fizik Terra X5
Best budget shoe for gravel
Weight: 683g (actual) | Closure: Boa L6 Dial | Sole: Injected carbon | Sizes: 36-48
The Fizik Terra X5 is an excellent mid-range cross-country mountain bike shoe that is more than capable of taking on gravel mileage as well.
The light upper conforms well to the foot providing instant comfort and uses a single Boa L6 dial closure which clicks tighter or pops to release. I did find that I needed to increase the tightness mid rides but as the dial is easy to use it was never an issue and only required a single audible click. The uppers feature a lot of perforations along the sides of the foot for ventilation and Fizik has added a pull to help pull them on. Toe and heel boxes are supported although the instep of the shoe has very thin material.
The sole can’t compete with the ultra-stiff carbon soles of some of the other shoes but I never felt it lacked when pedalling hard out the saddle. It’s also a very forgiving sole filtering out vibrations from the trail. The aggressive tread gives a good walking platform and will hook onto rocky or loose surfaces to aid traction. The injected carbon sole has visually fared much better than the exposed carbon soles on the premium shoes.
I was very impressed with the Terra X5, comfort is easily dialled in without the need to fiddle the tongue or outers into the correct position. It would be nice to see a Boa system that could be backed off but this would add cost to what is a very well priced and good value shoe. Sole performance is decent as well, providing more than enough stiffness for the majority of gravel riders. If black isn’t your thing Fizik sells the X5 in five colour combinations as well as a suede version.
Fizik Terra Powerstrap X4
Best for design simplicity
Weight: 584g (actual) | Closure: Velcro | Sole: X4 nylon outsole | Sizes: 36-48
The Terra Powerstrap X4 is Fizik’s gravel-specific shoe which they say has been designed specifically for drop-bar off-road riders.
The X4s are the only shoe on the test that uses a velcro strap as a closure method. Velcro has mostly been relegated to the realm of cheaper cycling shoes but Fizik shows that it’s still a worthy consideration. First off these shoes are very simple, two thick straps manage closure, spreading forces across the foot and anchoring to the side of the shoe with generous strips of velcro. Without the fittings and attachments of more complicated closures, the X4s are also the second lightest shoe on test despite also being one of the cheapest.
There are some drawbacks to velcro. Putting them on and off is a very simple process but fine-tuning is a little more difficult. It’s still faster than laces but can’t match the ease of a Boa system. You will also want to limit the number of readjustments you make mid-ride as the more dirt that gets caught in the velcro the less secure the shoe will be. We didn’t have any problems with the velcro losing its grip but the weather was unusually warm and dry during our testing in Scotland, if it had been the normal weather service it might have been a different outcome.
Despite being the same RRP as the X5, the X4 model doesn’t get an injected carbon sole and instead has to settle for a nylon construction. Stiffness is not quite to the same level as the X5 but still has enough rigidity to handle some enthusiastic pedalling. The tread itself is a lot smoother than the X5 making it more comfortable to walk on hard surfaces but a bit slippier in muddy conditions.
Overall the X4 is a little under-gunned when faced with the competition of its equally-priced mountain bike equivalent. The X4 feels like it has been beaten at its own game by the stiffer and more comfortable X5. The X4 trump card is it’s weight, shaving almost 100g off the X5, plus it’s sleeker more simplistic look may appeal to those that are wanting a road bike and gravel bike crossover shoe.
Giro Privateer Lace
Best for comfort
Weight: 726g (actual) | Closure: Lace | Sole: Carbon | Sizes: 39-50
Giro says that the Privateer lace combines the comfort of its Empire shoes with the durability of the Privateer mountain bike shoes.
Giro isn’t wrong as the Privateers are supremely comfortable. The uppers gentle mould around the foot and the long section of laces means that tightness can be adjusted down the length of the shoe. They are well cut around the ankle and although the heel cup isn’t as rigid as other shoes it still does a great job of holding the foot in place. The microfiber upper feels hard-wearing and is reinforced around the toe and heel. Perforations around the sides and tongue help with ventilation but don’t instantly let water in if you splash through a puddle.
The sole is made from nylon but really lacks stiffness: when climbing out the saddle the cleat plate can be felt under the foot. The upside is that they are very comfortable to walk in and the simple tread combined with toe block sections do a good job when wandering about on a range of surfaces.
If you are a rider that likes to put down large amounts of power then the Privateers will not be the shoe for you. They are superbly comfortable and while the lack of stiffness in the sole might put some off the flex only helps improve comfort further. If you are a rider looking for a gravel adventure shoe for using on all-day rides that are focused on a good time, not a fast time then the Privateers are a great option.
Best for casual gravel and adventures
Weight: 696g (actual) | Closure: BOA® L6 dial | Sole: Nylon-composite | Sizes: 40-48
The Rincon is the little brother of Giro’s new Sector gravel shoe, sharing the same uppers but foregoing the double boa and carbon sole to produce a more affordable shoe.
The Rincon shares the same breathable SynchWire upper as the Sector and Giro’s very premium Imperial road shoes. This one-piece design is thermo-bonded with an exo-structure to create a non-stretch upper that gives the Rincon a very comfortable and breathable fit. The toes and heel are reinforced with rubber to ward off any rogue rocks. The Rincon only gets one Boa L6 dial which gives 1mm adjustment to the steel lace that crosses down the front through soft lace guides and allows a comfortable yet secure fit to be easily found.
Unfortunately, the Rincon shares the same sole as the Privateer Lace and if you are a powerful rider and looking for a pair of Giros then you will probably be better served by the Sectors as they have a carbon sole.
I was really torn by the Rincons. They are undeniably comfortable which is mostly due to the Synthwire uppers and are superbly good looking but the sole is simply not stiff enough for me. I would find myself reaching for them and then having to reassess based on the ride I was doing. The result is a shoe that is best suited to lighter riders or those who choose a more sedated intensity of riding. The walkability is about as good as an SPD shoe can get before getting a trainer style sole so you won’t feel the need to carefully tiptoe on hike-a-bike sections or going exploring mid-ride.
Choosing an outright winner in this group is tough but as a gravel thoroughbred the Shimano RX8s come out on top. The stiff yet lively sole transfers power well without transmitting every vibration through the foot and the simple wrap over closure makes for a very comfortable fit. The Boa IP1 is the best in test and the overall weight is very impressive. They aren’t perfect, the poor tread and exposed carbon sole mean they are reluctant walkers but for those who are looking to attack open gravel trails at flat-out pace, walking is less of a consideration.
However, the Specialized S-Work Recons and Fizik X5s come in at a close second and third place respectively. The Recons are insanely stiff almost to a fault and as they are a mountain bike shoe also include more rock shrugging protection. If you seek a true do-everything shoe, and can stomach the price, the Recon’s are the shoes to go for. The Fizik X5s are significantly cheaper and while they can’t come close to the stiffness of the Recon's they still give a stable and direct pedalling platform. The uppers are comfortable, supportive and they will happily take on gravel and mountain biking alike.
1. There is more to gravel than riding offroad
Gravel riding isn’t as simple as riding on gravel anymore, the diversification that is happening in gravel can be clearly seen in the shoes we have on test. As gravel racing becomes more established and the popularity of adventure riding grows, shoes are becoming focused to meet each style of ridings specific needs.
In racing sole stiffness, power transfer and lightweight are all key areas where extra performance can be gained. On the other end, a gentler pace with the possibility of multiple days and more rugged terrain means that walkability, all-day comfort and durability are important considerations.
2. Ratchet dials, laces or velcro, there is no best form of retention
Ratchet dials, laces and velcro all feature on the test although Boa style dials are the most popular due to their simplicity in use and ability to offer quick precise adjustment while riding. Laces are still popular due to ease of use, reliability and adjustability although they make mid-ride adjustments difficult. Velcro has mostly been resigned to the budget shoe market, yet Fizik has effectively utilised its simplicity and lightweight for their Powerstrap format.
3. Breathability trumps weatherproofing
Despite the likelihood of standing water, river crossings and general wetness all the gravel shoes are designed for breathability rather than weather protection. While this suits warmer climate riders for those who are often faced with the prospect of wet rides it becomes more of an issue. No shoe will be able to keep water at bay but the Rapha Explores and Giro Privateers fair better than the others if you’re partial to splashing through the odd river crossing.
4. There is a niche for gravel shoes
Many of the shoes that cross over from mountain biking are just as good as gravel shoes and for those who are looking for a single pair of kicks to take on a range of off-road activities, a mountain bike shoe is probably going to be a better investment. However, there are many riders who either don’t have any interest in getting more radical than gravel or are looking for a single pair of shoes that will cross over all drop bar activities. Many newer road riders often choose a mountain bike SPD-style pedal as an entry point to clipless riding due to their ease of clipping in and out plus they are more comfortable to walk in. Shoes like the Shimano RX8, Specialized S-Works Recon or Fizik Powerstrap X4 are sleek and stiff enough that they will work well on a road ride yet are rugged enough for a detour into the dirt.
Cycling has a weight obsession and with six of the eight shoes coming in under the 700g mark and two of those managing to squeeze under the 600g mark, there are some noticeable savings that can be made in footwear. With 162g difference between the lightest and heaviest shoes, riding them back to back highlights a noticeable difference in pedalling experience. Generally added weight will equate to added armour around the toe and heel and differences in closure mechanisms. If you are looking for a gravel racing shoe, while terrain and course should play a consideration, there is a significant gain if you are willing to forego some adjustment, walkability and protection.
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