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It's All About Sole - A review of a few flat pedal shoes I've worn over the years

When riding on the ground or in the air, a good pedal / shoe combination makes all the difference in making it easier for you to ride and control the bike.

If you've been to any of my classes you might have discovered that I'm pretty passionate about having a good set of pedals and shoes on your bike. As the main contact and control point of your bike (at least with my style of riding and coaching), I generally can't emphasise enough the importance of having a good connection to your bike through your pedals and shoes.

A bike and pedal combination however can go very quickly north of $400, a price that can be very hard to swallow for some people, even more so if you have a bike that you managed to get at a bargain price. I'll talk about the different pedals I've used over the years in a different post - for now this is just about the rubber on your feet.

This particular post is also about flat pedal shoes, not clipless ones. And if you happen to be wondering why I'm an advocate of flat pedals, you can read a post I wrote about the subject called The Pedal Conundrum.

Some General Information on Flat Pedal Shoes

Back onto the subject of flat pedal shoes and what I've used, which is in reality a reasonably limited subset of brands. If you jump onto any of the online websites you'll like find that there are at least half a dozen different brands with an even larger number of models underneath them. And from a price perspective, they'll range from being as low as $60 on special all the way up to almost $300 for a well designed, aesthetically pleasing pair. So without understanding why different makes and models of shoes are separated by price, the whole exercise of getting the right shoe can can be quite confusing.

As to why you would even want a dedicated mountain bike shoe in the first place, there are actually a number of reasons. And the first is to do with grip.

Because the bottom of a mountain bike shoe is designed to be flat and uses special rubber compounds to maximise grip, it enables the pedal and the pins that stick out from them to provide as much grip as possible and limit any possibility of slipping. In contrast to this, other shoes such as runners and cross trainers tend to have a countered base and tread pattern that can limit the amount of rubber staying in contact with a pedal and prevent the pedal pins from digging into the rubber. This variation in design becomes pretty evident when you compare the movement you have from a normal shoe versus a dedicated mountain bike shoe - you really just don't have any movement with a proper flat pedal shoe. In fact, it's almost as good as being good as clipped in.... almost.

My current riding shoes - a pair of Adidas Five Ten Trail Cross shoes. Note the sole of the shoe which has some low profile tread, enough to provide some grip for walking on the trails, but low enough for the pins of a pedal to dig in.

Stiffness is another trait that flat pedal mountain biking shoes. Because it isn't your entire foot that is in contact with your pedals, mountain bike shoes are created with a stiffer sole to provide more efficient power transfer from the entirety of your foot into your pedals. There is also the actual strength and build of the shoe, which tends to be designed with a degree of durability significantly greater than normal shoes to tolerate the rigours of riding through terrain that can see shoes being scraped and bumped into trees and rocks on a regular basis. And let's not forget to mention the variety of elements that flat pedal shoes have to contend with, with some designed to keep water and mud out while maintaining a degree of breathability and the need to keep a shoe reasonably light weight.

Combine the requirements of those different elements and you begin to get an understanding of why there are so many shoes of varying prices. Do you want the ultra sticky rubber so your feet never leave your pedals? How long do you need your shoes to last for? Will you need them to be water resistant because you think you'll be exposed to a lot of wet weather? How light weight do you want them to be? And of course, are they going to be a fashion statement? (the last question doesn't apply to me as I have no sense of style or fashion but I know it's important to others - especially for when they finish their ride and head to the coffee shop, or pub).

I've had two pairs of Shimano GR7s over the years - historically they've been a good value combination of pedal grip, durability and wet weather protection. I've never been a fan of their style though.

Its these factors that seem to heavily influence the price of a flat pedal shoe, with shoes tending to be more expensive as they provide more grip, increasing further in price if they have a sense of style built into them as well. But something to keep in mind is that a mountain bike shoe is often a series of compromises. Greater grip means softer rubber that likely won't last as long. Light weight and sometimes style can impact a shoe's durability, with the upper part of the shoe not lasting as long. Just because you pay more for a shoe, it doesn't mean it will last longer or be better than a cheaper shoe in all things.

So now you have a little bit of insight into flat pedal shoes for mountain bikes, here's a little bit of history about the shoes I've been through over my time since converting to them from clipless back in 2018.

Five Ten Free Rider Pro

A very "well-loved set of Five Ten Free Rider Pros with the super sticky stealth rubber sole. Not the damage to the front of both shoes - these were only ten months old.

The Five Ten Free Rider Pro was the very first set of flat pedal shoes I ever purchased and were what I used when I transitioned from riding clipped. The research that I did told me that when it came to grip, these shoes were the stickiest shoes on the planet, a claim that at the time I wouldn't necessarily refute. At one point when I was practicing how to jump off the back of the bike if I looped out doing a manual these shoes stuck to the pedals so well that I couldn't actually get them off the pedals. Instead I did actually end up looping out, landing on my back and thankfully mon my helmet - I might as well have been clipped in they were that sticky.

To be honest, the Five Ten Free Rider Pro line has so many different sub-variants that I couldn't exactly tell you which ones these were. All I can say is that for the very first few months they were sticky and perfect to help me transition from being clipped in to being a flat pedal rider. The grip these shoes had on the pedals (once I learned how to stay connected) was phenomenal - if you ever needed to adjust your foot position you would need to very deliberately lift your foot vertically off the pedal to reposition it.

With these particular Five Tens I found that the pins of the pedals started digging in and shredding the bottom within a few weeks. After ten months I was beginning to lose whole chunks of the bottom of the shoe.

The downsides of the Five Tens were firstly they weren't the cheapest shoe on the market. In excess of $200 I also had expected to get at least a year's worth of use out of these shoes. But after ten months, both the sole of the shoe and the top had begun to fall apart, something I wasn't really happy about. The other thing I found about these shoes were that they were phenomenally heavy, and if they ever got a significant amount of water they needed more than a few days to become dry. So despite the stupendous amount of grip available, I decided not to buy another pair... at least not straight away.

Shimano GR7s

After the Five Tens I decided to try out a brand that I had trusted with my riding shoes previously, albeit clipless ones. The Shimano GR7s were advertised as their Enduro / Trail shoe, using a special Michelin rubber compound as their answer to Five Ten's Stealth rubber I had high hopes that these shoes would be a good replacement to the Free Rider Pros. And priced between $130 to $165, depending on the online store you could find them at, they were a relative bargain by comparison. In fact, from time to time you can even occasionally find them for less.

The sole of the Shimano GR7s held up better than the Five Ten Free Rider Pros after 12 months of use, but they didn't as much grip.

I'll be honest and say that I was never really sold on the aesthetics of the GR7. However from a practical perspective they offered more water and dust protection than the Five Tens in a shoe was lighter and more durable. The soles of these shoes wore more evenly with use and the tops of the shoe held together significantly better than the Five Tens. The biggest trade off with the GR7s was simply that they couldn't match the Free Rider Pros for grip - the difference was noticeable. But for the price and slightly longer durability of 12 months use (tested twice), I was happy to use the cheaper shoe.

Shimano GR5 / GR501

Mountain biking can become such an expensive sport that I inevitably look for ways to reduce costs on items that wear out. The GR5s (or 501s) are obviously a level down from the GR7s but sport a more "normal" shoe look which I liked. At just over $100 they are also a good way to save on the cost of having a dedicated flat shoe which becomes an even larger bargain given I've had these particular shoes for almost two years and only recently contemplated replacing them.

The Shimano GR5s have held up remarkable well compared to the Free Rider Pros and GR7s, especially after 18 months. The downside is a significantly lower level of grip.

As you can see in the above photo, these sole has significantly less wear than the shoes I had previously worn, especially remembering I've been using them for twice as long. Maintaining Shimano's light weight and durability focus they really are a bargain riding shoe with their lower cost and longer lasting sole. But the trade off naturally is a very noticeable reduction of grip which requires me to put a lot more focus into maintaining my feet / pedal connection. Additionally, these shoes don't do quite as a good a job in keeping out dust and water compared to the GR7s, although they're probably equally as good in that department as the Free Rider Pros.

Is the savings worth the loss of performance? If you're riding in terrain that isn't so technical I'd say the answer would be a definite yes. But if you're trying to tackle roots and rocks at speed, I would probably suggest investing in a shoe with better grip.

Adidas Five Ten Trail Cross LT

The Trail Cross shoes were brought in after Adidas bought the Five Ten brand a few years ago. Rather than having the stiff platform of a traditional flat pedal mountain bike shoe the Trail Cross shoes are designed to have a little bit of flex towards the front, making them more suitable for walking and even running. Combined with Five Ten's stealth rubber into a light weight, breathable shoe I've found the Trail Cross shoes to be a pretty unique package amongst the plethora of flat pedal shoes that exist. The stealth rubber is just as a I remember - super sticky, tenaciously gripping the pedals like there's no tomorrow and the ability to be able to run around after students has actually been really useful during my coaching sessions.

The particular Trail Cross shoes I purchased were pretty loud in colour, but they do have less brash designs in the line up. You can see in the photo above where flex has been incorporated into the shoe at the points of the triangular cut outs.

The downside of having a light weight, breathable shoe is that if you have cold and wet conditions, you're going to end up with cold and wet feet. And while the sole of these shoes is super sticky (and after three months seeming like they're reasonably hard wearing), I do find that the flex compromises pedalling efficiency somewhat. This lack of stiffness was actually making the arches in my feet a bit sore while pedalling so I've since added arch supports into the shoe which has managed to address that particular problem. But it's not something I've had to worry about with other shoe designs.

You'll find the Trail Cross shoes varying price anywhere from $130 (or less when on sale) up to $200+ depending on the design. For what I need in a shoe with my coaching and trail maintenance activities, I find these to be a great compromise of grip, durability and comfort. But for day to day riding I would probably suggest sticking to a more traditional flat pedal shoe.

Summing It Up

There are a stock of other brands out there that I've never tried and can't comment on in terms of performance and durability. Given the wide range of brands and models out there I wouldn't say that there's a hard and fast rule of whether more dollars gets you a better shoe. It really does require your own research and potentially a bit of trial and error. What I will say though is that a flat pedal shoe is for the most part a series of compromises. More grip means softer rubber that won't last as long. Greater durability means a heavier shoe. Having breathability means less water proofing. And a more flexible shoe for walking means a less efficient pedalling platform.

Ultimately, you'll need to decide what's important to you and then find a shoe that fits.

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