Testing the best gravel bike shoes

The Best Gravel Bike Shoes of 2021

Steering a bike down chunky backroads in your future? Saddle up with one of the best gravel bike shoes on the market today.

Gravel cycling is good for the lungs, good for the soul, and safer than riding in traffic. You can pedal for hours without ever seeing the dusty trace of a car. Outside a bike and helmet, the best investment you can make is a solid pair of shoes.

The feet are one of three contact points with the bike. Butt in the saddle and hands on the bars, the shoe is your power distributor to the bike. Gone are the days you have to lace into a mountain bike or road shoe for gravel rides. Thanks to the growing market sector, a new breed of gravel kicks merges the stiffness of the road shoe with the durability of MTB kicks.

This list is a culmination of hours in the saddle. We’ve worn them on gravel, road, and single-track trails. We packed them abroad to tackle bikepacking routes and pitted them against each other on the same ride. We looked at durability, breathability, closure, overall fit, price, and more.

Scroll through to see all of our recommended buys, or jump to a category below:

The Best Gravel Bike Shoes of 2021

Best Overall: Quoc Gran Tourer

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Photo credit: Marc Gasch.

The problem with most cycling shoes is, well, they feel like cycling shoes. Somewhere, somebody thought that in order to eke out the watts, feet should be locked inside a coffin. To maximize power, it’s not uncommon for cycling shoes to squeeze into a stiff, narrow fit that runs long for some amount of comfort.

Why do we love the Quoc’s Gran Tourer? They feel normal. The width is natural, the length is appropriate, and the heel stays locked in place.

This fit is most noticeable on all-day tours where every other part of the body is begging for mercy. And when you finally pull into the coffee shop, the Gran Tourer is classy enough to brush off the pain in style.

A traditional lace-up cycling shoe, Quoc’s Gran Tourer ($264) might look too nice to dirty up. But when the weather is in full mud season, this is the shoe we reach for first. Encased in a protective TPU rand, the synthetic upper is waterproof (up to the rand) and incredibly durable.

We wore them on a late winter 50-miler where the gravel turned to mud, and the mud turned to ice. We rode, we grunted, and we walked a lot. At the end of the day, the shoes were caked in mud, but our feet remained dry. Back home, we rinsed them under the hose, and they washed out looking unscathed.

Flip them over, and the sole is an ideal combination of durability and protection. The rubber sole wraps the entire bottom of the shoe. The traction is soft enough to walk in, but after two years of abuse, they still show little evidence of the thousands of miles we’ve put on ours.

At $264, this is an upper- to middle-class shoe. You can easily drop $400 on carbon platform racing shoes, but they won’t last as long as Quocs.

  • Materials: TPU, synthetic upper, rubber outsole
  • Weight per pair: 1 lb. 8 oz.
  • Compatibility: SPD-cleat compatible
  • Closure: Laces
  • Price: $264

Check Price at Quoc

Best Budget: Fi’zi:k Terra Powerstrap X4

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The Terra Powerstrap X4 ($150) is a wonderfully comfortable shoe that keeps the price low by securing the foot with two fat hook-and-loop straps. The lower strap zigzags over the toes, with the second closing over the foot’s instep. With both straps released, the tongue opens wide, making it easy to pull over the feet.

Velcro straps can often show early signs of wear and tear and can easily get caked in mud. But after two years of abuse, the edges are still going strong.

The upper is made from a durable synthetic material with a light TPU bumper inconspicuously protecting the toe. What the shoe gains in durability, it takes back in breathability. While the material is perforated, these shoes run warmer and are best for spring and fall rides.

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Fit-wise, the Terras are the widest of the bunch we tested and pedal toe-to-toe with the Quocs. We almost awarded this shoe our best overall shoe for the fit alone. However, we found the minimal lugs (and no lugs under the toes where the toe flexes) lacked traction for any significant hike-a-bike.

There’s some flex in the toes that make them walkable on tame terrain, but the narrow tread platform can feel a little tippy underfoot. But for dry gravel and tarmac, we’d highly recommend these shoes.

  • Materials: TPU, synthetic upper, nylon composite sole
  • Weight per pair: 1 lb. 6 oz.
  • Compatibility: 2-bolt cleat compatible
  • Closure: Velcro straps
  • Price: $150

Check Price at BackcountryCheck Price at Amazon

Best BOA System: Rapha Explore Powerweave

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BOA systems make it quick and easy to get in and out of a cycling shoe. To secure the foot, you spin the dial, and the laces cinch tight around the foot. To release the shoe, you pull the knob, and the BOA uncoils. It’s quick, easy, and bombproof.

While many companies use a single-dial system to “lace” the shoe shut, Rapha’s Explore Powerweave ($355) uses BOA’s incremental Li2 dial platform. The two-dial system creates a custom fit around both the forefoot and instep. There are other shoes that use two dials, but none of them open up as wide as Raphas, and none are more comfortable.

Instead of a poly cable, Rapha uses a fiber yarn in the lace system. The TX4 lacing is woven with Dyneema, which is reputedly stronger than steel. We haven’t seen any durability issues, but it’s noticeably different — if not more pliable — and easier to use.

At the core of the Powerweave is the 3D woven upper. The shoe is incredibly breathable, but we did experience some early fraying in the weave after a few short walks in the bush. They also seem to collect more dust than other shoes we tested. But we’d highly recommend these for the rider who stays in the saddle and doesn’t have to do a lot of hike-a-bike.

Rapha is known for high-end, expensive kits. The Powerweave steps in line to the Rapha ethos. But you buy into Rapha’s attention to detail, like titanium hardware, a carbon plate, and that subtle but undeniable Rapha swagger. If form and function are equally important, give the Powerweave a look.

  • Materials: 3D knit synthetic upper with TPU reinforcement, carbon sole
  • Weight per pair: 1 lb. 9 oz.
  • Compatibility: 2-bolt cleat compatible
  • Closure: Two BOA Li2 Dials, Dyneema lacing
  • Price: $355

Check Price at Rapha

Best Shoe for Hot Feet: Pearl Izumi Gravel X

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Riding in hot weather? A 3D knit upper in Pearl Izumi’s Gravel X ($190-$250) allows air to flow through the shoe, keeping the feet feeling fresh and cool. The knit also has an uncanny ability to repel even the finest dust. After a week of testing bikes in southeast Utah’s moondust landscape, nearly all our shoes needed a good scrub down. The Pearls, though, dusted off and packed up clean.

Maybe more road than mountain for those that demand the absolute stiffest shoe, the Gravel X is a great choice — the full carbon sole is incredibly rigid, transferring power directly through the bike to the ground. To assist with walking, the outsole has a reasonable rocker for getting around off the bike.

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Photo credit: Remi McManus.

While the lugs are deep, there aren’t many of them, and ours showed some early wear after a few rides and walks. But overall, we found the Gravel X more durable than Rapha’s knit shoe. A protective TPU rand wraps around the lower shoe. This renders them waterproof (up to the rand) and beefs up protection off the bike.

The shoe closes around the foot with a BOA’s single IP1 dial. It doesn’t fine-tune as well as BOA’s twin lace system. It doesn’t open as wide, either — and we found the tongue can slip a bit under the toes — but the Gravel X has a nice pull loop at the heel that makes them easy to slip on.

  • Materials: TPU, 3D knit upper, carbon sole
  • Weight: Unverified
  • Compatibility: 2-bolt SPD cleat compatible
  • Closure: Single BOA IP1 Dial
  • Price: $250

Check Price at BackcountryCheck Price at Pearl Izumi

Best Adventure Cycling Shoe: Giro Sector — Men’s & Women’s

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Billed more as a high-end mountain bike shoe, the Giro Sector ($225) is a combination of durability and ventilation. By itself, the mesh upper is the most breathable material we tested. Extensive TPU bands overlay the mesh, reducing the overall breathability. But you won’t find a better combination of the two.

A softer rubber compound forms a full rubber sole. It’s not as hard as Pearl’s and not as luggy, but we found it more durable. It grips better on hard rock and feels more comfortable underfoot while walking. The outsole rides over a stiff carbon sole with a touch of flex in the toes.

The shoe closes around the foot with a twin BOA L6 system that opens wide and fine-tunes the fit. The volume runs a little wider than Pearl’s Gravel X, which we appreciate on longer rides. This also makes sizing feel more true to size.

If your rides trend more toward the adventurous, give the Sector a look.

  • Materials: TPU, mesh upper, carbon composite sole
  • Weight per pair: 1 lb. 8 oz.
  • Compatibility: 2-bolt cleat compatible
  • Closure: Twin BOA L6 Dials
  • Price: $225

Check Men’s Price at REICheck Women’s Price at REI

Sunday Best: Dromarti Sportivo Touring

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Yes, these are classic, hand-made, full-grain leather, lace-up cycling shoes. And they are unabashedly delightful.

Easily the most comfortable shoe we tested, Dromarti’s Touring shoes ($330) have a natural fit that only gets better over time as they conform to the shape of your foot. The leather is perforated with Dromarti’s three-circle logo. It’s subtle but functional and ventilates well on hot summer rides. On the downside, these open sections tend to let dust and fine pebbles creep into the shoe.

These aren’t going to be a race-purist, carbon-stiff shoe. The upper rides over a springier last that yields more flexibility out of the saddle than most cycling shoes. The rubber lugs are soft but durable and offer full protection underfoot. They look equally good on the road or gravel, and you won’t find a better shoe to pair with your post-ride espresso.

Being full leather, they do require more care than other shoes. You’ll need to carve out time to brush them off and wipe them down with a damp cloth, followed by occasional leather conditioning.

A little obsessive elbow grease up front will ensure that these shoes have a long life. But you get the bonus of that aged leather patina that showcases your life behind bars.

We jokingly call these shoes our Sunday best, but they are really ideal for everything from casual rides in the city to long tours where speed isn’t the goal.

  • Materials: Full-grain leather, leather lining, waxed cotton
  • Weight per pair: 1 lb. 12 oz.
  • Compatibility: SPD-cleat compatible
  • Closure: Laces
  • Price: $330

Check Price at Dromarti

Best Race-Day Shoe: Shimano RX8 — Men’s & Women’s

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One of the lightest shoes we tested, Shimano’s RX8 ($250), at 265 g per shoe, has a killer price-to-weight ratio. It’s 15 g heavier than the next lightest shoe and $200 cheaper. It fits like a glove, and it’s comfortable enough for hike-a-bike.

The Shimanos are a staff favorite and our go-to shoe for fast rides where stiffness and weight are the priority. They strike a strong balance of comfort, stiffness, performance, and durability. Now if we could only get Shimano to put a second BOA over the toes — but that would come at a weight penalty, of course.

  • Materials: Synthetic leather and mesh upper, TPU
  • Weight per pair: 1 lb. 2 oz.
  • Compatibility: 2-bolt, SPD, and Crankbrothers compatible
  • Closure: BOA dial and Velcro
  • Price: $250

Check Men’s Price at REICheck Women’s Price at Backcountry

Best of the Rest

Louis Garneau Baryum

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Another comfortable gravel shoe we tested, Garneau’s Baryum ($233 and up) is a fine implementation of BOA’s dual-lace systems. The microadjustments make dialing in your fit simple and easy.

A carbon and rubber outsole provides plenty of power transfer and stiffness. And the heel and toe sections of the shoe have extra protection for durability.

We found the Baryum a solid choice for everything from long gravel century rides to quick evening spins. And as a bonus, these shoes are comfortable and easy to walk in while off of the bike as well.

  • Materials: Synthetic upper, carbon composite sole
  • Weight per pair: 1 lb. 6 oz.
  • Compatibility: 2-bolt cleat compatible
  • Closure: Two BOA L6 Dials
  • Price: $310

Check Price at AmazonCheck Price at Moosejaw

Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Gravel Shoe

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Do You Need a Gravel Shoe?

Gravel riding borrows aerodynamics, stiffness, and weight savings from the road and pulls in durability and traction from the mountain. Because we all end up pushing the bike at some point, they should be comfortable enough to walk in without slipping around on loose terrain.

If money is tight and you already have a pair, mountain bike shoes are a great start. They may not be as light or as stiff, but they offer the knuckle lug traction for hike-a-bike sections (something a pure road shoe does not).

If you ride more roads than mountains, you can split the difference and get away with one shoe for both gravel and road. If you go that route, we’d recommend looking at a stiffer model, like the Shimano RX8 or Pearl Izumi Gravel-X.

Shoe Fit

A well-fitting shoe will be snug — but not tight — with some room for the toes to wiggle. The heel should feel locked in the shoe’s counter and shouldn’t slip up or down.

Stiffness

Linking the rider to the bike, a proper gravel shoe is stiff enough to transfer force from the legs to the road, is durable enough to endure the rough terrain, and has lugs for traction.

The shoe’s stiffness comes from the footplate. Higher-end models often use carbon. It’s light, resilient, and expensive. Less pricey shoes will use a durable nylon or fiberglass plate.

Some shoes, like Rapha’s Explore Powerweave, run the composite footplate just short of the toes, giving the shoe a little flex in the toebox. A little extra mobility in the toes makes it easier to walk around in the shoes.

Other shoes, like Pearl Izumi’s Gravel X, put a rocker in the outsole, allowing you to “roll” your gait in a fully rigid shoe.

Lugs

Put enough time in the saddle, and you’ll put more than enough time out of the saddle. Gravel riding can be equal parts pushing and pedaling. A solid gravel shoe should not only be comfortable to walk in but also have enough traction to keep up the momentum.

We found two general kinds of lugs — a harder lug compound and a softer lug compound. For rides that walk over hard rock, we prefer the outsole with softer rubber lugs. They add a touch of cushion and tend to hold up better over time.

For mud and muck, we appreciated the sharper edge retention found on a harder rubber lug. They bite in better, but they tend to flake off sooner.

If your rides don’t pull you out of the saddle, you have a lot more leeway with traction. Low-traction shoes will be lighter (by a few grams) and still be comfortable enough to walk around the parking lot or coffee shop.

Weather Resistance

Outside a fully GORE-TEX shoe, no gravel shoe will be entirely waterproof. Full TPU rands, like those found on the Quocs and Pearls, create a waterproof bathtub effect, sealing to the shoe’s underside. Of course, water can still ingress over the top of the shoe. But it’s enough protection from road spray and puddle jumping.

But you may not really want a fully weatherproof shoe. Hot feet can swell and lead to blisters. Unless it’s nuking full winter, we almost always prefer a shoe that breathes over a waterproof shoe. And if the weather takes a turn, we throw on a toe cover or overshoe. It adds more flexibility at a better price point.

While a select few brands still construct shoes out of leather, the most weather-resistant shoes use a synthetic leather upper. They clean up well and are easy to maintain.

The most breathable shoes have uppers constructed from knit or a 3D mesh. Like air conditioning for the feet, air flows through the material.

For extra durability, thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) bands wrap over or under the mesh. This adds protection and structural support, and it blocks some elements like water and wind. But it also slows down the heat transfer away from the foot.

Protection and breathability are always a tradeoff, but we almost always look for a shoe that has some degree of TPU. Gravel riding is rough on shoes, and we like the protection it offers.

Closure System

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Shoes generally close with one or two of four systems. Most modern shoes use a single- or double-dial closure system. You push the knob shut and spin the dial to get a custom fit around the foot. To release it, you pull the knob, and the spool unravels.

  • BOA seems to dominate the dial market and has come a long way. In our experience, it’s a bombproof system that allows you microadjust the fit over the ride. Our favorite shoes use a twin BOA system, allowing you to further tweak the fit over both the toes and instep.
  • Hook-and-loop straps use Velcro over the foot. Many shoes will use a combination of Velcro over the toes and a BOA system over the instep. This combination saves a few grams (and some pocket change) but doesn’t lock the foot in as well as a twin BOA system. And in muddy conditions, crud can get trapped in the hook and loop, reducing their effectiveness.
  • Good ol’ fashioned shoelaces are making a comeback. They are light, cheap, replaceable, and winning on the fashion front. The best applications will often vary the eyelets so you can lock a section and loosen another. This allows a custom fit over different parts of the foot.

We didn’t review any shoes that use this, but it’s worth sharing that a few older models use a ratchet system that incrementally tightens a strap over the foot, like a ski boot buckle.

Laces and BOAs can fine-tune a fit, but it’s always best to start with a shoe that generally fits well. If you’re ordering online, be sure to look at sizing guides. Some Euro sizing puts shoes in between U.S. sizes (if that’s the case for you, it’s always better to size up). And some brands have wide sizes.

In fact, some riders we know (I’m talking to you, Josh Kato) buy one or two sizes too large to allow the foot room to swell over repeated long days in the saddle.


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