Gravel cycling gear can be a rather divisive topic. Many mock the claim that we need “gravel-specific” anything.
The logic behind this incredulity about gear marketed specifically for gravel cycling stems from the fact that gravel riding, as a cycling discipline that combines elements of road and off-road cycling, can be perfectly fine with the gear designed for road and mountain biking, especially gear made for the off-road end of the spectrum.
It is very difficult to argue with that logic when you look at gravel cycling shoes on the market today. There is little that differentiates a good gravel shoe from its sibling by the same company in the XC mountain bike category.
The criteria that make a good XC shoe are nearly the same as those that define a good gravel shoe. Cycling industry marketing can be a bit silly.
That being said, there is a flipside to that argument. Gravel cycling is one of the fastest-growing categories in cycling, and not everything that falls under the broad heading of “gravel cycling” is the same. There is a spectrum of sub-categories in which niche products actually start to make sense.
When it comes to shoes, the ultra-stiff, superlight shoe that will be fantastic for gravel racing will not be great when it comes to, say, off-road bikepacking or adventure cycling. As gravel evolves, so do the gear requirements of those sub-disciplines and disparate riding scenarios.
Once we look past the marketing fluff, we start seeing the small but tangible innovations that start to define the gear developed for the actual demands of each of those riding styles.
With that in mind, we can see why it is tricky to define what makes a good gravel cycling shoe.
In this article, we look at some of the best gravel shoe offerings on the market today, and we consider the different characteristics that make each shoe suited to a particular riding.
Top 5 gravel bike shoes on the market
1. Giro Ventana: The trail rider’s gravel shoe
We have previously reviewed the Giro Ventana.
Giro does not label the Ventana a gravel shoe (it is marketed as an all-mountain/trail shoe), but it has a set of features that make it fantastic for the mountain biker who’s starting to dabble in gravel.
The Ventana has just the right of stiffness for casual gravel grinding while also being supremely comfortable in hike-a-bike situations (which are aplenty when going on exploratory rides where you can suddenly find your bike out of its depths due to trail conditions).
Giro offers the Ventana in two closure types: a single BOA LP6 dial with toe Velcro strap, or the “Fastlace” version with a quick-cinch lace system.
If you want one pair of shoes for riding singletrack on your mountain bike then going gravel grinding the next day, the Ventana should be high on your shortlist.
2. Pearl Izumi Gravel X Shoes: Best knit upper gravel shoes
Knit uppers have been popular in the cycling shoe scene for a few years now, and it is a trend that seems to have stuck (so far). The knit fabric not only looks good but is also highly breathable.
The Pearl Izumi Gravel X combines the styling of a road shoe with a knit upper material (which Pearl Izumi calls 3D Knit) with the durable lower, BOA closure, and carbon sole of your typical XC racing shoes.
The result is a shoe that looks great in the forest green and yellow colorway, performs well on mixed terrain rides and offers a very light and breathable upper for those warm summer rides.
One thing to note is that fit seems to be on the narrow side, so if you specifically need gravel shoes with a wide fit, you might want to continue reading for a gravel shoe recommendation with a wide fit option.
3. Shimano XC702 Wide: Best wide fit performance gravel shoes
The XC702 from Shimano is a fairly new offering specifically aimed at the gravel market. A closer look at these shoes will reveal that they carry the familiar DNA of Shimano’s excellent XC7 and XC9 line of mountain biking shoes (we have previously reviewed the Shimano XC7, which we love).
The usual set of performance-oriented features are present: Dual BOA closure dials, Shimano’s Dynalast footbed for improved pedaling efficiency, carbon-reinforced midsole, and an abrasion-resistant upper with a grippy rubber tread for those off-the-bike moments.
The reason we include them on this list, though, is that the Shimano XC702 are one of the few gravel-specific shoes on the market that offer both regular and wide fit.
Combine the performance of a top-level shoe with wide fit availability and a relatively affordable price and we think we have one of the winners in the performance gravel shoes category in 2022!
4. Fizik X5 Terra: Best affordable performance gravel shoes
The Italians sure know how to design great-looking cycling shoes. Aesthetics are certainly very subjective, but I don’t think I have ever seen an ugly shoe from Fizik. The X5 Terra comes in a few colorways, but my favorite is the military green/tangy green/black combo. The X5 Terra combines some of the features found on higher-priced shoes in an affordable package that looks as good as it performs.
Breathability is enhanced by the laser-perforated Microtex upper, and a composite carbon sole keeps things stiff enough for efficient power transfer. Aggressive, grippy sole tread ensures that when you have to dismount and walk it won’t feel like you’re doing so in a pair of clogs!
5. Bontrager GR2 gravel shoes: Best lace-up gravel shoe
So far most of the shoes included in this list featured BOA-style closure. There is a reason BOA dials are so popular. They just work so well. They are not without their downsides, however.
The mechanism can clog up with mud or debris which makes it difficult to operate. Also, some riders do not like how the stiff closure wires feel on their upper foot. This is why good old laces still have their place.
The Bontrager GR2 is a great gravel shoe with a traditional lace-up closure. A stiffness index of 6 on a scale of 14 indicates that they are in that happy middle ground of stiffness that balances comfort with performance. Rubberized coating on heel and toe areas provides abrasion resistance while Tachyon rubber outsoles provide grip off the bike.
Gravel shoe buyers guide
If you already own road or XC cycling shoes, are gravel shoes necessary?
The answer is: it depends. If you want to do some gravel racing, your XC mountain bike shoe can probably pull double duty on the gravel bike.
If you want to go adventure riding and bikepacking with anticipated stretches of hike-a-bike, perhaps that uber-stiff XC shoe will not be the best choice.
If all you have is road shoes with 3-bolt cleats and no real walking tread then investing in a good pair of gravel shoes will certainly be better suited for your off-road outings.
How stiff is stiff enough?
Not everyone needs carbon soles. For casual gravel riding, route exploration, and weekend dirt road excursions, shoes with a softer and more walkable sole would perform better in those scenarios.
If you plan on racing your gravel bike, a stiffer shoe will ensure that more of your power at the pedals results in forward motion instead of being lost to a mushy sole. Look for the manufacturer’s “stiffness index” which is a quick way to figure out what to expect when it comes to the relative stiffness of the shoes you’re looking to buy.
Shoe fit: standard, wide, or high-volume?
Shoe fit is a very personal thing. Many online retailers will offer a convenient return system whereby you can ensure you purchase the right size. While size charts are useful, they don’t always give a very accurate indication of how the shoe will feel once your feet are in it.
If you need a wide fit or a high-volume shoe, look for manufacturers that offer these options. Keep in mind that wide fit is not the same as high-volume.
Wide fit often refers to an additional room in the forefoot area with standard sizing along the rest of the shoe.
High-volume (aka extra-volume) refers to more material added to the whole upper of the shoe, making for an overall roomier fit.
Closure mechanisms: Boa vs lace vs hook-and-loop
A quick glance at the mid-tier to high-end cycling shoe market will show that BOA dials dominate as the closure system of choice. The level of convenience and on-the-fly adjustment offered by BOA dials is unmatched by other closure systems.
That doesn’t mean that other closure systems are obsolete. Lace-ups look great and are very comfortable. Giro, among others, offers many lace-up gravel shoes.
There are other factors that affect the choice of the ideal gravel shoes for you, including weather-resistance features and special insoles for enhanced comfort.
In this article, we offered a non-exhaustive list of what we believe are some of the best gravel shoes on the market in 2022.
With so many options on the market remember: don’t get caught in paralysis by analysis, and pick a pair that best matches your needs and go ride your bike!
Hani Morsi is a seasoned multi-discipline cyclist with a particular liking for mountain and gravel bikes. Hani is also a mountain bike coach, trail builder and experienced bike mechanic.