Can I Use MTB Shoes for Road Cycling? Everything You Need To Know

Can I Use MTB Shoes for Road Cycling

I’m back to nerd out about all things cycling shoes. Lately, I’ve been getting questions about using mountain bike shoes on road bikes.

I know, I know, we’re supposed to have special shoes for every discipline!

But gear can get expensive, so making what you have work across different rides makes sense.

In this article, we’ll break down if it’s okay to use MTB shoes for road cycling.

I’ll compare the key differences and what to look out for so you can make the right choice for your specific needs.

Whether you’re just starting out or looking to get more versatility from your existing kicks,

let’s dive in!

Can I Use MTB Shoes for Road Cycling?

The quick answer is yes, you can use mountain bike shoes on a road bike in many cases.

MTB shoes often have recessed cleats and some walkability for when you’re off the bike.

This makes them practical for riding on paved roads too.

However, there are a few compromises vs proper road cycling shoes to consider:

  • Less power and stiffness for sprints or climbs
  • Potentially more weight than road shoes
  • Often lack ventilation for hot road riding
  • Grippy tread can get damaged on asphalt

So while it’s possible to use MTB shoes on a road bike, especially for casual riding, just know they aren’t optimized for road-specific performance.

Let’s explore a bit deeper…

Beginner or Recreational Use

For beginners or recreational riders just looking for a versatile pair of shoes to ride both on and off-road, MTB shoes are generally fine to use with your road bike.

The recessed cleats mean you can still walk properly when you’re off the bike.

No scary scuffing or clacking!

This makes them practical for riding around the neighborhood or cruising along the local bike path where you may be on and off the bike frequently.

And most entry-level MTB shoes from brands like Shimano or Pearl Izumi have firm plastic or composite soles.

So you’ll still get a reasonably efficient power transfer when pedaling on pavement.

I rode my first century wearing a pair of basic MTB shoes and had no major issues.

The slightly reduced stiffness wasn’t really noticeable to me as a newer rider at the time.

Just be prepared for slightly less snappy accelerations compared to full-on road shoes.

And the extra weight versus road-specific kicks may fatigue your legs quicker into a long ride.

But for anything under 50 miles or riding where you need to walk around the bike frequently, MTB shoes can work just fine on a road bike in a pinch.

Just bring extra socks in case your feet get a bit sweaty!

Performance Road Cycling

Once you get into high-mileage road riding, racing, or training where you really need to eke out every last bit of power efficiency, that’s when you’ll want to invest in dedicated road cycling shoes.

The incredibly stiff carbon fiber or composite soles translate every ounce of leg strength into forward momentum when sprinting or climbing.

The difference in snap and power transfer is immediately noticeable.

Ventilation is also optimized in road shoes to keep your feet cool and dry across hundreds of miles in the heat.

Nothing ruins a long ride faster than swampy feet!

And road-specific shoes are engineered to be as featherlight as possible.

Less weight equals less fatigue over the course of a tough century ride or race.

For cyclists logging big miles or pushing their limits on road bikes, sticking with proper road cycling shoes is recommended.

But for recreational rides or commuting, MTB shoes can work in many cases.

Cleat Considerations

The type of cleats used can also impact performance when using MTB shoes on a road bike.

Let’s break it down:

  • SPD Cleats: These are the two-bolt style used on most mountain bike shoes and pedals.
    They provide a firm attachment and decent power transfer when pedaling, but the smaller size limits maximum stiffness. Walkability is decent.
  • Look Delta or SPD-SL Cleats: The three-bolt cleats used on road shoes and pedals.
    The large surface area provides incredible stiffness for acceleration and climbing power.
    But walkability is extremely limited.
  • Combination Cleats: There are adapters that allow swapping between two-bolt SPD and three-bolt road cleats on select shoes.
    This provides versatility to choose the right cleat for specific rides.

When using MTB shoes on a road bike, pairing them with road-specific cleats can help maximize power transfer and limit flex compared to smaller SPD cleats.

But walkability will be hampered. Consider your priorities or try adapters.

Shoe Stiffness and Materials

The overall rigidity and materials used in the sole are other factors affecting performance with MTB shoes on road bikes:

  • Carbon fiber soles offer the most stiffness and efficient power transfer.
    But the cost is higher.
  • Nylon or fiberglass-reinforced soles are moderately stiff.
    Great for recreational road use.
  • Injected nylon or plastic composite soles are the least stiff but still provide decent rigidity for casual riding.
  • Soles with shanks or plates focused on torsional stiffness help limit foot rocking and hot spots when pedaling.

For road use, seek out MTB shoes with the stiffest-rated sole in your budget.

Carbon fiber offers the best performance but costs more.

Firm composites or nylon can also work well for recreational rides.

Avoid shoes with excessive flex that allow too much foot movement while pedaling at high cadences on pavement.

This can sap power and lead to fatigue.

Tread Wear and Grip

Another consideration with MTB shoes on road bikes is potential tread wear and lack of grip:

  • The grippy, textured tread on MTB shoes provides traction when hiking or carrying your bike.
    But pedaling on asphalt can quickly wear down and flatten the lugs.
  • Some MTB shoe treads will also feel squirrelly and insecure when sprinting or climbing out of the saddle on a smooth road surface.
    Too much flex and twisting can happen.
  • Look for MTB shoes promote tread that is more flush with the sole or durable rubber compounds that resist wear on pavement.
  • Partial tread only under the toe and heel preserves some walkability while leaving the main pedaling section smooth.
  • Adding protective rubber covers can shield the tread from abrasion on rough roads.

While less of an issue for casual riding, excessive tread wear and grip limitations are worth keeping in mind if you plan to use MTB shoes for high-mileage road riding.

Weight and Ventilation

Let’s also compare a few other factors:

  • Weight – MTB shoes are designed to be durable for rugged terrain.
    The reinforced materials and tread add weight compared to feathery road shoes.
    Those extra grams can make a difference on long climbs.
  • Ventilation – MTB shoes may feel a bit warmer on open, hot roads without the mesh panels and perforations of well-ventilated road kicks.
    Plan accordingly and use lightweight socks.

For racing and performance applications, the weight savings and cooling properties of true road shoes become very meaningful.

But for general fitness and recreation, MTB shoes hold their own.

Are Mountain Bike Shoes Different from Road Bike Shoes?

Yes, there are some important differences between MTB shoes and road bike shoes.

The main differences include:

  • The Cleats – MTB shoes use two-bolt SPD style cleats that are recessed into the sole.
    Road shoes use exposed three-bolt cleats for a bigger contact patch.
  • Tread – MTB shoes have grippy tread for hiking trails.
    Road shoes are completely smooth to shed mud and maximize stiffness.
  • Stiffness – Road shoes soles are extremely rigid from toe to heel.
    MTB shoes have a bit more flex for walking.
  • Weight – Road shoes are engineered to be as light as possible. MTB shoes are a bit heavier for durability and traction.
  • Ventilation – Road shoes have lots of mesh and perforations to manage airflow. MTB shoes tend to run a bit hotter on long climbs.

So in summary, the main difference comes down to optimizing either for outright pedaling efficiency and power transfer (road shoes) or off-bike traction and walkability (MTB shoes).

It’s a tradeoff either way depending on your priorities as a rider.

Neither is inherently “better” – just different tools for different needs.

Pedal Interface and Cleats

Drilling down on pedal interface a bit deeper:

Road shoes connect to the pedals via 3-bolt cleats from Shimano (SPD-SL), Look, or Speedplay systems.

The large cleats maximize stiffness by spreading force over more area.

MTB shoes use smaller 2-bolt cleats, usually Shimano SPD style.

These offer enough stiffness for trail riding but sacrifice some power transfer compared to bigger 3-bolt road cleats.

The 3-bolt road cleats extend out from the shoe sole and are not designed for walking.

Meanwhile, 2-bolt MTB cleats recess into the shoes and have rubber tread around them for hike-a-bike sections.

So if maximizing absolute stiffness and pedaling efficiency is critical, stick with road-specific 3-bolt cleats and pedals.

But if you need to walk at times, MTB cleats offer a nice compromise while still providing decent power transfer.

Outsole Shapes and Stiffness

Road shoe soles are narrower and smaller to minimize weight.

They also have lengthwise stiffness ribs and minimal flex grooves for power transfer.

MTB shoe soles are a bit wider and thicker for impact protection on rough terrain.

The soles allow some lateral and torsional flex for comfort over varied trail surfaces.

Carbon fiber soles offer the highest stiffness-to-weight ratio.

High-end MTB and road shoes may both utilize carbon fiber, but MTB carbon soles retain a bit more flex.

Midsole shanks and plates add rigidity while allowing some forefoot flex for walking.

MTB shoes emphasize this more than pure road shoes.

So road shoe soles focus purely on optimizing power transfer and pedaling stiffness.

MTB designs strike a balance with enough rigidity for pedaling while allowing off-bike walking comfort.

Upper Materials and Fit

Road shoe uppers use thin, supple materials like leather or synthetic mesh for a sleek, aerodynamic profile around the foot.

MTB shoe uppers integrate protective synthetic layers and bumpers to shield from rock strikes and trail debris.

This adds durability but increases weight.

MTB shoe position strap closures and lace eyelets to avoid snags on vegetation.

Road shoes have more exposed retention layouts.

MTB shoes often have a wider, high volume fit to accommodate feet swelling over long rides.

Road shoes have a more precise, snug performance fit.

The uppers of MTB shoes add toughness while road shoe uppers focus on lightweight breathability and comfort.

Both dial in fit and function for their respective disciplines.

What is The Difference Between Road and Mountain Bike Cleats?

Let’s quickly zoom in on the different cleat systems commonly used with road versus mountain bike shoes:

Road Bike Cleats:

  • 3-bolt SPD-SL, Look Classic, or Look Keo styles
  • Large cleat area for maximum power transfer
  • Cleats are exposed and can be positioned for fit/alignment
  • Less mud-shedding ability
  • Very stiff and flat for ideal cornering stability on pavement

Mountain Bike Cleats:

  • Primarily 2-bolt SPD style
  • Smaller cleats to save weight and provide traction when off the bike
  • Recessed into the shoe sole so you can walk normally
  • Allows moderate flex while pedaling for comfort
  • Some rounded corners for smoother trail engagement

The 3-bolt road cleats give a wide, stable platform for max speed and efficiency during road riding and climbing.

The clearance is lower and engagement more precise.

But the 2-bolt MTB cleats offer a nice blend of on-bike power transmission and off-bike walkability – ideal for rides that involve hiking or portaging.

The flex and shape is more forgiving over rough terrain.

So consider which style of riding you want to emphasize as you choose cleat systems.

Most offer adapters to fit either 2 or 3-bolt styles on a given shoe anyway.

Floating Cleats

  • Many road cleats like Look Keo have a “floating” design that allows the foot to align naturally throughout the pedal stroke, preventing knee strain.
  • MTB SPD cleats are fixed with no float, but the recess and flex of the sole allows the foot to naturally align as needed.

So both styles permit some natural rotational adjustment during pedaling.

Float for road. Recess and flex for MTB. The result is similar.

Engagement and Release

  • Road cleats snap firmly into place with precision and have higher tension settings for a locked-in feel. Release angles are typically side-to-side.
  • MTB cleats engage and release more smoothly in all directions to prevent jamming on rough terrain. The tension is lower for easier foot removal if needed.

Road pedal tension caters optimally for power transfer and efficiency.

MTB pedal tension focuses more on flexibility for rough riding conditions.

Cornering Clearance

  • Road cleats sit proud of the sole and may contact the ground during aggressive cornering lean. Picking pedal systems with more clearance can help.
  • MTB cleats recess into the sole enough that ground contact is rarely an issue, even when cornering hard off-road.

So MTB shoes retain better cornering clearance if you ride in a spirited manner.

Road shoes may require some cornering technique adjustments depending on pedal system.

Can I Put SPD Cleats on Road Shoes?

Yep, you can install SPD cleats onto the 3-bolt mounting holes found on most road bike shoes.

This allows you to use MTB pedals like Shimano SPD pedals with your road shoes.

Some riders do this so they only need one pair of shoes when riding both a road and a mountain bike.

The recessed SPD cleats on road shoes also provide a bit of walkability around the coffee shop or office.

Just keep in mind that the SPD cleats may protrude out of the sole a bit more than with recessed MTB shoes.

And you’ll lose a bit of power transfer since SPDs are smaller vs 3-bolt road cleats.

But overall it’s a great way to maximize versatility if you are willing to compromise slightly on either the road or MTB side.

One less thing to buy – score!

Here are some tips if going this route:

  • Use Shimano road shoes which already have the recess molded in for SPD cleats.
  • Add foam filler pads under the cleats to increase the recess depth if needed.
  • Consider sanding down the corner edges of the SPD cleats to reduce protrusion.
  • Pair with pedals that have moderate float and tension to allow natural foot alignment.

With some tweaking to optimize the fit, mixing SPD cleats on road shoes can be a convenient way to bounce between bike disciplines without changing shoes.

Give it a go!

Final Thoughts

Well there you have it – my complete download on mixing MTB and road bike shoes and cleats.

The right choice depends on your riding style and priorities.

Racers will prefer dedicated road shoes and cleats for maximum stiffness and power transfer.

But recreational and off-road riders can probably get by just fine with a quality pair of MTB shoes for both environments.

If you do choose to go the versatile route with MTB shoes, look for models with slick treads and very stiff soles to optimize your pedaling efficiency on the pavement.

And don’t be afraid to swap cleats around for the ideal blend of pedaling platform and off-bike walkability you need.

Thanks for tuning in as always.

Until next time, enjoy your rides, and feel free to get in touch with any other cycling shoe geekery you want me to cover!

Ride on!

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Joey B. Ramsey
Passionate cyclist, father, and blogger.
I've been riding bikes since childhood and enjoy sharing my knowledge with fellow cycling enthusiasts.
My diverse bike collection allows me to write reviews and advice based on personal experience with various bikes and accessories.
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