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Roundup: Flats for Life

It’s never been a better time for sticky rubber


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When I think of a flat pedal shoe, I think about moon boots. Not the ones that left footprints on the actual moon. Those had terrible lateral pin retention. I mean the big, chunky, fake leather, sofa-cushioned, moon boots that were the original Five Ten Impacts. When push came to shove and you needed a burly pair of kicks for serious riding, those were probably—no, definitely—the best option on the market. You could essentially kick rotten stumps out of the ground, land old-school drops-to-flat, and come away without a single broken metatarsal. 

fi’zi:k, Ride Concepts, Giro and Five Ten.

Love them or hate them (probably both at the same time), the flat pedal shoe market has historically been pretty limited compared to the wide world of clipless options. Sure, there have been myriad new offerings lately, but if I’m honest, few, if any, stack up to what Five Ten has been doing for years. Usually, grip is the main shortfall; I have not found a shoe that truly goes toe to toe with Five Ten in terms of dynamic, on-bike grip. Some shoes might feel just as grippy in a parking lot test, but bouncing down the trail, they just can’t hang. Do some riders want less grip? Absolutely, but I would posit that the vast majority want maximum stick because, well, flat pedals are really, really sharp.

With all that in mind, 2021 has been an astounding year in the flat pedal department. There are finally brands offering rubber designs that actually compete with Five Ten in terms of grip, and there’s nearly enough variety to rival that of the clipless-shoe market. 

Guess who?

Collected here is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a representative list. One that effectively spans the full range of riding disciplines applicable to flat pedals, and thus are my personal go-to whenever I’m indulging in one of those specific disciplines. We’re talking shoes good for everything from deep winter puddle bashing to mid-summer hike-a-biking to pump track laps and, of course, your garden variety trail and enduro riding. Missing here are more niche focuses like ultra-cold weather boots and some of the dirt jump/slope-style-focused options—I don’t partake in or feel qualified to review the latter options, and I use Xtratuf fishing boots for the snow.  

We’ll dive in with the lighter-duty options and work our way up to the big guns. 

fi’zi:k’ Gravita Versor | $140

Pros:

  • Stylish
  • Light and very comfortable
  • Stiff enough for XC/trail riding

Cons:

  • Not as much grip as other shoes
  • Not as stiff as burlier shoes for hard enduro/park riding

Of all the names that I was expecting to put on this list, fi’zi:k was not one of them. Historically more of a performance road and XC shoe brand, I was quite intrigued when the Versor showed up on my doorstep earlier this year. Opening the box, I found a very contemporary looking, yet fi’zi:k-ly styled, flat shoe. Made from a light-yet-tough ripstop fabric for the uppers and Vibram’s Megagrip takes up the pin-hugging duties. Of course, the offset lacing is immediately noticeable, but as it turns out, only in style and not in fit and feel.

A few of the shoes on this list, actually most of them, required a break-in period for things to start feeling just right. The Versor was the exception—right out of the box it was supple-yet-form-fitting, feeling snug enough to serve its pedaling duties without being tight anywhere through the typical range of motion. The offset lacing might have something to do with this, as the top of my foot usually gets squashed by thick tongues and/or tight lacing. On the Versor, I felt like I could actually get things tighter without feeling like anything was getting compressed, kind of like a compression sock versus a normal sock. 

The Gravita Versor feels light on the foot, but has good toe box protection for trail and light enduro riding.

On another comfort note, the Versor’s lightish uppers make for a fairly breathable, heat-shedding shoe as well. They aren’t as good as the Five Ten Trailcross, but then again the Versor feels more protective as well for general duty trail-bike and light enduro applications. There’s a PU-laminated and reinforced top cap, helping both to ward off toe strikes and wet grass. There’s also a raised inner ankle that prevents the worst from cranks smashes. I would be very interested in a high-top option for additional protection—and fi’zi:k actually makes a high-top option as well.

The offset laces are distinctive, and quiet comfortable as well.

On to the important things though. To start, the Versor has a middle-of-the-road to slightly-flexy feel to the sole. It isn’t unsupportive by any means, but it leans more to the pedal-feel end of the spectrum. This actually blends nicely with the feel of the Vibram Megagrip rubber, which feels to have about 90 percent of the grip of Five Ten Stealth rubber. What does that mean? I like to think about it this way. If I’m riding my XC hardtail mid-summer in the heat, or want a more minimalist trail feel, I’ll take the Versor, no questions asked. It has plenty of grip for climbing, is easily repositionable on aggressive pedals and I’ve never slipped a pedal on the downs. That being said, the Versor requires more attention on proper foot management while descending, especially in really rough, high-speed trails with lots of unweighting. Whereas (spoilers!) Five Ten, Specialized or Giro are rock solid and I never even think about them, I find that part of my mental capacity has to be spent making sure I’m not going to blow a foot off over some roots when wearing the Versor. For this quality, I tend to wear these as a casual use shoe, perfect for cruisy rides, XC laps where comfort is key, or for around town/pump track sessions with the DJ. 

A shoe not to be ignored, the 2FO rivals Five Ten Stealth rubber in outright grip.

Specialized 2FO Roost Canvas | $120

Pros:

  • Matches grip with Stealth rubber
  • Breathes fairly well but not light-feeling
  • Stiff enough for most types of riding
  • Casual, relaxed fit

Cons:

  • Could be stiffer for downhill/park laps

Specialized has been making shoes for a long, long time. Like fi’zi:k, they may not be the first company to spring to mind when it comes to flat-pedal footwear, but their 2FO line has been steadily growing in performance and popularity. Two things should make Specialized stand out from the crowd. First, they’re able to focus their massive R&D capacity toward projects like the 2FO, and real improvements are seen with each iteration. Secondly, those latest improvements are really, really damn good. 

Specialized has developed some of the best, stickiest rubber on the market. That’s not an exaggeration either—the 2FO stacks up against any Five Ten shoe when it comes to pedal stickability. While brands like UnParallel, Shimano and few others have come close to dethroning Five Ten, Specialized actually does the deed. If I were blindfolded, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Stealth and SlipNot (Specialized’s rubber). But I’d also probably crash a lot.

If you’re looking for an alternative to Five Ten, Specialized has stepped up.

If we want to really get into the nuances though, there are a few minor differences to note. SlipNot rubber doesn’t have quite the same off-bike grip that Stealth rubber does on wet, slimy rock, which isn’t a huge concern unless you do a lot of … rock climbing? The two rubbers also behave differently in cold weather, with Stealth feeling slightly firmer and slower to rebound than SlipNot, the latter rubber staying fairly consistent in normal riding temps. 

On a durability note, I have noticed that the slightly tighter-packed lug pattern on the 2FO puts the pin wear on top of lugs, rather than in between them as is typical on all of my Five Ten shoes. Usually, I need to retire footwear because of holes from pins. While I haven’t had the 2FO for long enough to punch any holes, I wonder if having a tighter lug pattern will result in longer life for the shoe.

Of course, there’s more to a shoe than just the rubber. The latest version of the 2FO, the Canvas model tested here, features textile, canvas (who would have guessed) uppers with a molded toe cap for extra protection. Unlike most other shoes, apart from the fi’zi:k, the uppers are very supple and feel more like a nice slipper than a padded riding boot. The canvas did require a bit of a break-in period, more of a pack-in period for the foam padding bits, before everything softened up. Once it did though, the 2FO has a very relaxed, slipper-like feel that is as comfortable on the bike as off it. That also means that on the bike, the 2FO doesn’t feel quite as streamlined and hungry as some other shoes here. It has a casual attitude, more like skate shoes of the past. I wouldn’t shy away for the 2FO for that reason alone, but it offers a different feel and fit to typical riding shoes today. To again compare it to Five Ten, the 2FO is closer to the Impact Pro in fit (minus the heavy padding and chunky feel) than it is to the very narrow and fitted feel of the Freerider Pro. 

The 2FO feels most similar to the regular Freerider, albeit with a much stiffer sole for hard riding.

On a final note, the 2FO, despite being in the ‘downhill’ category on Specialized’s website, is closer in terms of stiffness to a trail/enduro shoe than a full-on downhill bruiser. Again, think Freerider Pro over Impact Pro. It’s plenty stiff for long and rough descents, but you’ll start to feel things a little if you’re overshooting doubles on A-Line. On the flip-side of that, the 2FO is very comfortable to walk around in, wraps a pedal nicely and in general, I think the stiffness of the shoe will suit a wider range of applications than if it was a pure bruiser. It also looks pretty dang good in the grey canvas too.

Giro came out swinging with the Latch, a shoe that also matches the famed Stealth rubber in sheer grip.

Giro Latch | $150

Pros:

  • Very grippy, matches Stealth and SlipNot
  • Performance, fit. Not tight but fitted
  • Good weather resistance

Cons:

  • Uppers can be a bit stiff when the foot bends
  • No high top option

When I first received the press release email for the Latch late this summer, I was dubious. My experience with Giro shoes in the past has been less than stellar—Giro’s claim that the Latch was “a benchmark in flat-pedal performance” seemed a bit lofty. But I’ll be damned, they actually pulled it off.

The Latch straight-up blows anything Giro has produced thus far out of the water. Their new rubber, Tack Rubber, truly competes with Stealth in performance. Tack Rubber is, well, as tacky as anything else out there, clinging to pedals through rough sections of trail where violent unweighting moments skipping over roots under hard braking would usually blow sub-par shoes right off the pins. In the wet and cold, Tack Rubber still holds on tight, refusing to give up the ghost even when packed with slippery mud. Really, I have a hard time finding anything negative to say about the Latch when it comes down to pure rubber performance; I haven’t had them long enough to truly test the durability, but so far they haven’t accumulated any more or less pedal pin wear than either the Specialized 2FO or Five Ten Freerider Pro Mid VCS, which I’ve ridden in equal amounts. 

The Latch is on the slim side of fit, when makes excellent on-bike feel but isn’t as roomy as some other shoes.

When it comes to the rest of the shoe, the Latch feels very, very similar to a typical Freerider Pro in fit and materials. The shoe is fairly fitted, narrower (in the size US12 tested) than the 2FO and maybe even the Freerider Pro Mid VCS. Where sometimes I felt like I was spilling off my DMR V11s on the 2FO, with the Latch I felt more streamlined and planted on the pedals in that there was room for adjustment side to side before part of the shoe was actually spilling off. Moreover, my feet feel very contained in the Latch, not really compressed, but quite snug without much room for slipping around inside. For more aggressive riding, I prefer this feeling as I have more immediate feedback both from and into the pedals. The downside is that I can’t really wear thick socks without things getting a bit tight. I don’t think it’s that the shoes are on the small side, rather that they are meant for a more performance-oriented fit.

On another performance note, the Latch’s synthetic uppers have been ideal for the damp fall riding weather here in the Pacific Northwest. A robust synthetic outer layer does an amazing job (for a non-waterproof shoe) at keeping water out. Puddle spray, wet grass and soaked salal have all failed to penetrate the Latch—it’s not actually waterproof, but it does an exceptional job at keeping moisture out. The Latch is also generously padded, and even with thin summer socks I’ve ridden down into the low-40s without getting a hint of chill. The downside of that weather performance? The Latch takes slightly longer than I’d like to air dry after actually being saturated. Then again, none of the shoes on this list really air dry in the humid Pacific Northwest; that’s why I have a boot dryer.

Minimal styling make the Latch attractive for off-bike encounters as well.

But back to that padding, especially in the tongue, the Latch required a few days of use before packing in and feeling comfortable. In fact, the first few times I wore the Latch I felt like the top of my foot was getting squashed, even with generously loose lacing—that feeling has since gone away. What hasn’t gone away is a bit of stiffness in the uppers when bending my toe while walking. Maybe I’m just used to the comfy Specialized and fi’zi:k shoes, but the Latch isn’t as comfortable off the bike when hiking or walking. 

On a final note, Giro also included what they call Mute Foam in the midsole of the Latch. The idea is that the foam is a slow-rebounding damper for the shoe, helping to “mute” trail chatter. While I didn’t feel like the Latch was harsh, I also didn’t feel like it was any more “mute” than other shoes here. The one shoe that really does feel dampened is the Ride Concepts, see below—the Latch can’t compete with that level of footbed comfort. 

At the end of the day though, the Latch is a complete package that does compete with the big guns in pretty much every metric of flat shoe performance I can think of. 

The evolution of the OG, the new Freerider Pro Mid VCS is an excellent performance-oriented flat shoe.

Five Ten Freerider Pro Mid VCS | $180

Pros:

  • Very comfortable
  • Keeps debris out
  • Easy to don and doff
  • Ultra grippy

Cons:

  • Easy to over tighten Velco closures

You didn’t think we’d get through this list without talking about a Five Ten shoe, did you? Picking just one model from the OG was a hard call—I personally own, right now, pairs of Freerider, Freerider High, Freerider Pro, Freerider EPS, Impact, Impact Pro, Impact Pro Mid and the entire Trailcross lineup. Out of all of those options, however, I prefer to ride in the newest addition to the Five Ten lineup: the Freerider Pro Mid VCS. 

The VCS has an interesting backstory; the shoe is an adaptation from the brand’s kids version of the Freerider. It uses an OrthoLite sock liner for high-top coverage and a full “tongue” gusset to keep debris out, and instead of laces there are just three simple Velcro straps. Apparently, simple works for any age, although the looks of the new shoe might border on love-it or-hate-it.

No laces, fewer problems. The ankle cuffs keeps out debris and you won’t be struggling to untie these with frozen fingers, come winter.

There’s a lot to love about the VCS though, looks aside. For starters, it’s basically a slip-on shoe. The Velcro is, like Velcro does, quick and easy to operate when donning or doffing, which just makes life that tad bit easier. I appreciate this on wet, cold rides when frozen fingers don’t operate wet, muddy laces well, and when spring rolls around I’m sure I’ll love not having to poke my fingers on grass seeds caught in the laces. The one downside to Velcro over laces is that it can be tricky to get the exact right tension on the straps; I often over-tightened them when I first got these shoes. 

What really sets the VCS apart in my mind is its fit. The original Freerider Pro marked a shift to a streamlined performance fit for Five Ten, and the VCS refined that even further. The additional sock/ankle cuff keeps the heel very secure in the heel cup, bolstering the hugging, slim fit of the rest of the shoe. It’s not any tighter than a regular Freerider Pro, but the new design has subtle changes that close up any gaps and make the VCS the best-fitting bike shoe I’ve worn. Of course, this is pretty subjective, but if your foot normally fits Five Ten shoes well, the VCS carries that torch forward. 

The small D3O patch on the ankle helps ward off crank strikes. It’s a small but useful feature.

On the bike, that wrapping, hugging fit makes for a very connected feel on the bike, even more so than the Giro Latch. With barely any movement in the shoe, helped by the ankle cuff to keep the heel in place, leg movements and bike feedback are crisp and efficient through the pedals. Further, the square edges of the sole keep foot rocking to a minimum for a very planted, solid feel. 

I won’t talk on the Stealth rubber much, as that poor equine has been beaten to a pulp in countless reviews, but it’s the rubber it’s always been and we all know and love. What I will explore are the shoe uppers. Synthetic through and through, things aren’t drastically different from the regular Freerider Pro. It’s generally pretty water-resistant for bushes with wet foliage, occasional puddle splashes and the like, maybe a touch more than regular Freerider Pros due to the ankle liner that keeps muck out. On the flip side of that, the VCS doesn’t breathe especially well, something I don’t mind from shoes but that I know others do care about. The fi’zi:k and Specialized are your shoes if that’s a priority.

On a protection standpoint, the VCS is again very similar to the regular Pros, with good toe box stiffness and enough padding on the sides to ward off glancing blows. For me, the VCS feels like what the Trailcross lineup should have been in this regard; it’s light enough to be useful for hike-a-bike missions but I would not shy away from riding hard in shale or boulder fields.

Where the Freerider Pro is an excellent riding shoe that doubles as a casual option, the Freerider Pro Mid VCS is a dedicated performance machine, through and through.

The biggest gun here, the Hellion Elite has a ride feel unlike any other shoe.

Ride Concepts Hellion Elite | $140

Pros:

  • Incredible trail feel
  • Lots of foot protection
  • Comes in a high top alternative
  • Very grippy

Cons:

  • Not as grippy as Stealth, SlipNot or Tack Rubber
  • A bit bulkier than other shoes

Of all the impressive shoes on this list, the Hellion Elite might have had the biggest “wow” impression on me. The Hellion Elite is designed as a “light-weight, no compromise, all-mountain flat shoe.” This sounds like it would put it right in line with something like the Five Ten Freerider Pro, however, it’s build construction and level of protection feel more akin to a harder-hitting shoe like the Impact Pro. 

This also aligns with its ride feel, which is kind of like a fluffy cloud compared to other shoes. Seriously though, this is the aspect of the shoe that wowed me on the first ride; it’s like there’s memory foam in the footbed of the Hellion Elite or something. To best describe the feeling, imagine riding a short-travel bike down a downhill track, then riding a full-on downhill bike on the same lines. Of course, you’re going to feel the hits on both of them, but imagine how much more comfortable it’s going to be on the big bike. The same goes for riding the Hellion compared to other shoes; it feels like all the vibrations are muted. In this respect, the Hellion is unique on this list. 

With the additional D3O inserts in the shoe, but the Hellion Elite seems to mute harsh trail feedback better than other shoes. Hardtail rider take note.

As mentioned, the Hellion is also a bit burlier than typical trail shoes. If I hadn’t read Ride Concept’s tagline for the shoe, I would have thought it a direct competitor to the Impact Pro (which, to be fair, is also an excellent trail shoe in many regards). It’s head and shoulders above any of the other shoes here in terms of protection, with a burly toe box and gobs of padding throughout the shoe. The synthetic uppers are pretty thick as well, which doesn’t do wonders for breathability, but wards off glancing blows with ease. There’s also a high-top version, called the Powerline, if you’re after more ankle protection. I think I would prefer that on a shoe this ready for park and shuttle laps, but low tops might be better if you plan on putting in a lot of pedal days too. 

The fit of the Hellion is more generous than the Freerider Mid VCS and Giro Latch, but not as boxy as something like the Impact Pro. I wore a size US12 in all the shoes on test, and the Hellion wasn’t noticeably bigger or smaller in that regard. It just has a little more room in the toe box for thicker socks or a wider foot, but around the arch and heel the shoe is nicely secure for hard riding.

The only downside to the Hellion Elite is that is can’t quite match other shoes here in terms of grip.

On the rubber, the DST 4.0 MAX is really quite sticky, but just falls short of the leaders in the field. It’s around 95% the grip of Stealth, SlipNot or Tack Rubber, to give some perspective. That sounds pretty dang close to par, and really it is. Initially, I actually thought it was on par, however after riding some harder, faster trails I noticed that in the roughest sections of unweighting, the Hellion wouldn’t stick to the pedals quite as well as the stickier shoes. In reality, I think this means that unless you’re absolutely dead set on having the stickiest shoes out there, the Hellion will offer plenty of grip on the pedals. Off the bike, however, the pretty tight lug pattern and slick heel does cost the Hellion a bit in the traction department. Again, it’s not bad by any means, but other shoes here are a bit better. Then again, these are riding shoes, not hiking boots.

One other factor to consider on the Hellion is that it comes with elastic, stretchy laces. Personally, I change most of my shoelaces to something stretchy for added comfort, and I really appreciated this small feature about the Hellion. 

Where does this leave the Hellion in this roundup? Burlier than other shoes here, and with a ride feel that offers more damping than any other shoe here, the Hellion is a great option for bigger trails and intention, as long as you don’t mind taking a small hit on the outright grip.

A foul-weather-specific shoe, the Trailcross GTX is unique in design and niche in application.

Five Ten Trailcross GTX | $200

Pros:

  • Actually fully waterproof
  • Very warm
  • Roomy enough for thick socks
  • Ultra grippy

Cons:

  • Water stiff gets in over the cuffs
  • Will be too warm on some shoulder-season days

Finally, we come to a special shoe in this roundup. A bit of a unicorn in the flat pedal world, there haven’t been many wet-weather specific shoes ever made for flat pedals—in fact, I can’t think of another out there. There are plenty of clipless options, but really no fully gusseted, actually waterproof flat pedal equivalents. Maybe there’s a reason for that, but that’ll come a bit later down the road.

I reviewed the rest of the Trailcross lineup earlier this year, and came to the conclusion that they were, essentially, a warm-weather shoe. The GTX though, that’s a different beast. Where everything about the regular Trailcross screams fast and light, the GTX is a thick-skinned bruiser of a shoe. It uses Stealth rubber (excellent as always) and has a similar silhouette to the rest of the line, but that’s pretty much where similarities end. 

The Stealth sole is as grippy as ever, and the altered lug pattern helps a touch when hiking.

For starters, the GTX is actually waterproof by way of a GoreTex membrane inside. I’ve successfully completed some highly scientific puddle explorations and can confirm that water does not enter the shoe below the ankle cuff. I received this shoe in late summer, just in time for our hoped-for good weather in the Pacific Northwest to quickly deteriorate into frequent rain and showers before fall even properly began. With plenty of wet rides on the GTX, I have a few thoughts to share on such a shoe, because things aren’t as straightforward as they might seem. 

I’ll start with my critiques. The shoes are only waterproof below the neoprene ankle cuffs. This sounds like a “well duh” moment, and it should be. Say you’re riding in shorts. Say you ride through a deep puddle that splash up onto your shins. Great, now you also have wet shoes from the water draining down your legs and into the shoes. This also occurs when wearing pants, although to a lesser degree depending on what pants you have on. In this regard, waterproof shoes for mountain biking are kind of a moot point for actually keeping your feet wet in downpours. You’re better off using waterproof socks if you really want to keep your feet dry from front wheel spray and deep puddles. 

While they won’t keep your feet dry from water dripping down your legs, they are waterproof everywhere else.

Now, with that all being said, I still tend to reach for the GTX when the trails are going to just be damp with a few puddles, or when I know I’ll be riding overgrown trails with lots and lots of wet vegetation to brush through. Especially with pants, the GTX does an excellent job of protecting against light spray and other minor water intrusion, not to mention accidentally walking into thick mud or the stray puddle. Plus, the extra weather protection makes the GTX incredibly warm and cozy on cold days, and I anticipate wearing these almost exclusively once the mercury starts to fall below freezing. It’s all too often that one sneaky, frozen puddle completely ruins your day on mid-winter rides, and while I haven’t had a chance to test the GTX in those conditions, I have confidence that they are going to be the right tool for the job, based on my experience with them thus far.

When it comes to fit and feel, the GTX is actually pretty similar to the Five Ten Impact Pro Mid. There’s plenty of room around the foot and toe box for thick socks (US12 tested, so this is compared to same-sized shoes), but the ankle is nice and snug to prevent debris from coming in and adding a bit of support for that joint. I would have liked to see an alternative to laces; I shudder at the thought of trying to untie wet, frozen laces with wet, frozen fingers this winter, but one can only wish for so much. To their credit, the laces on the GTX are elastic and make for a comfortable fit. 

Unlike the rest of the Trailcross line, the GTX feels heavily padded (probably additional material for the waterproof membrane) and has a much burlier top cap, in line with the Freerider Pro Mid VCS. The shoe is quite a bit heavier than the regular Trailcross, but it’s not any more than other burly shoes and I’ll take the weight if it means warm feet. 

Speaking of warm feet, the GTX keeps heat in like no other, other than some of the winter-specific clipless shoes I’ve worn. The neoprene ankle gaiter can get a big toasty, as it doesn’t breath at all, on warmer rides, but I have a feeling it’ll be an asset on the upcoming winter days.

The Trailcross GTX has its limitations, no doubt, but with some forethought, it is an excellent shoe for foul-weather riding.