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Flats vs. Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals

Answering the Decades-Old Debate: Which Pedal is Best?

As mountain bikers, we tend to get obsessed with equipment choice. And while it’s easy to overthink certain options, the choice between clipless or platform (aka flat) pedals is among the most important decisions that we make as riders. Your feet are a critical point of contact between your body and your bike, and both clipless and flat pedals offer certain advantages. In other words, some riders will like flats better, while other riders will prefer clipless. If you’re still trying to decide which pedal style is right for you, read on for a quick overview of the merits of both systems.

The Terminology

Most mountain bikers are familiar with flat pedals. You probably had them on your first bike and, as the name implies, they provide a flat surface to place your shoe on. The competing option, clipless pedals, may seem to have a misleading name, because you actually clip into the pedals using a dedicated cleat mounted to the bottom of a clipless-specific shoe. The historical reason for the confusing name is that clipless pedals were named in response to toe clips—that basket for your toes you see on some pedals that clipless pedals replaced.

The Case for Flat Bike Pedals

Most mountain bikers get their start riding flat pedals. For many riders, there is no reason to ever move away from them. Thanks to sticky-soled shoes and pedals with long pins and large platforms, flat pedals continue to be a favorite of new riders, as well as many seasoned riders.

“Bail-ability”: One of the most-loved aspects of flat bike pedals is the ease with which you can get out of them. For first-timers and newer riders, flat pedals mean one less thing to worry about—clipping in and out. Flats allow you to easily put a foot on the ground if you feel uncomfortable. The ability to quickly put a foot down and avoid a crash also makes flat pedals popular with intermediate riders pushing themselves on more technical terrain. Even advanced riders benefit from the easy escape-ability of flat pedals. Bailing from a jump or drop gone awry is that much easier with flats! 

Slow-Speed Skill: A lot of mountain biking happens at slow speeds, and a fair amount of it happens at extremely slow speeds—think tight switchbacks or picking your way through a gnarly rock garden. Knowing that you can simply drop a foot to the ground makes controlling a bike at slow speeds or track standing less taxing mentally. It also eliminates the dreaded “timber” moment clipless riders experience when they lose their momentum but are unable to unclip from their pedals fast enough.

Better Technique: A common complaint of flat pedals is that rough terrain bounces a rider’s foot off the pedal. However, this is largely a shortcoming of a mountain biker’s technique, not pedals. Flat bike pedals force you to maintain proper body position, weight distribution, and pedal pressure. Flat pedals reinforce fundamental mountain bike skills; namely, how to weight and unweight the bike. These skills are easily cheated with clipless pedals, so flat pedals can make you a better and smoother rider.

Walking: Whether it’s simply getting your bike off the rack, a too-narrow bridge, or a rugged rock garden you can’t clean, plenty of rides include some time spent on your feet, not the pedals. Flat pedal mountain bike shoes are easier to walk around in than shoes designed for use with clipless pedals—though more and more clipless shoes with traction are appearing on the market.

Simplified Selection: Unlike clipless mountain bike setups, flat bike pedals don’t require dedicated gear like specific shoes. High-grip mountain bike shoes for flat pedals make a big difference on the trail, but plenty of riders are happy with other types of footwear.

Convenience Factor: Get right out of the car and onto your bike, stop into your favorite coffee shop and get energized on the way to ride, or head straight to the bar for après beers in your bike shoes. Unlike the vast majority of clipless shoes, flat pedal shoes look like everyday footwear and easily transition from trail to town.

 

The Case for Clipless Pedals

There’s a reason you see so many mountain bikers riding clipless pedals on the trail. Clipless pedals offer mountain bikers a handful of advantages over flat pedals, and the fact that the vast majority of pro racers choose clipless pedals should reinforce that clipless offers an important edge.

Ultimate Efficiency: Clipless pedals keep your feet fixed in place based on the location of your cleat, which aids in developing a smoother, more efficient pedal stroke. Better yet, the security afforded by clipless pedals allows you to focus on leg speed, which helps you deliver power to the ground more efficiently. 

Connected for Control: Clipless pedals and bike shoes provide a connection between rider and bike that is unrivaled. Clipped into the pedals, the bike becomes an extension of your body. When in doubt, you can muscle the bike where you want it.

Rough Terrain Rhythm: Having your feet attached to the pedals makes it easier to keep a rhythm while pedaling over rocks, roots, and other obstacles. Since your feet are fixed to the pedals, there’s no need to drop your heels to maintain traction between your feet and the pedals.

Safeguard Your Shins: The combination of clipless pedals and shoes prevents rugged terrain from bouncing your foot off the pedal. Wondering how big a deal this is? Just look at the shins of someone who rides with flat bike pedals—there’s likely at least one gnarly scar and an even gnarlier story.

Go for It: When you’re riding flat pedals, it’s easy to just give up and dab or walk a tough section of trail. Being attached to your pedals can help you psychologically commit to a sketchy line—sometimes you just have to go for it.

High Performance: Bike shoes designed for clipless pedals don’t walk as well as shoes designed for flat bike pedals because clipless bike shoes are designed for pedaling. Clipless shoes are built stiffer underfoot, which means that less of your energy is wasted as you drive watts to your back wheel. In addition, clipless pedals are generally lighter than their flat counterparts—an important consideration in a sport where weight savings is frequently an obsession.

The Best of Both Worlds 

For serious riders, it’s worth spending time on both systems to appreciate their respective advantages. Push your skills and hone your technique with flats, crush high-mileage rides with clipless pedals, and become the most well-rounded mountain biker you can be.

 

A former child model, Tim Peck spent a portion of his youth gracing the pages of Sunday paper advertisements for many now-defunct department stores. Living responsibility/rent-free with his parents into his thirties, Tim pursued climbing, skiing, and biking while accumulating an impressive amount of time in the mountains (and gear). Relentlessly pursuing the dream, Tim’s modest life ambitions are to ski all 12 months of the year, to climb 5.12, and to live in a van.