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Clipless vs Flat Mountain Bike Pedals

Clipless vs Flat Mountain Bike Pedals

mountain bike pedals clipless vs flat

Whether you’re a new mountain biker, or have been in it for a while, you’ve probably heard of the two kinds of mountain bike pedals: clipless and flat. How do you decide which one is best for you?

I’ll go through my experience with both kinds of mountain bike pedals, to give you another angle to help decide between the two. I think both options work well, but they definitely have their own separate sets of advantages and disadvantages.

Clipless vs Flat Mountain Bike Pedals

My Mountain Bike Pedal History

I have used both flats and clipless mountain bike pedals across different kinds of bikes, in different environments, at different stages of my mountain bike skill progression.

I started off on flats, then went to clipless, then back to flats, and now I’m back to clipless! Except on my fat bike. I had good reasons to switch between the two.

When I first started biking I used flat pedals. They’re simple, cheap, and you don’t need special shoes. Plus, for the beginner mountain biker, trying to learn a new sport AND learn how to clip in and out of a pedal is a lot. If you come from a road riding background, then maybe starting with clipless is easier.

After a couple seasons on flats, I switched to clipless mountain bike pedals, just to try something new. It was great feeling locked-in to the bike, and having a smooth cadence with my feet always positioned in the exact same place on the pedal.

But then I got into more aggressive terrain which meant another big jump up in my skill progression. I found tackling steeper, technical terrain on a long travel enduro bike was too stressful with my clipless pedals: I wanted the option to put a foot down or eject at a moment’s notice. So, I switched back to flats: the Chromag Scarabs.

The next switch happened when I got rid of my enduro full suspension for my current bike, the Rocky Mountain Growler hardtail. This is an aggressive hardtail meant for gnarlier terrain. By the time I got this bike, I had already done most of what I was ever going to do on a mountain bike, and was happy to throw my clipless pedals back on.

My skill had gotten to the point that I didn’t have the need to easily put my foot down, and the locked-in feeling was great for the hardtail — it really helped me dial in the corners and feel one with the bike. This is especially important for a hardtail because there is so much less forgiveness than on a full suspension.

Alongside all these summer bikes is my fat bike: the 2021 Trek Farley 5. I had previously owned a 2017 Trek Farley 7. I used flat mountain bike pedals for both these bikes. Biking in winter, with big boots, slippery terrain, and clumps of snow that can easily jam clipless pedals, made flats the simple fat bike choice for me.

So that’s my experience with clipless and flat mountain bike pedals. Now to go in depth with what each kind of mountain bike pedal is like.

Flat Mountain Bike Pedals

flat mountain bike pedal

Standard flat pedal. High quality ones, like this, have customizable pin placement.

If you just bought a new bike, chances are it came with basic flat pedals.

Flat pedals are the cheapest, easiest, most forgiving pedals you can use with your mountain bike. They can be used with normal shoes and are the simplest way to get used to riding a mountain bike. Many people ride flats, and at all skill levels. If I still rode a full suspension, I would probably be on flats.

Customizable

It is important to keep in mind that flat mountain bike pedals, like all mountain bike gear, come in a variety of options, and at a variety of price points. Typically, the more expensive the pedals get, the lighter they are, the more customizable they are, and the more serviceable they are.

By customizable, I mean that each of the pins can be unscrewed and placed in various positions. Entry level/ cheaper flats have the pins moulded into the pedal itself. So if they are too high, too low, or in the wrong place for your liking, there’s nothing you can do about it. You probably won’t even notice the pin placement until you become a stronger biker, but it is something to keep in mind.

By serviceable, I mean that the axle and bushings/ bearings can be removed for cleaning or replacement. Higher level flat pedals typically have quality machined platforms, and the axles are the wear items. As an example, Chromag makes axles for their pedals which you can swap out. This means that although the price of higher level pedals may seem steep, they will outlast any cheaper pedals you buy.

No Need for Special Shoes

The other nice thing about flat mountain bike pedals is that you don’t need special shoes. Clipless pedals require special shoes that can hold a cleat. So, this is another thing which makes flats cheaper overall. Flats are also more versatile: if you use your mountain bike as a commuter, it is easier having flats so you can use whatever shoes (or flip flops) you want when pedalling around town.

Performance

What is the performance difference between a flat and clipless mountain bike pedal? This is where things get tricky.

Flats are going to be easier to learn, and I wouldn’t recommend any beginner mountain biker to also start on clipless mountain bike pedals. It’s just too much to learn at once, and too easy to fall over if you forget to clip out!

There is an age-old debate in the mountain bike world about pedalling efficiency and power. Long story short, clipless can be more efficient, but I don’t find the power difference noticeable in a mountain biking environment. And especially as a beginner, you won’t notice this difference.

Flats are also much more stable than clipless. With clipless, your weight is centred on the balls of your feet, whereas on flats, your weight is distributed more evenly.

I found I was able to put more raw power down, with more stability, on flats than clipless. The simple reason is this: whenever you squat or lift heavy weights, is your most powerful, stable position on the balls of your feet or through your arch?

Your foot is designed for the arch to be the most stable line of force through your body for static squats and that is exactly how I positioned my foot on flat mountain bike pedals when power was needed. I know that will draw some disagreement from some readers, but you can’t argue with biomechanics!

Fat Biking

And if you’re fat biking in winter, for most people, flats are 100% going to be the way to go. With clipless mountain bike pedals you have to watch out for your pedals getting jammed with ice and snow, and you have to spend a TON of money on winter clipless riding boots.

That being said, I do know people ride clipless in winter, but I’d say it’s a relative minority. Most of the people I ride with are clipless in summer, and flats with normal boots in winter.

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Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals

clipless mountain bike pedal

Shimano SPD mountain bike pedal.

Clipless pedals are great for feeling locked-in to your bike, and being able to pedal mindlessly without worrying about if your feet are in the right position: they are always exactly where they need to be. These are the main benefits I get from clipless, and are why I use them for my hardtail where pinpoint control is necessary, and because I have the skill level to comfortably tackle the terrain I find myself on.

But, they are not without their drawbacks. For most riders, I think flats are likely the way to go. But if you’re interested in trying out clipless, these are some key takeaways.

Control

Using your feet to help control your bike is just another means to move your bike and get it to where you want it to be.

With flat pedals, you can’t pull up on the bike, and it’s difficult to shift your bike laterally without losing footing. With clipless mountain bike pedals, you don’t have this problem. It is much easier to pull your bike up, over, and around things.

It is for this reason too that clipless can form bad habits, because it makes some bike control mechanics easier since you can pull on the pedals with your feet. On flats, you need stronger fundamentals when doing such things as cornering or getting over obstacles, as you can’t “cheat” by using your feet.

Pedalling Efficiency

With clipless mountain bike pedals, once your feet are locked in, they will always be in the exact same position, every time. This means less time focusing on where your foot is, and more time just daydreaming as you spin your way up the mountain. Some hardcore clipless riders will say that big efficiency gains can be made, because you can also pull up on your pedal while you spin, but I think this is relatively minor and not big enough to play a major role in your decision to try clipless.

But, there is something nice about not having to worry about where your feet are and to be able to get into a comfortable cadence. With flats, it is easier for your foot to lift off the pedal — you don’t have to worry about this in clipless, which makes the pedalling process a little easier and a little mindless.

Clipless Shoes and Cleats

Each type of clipless mountain bike pedal comes with its own cleat. And, you need specific mountain bike shoes that can accept the cleat.

These shoes are typically more expensive than flat mountain bike shoes. Clipless shoes come in a full range, depending on your style of mountain biking. XC clipless shoes are slim, stiff, and not meant for comfortable walking.

At the other range are flat downhill/ enduro shoes which look just like normal flats, but have a space for cleats. This is what I use on my hardtail. They are not as stiff as XC shoes (basically, this means slightly less power transfer to the pedals) but they are much more comfortable for when you’re hiking a bike or heading to the bar after your ride!

Precautions for Clipless Pedals: Knees and Mud

Clipless does create the potential for knee injuries if you aren’t able to clip out before crashing. This was something my physio pre cautioned me against when I first made the switch.

The idea here is that if you crash, whatever awkward position you end up in will be made even more awkward for your knees if your foot is connected to the pedal.

I can’t speak for all clipless, as I only have experience with Shimano SPD, but anytime I’ve crashed, my feet have easily popped out. The great thing about the SPD’s are that you can adjust how much force it takes to release your feet. So, if you’re concerned about your knees or being able to put your foot down, you can set low tension.

Be aware that low tension also means you can accidentally clip out, which isn’t ideal if you’re going through a technical section or into a corner at high speed, but I find this is a small tradeoff to be able to get your foot out in a pinch.

Another important note: I have friends that ride all the other kinds of clipless pedals, and none of them have ever expressed concern about not being able to clip out, or staying clipped in when they crash.

Another drawback to clipless are that mud (and snow) can gum up the cleats and the pedals. I have ridden in muddy conditions with the Shimano SPD pedals and not had an issue, but I have seen them get gummed up quickly and easily in snow conditions. I have heard that the Crank Brother’s Egg Beater pedals are the best at shedding mud.

Clipless vs Flat Mountain Bike Pedals: Which Should You Choose?

There are several reasons to choose one over the other, and everyone’s experiences vary. Generally speaking, I’d say for most beginners, those wanting simplicity, those on a budget, or fat bikers, flats are the way to go. Most bikers likely won’t give a second thought to anything other than flats!

For mountain bikers who want to feel locked-in to their bike, make modest gains in pedalling efficiency, and/or prefer the feel of clipless because they come from road biking, then clipless pedals are the way to go.

If you are on flats and want to try clipless without the financial commitment right off the bat, consider finding used ones locally or through Pinkbike.com. Also keep your eyes peeled for discount clipless shoes at the end of the season, or old models sold on eBay.

Do you have strong opinions one way or another about mountain bike pedals? Then share your thoughts with other readers in the comments below!

 

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