Clipless vs. Flat Pedals MTB: Making The Right Choice


There are two kinds of pedals mountain bikers could choose from: clipless and flat pedals. Some prefer the former and some the latter. Others choose to alternate between the two. Some riders claim that you can’t call yourself a serious mountain biker  if you use flats. Some, on the other hand, say that flats are just as stable as clipless pedals.

So, clipless vs. flat pedals MTB: which one is better? The truth is, you’re free to choose whatever floats your boat. Both types have their own advantages and disadvantages, and we’re here to help you decide which option is the best for you.

flat versus clipless mountain bike pedals

Clipless vs. Flat Pedals MTB: What’s the Difference?

Flat pedals are basically the ones we used to learn on when we were kids. They have big platforms that are used to place your feet and provide a level of grip.

When it comes to mountain bikes, those who prefer going downhill, as well as the gravity riders, prefer platforms, because platforms protect their feet from impact more due to the larger surface area. In addition, they can control their balance more when the trail becomes difficult, because they can pull them off at will. Another side effect us that it is useful for beginner bikers!

On the other hand, one is more secure when it comes to sharpened cage plates, and/or traction pins. They do this by helping the rider keep from getting bounced off. For these though, it is preferable to wear skate-type shoes, most of which have soles that stick to the cage plates. But pretty much any kind of shoes or footwear can work too.

Between the two though, platforms can be weighty, and sometimes the feeling of being “connected” given by pins and their partner compatible footwear won’t be enough for the rider. When this happens, the solution is clipless pedals, and clipless pedals have a number of variants that can suit every rider’s needs.

Clipless pedals, which don’t have the traditional plastic cage or “toe clips” that go around the feet to secure them on the pedals, provide a very good attachment by using very specific shoes for cycling, and cleats made of metal that attach underneath them.

These are then “locked” in place mechanically, but have devices that will let go of the foot with a simple twisting motion, which is very useful in the unfortunate event of a crash.

The Advantages of Flat Pedals

When you buy an entry level mountain bike, you are most likely to get it with platform or flat pedals. They are usually made of either plastic or metal. They’re great for beginners as they will really teach you the basic skills and techniques to improve your performance. Learning to ride with flat pedals will definitely make you a much better rider in the long run.

it is critical to learn the right way of positioning your body and maneuvering your bike. With flat pedals, you will learn and enhance these technical abilities. You can’t cheat your way out with flats, unlike clipless pedals.

When you ride clipped-in, you won’t know how to balance your bike the right way. The tendency is, the rider pulls up the bike towards them in order to stabilize it, instead of the proper way which is weighting and unweighting the bike by dropping the heels. it is no issue when you’re riding over, say, a stick, but when you need to hop over a huge log, that’s where the problem arises.

Flat pedals aren’t only great for beginners, but offer a great challenge to experienced riders as well. it is actually a lot harder to weight and unweight the bike, so it really helps improve those skills. Once you’ve mastered this technique, you’ll be a lot better rider than you ever were.

Below are some other advantages of using flats:

  • They don’t require any special shoes. As long as you have a pair of flat bottom shoes, then you’re good to go.
  • it is easier to bail on your bike in cases of imminent danger. Jumping off the bike when things go wrong is very important. This is ideal for beginners but is also perfect for freeriders and downhill or dirt jumps. They’re great for release tricks such as tailwhips too.
  • They’re so much more affordable than clipless pedals. Need I say more?
  • They have improved a lot over the years. Flats are now a lot sleeker, grippier, and lighter than before. The flat pedal’s shape and pins have also seen tremendous enhancements. Some shoe brands have also released specially-designed shoes for an improved platform biking experience.
  • Walking is easier. it is way easier to walk around with comfy flat shoes such as the Five Tens than clipless bikes. This is helpful in times where you need to carry your bike across a log or up a steep slope.

Clipless shoes may be great for riding, but they are the worst for walking. They have a piece of metal on the soles which makes it difficult to walk in. In fact, the higher the quality of the shoe, the worse it is for walking.

  • They’re great in the mud. If you find yourself stuck in steep and muddy situations, your platform pedals are your best friend.
  • It feels better. Riding your bike without that restrictive feeling clipless pedals bring can be really satisfying. it is also liberating to know that you can get off your bike whenever you feel like it.
  • it is easier to position your feet. With flat pedals, you have complete control over your feet. You can easily position them as you please: you can slide them forward and backward and angle them however you want. This is a big deal, as your feet’s freedom can actually save you from a crash.

The Advantages of Clipless Pedals

Many riders swear by clipless pedals because it is great for racing. it is the best option for those who really want faster rides. These clipless pedals have cleats that are used to attach especially-designed shoes to, making the rider literally connected to the bike. Using these foot attachments might be quite challenging for beginners, but using them does have many advantages.

  • Efficient pedalling. Your energy is easily transferred onto the pedals with every stroke.
  • You go a lot faster. Whether upward or downward, clipless pedals make your riding a whole lot faster than flats.
  • Easier technical rides. Since the pedals are clipped onto your shoes, it is easier to maneuver the bike on bumpy rides. It also makes doing bike tricks such as bunny-hopping a lot easier. Being attached gives you that extra confidence.
  • They’re lighter. Because they’re much narrower and lighter than flat pedals, it is easier to clear rocks with them.
  • Lazy riding. Once you’re used to riding clipless, you’ll find that it is a lot easier than using flats. Since you’re attached to the pedals, you can ride without having to worry about slipping your feet off the pedals.
  • Awesome shoes. There are many clipless shoes to choose from that offer a great riding experience.
  • Easier jumps and drops. When your feet are attached to the pedals, it gives you more confidence to perform jumps and drops.

Pro-tip: Note that there are numerous standards when it comes to clipless pedals. Sometimes, these standards conflict from one another. The most widely-used standard among brands is SPD, but others use Time or CrankBrothers as well.

The Advantages of Combining Pedals

Over the years, a third type of foot attachments has emerged: the combo mountain bike pedals. They combine the benefits of the flats and the clipless. These come in two different styles:

  1. The clip is on one side of the pedal, while the platform on the other.
  2. The clip is combined with the platform on either side. Both functionalities may be accessed any time.

What’s great about these pedals is that you get to choose whatever method you want depending on the need. The problem with it, though, is that it is a lot heavier. The clips are also harder to use unlike clipless pedals. For the combo pedal type 1, the clip tends to point to the ground a lot, making it a little annoying to use.

Picking the Right Pedals

Some people underestimate the importance of bike pedals. After all, they’re just a small part of the bike. But, while their size makes them seem insignificant, they actually play a huge role in biking. The difference between an excellent and a poor pair of pedals may actually make or break your experience.

When deciding between clipless vs. flat pedals MTB, you need to take the following things into consideration:

  1. Decide whether you want platform (flat) or clipless pedals. As advised earlier, beginners are highly advised to learn from flats.
  2. Check for the serviceability of the pedals. Most pedals have quality seals, but eventually they will be up for maintenance and repairs. Make sure you find pedals that don’t need constant relubing and special tools to fix. If you can’t get those, at least find ones that are affordable and easy to find.
  3. Find pedals that could easily be repaired. There are those that need replacement when certain parts are destroyed: try to avoid those.
  4. Get ones that are sturdy and durable. That should be a priority over weight. Don’t be too tempted to buy lightweight pedals that sacrifice durability. Make sure to research before buying.
  5. Make sure the pedals have enough spaces within them where you can shed out mud and snow.
  6. When buying clipless pedals, check their adjustability such as pedal tension settings and float. Some platform pedals have adjustable spike pins and pedal body colors — make sure to look for those.
  7. Choose pedals that won’t require much maintenance. Quality pedals can last for years.

It is also advisable to check your local bike store and ask the staff for any recommendations. Some personnel will even allow you to demo pedals before buying. My local shop tells me to return gear if I don’t like it, great guys! Also, make sure to do a little research before you buy. After all, it is really not that hard to do.

Choosing Flat Pedals

If you’ve chosen flats, you should check for traction level. If you want a better grip, pick pedals with a sharper traction and more teeth or pins. The downside to this, though, is it can be really harmful when you slip.

If you want more room for your feet, pick pedals that have a larger surface area. Pedals with concave surfaces are also great at cradling your feet.

The thickness of the pedal matters too. The fatter ones tend to be clunky, so look for thinner ones. Just be sure that the pedals’ durability won’t suffer. Check for quality seals to make sure the pedals are in great shape. Choose pedals that could easily be dismantled for repair as well.

Flat Pedal Options

Here are some awesome flat pedal options for you to choose from:

  1. Pedaling Innovations’ Catalyst pedal. This one is perfect for riders with longer feet. If you end up with a painful arch after a bike ride, then you should try this option. It is especially made to connect your arch’s front and back ends. It also has the longest platform among all the platforms available on the market. This pedal costs $99.
  2. Crankbrothers’ Aluminum 5050-3. This pedal is especially created for mountain bike adventures. It has several pins that offer additional grip. It has a slim body that makes it lighter. Get the 5050-3 for $100.
  3. Twenty6 Predator. These ones offer a large platform and a great grip. They also come with sharp pins that offer great traction. You’ll need leg protection from those, though.
  4. AEffect platform pedals. These pedals are created for downhill frames and trail bikes. It comes with a thin platform surface, a concave body, and bottom-loading teeth. It comes with a secret grease access port, so you can freely do on-bike maintenance as needed. This costs $110.
  5. Shimano Saint MX 80. They’re a bit larger and heavier than the usual flats, but they are extremely durable and offer a ton of grip. They’re also adjustable and serviceable.
  6. Nukeproof Horizon Sam Hill Signature Series Platform Pedals. These ones are designed with the help of internationally-acclaimed downhiller, Sam Hill. They have adjustable and removable pins, so you could easily customize them. It has a huge platform area that is concave. It has a black pedal body with two axle colors to choose from: Gold Titanium and Green Cro-Mo. These colors are in honor or Sam Hill’s country, Australia. Get yours for $115.
  7. Fyxation Gates Pedal. This one is the cheapest among the bunch, at only $20. It is composed of durable nylon and is great on both trails and pump tracks alike. It also comes in seven different colors. Purchase this if you want to add an extra flare to your bike.
  8. Canfield Brothers Crampon Ultimate.
  9. Kore Elite Platform. These pedals are extremely durable and grippy. They’re perfect for aggressive riding.

Choosing Clipless Pedals

Clipless pedals used by mountain bikers usually come in 3 sizes. The first is the most common and compact version, which only has the securing mechanism and not much else. The second, usually for trail use, is mid-sized and includes a small cage for added support. And lastly, the full-sized version that is the largest and most stable for the feet.

Each of the options has their own pros and cons, and must be considered when choosing which one to get. The lightest is the traditional compact version, but the best way to choose is based on what shoes will be worn, and the distance that will be covered by walking.

If wearing very stiff mid-soled cross-country shoes which are race-type, the most suited pedals are the traditionally sized ones. Skate-type shoes on the other hand that are flexible and soft are best for the platforms of the full-sized pedals. Lastly, the new variants of trail shoes, which are just the right amount of stiff and flexible, are best paired with the medium-sized platforms.

Clipless Pedal Options

Up until today, Shimano Pedaling Dynamics (SPD) is the leading format of clipless pedals. It launched way back in the early 1990s but they remain the most widely used brand among riders. While Shimano is not the most ideal at shedding snow and mud, and doesn’t have the most lightweight of pedals,  it does have metal bodies that are incredibly durable. It is the best when it comes to adjustable tensions too. With the SPD, you can easily start with a light grip and slowly go your way up as you get the hang of it.

  • Shimano XT Trail M785. These are durable and have good mud and snow shedding capabilities.
  • Shimano M780 XT Race. it is Shimano’s much smaller and lighter model. It is very durable and adjustable.
  • Shimano PD-M520. This one has been on the market for the longest time because of its reasonable price.
  • Shimano PD-M530. Great for beginners as it uses the most common SPD clipless system.

Crankbrothers is another great option that is a lot lighter than the SPD. It is actually one of the lightest pedals out in the market today. It gives you more freedom when moving the pedal compared to other brands. it is also great for mud and snow shedding.

  • Crank Brother Mallet 3. it is a clipless pedal but offers a large platform as well.

Lastly, Time and Look both have great snow and mud shedding capabilities and extreme durability. They have a great overall feel as well. They are just below Shimano in terms of quality.

Switching from Flats to Clipless Pedals

Most beginners find it a little scary to transition to clipless from flat pedals. The anxiety that comes with it is completely understandable, though. Many ask the same questions: what if I crash, and can’t unclip my shoes from the pedals? What if I can’t get out in time? While these are all legitimate concerns, there are ways on how to reduce these worries. If you are thinking about switching from platform to clipless pedals, here are a few things you need to remember.

What You’ll Need

When transitioning to clipless pedals, the first thing you need to consider is obtaining the right hardware. You have to find the right pedals, cleats, and shoes that fit you perfectly. While it was completely possible to ride your flats using Giro flat pedal shoes, Crocs, and even high heels, you can’t do so with clipless pedals. Note that there are various types of clipless pedal systems out there, and not all of them are compatible with one another.

Pedals

Don’t worry, though, because it is really not that complicated. Because when you get clipless pedals, a set of compatible cleats are already included in the purchase.

Most clipless pedals are compatible with the SPD standard. These pedals/cleats will fit any Shimano pedal and other brands such as Look and Wellgo.

On the other hand, Crankbrothers pedals have their own set of cleat system. Unfortunately, these cleats won’t fit pedals made by Shimano and other brands. Another brand that has its own proprietary cleat system is Time.

If you own several bikes, it is highly advisable that you use compatible pedals, so that you will not have to change the cleats on your shoes from time to time. Before you go on riding another person’s bike, check that your cleats are compatible with their pedals. You want to do this to prevent accidents or breakage caused by cleat incompatibility.

Almost all Shimano, Time, and SPD-compatible pedals have similar adjustable tension modes. By using a small key, the rider can adjust the tension needed to attach and detach from the pedal. If you want your feet to attach firmly to the pedals, make sure to increase the pedals’ tension level. The downside, though, is it is much more difficult to engage your shoes with the pedal.

CrankBrothers pedals and cleats have a distinct design. This brand has four-sided retention wings that are designed for easy entry. Shimano pedals, on the other hand, only have two-sided retention wings. However, CrankBrothers do not have adjustable tension settings.

it is really not difficult to find the best set of pedals that suits your style of riding. Shimano, CrankBrothers and many other brands have especially designed pedals that are durable and offer wide platforms.

There are also lightweight pedals such as the Shimano XTR PD-M9000 and CrankBrothers Eggbeaters. These are ideal for cross-country biking. The Shimano XTR M9120s is perfect for aggressive trail riding.

The CrankBrothers has no tension mechanism on their cleats, but they do sell ones that makes clipless conversion easier by having them release earlier than others. Known as the float, these cleats do not have much room for shoe rotation the pedal before they are released.

Other CrankBrothers versions include the 0-degree cleats, which are perfect for riders who want better efficiency and tighter engagements, like XC riders. They also have cleats for gravity riders that feature more float, making it easier to use the body for cornering, or for riders who have issues with their knees but need them to turn along with the ankle when doing corners. Shimano cleats and those that are Shimano compatible, those that look like spades, are also available in different float options.

Softer metals are used for cleats when compared to the retention mechanism of the pedal. This is because, one or the other will give out one day depending on the amount of riding the biker does. This is why it is often needed to swap out cleats at least once a year or more.

But whether one picks Shimano or CrankBrothers really depends on personal preference. Both have pros and cons for each rider, such as the adjustability of Shimano but its unclipping difficulties, or CrankBrothers’ easier to manipulate but limited and simpler design.

Shoes

The evolution of clipless mountain bikes shoes through the years is pretty impressive. There are many brands and models of clipless shoes to choose from. All you need to do is find the best one that fits perfectly, works well with your riding style, has a two-bolt design that will fit both Shimano and CrankBrothers cleats, and of course, looks great on you.

Practice

This is the hardest part about switching to clipless is getting the hang of it. That is why you need to constantly practice. Once you feel that you have grown accustomed to clipless, you can now start practicing on bike trails. Start with the easier and less technical trails which won’t require much bailing. After a while, your muscle memory will allow you to attach and detach from the bike effortlessly.

Switching to clipless may be a bit scary and challenging, but all it really needs is commitment. Just make sure to practice constantly, first on grass, and then on trails. You’ll be able to ride confidently in no time.

Ruben

I always had a thing for bike sports and love almost anything that involves bikes and boards. I work part-time as a designer in the tech industry and work on my blogs whenever I can.

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