Flats vs Clipless Pedals: Which Style is Best for You?
Within the walls of Contender Bicycles are many dream bikes. Made of unobtanium and ultralight pixie dust, these bikes seemingly take the ordinary rider and make them into the next Richie Porte or Nino Schurter. A new integrated carbon handlebar, brakes so powerful they make your eye pop out, wheels so light they might as well be attached to a hoverbike. However, as many focus on these incredible machines, one component often becomes an afterthought: pedals. If you’re keeping your bike rubber-side down during a mountain bike ride, you’ll rarely see your mountain bike pedals long enough to admire them, but they’re important. Pedals define how you ride, how you jump, and distribute your weight through a corner. Certainly, if your feet are bouncing all over the place through rough terrain, there is little way you’ll feel confident on the trail. Now, this might be an argument as subjective as how one pronounces “Assos”, or whether 27.5” + tires are better than 29” tires, but we’re going to do our best to explore every avenue to determine which type of pedals are more advantageous, and when.
Perhaps one of the oddest sensations one can have while riding a mountain bike is the feeling of a tire slipping in a corner, and putting your foot down to stabilize yourself for the first time. Not only does it teach riders where to find the limit of adhesion, it shows that even at that limit, one can keep things in control. In the end, that’s perhaps the biggest advantage to using flat pedals: the ability to move rider weight around easily. Like a ballerina seemingly floats from one side of the stage to the other, flat pedals allow feet to move around at will. Need to center your weight on the pedal as you push into a corner? Easy. Need to drop your heels as you hit the brakes hard? Again, easy. Well, easy once you learn technique. Technique is perhaps the fundamental reason why someone would want flat pedals. See, it’s relatively uncomplicated to bunny hop an obstacle when using clipless pedals; just pull up and out. It’s a bit harder with a flat pedal. Learning to move weight around is key, as is learning to use potential energy. They force riders to learn foundational skills and tricks that can be hidden by riding with clipless pedals. And, as both pedal and shoe designs improve, so too does the ability to ride efficiently. It just takes a bit more effort.. Or skill.
Okay, so skills are important, but skill alone won’t get a rider up unpedalable terrain. When that’s the case, walking is definitely easier in standard flat pedal shoes. You ever try and traverse a tight cliff-side trail with racy xc shoes? Scary. The key to success is a good shoe; grip is absolutely essential, and shoe stiffness doubly so. Without it, even the blingiest of pedals can be rendered insufficient. Bottom line: if you want to improve your riding technique on the trail (regardless if you’re a beginner or not), using flat pedals are the best way to learn.
While it seems like clipless pedals have been de rigueur on mountain bikes forever, they didn’t really start coming into form until the late 80’s-early 90’s with Shimano SPD and TIME ATAC clipless designs. Their advantage? A secure connection to the pedal in all situations. Around that time (and before brands like Five Ten came out with their shoes), shoes designed for riding with mountain-specific flat pedals, ahem, sucked. Grip was mediocre at best, pins sheared, and at times your shins probably thought you were riding with meat tenderizers and not with pedals. In that world, clipless pedals were a revelation that continues today. Here’s the skinny: what clipless pedals lack in sheer width and real estate, they make up for in connectedness. For as well as riders can pedal nicely with a set of flat pedals, using a clipless pedal/shoe setup makes mashing through climbs much more of a point-and-shoot proposition. Overall, riders can be a bit lazier about their pedaling, as they can charge through whatever they’d like and maintain speed relatively easily. Another benefit of riding with a clipless pedal system is the sheer array of shoes available. Sure, technically, ANY shoe works on flat pedals, but most won't provide the grip and pedaling stiffness of a shoe designed for cycling. Clipless shoes take it up a notch. These shoes typically have a bit more tech geared toward breathability and straightforward comfort. Not only are they stiffer and lighter, but they provide more ventilation during our hot, dusty Utah summers.
For many, knowing you’re not going to slip a pedal through a rocky section is one less thing to worry about. For others, clipless pedals mean more slow-speed falls and tipovers. Trade offs for sure.
FLAT OR CLIPLESS PEDALS — WHICH PEDAL
IS FOR YOU?
As said in the beginning, pedal system choice (as well as the style of pedal within each system) is largely subjective. Both have their admitted advantages and disadvantages, which is why we at Contender Bicycles sell both styles of mountain bike pedals. If it's someone’s first time riding a mountain bike even remotely seriously, flat pedals can be the way to go. Luxury is having something even when you don’t necessarily need it, and being able to easily put a foot down without having to first release that foot is an exercise in lavish excess. Even as more people are turning (or returning) to flat pedals, clipless pedals are still the old guard of the pedal world. It could be due to tradition that they’re sticking around in such force, but with the way that shoes continue to develop, there’s nothing that points to flat pedals completely taking the throne. Have a marathon ride ahead of you that is more about quickly covering miles efficiently than techy descents? Clipless mountain bike pedals are phenomenal. What would I pick? Well, I personally have both pedal systems. If the ride has a good amount of hike-a-bike, or if I know there’s going to be some technical descents, I reach for my Deity Compound Platform Pedals. The burly nylon composite platform pedal is light and durable, and it’s replaceable pins provide as much grip as some of the best pedals around. When it does whack your leg, it really doesn’t hurt too much. For the majority of my rides? I love my Shimano Deore XT SPD Pedal. The outer platform ensures that cleats engage quickly with the pedal, and in the rare occurrence that I don’t clip in, the platform is big enough to not fret about slipping. Once in they feel more stable than a standard platformless pedal. The ability to use different muscles by pulling up on the pedal matters over a longer ride, and there’s not much to stop me from using the techniques I learn from flat pedals on a clipless setup. Whatever you might decide, choosing a decent set of shoes and pedals are important to a quality bike ride. They’re durable, long-lasting, and can be swapped from bike to bike. In my eyes, that makes it much more worthwhile to spend a little bit more here than on something like an upgraded drivetrain. Ride what you like; either way, they leave you one step closer to enjoying your ride.