Flats vs Clipless Pedals: Which Style is Best for You?

Written by Alvin Holbrook, on March 03, 2021

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.

FLAT PEDALS

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. Santa Cruz Hightower LT - Contender Bicycles. Park City, Utah. 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.

Mountain biker popping their front wheel off the ground

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. Giro Mountain Bike Flat Pedal Shoes 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.

CLIPLESS PEDALS

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.

Cyclist on orange bicycle with shoes clipped to pedalsOrbea Rallon - Contender Bicycles 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. Park City Utah Mountain Biking. Contender Bicycles. 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. Deity Flat Pedals - Contender Bicycles 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. Shimano XT Trail Pedals 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.


3 comments

  • As my interest in group rides has increased and I have made contact with some fairly experienced riders who own top notch bikes, I have felt pressured to make the switch from flats to clipless both for my trail oriented mountain bikes as well as the road stuff. I ride 100% flats because I feel safer and don’t feel at a performance loss against anyone, even pretty fast riders except in fast sprints. Otherwise I can keep up with just about anyone and my specialty is climbing. For some reason I can outclimb just about anyone, probably because I live on top of a hill so all my riding means the way home is up, a lot of up.

    At any rate I keep getting tempted to switch by some mythical and as yet unproven performance increase, and every time I am getting ready to pull the trigger something happens where I need to get off my bike in a hurry. Most recently a minor collision on a bike path with a buddy that resulted in no injury or damage because I was able to stumble with my foot down and hop a few times to catch myself and the bike thanks to riding flat pedals. Had I been clipped in there was no way I would have lowered my leg so easily. It happens a fair amount just in traffic, or hitting bumps, or in technical sections riding MTB or just approaching intersections when you think you can go but a car comes too fast.

    When you look at the studies in racing they are good because you need to sprint at times. But even in group rides at a pretty fast cruise or with uphill climbs, clipless add nothing except danger. IF anything I feel like flats help my performance because when going very fast I can alternate foot position and catch another wind a few times delaying getting exhausted just by slightly changing which muscles I use. You can’t change foot position on clipless not on demand like that. Most especially you are forced on a very “forward” position for your foot whereas with flats you can keep the pedal right in the middle of your foot for better gluteus maximus recruitment. Occasionally people to sprint past me “pulling up” and there’s nothing I can do but I have learned to be zen about that because your leg was never meant to “pull up” so that power doesn’t last long and once they tire I catch them and reel them in.

    Yah my legs are all scratched up but that beats falling and everything that comes from being trapped in your bike with no way out any day.

    If you’re a pro and racing, by all means go clipless if a few bike lengths here and there for your sprints makes a difference. But let’s face it, being stuck to your bike with at best a slow, delayed and clunky means of exit creates some serious safety issues! For everyone else whose salary doesn’t depend on victory, flats is the way.

    Attilio on

  • Fair enough Steve. The grippest of those flat pedals can be brutal, though we’ve found nylon-composite pedals like the Raceface Chester pedals, Crank Brothers Stamps, or Deity Deftraps to be a bit more forgiving and less of a meat tenderizer when the pedal doesn’t go where you want it.

    Alvin - Contender Bicycles on

  • After 3 decades with clipless petals I bought a set of flat petals. At the end of my first ride the back of my calf had several tears in the skin from the pins of my flat petal. I’ll take the occasional tip-over.

    Steve Wilkie on

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