Should You Be Riding Flat or Clipless Pedals?

Next Up

Depending on where you are in your riding and what you ride, you'll want to give one or the other a try. Austin Hopkins photo.

You knew we were going to throw this one out there at some point, didn’t you? Well, you have to pick one because sticking your big toe in the crank holes to pedal is uncomfortable.

While there is ultimately no wrong answer here, pedals are one of three contact points with your bike (arguably the most critical), and the one through which power is generated–so it warrants a bit of careful thought. Let’s start with Global MTB’s video:

The points in this video are all well taken (big fan of Neil Donoghue, he’s so dreamy); flat pedals and shoes are cheaper and easier to get in and out of. Clipless pedals provide you with a stronger connection to the bike and the feeling of greater pedaling efficiency. Of course, you can DH with clipless and ride trail in flats.

In terms of clipless efficiency; I feel the benefit doesn’t manifest as immediate, raw power transfer but, given the perception of connectivity, you are more likely to focus on a circular pedaling action, which helps keep constant cadence and a higher overall speed.

Clipless efficiency comes into play more when you are fatigued and need to recruit other muscle groups (hams and calves) to help pedal. Also, when standing, as you pump the opposing forces of core/obliques and handlebar pressure to drive power into your pedals, being clipped in helps stabilize that motion (especially when tired).

For building technique, flats are great. I teach in flats. Bunny-hopping, front wheel lifts, rear wheel lifts and clawing in flats prevents you from cheating by just yanking up on the cleats. You have to actually master the big “V” (opposing forward pressure on your handlebars and rearward pressure with toes down on the pedals) and the little “V” (level pedals, front pedal heel down and rear pedal toes down) to un-weight the bike. Even if you ride clipless, switching to flats for a week will help up your game.

A note about safety: I hear a lot of whining about flopping over at a stoplight or trail junction your first few times in clipless. Really? If that bothers you, stick to video games. I’m sure there’s a Wii mountain bike that will make you happy (or Oculus Rift for you 1% types).

However, I have torn tendons in my ankle at a lift park when, while falling, my heel pressed against the seat-stay and the pedal couldn’t release. Alternatively, if you slip off a flat pedal with pins, say goodbye to the skin on the front of your shin. But again, mountain biking.

Yes, they make pedals where one side is clip and the other is flat, but that’s like an unsatisfying ‘just the tip’ session.

CHOOSING PEDALS: CLIPLESS

For clipless (to be clear, the slightly counter-intuitive term clipless comes from having a retention system that is NOT a metal cage over your foot) there are many options. Shimano, Crank Brothers, Time, Speedplay and on and on. In my experience, the adjustability and simplicity of Shimano wins out. I LOVE the PD-M9020 platform pedals (or 785) for everyday, park and enduro. For XC, or pedaling a light bike, cyclocross or on road, the PD-M780 or 540 works great.

I have friends who swear by the Crank Brothers Mallet pedal–also a nice big platform and easy retention system. I rode Crank Brothers Candy pedals for a while, but kept destroying them, and they also release really quickly. I spent a year or so on Time Atac pedals. They are super burly, you can pound nails with them and the springs were probably taken off a bear trap. My heavier friends love them. Aside from their weight, the tight springs want to keep you pushing to get over something that’s about to throw you off–whether you want to or no–like a tough-love coach.

Speedplay Syzr are great too, lots of pedigree and engineering, ceramic roller bearings and adjustable float. I really like how they come in different spindle lengths, so you can tailor the Q factor (stance width) without shims or extenders – very cool.

Of course, all those companies make both light XC pedals and burlier clipless platforms (and good flats). If you're riding light and fast, get light pedals, like Crank Brothers eggbeaters. If heavier, the Mallet or PD-M785. Do your homework on what pedals will be best for you. And don't buy more than one set at first, because you can’t switch clipless pedal brands without switching the cleats on your shoes - so once you’re into a manufacturer, it takes a bit to change over if you have a few bikes or a few sets of pedals (though you can switch all different pedals from the same manufacturer).

Also, I would STRONGLY recommend getting a pedal that has adjustable release tension. Releasing too early is annoying (just ask the ladies) and too late is, well, dangerous.

I would STRONGLY recommend getting a pedal that has adjustable release tension.

Personal preference, technique and rider weight should drive where your settings actually end up. A quick tip: if you borrow someone’s pedals to test them out, don’t change the settings or, if you do, make sure you memorize them and put them back where they were.

SHOES FOR CLIPLESS

Doing more downhill? Match a burlier pedal with a burlier shoe. Going clipless will definitely help you stay connected through the rough stuff. Anneke Beerten/Specialized photo.

When pairing shoes to pedals, as long as the cleat fits, you’re basically fine. But I’ve noticed lighter pedals and lighter shoes pair better (especially on lighter bikes) and heavier pedals and more DH or Enduro shoes work better together (similarly, when used on stout bikes). Sidi Dom 5 (light & stiff) and 5.10 Falcon (beefier & flexible) shoes, both with Shimano cleats. GW Photo

Basically if you’re not walking or getting off the bike a lot, and like XC or fast trail riding, a light stiff shoe is better for power transfer. If you’re walking around, pushing your bike uphill or dabbing down a lot, get a skate style spd shoe. A Sidi Dominator 5 or Drako (for you Oculus Rift users) gets a little lost on a large pedal.

I have a 5.10 Maltese Falcon and Sidi Dom 5 and alternate based on what I’m riding. Because I mostly use the platform pedal, I usually wear the 5.10. Another tip: once you’ve bought shoes and pedals, play with the cleat position on the bottom of the shoe to optimize pedaling for yourself (we’ll cover this in more detail in an upcoming article).

There are literally dozens of manufacturers to choose from for any style shoe.

CHOOSING PEDALS: FLATS

Proper flats, like crank brother's 5050 3's above, will have replaceable pins that can be raised or lowered to provide more grip, or swapped when they get rounded off and lose their bite. Ryan Dunfee photo.

To be clear, we are not talking about the small, plastic flat pedals that come on bikes. Those are useless for anything other than a trip to the store. When we say flats we are talking about a large platform aluminum (or Titanium for you Sidi Drako clipless riders) pedal with small metal pins that grab into the rubber soles of your shoes. There are even more quality manufacturers of flat pedals than clipless (though those guys make good flats too) like crank brothers, e*thirteen and Race Face.

When shopping flats, you’re looking for a combination of price, weight, number of pins and color. I’ve got a pink pair and a yellow pair, because those were on sale, and I use the pink pair most because they feel grabbier, even though the yellow ones have a few more pins.

What you’re looking for is a slightly concave shape, so your foot settles deep into the pedal. You also want a good amount of metal pins to grab your shoes. Maybe invest in some shin guards….

SHOES FOR FLATS

Bike-specific shoes like 5.10's Impacts, above, will be like stiffer versions of skateboard shoes, with grippier sole rubber for holding onto pedals, as well as stiffer to aid power transfer and stability. Nick Yerger photo.

Any skate style shoe will do for starters. Stay away from running shoes–those may feel cushy to walk in, but all that softness in the sole and sloppiness from the thick rubber sole are the opposite of what you want. You want stiffness and power transfer.

Bike-specific MTB shoes have plastic or metal shanks in them for stiffness, padding around the ankles, and extra-grippy rubber on the soles. 5.10 are masters in this domain, as their rubber was originally developed for rock climbing. I will say that when you drop on a good flat MTB shoe, and replace the hipster pumas you’re rocking now, you WILL feel the difference. Ryan (Editorial Manager) actually had to take pins out of his pedals because his 510's were that grippy. As with any shoe, try them on and shop for fit.

That’s all, you may go.

Next Story

TGR Tested: Faction Dictator 3.0