The battle of supremacy between clipless and flat pedals may not be as old as time but it definitely has been going on for a few decades.
Enthusiasts on either side of the aisle scream of the benefits of each. And that is the reason why this debate has been going on for so long: Both sides are correct, especially in the perspective of mountain biking.
Mountain biking offers such broad options for biking challenges that it becomes a bit of a challenge itself to find the correct point of view to even begin this age-old debate. The advantages of each type of pedal are many, albeit often being situational. But we cannot ignore the light sprinkling of a few cons of these pedals as well.
The debate becomes a balancing act of these points and features and the scales have been pretty level so far.
But the landscape might be changing thanks to years of innovation of cycling components. With manufacturers min-maxing performance and comfort, we might be close to finding a clear winner!
Clipless VS Flat MTB Pedals
Clipless MTB Pedals
The name clipless pedal is often confusing and very counter intuitive. This naming responsibility fell on the shoulders of the original manufacturers who thought it would be a good idea to name them clipless pedals to differentiate them from ‘toe-clip’ pedals.
Clipless pedals feature a mechanism, usually spring loaded, that helps clip the cleats on them. The pedals themselves are small, often having little to no platform surrounding them at all.
A 2-bolt cleat system is often used for MTB clipless pedals, and it has not changed at all. This cleat style even penetrates many road biking scenes thanks to it being very easy to work with. After trying the Shimano SPD pedals ourselves, it was pretty hard to move on to the others.
Let’s look at some advantages that these pedals bring to the mountain biking scene.
+ Provides stability for your feet
Cycling off-road naturally means riding over rough terrain. Mountain biking usually involves really bumpy tracks full of rocks and roots.
Pedaling through such terrain can quite literally be a pain on your backside and your feet. While you can keep your behind lifted off your seat, the same can’t be said for your feet.
Clipless pedals keep your feet locked in place even through the bumpiest of tracks. You don’t have to exert extra force to keep your feet steady and stuck to the pedals throughout the entire ride.
+ Feeling of safety
Having your feet locked in place can give you a feeling of safety even on the most challenging of tracks. You will feel more in control of your bike as you are focusing more on your cycling over safety, and it also helps to raise your confidence as well.
+ More rear wheel control
Speaking of control, you will find it is easier to control some of your lifts and slides with clipless pedals. This can directly translate to more speed, which is always a bonus if you are cycling competitively.
+ Greater power efficiency
A common feature of all clipless pedals is its ability to efficiently transfer power to your bike from your feet.
With these pedals you do not have to worry about foot positioning as it is usually optimized by being already locked in. Your feet do not bounce over rough terrain nor do you need to exert extra force to keep it steady. All that power is efficiently transferred.
So we do suggest that you invest a few extra bucks on fitting yourself properly at a bike fitter, if nothing else but your lower half. Especially if you are looking to bike off-road seriously.
Some disadvantages of the clipless pedals should also be mentioned.
– Overall Costs
On top of being quite expensive, clipless pedals can have some hefty requirements.
These pedals are not one-size-fits-all, rather all the components of the pedal system must match each other. Namely the pedals, cleats and shoes.
The clipless pedals themselves cost a fair bit over $100 while the specialized shoes can cost twice as much.
As pedals usually tend to be one of the most replaced components of the bike, this cost can easily ramp up.
We did just talk about clipless pedals being safe, and it is not wrong. However the pedals do not omit the chances of accidents or crashing, that depends on the cyclist’s control of the bike and, of course, luck.
But in the event of a crash, the clipless pedal can be quite dangerous. If you are unable to unclip yourself on time, you can experience serious injuries, especially to your ankles.
– Learning Curve
While not much of a disadvantage, having a learning curve can push away many beginners. With good reasons.
Continuing from our previous point, being unable to fully be in control of your clipless pedals can see you experience a lot of mishaps. Especially on rough mountain biking tracks.
Type of biking where clipless pedals are the most efficient:
Flat MTB Pedals
Coming down from the feature paced discussion of the clipless pedals, the flats can seem quite bland. But that is a good thing!
Flat pedals are the simplest to get into and as such, they are suggested to be used by beginners who are looking to get into cycling. They are easy to use and have a fairly low learning curve.
But flat pedals have come a long way since you have used them as a child back in the day. Manufacturers have put a bit more sophistication in their make and design to keep them competitive in today’s market.
These sophistications come from…
Adjustable Grip (Pins)
…and, of course, Design.
So let us first look at some of the features that make the flat petals shine.
+ Works with any type of shoe
You do not need special cycling shoes to work with flat pedals. Any type of shoe will work, as long as the bottom sole has enough tread and grip to work with the pins of the pedals.
That said, it is not a bad idea to invest in special cycling shoes for the flat pedals. These will be a bit stiffer and will help with efficient power transfer to the pedals.
+ Budget friendly
Unlike clipless pedals, flats do not require extra components like cleats or shoes to match itself. It is more of a plug-and-play type of situation.
On top of that, the pedals themselves are pretty cheap, many cost under $100.
But if you want to get into mountain biking a bit more seriously, consider investing more on the quality of the pedals.
+ Lower learning curve
Not much to elaborate on this point as the use of these pedals are pretty self-explanatory.
+ Technical freedom
You can do technical moves on flats easily. Your feet have the freedom necessary to challenge even the most difficult tracks.
+ Crashing on them is ‘safer’
You can bail out your feet anytime as they are not locked in position.
– Lack of efficiency
With your feet bouncing all the time on rough terrain, you will definitely lose a lot of power just to keep your feet on the pedals.
This extra power could have been utilized for control or speed.
– Pedal to the shins
A common occurrence with flat pedals. You can sometimes find your feet slipping off the pedals and have the free pedal impact hard against your shins.
This can be a serious injury and can leave lasting scars.
Type of riding where it is most efficient
- Technical tracks
- Free riding
Tips For Choosing Pedals
No matter what type of pedal you choose, make sure to keep certain considerations in mind.
- Check how long the pedals will be serviceable.
- Prioritize pedals that are sturdy and durable, even if you have to spend a few extra bucks.
- Make sure that the pedals you get can be easily maintained and repaired by you.
- Keep a lookout for pedals that have good mud shedding capabilities.
As we can see, where the clipless pedal failed, the flat pedals came in quite strong, and the opposite is also true.
That said, we are definitely close to finding our universal winner but unfortunately we are just not there yet. But…
The clipless pedal is the overall winner in our books. Nothing really beats the extra confidence that comes with having your feet clipped in nor the sense of security and the performance gains that come alongside it.
Flat pedals are still very close behind however. Their ease of use and the freedom to challenge yourself on more technical tracks that you get from them is really second to none.
But at the end of the day it is still true that you can move to clipless from flats, but it is very unlikely that you will move to flats after experiencing clipless pedals.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1) Are plastic MTB pedals any good?
Ans.: No, not necessarily. On the outside they may seem the same as any of the alloy pedals, plastic pedals have fundamental disadvantages.
They wear out faster.
If they have plastic pins instead of metal pins, the grips become practically useless in wet conditions, not to mention that they are non-adjustable.
The only thing the plastic pedals have got over alloy pedals is their price. Plastic pedals are very, very cheap.
Q2) Can you ride clipless pedals with normal shoes?
Ans.: No you cannot. Clipless pedals are structured in such a way that you have to attach them with a cleat if you plan on placing your feet on them. Even with flat, grippy shoes, you will see your feet simply slide over the pedals.
The clipless pedals themselves also have a small platform, so there really is no space to place your feet on them safely.