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How to Choose Mountain Bike Pedals - Flats & Clipless

The bike pedal - an integral part of your connection to the trail. Choosing the right mountain bike pedals can be a daunting task, with so many different options, including the age-old debate of flats versus clipless pedals. Whether you're outfitting your new bike, looking to upgrade or are interested in trying something new - we've broken down the pros and cons to help you make a more informed decision on how to choose mountain bike pedals and get the most out of your revolutions.

Types of Mountain Bike Pedals

There are two main types of mountain bike pedals, flat or platform pedals and clipless pedals. Most people are familiar with flat or platform pedals - they’re found on tons of bikes. Clipless pedals, meanwhile, are a bit more confusing because they are functionally “clip in” bike pedals, which use cleats to connect your shoes to the pedals. Read along and we’ll help you choose the best mountain bike pedals for you.

Flat vs clipless mountain bike pedals

Flat vs Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals

When it comes down to choosing flat or clipless mountain bike pedals there are a lot of things to consider, and one syle isn’t objectively better than the other - both have their pros and cons. In general, flat pedals are good for beginner riders, riders that do a lot of tricks or jumps, and for times when you don’t want the commitment of being clipped in. Clipless pedals, meanwhile, are great for everyday riders who want the confidence of not slipping off the pedals, and those who are looking for the most efficiency in their pedaling. Below are some more pros and cons of both flat and clipless pedals.

Reasons to Choose Flat MTB Pedals

  • You value being able to take your foot off the pedals and put your foot down at any time
  • You are a beginner rider
  • You do a lot of tricks or slopestyle riding
  • You’re riding slippery, wet terrain with unpredictable traction
  • You’re scared of the commitment of clipless pedals
  • You don’t want to buy dedicated mountain bike shoes

Reasons to Choose Clipless MTB Pedals

  • You value efficiency over convenience
  • You want to be locked on while riding rough terrain
  • You are okay with the learning curve
  • You want better control of your bike

How to Choose Flat or Platform Mountain Bike Pedals

Flat, or platform, bike pedals are what most riders are used to. These pedals have a flat platform, allowing you to ride in any type of shoes. Flat pedals don’t have any cleats, cages, or clips tethering you to the pedal - you’re free to step on or off. Mountain bike flat pedals have small spikes, known as pins, that help to keep your shoes from slipping off the pedals - a painful and scary experience. Most beginner mountain bikers will choose to use flat pedals because of the familiarity, no special shoes required and low commitment. There are a couple of important features to consider when choosing which flat pedals are right for you, we’ll cover these below.

Flat Pedal Material - Metal vs Composite

Flat pedals usually come in either metal or composite construction like nylon or various plastics. These materials have their pros and cons. Metal flat pedals are durable. They are resistant to rocks and other pedal strikes, where composite pedals can get scraped and gouged. Likewise, metal is stiffer, leading to better power transfer. On the flip side, composite pedals do the job well for less money.

Flat Pedal Size

The next thing to consider is the size of the platform. The larger the pedal, the more evenly force will be distributed when pedaling and standing on the pedals, meaning they’ll be comfortable. A larger mountain bike pedal also means you’re less likely to slip off the pedal. Pedals can be too big, however, if the platform is larger than your shoes, or if you aren't able to properly engage all of the pins. Many pedals come in multiple sizes, allowing you to get the right size for your foot and shoe size.

Flat Pedal Shape - Concavity & Convexity

While they’re still called flats, some platform pedals are built with a small bit of concavity or convexity in order to increase grip. It’s possible to achieve a similar effect by changing the length of the pins on your pedal, too, raising or lowering the inside pins relative to the outside pins. These pedals can give you an even better grip than truly flat platform pedals.

Flat Pedal Pins

In short, the more pins in the bike pedal, and the longer the pins, the better grip you will get between your shoes and your pedals. We recommend that mountain bikers look for flat pedals with 10-12 pins per side. There are a couple of other pin-related items to consider as well. Some pedals, usually cheaper composited pedals, have the pins molded into the pedal, meaning that they’re not replaceable. Other flat pedals let you adjust and replace the pins with an allen key. This means that you have the ability to customize how “sticky” your pedals are and replace pins if they break, fall out, or get dull.

How to Choose Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals

Counterintuitively, clipless pedals use a mechanical attachment between your shoe and the pedal (the term "clipless" refers to the lack of a toe clip or "basket"). Mountain clipless pedals use a shoe with lugged soles and a recessed cleat that enables walking, which can make them an ideal choice for casual road commuters too. Most mountain clipless pedal systems use a "2-hole" design and have adjustable tension to fine tune the release to your weight and strength. Clipless systems connect you solidly to the pedal and release when you twist your foot; many styles offer some degree of lateral “float” which can be great for those with knee problems.

As mentioned above, clipless mountain bike pedals work with two-bolt mountain bike style cleats and are most often dual-sided, with a larger platform than clipless road bike pedals. This wider platform offers better feel on the pedals when you’re standing, like when you’re descending. Some clipless mountain bike pedals even have wide platforms with pins, similar to flat pedals, for supreme traction, power transmission, and feel.  Many clipless mountain bike pedals use Shimano’s SPD cleat system, however, there are a couple of alternatives as well. SPD stands for Speed Pedaling Dynamics, and has emerged as the near-ubiquitous system for mountain bike clipless pedals. Other systems do exist, so make sure your cleats and pedals are compatible while shopping.

What is Clipless Pedal Float?

"Float” is a common spec to see listed with clipless pedals - this number refers to the degrees of rotation built into the pedal while clipped in. Float gives you some margin for error and lets you use your feet and lower body to steer the bike. Almost all mountain bike clipless pedals have some degree of float. The smaller the float angle, the more likely you are to release unintentionally, and your margin for error is smaller. There is a difference, however, between the float and the angle at which you release from the pedal, creating a bit of a grey area in between the two values.

Clipless Pedal and Shoe Compatibility

Mountain bike shoes use a two-bolt cleat, compared to the three-bolt pattern found on clipless road bike shoes and cleats. Aside from this cleat functionality, you’ll want to consider the shape of the shoes and the pedals. Some clipless mountain bike shoes look more like a road bike shoe, with more curvature in the sole, and different sole patterns. These types of shoes might contact the wide platforms and pins of clipless mountain bike shoes differently than more flat skate-style clipless mountain bike shoes, which have flatter soles, more like shoes built for flat pedals. Neither style is superior - it really comes down to preference, but it’s important to pay attention to how the cage or platform contacts the shoe to ensure the best traction and feel. Pedals can be adjusted somewhat, with spacers and by changing the height of the pins.

How to Use Clipless MTB Pedals

While it may seem intimidating at first, riding with clipless pedals will quickly become second-nature with a little bit of practice. We recommend starting out by putting your bike next to a wall, or something you can hang on to, so you can hold on and stay stable while practicing clipping and unclipping.

To clip into clipless pedals, place the cleat on the pedal, sliding it forward slightly with some downward pressure. Most mountain bike clipless pedals are dual-sided, it doesn’t matter which side you clip into. When you’ve had some practice clipping in with both feet, you’re ready to ride. Start with the foot that you start your pedal stroke with. Clip in and get some momentum, and once you’re moving and stable, you can clip in your other foot.

To release from clipless pedals, simply twist your heel out, away from the bike. You’ll find that unclipping is easier than you might think, though everyone has had a fall or two when they've forgetten to unclip, it’s part of the game! Some riders might be worried about unclipping, or not unclipping when they fall. More often than not, the act of falling will automatically unclip you from the pedals, keeping you from getting tangled up with your bike.

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