We are a society divided, with two opposing sides so embattled it threatens to tear us all apart. Of course, I’m talking about flat pedal riders vs. clipless riders, a debate nearly as old as the mountain bike itself.
Every rider has different needs and preferences. Each pedal system has pros and cons. Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each so you can decide what pedals are best for you.
Freeriders like two-time Red Bull Rampage winner Brett Rheeder exclusively ride flat pedals. Photo: Samantha Saskia Dugon / Red Bull Content Pool.
Flat pedals advantages
- Can dab and bail when things go wrong
- Teaches key skills like weighting and unweighting
- Allows for more sick trick options
- “Flat pedals win medals!”
Flat pedal disadvantages
- Requires more focus to keep feet on in rough terrain
- Technical climbs might be harder to clear
- Slipping a pedal can slice up your shin like Freddy Krueger
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Five-time elite downhill world champion Loic Bruni going warp speed in clipless pedals. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool.
Clipless pedal advantages
- More efficient for pedaling and climbing
- Your feet stay attached through rough terrain
- Foot position is always consistent
- Clipless pedals… also win medals
Clipless pedal disadvantages
- You risk developing lazy riding habits
- Clipless shoes aren’t as easy to walk/hike in
- Failing to unclip means tipping over like a newborn giraffe
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How to choose flat vs. clipless pedals
Slopestyle legend Brandon Semenuk doing a trick only possible on flat pedals. Photo: Ian Collins / Red Bull Content Pool
Freeriders and slopestyle riders who shred, jump, and do stunts, choose flat pedals so they can easily dab and bail when pushing the limits. Because it's easier to put your foot out if something goes wrong, flat pedals are usually the best choice for newer riders learning to ride trails and building confidence on technical terrain. They're also a great way for experienced riders to keep their skills sharp and break bad/lazy habits formed from riding clipless pedals. Riders need to properly weight flats pedals and choose good lines to stay attached to the bike, and these skills can transfer back to riding clipless pedals. Also, on tough terrain that requires a lot of hiking to access, flat pedal shoes are much nicer to walk in.
These days, most pro XC, enduro, and downhill racers race on clipless pedals. You’ll never see a top XC pro using flats because they want to maximize pedaling efficiency and speed when climbing and sprinting (clipless XC pedals and shoes also happen to be much lighter). For most enduro and downhill racers, being physically attached to the bike with clipless pedals adds security so they can charge faster through rock gardens and other technical terrain. Clipless pedals allow them to devote less energy to keeping their feet on so they can focus more on hitting their lines and going fast.
Former XC world champion Kate Courtney attacking a climb in clipless pedals. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool
Of course, there will always be exceptions. Sam Hill has long been the flat pedal patron saint in enduro and downhill racing. I’ve ridden with plenty of flat pedal riders who climb with the best and countless clipless riders with impeccable descending skills.
Consider what traits matter most to you. Then, when you settle on your preferred pedal system, practice, practice, practice! Get really good at riding your pedals. Anyone can learn to tackle technical climbs on flat pedals or dab and bail with clipless pedals. Good riders are good, not because of the pedals they choose, but because they practice a lot and work on their weaknesses. You can do that with any pedal.
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Do TPC mountain bikers choose flat or clipless?
I surveyed over 60 experienced mountain bikers at TPC and currently, the majority of respondents choose clipless pedals. Many explained that they like riding clipless pedals for technical climbs and blasting through rock gardens. A small percentage choose clipless for XC and trail riding but switch to flats at downhill bike parks.
How often do flat-pedal riders slip a pedal or slice their shins? Or do clipless riders fail to unclip and fall over? For both questions, over 80% answered, “Almost never.” It seems that practice and experience will make these concerns non-issues.
Our favorite mountain bike pedals
If you’re looking for new pedals, here are a few of my favorites for each style.
The Race Face Chester and PNW Components Range pedals are both great budget pedals with a lightweight nylon body and lots of color options.
If you want a beefier aluminum pedal, I like the machined beauties from Tenet, 5DEV, and OneUp. They all have big platforms, replaceable pins, and are extremely low-profile, which gives you extra clearance to avoid pedal strikes. They're pricier, but they will last years (maybe decades).
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Clipless XC / trail pedals
The classic pedal in this category is Shimano's 500 series SPD pedal. It's a bit heavier than higher end Deore XT and XTR pedals, but it's more affordable and so tough that a set can last well over a decade.
I personally prefer the look and feel of Crank Brother's Candy and Time's ATAC XC pedals and have raced for years in those two models.
To learn more, check out: Crank Brothers vs. Shimano SPD pedals.
Clipless trail / enduro / downhill pedals
For enduro and downhill, clipless pedals that add a supportive platform are the most popular. This provides a place to temporarily put your foot if you have to unclip in sketchy terrain.
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Do you agree with my pedal assessment? What pedals do you prefer on your mountain bike? Let me know in the comments!