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Pedal prizefight: Flats vs. clipless

By Bruce Lin


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. 

Flat vs. clipless mountain bike pedalsEvery 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. 


Emil Johansson Flat pedals hiking mountain bikeEmil Johansson hiking up at Red Bull Rampage with flat pedals. Photo by: Hanna Jonsson / Red Bull Content Pool

Flat pedals advantages

  • Can dab and bail when things go wrong
  • Teaches key skills like weighting and unweighting pedals
  • Allows for more trick options
  • “Flat pedals win medals!”

Flat pedal disadvantages

  • Require 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


Loic Bruni downhill world cup mountain bike clipless pedalsThree-time downhill world champion Loic Bruni going warp speed in clipless pedals. Photo by 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 in
  • Failing to unclip means tipping over like a newborn giraffe


How to choose flat vs. clipless pedals

Brandon Semenuk flat pedals slopestyle mountain bikeSlopestyle legend Brandon Semenuk doing a trick only possible on flat pedals. Photo by: Ian Collins / Red Bull Content Pool

Pro freeriders and slopestyle riders, who shred, jump, and do stunts, choose flats so they can dab and bail when pushing the limits. New riders learning skills and building confidence on technical terrain will often improve faster on flats. Also, on tough downhill terrain that requires a lot of hiking to access, flat pedal shoes are much nicer to walk in.

Most pro XC, enduro, and downhill racers choose 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. Being attached to the bike adds security so enduro and downhill racers can devote minimal energy to keeping their feet on in rough terrain.  

Kate Courtney XC world cup mountain bike racing clipless pedalsFormer world champion Kate Courtney attacking a climb in clipless pedals. Photo by: 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 better than me and countless clipless riders with impeccable skills. 

Consider what traits matter most to you. Then, when you settle on a pedal system, practice, practice, practice!. You can always 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. 


Do The Pro’s Closet’s riders choose flats or clipless?

Flat vs clipless mountain bike pedals rider surveyI surveyed over 60 experienced mountain bikers and 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.” Practice and experience 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. 

Flat pedals

Best mountain bike flat pedalsThe Race Face Chester is a great budget pedal with a nylon body and lots of color options. If you want a beefier aluminum pedal, Shimano pedals are hard to beat. I also like the extremely low-profile Look pedals, which give you extra clearance to avoid pedal strikes. 

Race Face Chester - $54.99
Look Trail Roc - $79.99
Shimano Deore XT - $99.99


Best Mountain bike clipless pedalsI raced XC this year on the Look X-Tracks and was very happy with the weight, engagement, and float. For trail riding and enduro, clipless pedals that add a supportive platform like the Deore XT and Mallet are the most popular. 

Look X-Track - $49.99
Shimano Deore XT - $129.99
Crank Brothers Mallet E - $165.00


Do you agree with my pedal assessment? What pedals do you prefer on your mountain bike? Let us know in the comments!

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