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Are MTB Clipless Pedals Better?

When you arrive at your local bike shop, money in hand, eager to buy that shiny new mountain bike you spotted in the window, it will invariably be fitted with flat pedals or, sometimes with no pedals at all. Should you stay with the flats, or purchase a set of “clipless” pedals?

Most cyclists started their riding career from an early age with flat pedals.  However, most serious mountain bikers prefer to fit clipless pedals. Downhill cyclists are the exception as they will often remove their feet from the pedal during a descent. Each style of the pedal has its pros and cons.

For most mountain biking purposes, clipless pedals are the better option. And while flats are great in some applications, we feel that clipless is the way to go for most of the mountain bikers out there. Here’s why:

Are Clipless Pedals Good for Mountain Biking?

To clear up and address any confusion, the first thing to say is that “clipless” pedals actually clip your feet to the pedal.

The term clipless essentially refers to the difference between the early method of securing the rider to the pedal surface, which was a system of clips and straps over the foot, and the modern method using a system of cleats screwed to the sole of the riding shoe, and a locking mechanism built into the pedal.

It should also be said that, if you decide to go with the clipless option, your choice of shoe is important. Due to the smaller surface area of most clipless pedals, the power you lay down can only be efficiently transferred with a stiff-soled riding shoe.

Rear view man peddling bike

Clipless pedals are pretty ubiquitous in road cycling but in mountain biking circles, there are passionate advocates for both styles, flat and clipless.

For many Cross Country or XC, mountain bikers, the only option is clipless. The reason for this is that securing your foot to the pedal in a fixed position is the most efficient way to transfer the power you create into forwarding momentum.

When you’re clipped in securely, it is easier to maintain the power you generate through your pedal stroke throughout the full circular motion.

In other words, you can generate power on both the downward stroke (from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock) and by pulling up on the upstroke (from 6 to 12). In other words, if you are out on a Cross Country ride and confronted with a monster climb, clipless pedals will allow you to crest the hill without expending as much energy as they help you to harness the power of your hamstrings and glutes.

Flat pedals allow for power to be generated on the downstroke only. On the other hand, most downhill riders and many beginners feel that flat pedals are the way to go.

For the novice mountain biker, being firmly attached with clipless pedals to a bike that does not always go where they want it to go can be an unnerving experience.

Learning the correct MTB technique is paramount in the early stages of a rider’s education. Being able to dab your foot down in a turn or easily take your feet off the pedals to paddle through a difficult technical section inspires confidence in the novice rider.

For the downhill devotee, proper technique is usually something they acquired many years back. The reason many hard-core gravity riders prefer flats is, quite simply, that they are easily able to take a foot off the peg to dab around a corner, hang out a leg to maintain balance, and get away from the bike in a fall!

Do They Really Make a Difference?

In certain circumstances, yes. Being clipped in over rough, rocky terrain allows your feet to remain firmly attached to the pedal without you having to worry about having your foot position constantly changing on the pedal surface due to the choppy nature of the surface.

I mentioned the ease of ascending hard climbs by utilizing all your muscle groups to crest the hill and the same holds for accelerating out of a corner or laying down all your leg power in a sprint to the finish line. Here, the clipless pedal is a far superior choice to a flat pedal.

Are Clipless Pedals Better Than Flat Pedals?

Each pedal style has its pros and cons. And to make it easy for you, we’ve listed each one here:

Clipless Pedals – Pros

  • Power transfer: Clipless pedal shoes invariably have a stiffer sole which allows for more efficient power transfer and greater comfort over longer rides.
  • Shifting feet: Your feet will remain firmly attached to the pedal, no matter the terrain, and, more importantly, in the correct position for maximum power transfer.
  • Bunny Hops and lifting over obstacles: Being able to use your feet to help lift your bike over obstacles is a great advantage
Mountain biker climbing

Flat Pedals – Pros

  • Learning good technique: Flat pedals teach you how to transfer your weight and maintain balance on your bike more easily because you can shift your foot on the pedal surface.
  • Easier to dab a foot: If you need to put a foot to the ground to steady yourself or to help you around a tight corner, then flat pedals are your friend.
  • Getting going on a hill: It’s a whole lot easier to get your bike going again on a steep hill if all you have to do is push down on a nice wide pedal and not have to worry about clipping in on the next downstroke.

Clipless Pedals – Cons

  • The slow-motion fall: When first learning how to clip out of your new set of pedals, you will invariably join the hundreds of thousands of other cyclists who have provided much mirth at the trailhead when you perform your first slow-motion fall. This tragicomedy will always happen when there are lots of other cyclists to witness your embarrassment.
  • Clogging: If you ride in muddy terrain, then your clipless pedals will, at some point resemble a little ball of mud into which it will be impossible to insert your cleat.
  • Getting going on a steep hill: It is super difficult to get going on a steep slope if you have come to a dead stop. To try to clip into the pedal after the first stroke takes the coordination of a top-level athlete.

Flat Pedals – Cons

  • Scarred shins and calves: Flat pedals like to attack your shins and calves at every opportunity. You will recognize the flat pedal devotee by his bruised and wounded lower legs.
  • Bouncing off: Over rough terrain, it is difficult to maintain the correct foot position on your pegs.

Conclusion

The pedal system you ultimately decide to fit your bike comes down to personal preference. It depends largely on the type of riding you see yourself doing. For cross-country riding, we would recommend you opt for clipless but if you’re just starting your MTB adventure or will be riding the downhill gravity train, then choose flats.

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I started mountain biking many years ago to improve my overall health state. After my first ride, I fell in love with the sport. Now I spend dozens of hours a week researching and training to compete in local XC and Enduro events.