Mountain Bike pedals, Flat or clipped in? This is an update to a 2010 article I wrote as I continue to get a version of the following question at least once a month and as I have continued to ride and learn my feelings on this subject have evolved.
“I do have a question, I’ve only been riding for 3 months, at what point do you think I should get clips? I’m not sure I am ready for them but I notice the people I ride with are all clipped in and they are so much faster than me. Is that a big factor in speed?
This is a great question. First you never have to get clipless pedals. Clipless pedals (the ones you clip into) are simply a different way of doing things, barely better in some ways, not as good in other ways. I have heard from students who say that their local shop told them they need clipless pedals and nothing could be further from the truth. A good set of flat pedals and sticky soled shoes is a better system for many riders. A good set of 5.10 shoes and thin flat pedals with grip like Canfield Brothers Crampon Pedals.
Yes, I usually ride clipped in but it took me a lot of time and crashing to get used to clipping in and out and a lot of time to get used to riding clipped in. The more I ride, coach and learn the more I see the advantages of flat pedals. I have been riding both pedal types for years, now I mostly ride flat pedals for cross country/enduro type riding and I clip in for downhill! I know that might seem backward but this article will explain why.
Pros of running flat pedals
1. More Confidence! You can take your feet off quickly and easily making trying technical sections and learning important skills like track standing easier. I have a lot of friends who always ride flat pedals (for cross country riding) and like being able to put a foot down at will. They say this enables them to try more technical moves and sections (especially going uphill) that they would be to scared to try clipped in.
2. Less fear for many riders, which allows the rider to stay in their comfort zone and relax! We ride much, much better when confident and relaxed. Fear and learning do not mix, you can not learn when scared. Muscle Tension (which fear produces) and riding do not mix well either.
3. Flat pedals provide more feedback, giving you an idea of how you are riding. Because you are not attached to the pedals if you are riding stiff and relying on your suspension to soak up the bumps (instead of using your body) you will notice that your feet bounce all over the pedals. This is a sign that you should be more relaxed and supple on the trail.
4. Flat pedals don’t allow you to cheat when doing lifting maneuvers such as rear wheel lifts, bunny hops and bump jumps. This can be valuable when learning proper technique. As a matter of fact, I never realized how much I cheated (pulled up with my cleats instead of using the bump to gain lift (pulling with cleats requires more energy and tends to stiffen you up and through you slightly off balance) when doing bump jumps until I switched to flats one day and my feet flew off the pedals doing a bump jump! After just three or four attempts with flats I had the motion down better than ever and was able to jump higher or further (depending on my goal) using less energy than I had been using clipped in.
5. My back! Flat pedals don’t allow you to pull up with your hamstring so you have to piston (pedal only by pushing down) which encourages standing and pedaling. If you’ve read all my articles on pedaling efficiency and/or taken a camp with me you know I that I believe seated climbing is better for steep climbs with loose conditions or changing conditions (loose, then hardpack, then loose then rock, etc) because it is much easier to adjust you weight for and aft (maintaining rear wheel traction and keeping front wheel on the ground) than it is standing. It takes a lot of concentration and core effort to not get too far forward and spin the rear tire while standing and climbing on a steep, loose climb. However, if you (like me) have a habit of curling your lower back to lower your chest when climbing (instead of hinging with a flat back) seated climbing can really tweak your lower back. I have found that standing and climbing allows me to keep a straighter back and flat pedals encourage me to stand when climbing, saving my back (but sometimes making loose climbs a little more challenging).
Pros of being clipped in:
1. I like clips for the “attached” to my bike feel. On flat pedals sometimes your boot will bounce off the pedal and when it lands with the heel on the pedal (instead of the ball of your foot) you lose the use of your ankle (which is a big part of your shock absorption) and you start plowing into the trail instead of floating smoothly. So being attached to your pedal keeps you on the ball of your foot allowing you to be smoother sometimes. This is why most top World Cup downhill racers clip in (Greg Minnaar, Aaron Gwin, Rat Boy, Steve Peat, Gee Atherton, etc.)
2. Being clipped in does not make pedaling more efficient but it does allow you to produce a little more power when needed (by pulling up with your hamstrings). Pulling up with your hamstrings does make you less efficient but when you are about to stall on a steep hill you aren’t worried about efficiency, you are worried about producing enough power to get over the hill!
3. Being clipped in encourages you to corner with correct technique and body position and keep your feet on the pedals (usually when you take a foot off your pedals you end up in an out of balance position often causing a slide out). World Champion Greg Minnaar always uses clips when racing in the mud for this reason. He said in one of my camps, “with flat pedals you take your foot out instinctively, often when you don’t need to. This tends to put you in an out of balance position (weight below your bike instead of above your bike)”.
Which pedal type should you use? Experiment!, find which pedal system you feel most comfortable on and confident riding on.
Look for my post on foot placement and which shoe/pedal combination (what kind of clipless pedal, what kind of flat pedal, hard soled shoe or softer shoe) will work best for you.