When it comes to the contact points on your bike, the best mountain bike pedals represent one of the most vital components and for very good reason. They're crucial to everything from climbing to cornering and that's why you need to find what worrks best for the type of riding you enjoy. If you don't know your flats from your clips, then read on.
[Updated 22nd May 2022]
There are two types of pedal currently used for mountain bikes. The first type is the flat or platform pedal. As the name suggests, it has a flat surface for your foot to sit on, often with the addition of pins that help dig into the sole of your shoe for extra traction. The second type is the 'clipless' pedal, which physically attaches you to the pedal using metal key or cleat on specific shoes and a spring-loaded mechanism on the pedal itself. We'll cover the pros and cons of both styles below.
Flat pedals or clipless - which are best?
- Increase your pedalling efficiency
- Hold your feet securely in place on rough terrain
- Make it easier to lift and hop the bike
- You can't reposition your foot on the pedal once clipped in
- Require careful setup to protect your knees
- Can be tricky to clip in and out in a hurry
Clipless pedals are by far the most common choice of pedal for most mountain bikers. The main reason is that they offer much-improved efficiency as your foot is directly connected to the pedal and so allow you to pull up as well as push down with your foot. This same connection means that your foot can't move on the pedal unless you unclip, so you're much more secure when bouncing over rough terrain too.
They're called clipless pedals - despite you actually clipping into them - because original bicycle pedals used flat platform pedals with toe clips and a strap at the front to secure your foot. As pedals with cleats didn't require the use of a toe clip, they were called clipless. Yep, it still makes little sense.
There are a number of different designs of clipless pedal, from super lightweight and minimalist designs with just the locking mechanism and an axle to more solidly built designs that have an extra cage around the mechanism to offer more protection to the pedal and support to your shoe. Unless low weight is a priority, a caged clipless pedal makes much more sense in the rough and tumble world of off-road riding.
Different brands also use different locking mechanisms. We'll run through the main options below, but they all share some things in common. The first is a cleat that is secured to the sole of a specially designed shoe by bolts and is usually recessed to allow you to walk normally off the bike. The second is some kind of spring-loaded mechanism on the pedal body that holds the cleat securely when you're pulling up and down on it with your foot, but also allows you to release your foot when you want to get off or in the event of a crash. This is usually achieved by rotating your heel outwards to release the mechanism. The amount of side to side and rotational movement before the cleat releases is known as float and varies from design to design. Having a secure fit but a predictable release is really important, for obvious reasons.
Shimano came up with the first effective mountain bike clipless system, Shimano Pedalling Dynamics - often shortened to SPDs or 'spuds'. The general characteristics of the SPD system are that they don't allow very much float at all, giving a firmly attached feeling with a very positive entry and exit feel that some people prefer. It does mean you need to be very accurate when you set them up on your shoe, otherwise, they can cause joint pain and damage. They're also the only clipless pedals that allow you to adjust the release tension of the cleats.
Shimano offers two kinds of cleat for their pedals. Single release cleats only allow you to exit the pedal by rotating your foot out of it. These are the cleats supplied as standard with all SPD pedals. Multi release cleats will allow you to release from the pedal by pulling upwards, provided you do it with sufficient force, which can be of benefit to beginners but might lead to unintentional release to more experienced riders.
Nukeproof, DMR and Ritchey all use mechanisms that are very similar to the SPD system and the cleats can often be used interchangeably.
Crankbrothers clipless pedals offer a very different feel to SPDs as they have much more float, both rotationally and laterally. They do feel much less positive in engagement and disengagement, but many people prefer this more natural feeling. The release tension isn't adjustable, but the wire-like mechanism offers four-sided entry and clears mud very well.
Look, Time and Mavic pedals use the same design. It's very broadly a similar to the Crank Brothers design, but with a feel that sits somewhere between two in terms of float and crispness.
HT is a newer brand to the clipless pedal market and their design is best described as an amalgamation of an SPDs pressed metal mechanism and a wire-like design such as Crank Brothers. Accordingly, the feel sits somewhere between the two, with the added advantage that the release force is adjustable.
- Easy to get your foot off to correct a slide, escape a crash or just change position
- Can often improve confidence as you're not locked in place
- They don't clog up in muddy conditions
- Pedalling isn't as efficient as clipless designs
- Need good technique to make the most of them
- Your feet can get bounced off on rough terrain
Initially popular with BMX riders, flat pedals caught on in mountain bike downhill riding because, as you're not physically connected to the pedal, it's easy to get off the bike in the hurry - something quite useful in the more crash prone world of gravity riding. They're ideal for beginners, but they do require you to learn some specific techniques to get the most from them. In recent years, they've become more popular for trail bike riding too, despite not being as efficient for pedalling as clipless designs.
Most flat pedal designs use a large platform with an arrangement of pins sitting proud of it to provide grip. The broader and longer the platform is, the more support it'll offer you foot, but the trade-off is ground clearance. A thinner pedal platform means that's less likely, but also means there's less space inside the pedal for bearings. Most good designs have a slightly concave shape to the platform to help your foot sit into the pedal.
The platform itself is usually made from aluminium, though lighter and more expensive materials such as magnesium are sometimes used. Reinforced plastics are being more common as the material is inexpensive and tends to slide over obstacles more easily than metals. Titanium rather than steel axles are sometimes offered as a lighter upgrade, though usually at a serious price premium. For everyone but those with deep pockets, lightweight and fragile materials are best avoided as flat pedals tend to take much more of a beating due to their relatively large size.
Ideally, the pins themselves should be replaceable as they're prone to getting bent or bashed. Longer pics offer more grip but also can do more damage to you and your shins should you slip off. Many pedals allow you to tune the length and placement of the pins, so you can get a good compromise between outright grip and being able to reposition your feet on the pedal. If the pins are overly long, they can be uncomfortable underfoot too.
While flat pedals don't require specialist shoes to work, in reality, they should be paired with a good set of flat pedal-specific shoes. These have a flatter and broader sole usually made from extra-grippy rubber that allows the pedal pins to grip hard.
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