Clip-less pedals or flat pedals? Which system is better for me? Why?
I get those questions all the time in my MTB clinics .
Here’s the thing: both systems have advantages and disadvantages; and, while many of these are quite obvious, there are still many misconceptions about each, especially when it comes to bike control and proper riding technique in difficult terrain. Many riders think of this choice in pedal systems strictly in terms of power delivery–which is relevant. However, once we get into difficult trail situations that demand proper technique and control, being able to ride the bike properly and safely will trump pure power. If you want to be the best all around MTB rider possible, you’ll have at least working knowledge of both systems. And, it’s my belief–that for many reasons–all MTB riders should ride flat pedals for at least a while, at least to the point where they get comfortable with this pedal system.
So, first, a little history on MTB pedal systems…In the ancient days of mountain biking (you know, like fifteen-twenty years ago), most mountain bikers believed that—when it came to pedals—you had to be “clipped in” to be a real mountain biker. “Clipped-in” means riding with shoes that have metal cleats attached to the soles, and these cleats actually clip into the pedals, securing the shoe on the pedal. This system came from road riding. Mountain bikes, in the early days, were primarily derived form road cycling.
It wasn’t until the influence of downhill riding and racing—which was more akin to motocross and BMX than road cycling—that modern mountain biking started to come into it’s own in terms of equipment: full suspension, disc brakes, real tires…and, yes, flat pedals systems (also referred to as Platform pedals or BMX pedals). With these pedals, there are no cleats to clip into the pedals…just the rider’s shoes placed on the pedal—BMX style. This equipment “revolution” started happening around the mid to late nineties. Previous to this, mountain bikes were essentially road bikes with slightly fatter tires and straight handlebars…a far cry from today’s MTB machines.
Road riders such as Lance Armstrong and Eddy Merckx, among others, popularized the high cadence spin (high RPM’s with the pedals) as the most efficient way to pedal a bicycle on the road. It’s more difficult to spin these high cadences without your feet being attached to the pedals in some manner, hence the retention systems.
Because MTB was derived from road cycling, this high cadence pedaling technique made it’s way over into MTB pretty quickly…and never went away….which is good. Because it is necessary…sometimes. However, many MTB riders don’t take into consideration that riding MTB’s in tough terrain and riding road bikes on paved roads is like comparing apples and oranges. I’ll buy that the most efficient way to pedal a bike on a smooth surface is with your butt on the seat and your feet spinning high cadence circles with the pedals. This is true on the road and on smooth trail. But this doesn’t cut it while MTB riding in technically difficult terrain. Proper technique in difficult terrain requires the bike to pivot and move around beneath us. This means that we will have to get off the seat—definitely while descending and at least intermittently while climbing difficult terrain. We also need to slow our pedal cadence so that we can accelerate the bike when needed, balance better, clock—or time—our pedals to miss obstacles, wheelie over obstacles, unweight the rear of the bike, etc…none of this is necessary for road riding or riding MTB on smooth trail surfaces.
Because of this (and more), many of the perceived advantages of clipping in are negated when the trail gets a little tricky. Really, when it comes to the act of pure pedaling, the only advantage of clipping in is the ability to spin those higher cadences with less effort. All of the skills exclusive to mountain biking listed above (and more), in fact, require quite low pedal cadences to be effective. Thus, clipping in isn’t really an advantage in a lot of situations and can often be a hindrance.
*** Here’s a quick explanation of the terms “clip-less” pedals vs Flats, Platforms, and BMX-style pedals:
OK, so the term “clip-less pedals” doesn’t really make sense. After all, this is the system where a cleat, that is attached to the bottom of your shoe, actually does CLIP INTO your pedal (so why’s it called clip-less, right?!?). The pedal retains this cleat so that your shoe is “attached” to the pedal (you un-attach the shoe from the pedal with a twisting motion of your foot and this allows the pedal to release the cleat). If you’re clipped in, your shoe won’t bounce off or slide around on the pedal. You also have more ability to “spin circles” when pedaling as well as have power on the up-stroke of the pedaling cycle, which, depending on who you talk to and (more accurately) where and how you ride, may (or may not) be a big advantage. BMX or Flats or Platform pedals are simply pedals with platforms that you put your foot on. They don’t have a retention system. They do, however, have replaceable pins protruding from the platform that provide very ample traction with the correct shoe/pedal combinations.
Still confused on where the “clip-less” name came from?… Here’s how it happened: in the good ol’ days, road bikes didn’t have fairly advanced spring-loaded retention systems on pedals; nor did they have precisely machined cleats that attached to the bottom of $350 carbon fiber shoes…as they do now. In the ol’ days, they had what were called Toe-clips. This was a simple system where simple straps tightened a clip, holding your shoe tightly to the pedal. Eventually, the toe-clips were ditched in favor of the more advance, modern cleat/pedal-retention systems. No more toe-clips meant modern pedals were now labeled as clip-less… and the name stuck.
But back to riding…
Why should beginner riders be on flat pedals, at least at some point, and for at least long enough to feel comfortable riding with them?
First, if you’re new to riding MTB, you’re going to notice that there are all kinds of crazy things out there on the trail to worry about besides fumbling around, trying to clip in and out of your pedals. Trees, rocks, roots, steep ups, steep downs, other riders, dogs, cats…you name it. And, that’s not even to mention the other challenges of riding the bike correctly: proper body position, weight placement (video), reading the trail properly and picking a good line, proper braking technique, shifting, pedal cadence, perhaps wheeling over a log…You get my drift. All of these challenges and obstacles will be overwhelming at first. Why complicate things further by not being able to readily put a foot down in order to save yourself from hitting the deck?
That’s the number one advantage of flat pedals: you can almost always instantly get a foot (or two) to the ground when needed (no getting stuck in the pedal). And, easily get your foot back on the pedal when needed…