You’ve been on a bike since you were a kid. You hopped on the saddle and started spinning and never thought much about the pedals you were using, but now you’ve been bitten by the cycling bug and hear people debating the best type of pedal to use. What are they going on about?
Does mountain bike pedal type really matter?
The pedals are at the center of what you’re doing when you PEDAL your bicycle. Whether you’re cruising the neighborhood, racing cross country, or pointed downhill, the types of pedals you choose can drastically change your ride and there's definitely some cool pedal technology out there, but they all boiled down to some simple elements. Flat pedals allow a little more freedom. You can dab your foot in a corner or catch your balance quickly before you fall; you may even like the freedom of getting off the bike and easily walking in a pair of flat shoes. Clipless pedals, on the other hand, may offer you that little bit of extra efficiency and better control you’re looking for. Use the pedal guide below to determine the right choice for you.
Types of Mountain Bike Pedals
Flat or Platform Pedals
Platform pedals are what you generally envision when you think of bike pedals. You’ve likely seen countless pairs of cheap, plastic flat pedals that come on many bikes. These are a far cry from a good aftermarket MTB pedal. Most aftermarket mountain bike pedals will come with little spikes called “pins” that provide extra grip for your shoe. These pins give you better grip to prevent your foot from slipping off the pedal which can not only be scary and lead to a loss of control, but can also really hurt if your shin makes contact with the pedal! These pins are adjustable and replaceable on a decent quality pedal. It’s a good idea to look for a pedal with this feature to allow fine-tuning and replacement as the pins wear.
Platform pedals can also come in many variations. Most brands will offer flats in different sizes based on your shoe size and preference. We are big fans of Crankbrothers Stamp pedals which come in small and large platform sizes. The shape of pedals varies; some offer a raised section along the outside to create a concave shape that grips the shoe better. You can mimic this by turning the pins on flats that allow this adjustment. The amount of grip needed depends on rider preference. You’ll also find pedals that are a little slimmer than others to provide extra clearance while cornering or navigating roots and rocks. Most brands will offer pedals in both composite material and metal alloy configurations. Choose metal (usually an aluminum alloy) for ultimate durability, but composite pedals are also sturdy while being a little more gentle on the wallet. The high-end pedals are made from aluminum alloy and are designed to give you the best grip with a concave surface, along with chamfers to maximize cornering and reduce pedal strikes on tight corners or technical terrain.
Flat Pedal Pros:
- Familiar feel for new cyclists
- Ease of use
- No special shoes required (although specific MTB flat soled shoes are a good option)
- Easy to put a foot down in corners or in technical sections
- Large surface area
Flat Pedal Cons:
- Less Efficient
- Can be less confidence-inspiring in rough sections of trail
- Large surface area
First, let’s get this out of the way – you "clip" into “clipless pedals.” Ever seen those old pedals with straps and the plastic cage? Those were called toe clips. When companies figured out how to attach the sole of your shoe to the pedal without those inconvenient setups, they were called “clipless” pedals. Not confusing, right?
The second thing to briefly mention is the term “float.” Float is the amount your foot is allowed to rotate while clipped into a set of clipless pedals. Generally, some float is good. You want your foot and knee to follow their natural motion, and that is usually not in a perfectly straight line. Float allows your leg to track naturally without inducing strain. If you're one of the lucky few with excellent body mechanics, having too much float can be a disadvantage, but it's usually best to work with a fit expert at that point.
Now that we have that out of the way, clipless systems allow you to clip your foot into the spring-loaded mechanism on the pedals, giving you a fixed position. Catching that clipless vs. clip thing yet? Great! Moving on, the clipless system offers a few benefits. First, you have more control as your foot is not going to move around on the pedal. Going through rough sections of trail, you can focus on other things because your foot is going to remain in one spot as you pedal. Second, they are more efficient than a flat pedal. You'll find yourself pedaling more smoothly throughout the pedal stroke while mountain biking. In sections that require a quick burst of power to clear an obstacle, you can pedal all the way through parts of the pedal stroke that would be dead zones without being clipped in – at the 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock positions. Finally, you can set your saddle height to the optimum position and know that your leg extension will remain the same. One issue for new cyclists on flats is that their feet will move on the pedal without them realizing it. That perfect saddle height isn’t so perfect once your foot has shifted and effectively lengthened or shortened the distance between the saddle and pedal.
Clipless mountain bike pedals are relatively easy to use. You clip in with a forward and downward motion of your foot. There is no need to worry about the orientation of the pedal, because most MTB pedals, including Shimano's SPD system will be dual-sided or allow you to clip in regardless of how the pedal is positioned. To pull your foot out, you simply rotate your heel away from the bike to disengage the clip. With practice, it's an easy twist of your heal.
One complication with clipless pedals is that they will require specific shoes and compatible pedals. Mountain bike shoes are an added expense but have features that can really enhance your riding experience. They will have either a plastic or carbon fiber sole that prevents flex that can lead to hot spots and discomfort. The sole will also have lugs giving you traction if you do have to walk while out on the trail. They will have some combination of velcro straps, BOA systems, or laces to properly tighten the shoe on your foot. Of course the most important feature is that they have the required two-bolt system designed to work with mountain bike pedal systems (keep in mind that the three-bolt system is specific to road cyclists and road bikes). We are big fans of the Specialized Recon line of MTB shoes.
Clipless Pedal Pros:
- More efficient
- Can offer more control in rough sections
- More precise bike fit
Clipless Pedal Cons:
- Specific clipless shoes required
- Slightly more maintenance (replace cleats, lube pedals)
- Harder to quickly put down a foot
Features to Consider When Choosing Mountain Bike Pedals
When choosing a pair of flat pedals, look for pedals that allow adjustment of the pins. If the pins are adjustable, you can fine-tune the amount of grip the pedal offers. You'll also want to look at the pedal design to see if it offers features you may want, like a larger platform, low stack height (how thick the pedals are), good contact area, and good chamfers to avoid pedal strikes.
When looking at clipless pedal systems, you want to pay attention to the tension and float. The tension is the amount of force required to clip in and out of the pedal. If you are a smaller rider or want to easily unclip, you want to be able to dial back the tension on your pedals. Shimano offers this by turning a screw on the pedal while Crankbrothers offers “easy release” cleats (cleats are the part that attaches to the bottom of the shoe.) Float, or the amount your foot is allowed to rotate on the pedal, is adjusted by the cleat. Shimano offers cleats that are 4-6 degrees for it's SPD system while Crankbrothers offers both 0 degree and 6 degree options. Different brands may have slightly different styles, but the concepts are the same.
Mud Shedding Features
Look for pedals that will shed mud easily while out on the trail. For flats, larger holes in the pedal will allow mud to fall out. A thinner pedal will also be less likely to clog with mud.
For clipless pedals, Crankbrothers Eggbeaters are the best at shedding mud and have a minimalistic design. There is very little surface for mud to stick to, and they tend to clear mud quickly. The Candy model has the body around the eggbeater which is great for supporting the shoe a bit more for increased rider stability but will clog with mud a little more easily. Shimano does not have the mud shedding reputation of the Crankbrothers but tends to handle mud well also.
With flat pedals, more expensive does not necessarily equate to lighter weight. The composite body of a cheaper pedal like the Crankbrothers Stamp 1 is actually less weight than the more expensive alloy body but with a small sacrifice in durability and more flex. More expensive clipless pedals will be slightly lighter, but our opinion is that the extra expense is not worth the weight savings. If we were to splurge on pedals, our ideal choice would focus on better bearings, durability, etc. found in the higher end models.
Basic pedal maintenance is an easy task. Any pedal will need a light lube on the threads prior to installation to prevent corrosion. If using flats, replacement of the pins will be necessary after many miles of riding. With clipless pedals, a light lube on the spring mechanism and cleat keeps things working smoothly, and cleats will need to be replaced when worn. Most MTB pedals have bearings that can be replaced or serviced, although this is a more advanced procedure and serviceability of this kind is typically a factor of the price as well.
As mentioned before, a flat pedal with an alloy body will be the most durable pedal style, especially with replaceable pins. The alloy pedal will handle pedal strikes against rocks and roots better than a composite body which will start to show wear quickly over time.
Clipless pedal durability is pretty similar across the brands. Higher end models, like the Shimano XTR MTB Pedals, have better bearings that will last longer than a cheaper pedal, but in our opinion, every model made by Shimano and Crankbrothers will be a dependable pedal. There is a wide range of both SPD (Shimano) and non-SPD pedals that can give you years of great service and that meet the demands of all kinds of riders.
How to Choose Mountain Bike Pedals for Your Riding Style
We tend to recommend flat pedals for beginner mountain bikers. As you learn to tackle the trail, being able to put your foot down when needed is a big boost in confidence. Besides the mental aspect, riding a pair of flat pedals can help make sure you are learning the proper technique. Sloppy technique while riding rough sections, doing bunny hops, and other skills can sometimes be masked while riding with clipless pedals. Learning those skills while riding flats gives you the proper foundation that will lead to you riding better later once you’ve mastered proper technique.
Flats are also great for those looking for more freedom and for that reason are the choice pedal of many trail riders. If you like jumping and throwing whips, you’re likely to want your foot to be able to move on the pedal. If you like sliding through corners with a foot out, flats are the way to go. Plus, you can always wear some normal shoes in a pinch on flat mountain bike pedals!
If you love to pedal, race cross country, want to feel connected to your bike, and efficient, then clipless are your obvious choice. Clipless can also be great for downhill riders tackling really hard sections (there are pedals that offer a clip on one side and flats on the other) or those who are tackling big miles in the saddle.
The takeaway is this: We suggest always starting on flats. If you like the freedom that flats provide, stick with it. With the right flat pedals and the right type of shoes, you’re losing very little. If you desire more efficiency, control, and speed, try clipless!
The Best Mountain Bike Pedals
We at GovVelo love the Crankbrothers line of flat pedals. With their Stamp Series pedals, they hit every price point and feature we can think of. The Stamp 1 is a great composite body pedal with adjustable pins and plenty of colors to choose from to add style to your bike. Upgrade to the Stamp 2, 3, or 7 to get alloy pedal bodies, better bearings, a better design, and a better contact surface area.
For clipless pedals, if you’re looking for ultimate mud shedding ability we suggest the Crankbrothers Eggbeater Pedals. If you’d like a little more support, try the Crankbrothers Candy Pedals. If you’re looking for a more secure engagement, we suggest Shimano SPD MTB pedals.
Hopefully these details will help you make the best choice in selecting the right mountain bike pedals for you that you'll love as much at the end of the ride as you did at the beginning! Also, check out our articles on essential cycling safety tips and keeping your bike in tiptop shape.