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Clipless Vs Flat Pedals for Mountain Biking

with Lindsey Richter, Director of Inspiration, Liv Ladies AllRide Mountain Bike Camps

My mountain bike journey began back in the mid-90’s when I jumped right into cross-country racing. Toe clips and straps attached to flat pedals that allowed any shoe to stay secured to the pedal was the standard then. I soon transitioned to “clipless” pedals because that was the trend, especially for racers. For the next 20 years I never even considered straying from clipless pedals until knee surgery in 2019 forced me to give flat pedals an honest try. Begrudgingly, I put flats on my bike, ordered a pair of Liv Shuttle Flat shoes and gave it a go. For the first ten rides I felt like a beginner mountain biker and wanted to put my clips back on! But after committing to flats for an entire year, I will admit, I’m hooked.

what are flat pedals

What are flat pedals?

Flat pedals have a large platform that usually come with replaceable pins (similar to tire studs) so shoes can grip the pedals to help your feet stay put. Running or hiking shoes will work on flat pedals, but special shoes meant for mountain biking are recommended because they tend to be stiffer, more supportive underfoot and have soles made of grippy rubber with a special tread pattern designed to grip the pins.

Flat Pedals for Mountain Biking: PROS

  • It’s quicker and easier to step off the bike, since you are not locked into the pedals.
  • You’ll have more confidence when learning to ride and while riding corners, slippery or technical sections of trail, knowing it’s easier to bail without getting stuck.
  • It's easier to get off and walk sections of trail. As a coach, I’m off my bike as much as I’m on it, so flat shoes make it much easier to be on my feet while coaching.
  • Flats force us to focus more on technique. The feet do a lot while mountain biking, and riding flats helps us pay closer attention to weighting our feet more than our hands. As a coach we say: “Heavy feet, light hands.” Practicing good technique while jumping or going off drops can be safer than relying on being clipped in to keep the bike connected to us.
  • It's easy to adjust foot position while you ride to aid balance and grip.
  • Flats don't require as much maintenance. No more issues with loose cleats, broken pedal springs, or mud-packed cleats that inhibit clipping back in!
  • Flas have a larger platform for power and stability. Flat pedals provide a much larger and effective platform to compress with when stomping on the pedals to lift a wheel, jump or pump terrain; more area for the foot and shoe to push against equals better power transfer and bike loading.
  • Flat pedals allow us to shift our weight and be a bit more dynamic on the bike which allows for greater range of motion and body positioning.

Flat pedals for mountain biking: CONS

  • Without good technique, your feet can come off the pedals without warning and lead to a crash or a “shinner” (an aggressive pedal strike to the shin that does not feel great). Bonus, cool new scar(s).
  • Pedaling can be slightly less efficient and it is harder to power pedal through rough terrain because your feet get knocked around a bit.
  • It can be harder to maintain high cadence pedal strokes. If you start picking up speed and need to pedal quickly or sprint, your feet can come off the pedals more easily.
  • Consistent foot placement requires more attention. If you get knocked off the pedals or a foot gets bumped to the side, it can be challenging to get the foot back into a comfortable riding position.
  • Flat pedals are usually larger in size than clipless, therefore it's easier to smash them on obstacles along the trail.

How to ride with flat pedals

  • Foot position on the pedal: You are more stable when you let your toes hang over a bit and position the arch of your foot near the middle of the pedal.
  • Consciously staying active with your feet by pushing them into the pedals. This will help keep your feet planted on the pedals.
  • Drop your heels. When you drop our heels, it gives you a platform from which to brace yourself while going downhill. Dropping the heels while climbing helps to maintain traction between the shoes and the pedals.
  • On smoother climbs it’s important to focus on round pedal strokes. When your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke, point the toes slightly down and push back on the pedal before “scooping” the pedal up while the other foot is pushing down. This takes the place of being able to pull up for full pedal strokes in clipless and helps create smoother pedal strokes.
  • For more technical climbs, using momentum, power and timing of pedal strokes is important so you don’t smash into things and get knocked off your pedals. It also helps (with all riding) to really look ahead on the trail to plan your lines and moves accordingly.
  • Ratcheting (half pedal strokes where you pedal back and forward repeatedly just enough to keep the wheels rolling without using a full pedal stroke) through technical terrain is a great way to control your pedal strokes without hitting the pedals on obstacles.
what are clipless pedals

What are clipless pedals?

Clipless pedals have a metal system in the center of both sides of the pedals that requires special shoes with cleats attached to the bottom. The pedal and cleat brand must match, but any mountain bike-specific shoe meant for clipless riding will work with most pedal brands. This design with the cleat was termed ‘clipless’ because there was no longer a cage or clip to keep your foot on the pedal. Confusing, right? So instead of sliding the foot into toe-clips, the cleats click into the built-in pedal system.

Clipping in for mountain biking: PROS

  • It's easier to maintain a consistent and fast cadence while pedaling. Sprint away, your feet should stay connected during the action. 
  • Clipless pedals help reduce fatigue because you can pull up with one foot while pushing down with the other to create full pedal strokes which can help with efficiency, cadence and power.
  • Foot placement consistency. Since you are locked in, your feet don’t get knocked around much.
  • It’s easier to pedal over bumps, rocks and roots with clipless pedals because your feet are attached and don’t get bounced around much when the going gets rough.
  • More clearance over rocks and other trail obstacles. Clipless pedals tend to be smaller than flats.
  • Increased rear wheel control. Being clipped in can help you move the rear wheel around and up with your feet without much technique or skill.

Clipping in for mountain biking: CONS

  • Getting stuck in pedals. Putting a foot down quickly when you lose balance can sometimes be tricky and cause a crash. Also the slow, “I can’t get out of my clips” tip over crash tends to happen to everyone at some point. (In a parking lot in front of people is common.)
  • Difficulty clipping in. Clipping in quickly after stopping on a rough section of trail, or starting on a climb can be challenging.
  • Coming unclipped unexpectedly can cause a crash.
  • Less foot on pedal. There is a small cleat interface so less foot is pushing into the pedals for explosive moves.
  • Incorrect cleat setup can lead to injury. Make sure the cleats are set up on your shoes in a way that doesn’t hurt your knees or back. A cleat could be twisted to one side or be too far back or too far forward for your body geometry and that takes time to figure out. (A professional bike fit can help with this).
  • Raised center of gravity. Some clipless pedals are thick and raise your center of gravity on the bike, when you usually want to maintain a lower center of gravity for skilled, controlled riding.
  • Poor or dangerous technique while jumping or dropping because you rely on being attached to the pedals instead of practicing proper technique to keep the bike with you in the air. If we come unclipped due to lack of technique while airborne, it can get ugly.
  • Mud can get stuck in pedals and cleats and knock you out of your pedals and prevent you from clipping in until the mud is cleaned out.

How to ride with clipless pedals

  • To clip in, place one foot on the pedal with the cleat lined up so when you push down and forward into the mounting system, your shoe locks in.
  • Start by practicing clipping in and out. You can have someone hold the bike while you practice getting in and out, then move to a safe grassy area to practice. There will most likely be some tipping over when learning how to react.
  • In a grassy area clip in with one foot and start pedaling forward. Rest your unclipped foot on the other pedal and take your time getting it aligned to clip in.
  • To clip out, push down and twist your foot to the side to release the cleat out of the pedal.
  • Once on the trail, clip out earlier than necessary. If you see a section you aren’t sure about, unclip early, step off mindfully and check it out so you enter with full confidence.
  • Learn how to make full pedal strokes by practicing “wiping” the bottom of the shoe across the ground during the bottom of the stroke and then pulling up with that foot while pushing down with the other foot on the downstroke.
coaching mountain biking

The bottom line is that mountain biking should be fun! It’s also a sport that requires practice, patience, and skill development to stay as safe as possible to ride for life. Ease into whatever pedals you choose, and if you can, try learning both flats and clipless so you can be a well-rounded rider.

Lindsey Richter

For me personally, I’m so glad I made the switch to flat pedals. Not only has it given me a new focus and improved skills while riding, but it has also improved my coaching since I coach a lot of people who ride in flat pedals. For years I couldn’t give the best advice about handling flats because I wasn’t familiar with them. Now that I have converted to flats, I even find I’m a bit braver in certain situations because the ease of stepping off is comforting. I do occasionally “unclip” my foot while in flats, but I’m getting the hang of just stepping off. Ha! In the end I’m happy I know how to ride both clipless and flats because I have experienced the improvements in my riding and coaching alike and can continue to pay my knowledge forward to others on their mountain biking journey.