Let’s walk through all the important things to know and consider when deciding which mountain bike pedals to use across flat and clipless designs.
The pedals that you have on your mountain bike are one of the most important components to consider in your setup. A lot of people have a distinct preference when it comes to mountain bike pedals and that is because having a consistent and reliable contact point with the bike (along with your grips) is paramount to performance.
I started riding clipless when I was about 9 years old and then moved back onto flat pedals at around age 13 because I wanted to develop my bunny hopping skill better. 8 years later, when I was about 21 years old, I’d switch back to primarily riding clipped in as I was taking Enduro racing more seriously and wanted to be more securely attached to the bike in rough terrain. I opted for a set of Crankbrothers Mallet E pedals (pictured above) because they look awesome and all of my favourite pro riders use them – and I suppose they have a generous amount of float which make the switch from flat pedals easier for some people.
I’ve mostly ridden either Crankbrothers or SPD based pedal systems and in this article I’ll walk you through all the important things to know and consider when deciding which MTB pedals to use across “flats” and the different types of “clipless” pedals.
Flats vs Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals
The 2 main categories that a mountain bike pedal will fall into are “flat” pedals or “clipless” pedals. Flat pedals are a simple platform (often with pins that will create friction with your shoe to prevent your foot sliding off) from which you can simply lift your foot up off the pedal. These are popular with beginners and riders who enjoy regularly taking their feet off the pedals when riding.
“Clipless” pedals have a misleading name seeing as you do actually “clip” into the pedal. The reason they are referred to as “clipless” is because “toe clip” pedals (pictured below) used to be fairly common and secured one’s foot to the pedal body with straps forming a cage. These can be very tricky to remove your foot from in an emergency and the modern “clipless” pedal replaced them in function. You can take a look at the pros and cons of both below.
– Easy to use
– Less expensive
– Fun to ride with / playful
– Great for beginners
– Less secure in rough terrain
– Arguably worse power transfer – most noticeable in sprinting
– Wear out shoes if they have aggressive pins
– Secure connection to the bike
– Ability to easily manipulate the bike by pulling on the pedals
– Arguably better power transfer – most noticeable in sprinting
– Require a certain amount of skill to use
– Typically more expensive
Most committed cyclists opt for clipless pedals due to the secure connection to the bike that they offer. Flat pedals definitely have a place in the world, they can allow you to learn good bike handling techniques and facilitate a playful trail riding experience if you enjoy taking your feet off in corners and doing certain tricks, but they aren’t as popular for speed or performance focused riding. Given this, the rest of this article will be looking at the variations of clipless pedals and what they offer.
Cage vs No Cage On Your Mountain Bike Pedals
When you take a look at different models of clipless pedals one of the first differences you may notice is the presence or absence of a platform or cage around the clipping mechanism. This platform is designed to offer more support and traction on the pedal for trail and gravity orentiated riding while clipped in and also in the event of having to stand on the pedal while unclipped.
This platform should create a greater surface area of interface between the shoe and pedal when using trail oriented shoes that are less stiff than the cross country focused models but the actual feeling when clipped in is seldom different from that of a pedal without an extra platform.
Some platforms (such as on the Crankbrothers Mallet and Shimano DX) can rotate separately to the clipping mechanism, this means that impacts to the pedal body (such as from a rock strike) are less likely to disrupt your foot being clipped in. Worth noting if it is a common experience for you but not often a make-or-break factor. Pedals that have this additional platform are heavier and thus don’t find much popularity in the cross country scene.
Mountain bike pedals without a platform are typically lighter and more focused on cross country or marathon racing. They do the trick for trail riding but you will feel like you are trying to stand on a bar of soap if you become unclipped and need to stand on the pedal body for a bit before clipping back in. You’ll likely pick up these cageless types of designs a bit cheaper as well.
Cleat Systems: SPD Vs Eggbeater vs HT vs TIME
Platforms aside, there are also different cleat interfaces used across the different pedal manufacturers. These affect the type of feel you get when clipped in, the release angle when unclipping, and how much “float” your foot has while clipped in.
Most designs have adjustable spring tension to make it easier or more difficult to unclip (depending on your preference). This is seen on the hugely popular SPD (Shimano Pedalling Dynamics) system that is common across quite a few brands, most notably Shimano.
HT’s cleat system is known for being able to give a very high tension for a ‘locked in’ feeling, if you’re into that sort of thing. These pedals are raced by mountain bike pros such as Nino Schurter, Isabeau Courdurier and Amaury Pierron making them a very credible option with great aesthetics to boot!
The popular Crankbrothers’ “Eggbeater” design is not adjustable in tension but they do offer a range of cleat options (the small metal part attached to your shoe) that make the angle of release smaller or greater as well as different degrees of float. They have had durability issues in the past but the current models are much better in this regard.
“Float” is how much your foot is able to move around on the pedal side-to-side and the amount of twisting while clipped in before the release angle is reached. More float is said to be better for your body to find it’s natural alignment and also lets your foot rotate a bit without unclipping when doing dynamic movements on the bike. Too much float can give a vague feeling though, or make unclipping quite an effort. We have listed some attributes of the different cleat interfaces and associated brands below.
Shimano / SPD interface
- Adjustable spring tension
- Good for people new to clipping in
- Limited float options
- Cleats last a long time
- Affordable options
- Very reliable / robust
Eggbeater / Crankbrothers
- No adjustable spring tension
- Unique and desirable float feel
- Different cleats offer various float options
- Cleats wear out quite fast
- More expensive
- Reasonable reliability
- Adjustable spring tension
- Different cleats with various float options
- More expensive
- Not quite as reliable at Shimano
- Adjustable spring tension
- Different cleats with various float options (high degrees of float)
Cheap vs Expensive Mountain Bike Pedals
So should you go for the cheap or the expensive option? When you’re looking at the price ladder within a brand’s product catalogue, the increase in price will often boil down to less weight but that is sometimes also at the cost of reliability. The middle-ground option on the price ladder is generally your best balance of performance and reliability, as a rule of thumb.
Price differences between brands are trickier to negotiate as they could be due to different features, material construction, margins, and so on. You’ll have to decide if the more expensive option is offering you enough value to justify the extra spend or not. In most cases, if you go for the more affordable pedal it will work just fine and after a few rides, you will forget all about it and just get on with enjoying the time on your bike!