Should you choose flat pedals or clipless pedals for riding? The answer is either obvious... or a little more nuanced, since it depends a lot on what you're trying to do.
It’s one of the most commonly asked questions in mountain biking: which is better, clips or flats? Should you opt for a clipless system, where the shoes physically clip onto the pedal, or a flat system, where shoes are designed with rubber that mechanically grips the pins on the pedal.
Develop your skills
Whichever one you go for, it’s worth experimenting with the other if you want to progress. Pedal choice doesn’t have a direct bearing on improving your ride, but if you can’t bunny-hop without clip-in pedals, an obvious way to get better is to learn to ride flats. Equally, if you can ride well in flats, and you’ve got good technique, then transferring those skills to a clip-in pedal can help with fatigue, climbing efficiency, security on rough terrain and even minor things like ground clearance in technical sections.
For riders new to flats you will definitely take a step back in your overall ability and confidence to begin with, but rise to the challenge and you’ll emerge from the process a much better, more controlled rider with correct technique rather than a reliance on being mechanically connected to the bike.
Coming from flat pedals, you’ll probably find that being clipped in helps you relax and ride more smoothly. You may not be as exuberant, but you’ll probably be faster overall as well as fresher for longer.
What does science say?
Whether it’s climbing or negotiating slick roots, so much of our ride relies on controlled pedal power.
According to sports scientist Will Harrison, “The type of pedal we use will alter technique and the lines we choose. Clipless can knock our confidence at first, however they can help us with better power, control and efficiency”.
So we put it to the test: do clipless really affect power that much? We jumped onto the Wattbike and found a big difference.
Clipless pedals win when it comes to smooth power output
Will explains the results: “Mountain biking is about being as effortless and smooth as we can. A lot of our bike control comes through our pedals and how we get the power down. Clipless pedals mean we’re connected to the bike.”
“It means our cadence can be more fluid, the power transfer in each revolution can be smoother and the combined push/pull gives us more immediate acceleration. This shows in our results.”
But the answer isn’t quite as clear cut at this, as flat pedals have their benefits, and some conditions and environments favour the flat pedal, not to mention personal preference. Downhill and enduro rider Sam Hill, with multiple wins under his belt, certainly doesn’t seem to have any issues putting down power and performance with flat pedals.
Flat pedals help us build confidence and skill set on technical sections. As for fun factor, we all know flats clinch that round as we can throw our weight around the bike. Of course our test doesn’t account for everything on the trail but we should look at it in broader terms. “If we want to be more efficient and explosive then clipless pedals are definitely the way forward”.
Top tips on pedal set-up
Rider, racer and coach Sandy Plenty of The Trailhead bike shop is on hand to give us some tips on pedal set-up:
1. How can you say you don’t like them if they haven’t been tried? Clipless pedals feel awkward at first and everyone’s slower to start with. Give it at least 5 rides before deciding if they’re for you.
2. It’s all about muscle memory! Spend time setting up cleats so there is less of a difference between flats. Try and get your feet in the same comfortable position you’re used to normally.
3. Although you can’t move around as freely in clipless, a great bonus is that they’re easy to adjust. Don’t have the ‘it will do’ attitude once comfortable. Be sure to try changing pedal grip and alter the mechanism tension to hold you in better.
Time to get set up! If you want to go clipless, check out our guide to the best mountain bike clipless pedals, or take a look at the best flat pedals for mountain biking. Then match them up with the best mountain bike shoes.