Flat or Clip In Pedals?
Cycling - MTB, June 18, 2023
The flats vs clips debate has been going on for a long time. Choosing what is best for you is a personal decision.
When making the decision on whether to ride flats or clips the multiple factors discussed below will help you decied if and when you are ready for clip pedals.
I am a big believer in learning how to ride with flat pedals first. Core skills such as wheel lifts, hopping (Bunny and 2 wheel lifts), pedalling through technical terrain should be proficient prior to experimenting with clips. You should be able to keep your feet from blowing off pedals because you have mastered compressing your bike and timing the scoop with your rear foot to lift the wheels off the ground.
When using flat pedals, you receive feedback when your feet bounce around or come off of the pedals. While this may not seem safe at first, if you cannot keep your feet planted you are trying to ride above your skill level. Attention to how your bike and body move together and separately depending on the terrain and skill is invaluable to learn. Learning while clipped into your pedals
To be successful on flat pedals you will need to have a high quality flat pedal with pins to grip the flat soft rubber sole. Thankfully there are many pedal and shoe options that work really well!
You should also be able to keep your feet quiet on flat pedals when charging through rough terrain and get up and over obstacles on trail. This displays your ability to make small body position adjustments quickly and correctly to stay smooth over the trail.
A common error of why some move to clip pedals is to hide inadequate skills because they can't keep their feet on flat pedals. This is a mistake I made early on and am happy I realized it and went back to flat pedals for multiple years before trying again. The tendency will be to lift the bike up with the feet instead of using a compression to load the bike first. Using clips to lift your bike with out a compression preceding it creates to an unstable body position and increased risk of going over the bars.
Common beliefs of benefits of clipping over flat pedals:
- Keeps feet on pedals
- True, especially if fundamental skills are not proficient. Not the best application of clip in pedals
- They can be helpful for higher level riders pushing their limits and for racing.
- It's not an absolute. Look at Sam Hill!
- Improved pedalling power by being able to pull up on pedals
- Some research has been put into this topic. At moderate to high cadences (above 80rpm) little to no upward pull occurs when pedalling. There is even some research showing there is no difference in pedalling performance with flats compared to clips.
Ultimately, if you are switching to clips, consider why you are doing it, what you want to get out of the switch and if you are ready for it. There is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to clips vs flats. Make a sound decision that minimizes risk and increases the benefits of the platform you choose.
So You Have Decided to Clip In
When switching to clips, first get used to the motion of clipping in and out. Ideally with your bike in a stand or leaning against a wall. The motion of turning your heel out needs to become second nature eventually. As well as clipping back in since you almost need perfect foot placement to clip back in.
Progression for learning to use clips:
- Start with a low tension for the clip mechanism if it is adjustable on your pedals.
- While rolling along a street, pathway, grass field.
- Stop and starts. Grass is great here in case to topple over if you can clip out (it happens to everyone!)
- Practice fundamental skills (wheel lifts, hops, cornering, mild technical climbing) in parking lot or field to get use to the different feedback the pedal platform gives you.
- Start on mild trails (🟢 or easy 🟦) well within your comfort level.
- Work on more advanced skills in a bike park (jumping, pump track, skinnies...)
- Keep progressing speed and terrain as your confidence being clipped in grows.
What Shoes and Pedals Should I Use?
Choosing a shoe and pedal combo when clipping in is a very challenging task. There are many options (more than what there is for flat pedals) on the market. Each pedal and shoe combo can have different interactions with each other. I have tried quite a few different ones until I found one that works for me. Online reviews can be somewhat helpful. Best if you know someone with similar size feet who will let you do a quick parking lot trial to feel what the shoe and pedal feel like together. Sometimes you may be able to do a test at a bike shop
When looking at pedals, there are many different features to consider:
- Platform sizes for different riding styles. DH, XC, Enduro, Road.
- Different clip mechanisms. Some with proprietary cleats some with a standard SPD cleat.
- Adjustable cleat tension making clipping in and out easier or harder.
- Some have traction pins on the platform, some do not. This may help if you cannot clip in right away.
Things to consider when choosing shoes to clip in:
- Placement and adjustability of cleat in relation to ball of foot. This can have a big effect on foot and calf fatigue if you cannot get the cleat position far enough back for gravity disciplines.
- Depth of channel for cleat (this can have a large effect on how a shoe will interact with the pedal)
- Sole stiffness. More stiff for XC and hard pedalling applications. Less stiff for gravity disciplines. Not so soft that you can feel the cleat when clipped in. Flexible enough you can hike a bike in them.
- Shoe weight/protection. A light shoe feels great and are more breathable but if it is too light for gravity disciplines, it will not give enough protection if your foot strikes a rock.
- Cleat compatibility. Almost all MTB cleats are 2 bolt clips. Each cleat type has its pros and cons and are usually not cross compatible.
- Lacing systems (laces, velcro, BOA, combo of these) Changes in cost and convenience depends on personal preference.
- Shoe fit. Some clip shoes are very narrow compared to most flat pedal shoes on the market. This can greatly affect the comfort of the shoes.
- Grip on the sole. If you will be hike-a-biking a shoe with a grippy sole will be very important.
My own personal opinion is that clipping in is greatly overrated. I much prefer the ride experience with flat pedals. I only use clips for gravity racing and road riding. I frequently suggest if someone decides to stick with clips, is to have a period of time each year on flats reviewing fundamental skills and applying them on the trail. Frequently early in the spring, or winter if you can ride trails over the winter, is a great time before riding volume and the race season starts for the summer. During this time, use the different feedback you get from flat pedals to focus on what parts of your riding need some attention to help progress your riding down the road.
Ultimately the choice is personal, choose what you are comfortable with, not what other think you should do or current trends.
If you are needing any help on the performance side of your mountain biking goals please check out the I offer.
As well as a selection of training plans to give you some structure to your training in 2023. There will be a few more training plans dropping in the near future. Including the Gravity Off-Season Training Plan built for the gravity racer or gravity rider who want to crush epic rides in the mountains with gnarly descents.
Obsessive Mountain Biker
Founder of Alpine MTB Training