Flat Pedals vs Clipless Pedals

Flat pedals vs clipless pedals, what’s better? That’s one of the most frequently asked questions in the cycling world. In this post, I dive into the age-old debate of whether clipless pedals are better than flat-platform pedals. Here, you’ll learn the pros and cons of each pedal type. Most importantly, you’ll learn what kind of pedal to run for what riding style.

Also Read: How to Choose Mountain Bike Pedals

Difference Between Flat and Clipless Pedals

Flat pedals have a wider foot platform compared to clipless pedals. Due to their unique design, clipless pedals allow for less foot movement while flat pedals allow you to place your foot wherever you want. Also, you can rotate flat pedals with MTB shoes or other shoes such as sneakers while you need specialized cycling shoes with 3-bolt cleats to push clipless pedals.

Moreover, flat pedals are easier to get on and off while SPD and Look pedals require more effort to learn. But once you master clipping in and clipping out, clipless pedals are lots of fun and can enhance your cadence and pedaling efficiency. Finally, flat pedals tend to be cheaper than clipless pedals, but this hasn’t prevented throngs of outdoor thrill seekers to initiate a mass movement toward them. 

Also Read: Clipless Pedals vs. Flat Bike Pedals

What Are Clipless Pedals?

Clipless pedals are uniquely designed MTB and road bike pedals with a place where cleats located on the bottom of bike shoes clip into. This pedal type is designed to keep the rider’s feet pinned to a particular position on the pedal platform. The rider gets efficient foot placement that takes cadence to a great place.

The term “clipless pedals” can be quite confusing. You need to clip in to use rotate them, so how can they still be clipless? The reason SPD and Look pedals are called clipless is that they don’t have a toe clip.

Toe clips were an integral part of the earlier pedal system that relied on toe clips and straps to hold the cyclist’s foot in place.

Many clipless pedals have a pretty small platform, and you definitely need dedicated cycling shoes to rotate them. Thankfully, some options have a wide enough platform that you can spin them without wearing cycling shoes.

Also, many clipless pedals are double-sided while some are single-sided. With double-sided clipless pedals, you can clip in from either side. But with one-sided clipless pedals, you can only clip in from one side. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the clipless side makes it possible to use the pedals as a flat-platform option.

Think of double-sided pedals as a flat/clipless pedal hybrid. The Shimano PD EH500 pedals are a good pair of hybrid pedals. For example, you might use the flat side of the pedal when off-roading on weekends and the other side for cyclocross riding (clipless) the rest of the time.

A Short History of Clipless Pedals

In the early days of road cycling, cyclists used toe clips and straps to keep their feet secure on the pedals. The pedals had a flat platform. As cycling technology evolved and improved, pedal designers invented clipless pedals.

The new pedals didn’t have toe clips or straps. Instead, riders attached cleats onto the bottom of their shoes, and these cleats locked into a mechanism that’s not dissimilar to what modern clipless pedals have.

Look Gave Cyclists the First-ever Clipless Pedals.

Look, a small-town French company, made the first-ever clipless pedals. An engineer inventor named Jean  Beryl once broke his leg because the binding system on his skis was too rigid. He decided to do something about it and developed a better safer binding called the Look Nevada Dual-pivot Ski Binding System.

That was in 1950. The following year (1951), Beryl founded Look. When Beryl created the company’s earliest cycling-specific clipless system, a French entrepreneur named Bernard Tapie bought Look in 1983. This new owner created the first clipless pedal that Look is known for, the PP65 in 1984.

Road cyclists were among the first adopters of clipless pedals. Greg Le-Mond rode to fame in 1985 by winning the Tour de France. And guess what he was using? Look’s PP95 clipless pedals.

The following year (1986), another French national named Bernard Hinault won the same race, and coincidentally, the dude used the same PP65 pedals.

By the way, these two award-winning cyclists were members of a team the new owner of Look helped put together. The team’s name was La Vie Claire.

Look has over the years grown to become a household brand for cyclists everywhere. Read more about the history of Look clipless pedals here.

The first clipless pedals, the Look PP65, were created in 1984. And two cyclists who wore them went on to win the 1984 and 1985 Tour de France. 

What Are Flat Pedals?

Flat pedals are bike pedals that have a flat platform, usually a wide one. You don’t need any kind of fancy or specialized cycling shoes to spin these pedals. You can pretty much ride your shred in your sneakers or skate shoes.

Flat pedals don’t keep your foot glued to one spot on the platform, and many mountain bikers like being able to disengage from the pedals instantly in dire situations. Best of all, many flat pedals are pretty affordable. They’re usually not as pricey as their clipless counterparts.

Are Clipless Pedals Better Than Flat Pedals?

Even though flat pedals are easier to use and probably safer than clipless bike pedals in some situations, they’re not necessarily better than clipless pedals. Clipless bicycle pedals make for better cadence and power transfer. And when bombing gnarly descents, some riders like the secure locked-in feeling these pedals give. Small wonder most roadies and some MTBers prefer them over flat platform pedals. even though the investment is heftier.

If you’re a beginner in mountain biking, it’s almost always best to start with flat pedals. Once your riding skills improve, you can get cleat-equipped cycling shoes and compatible clipless pedals.

Generally speaking, flat pedals are good for MTB while clipless pedals are good for road cycling. But there’s a bunch of reasons why many riders across bicycling disciplines these days are gravitating toward clipless options.

Are Clipless Pedals More Efficient Than Flat Pedals?

In some situations, clipless pedals offer more pedaling efficiency than flat pedals.  One scientific study published on 8th July 2016 found no significant difference in pedaling efficiency when wearing sneakers (flat pedals) or cleat-equipped cycling shoes.

The tests performed in that research related to low-intensity cycling, specifically riding a stationary bike. But using clipless bike pedals may offer some benefits in higher-intensity cycling such as sprints.

One study investigated the effect cycling shoes and shoe-pedal interface had on maximal mechanical power output. In this study, the researchers had cyclists complete three 100-meter sprints.

In the first test, the cyclists rode bikes with flat pedals, and they wore running shoes with flexible outsoles.  In the second test, the cyclists used running shoes with flexible soles, but they also used toe clips and straps. In the third test, the cyclists wore cycling shoes with stiff outsoles and cleats. The bikes they rode had clipless pedals.

The study found that using clipless pedals and cycling shoes with stiff soles gave cyclists about 16.6 percent more mechanical power output compared to riding in running shoes and flat pedals. And using flexible-soled running shoes with toe clips and straps increased maximum power output by 9.7 percent compared to riding flat pedals in running shoes with flexible soles.

Do Any Pros Use Flat Pedals?

No, most pros in XC, downhill, enduro and other competitive disciplines ride clipless. This is because clipless pedals and the cleats they use are lighter than flat pedals. Most importantly, pros prefer to ride clipless to benefit from the amazing power transfer of stiff soles and great pedaling efficiency.

Is it OK to Use Flat Pedals on a Road Bike?

Yes, you can use flat mountain bike pedals on a road bike, especially in situations with multiple stops and starts such as city cycling. Another reason to run flat pedals on a road bike is that their cleats don’t stick out. You won’t waddle weirdly into restaurants and other places.

Should I Choose Flat Pedals or Clipless Ones?

The best way to determine what pedal style could work best for you is to take a look at your riding style. If you mostly ride trails or downhill, you may need different pedals than someone who mostly rides cross-country (XC). Let how you ride help you determine what pedal system to use.

Related Post: Types of Cycling Sports

Let’s now consider various cycling styles and decide what kind of pedal would work best for each case.

Flat Pedals vs. Clipless Pedals for Off-road Riding?

Some mountain bikers ride clipped in, but many others favor flat pedals over riding clipless. It’s a matter of personal preference when it comes to what pedal to choose for exploring mountain trails.

If you’re riding in wet weather, riding berms, or tons of twisty turns, you want to be able to stick a leg out or dab it down to improve balance. It’s somewhat easier to avoid washouts when running flat pedals. But if you have set your SPD clipless pedals to a comfortable tension and can unclip instantly, why not ride clipless?

Personally, I prefer riding the trails clipped in, but when I’m just riding around, I prefer flat pedals so I can wear sneakers.

But that’s just me. I know quite a few mountain bikers who exclusively use flat pedals and others who ride clipped in all the time.

I believe absolute beginners should use flat pedals. Because they’re super easy to use. Be sure to use proper knee shins because pedal strikes aren’t fun.

What Pedal Type Works Best for Downhill MTB?

When it comes to riding descents, some people love the sense of security and safety riding clipped in brings. But it can get pretty terrifying if you can’t clip out of your SPD pedals soon enough.

Remember, most of the worst crashes in biking occur when people are riding downhill. Maybe some of those people failed to unclip fast enough, huh?

That said, lots of downhill thrill seekers won’t run flats no matter what. But to each to his own.

What’s the Best Pedal Type for Enduro?

If you race enduro, it’s probably best to ride clipless. It’s harder to outrace others in an enduro competition if you run flats.

You’ll do well on descents running flat pedals, but you’ll struggle a bit when riding short flats and when going up hills. Definitely ride clipless if you race enduro and either flats or clipless if you do recreational enduro.

What Pedals Are Best for Cross Country and Cyclocross?

Have you ever watched cross-country and cyclocross riders do their thing? They mostly ride clipless. To win in these two races, you have to leverage every advantage you can for maximum pedal power. And there’s no better way to increase pedaling efficiency than riding clipless. But if you don’t race cyclocross or XC, you can use any pedals you like.

Flat Pedals or Clipless Pedals for Gravel Biking

Some cyclists are unrepentant flat-pedal fans while others prefer riding clipped in. That said, clipless pedals tend to be more common in gravel biking than flat pedals.

While some gravel bike riders use single-sided clipless road bike pedals, most seem to prefer double-sided clipless mountain bike pedals. The main reason for this preference is the increased ability of double-sided clipless pedals to shed mud.

Flat vs. Clipless Pedals for Road Cycling?

Roadies typically use single-sided clipless pedals designed specifically for road cycling. But some roadies favor double-sided clipless MTB pedals.

Roadies use stiff, carbon-soled shoes that make for really good power transfer. In road cycling, speed matters more than performing tricks. And that’s where stiff-soled road biking shoes help.

Generally, a road cyclist doesn’t need to unclip as often as an off-road rider. So, you’re not worrying about not being able to clip out the whole time.

Make sure you can unclip instantly at stoplights though. One way to avoid those terrifying “I can’t unclip” moments is to use properly functioning cleats. Do this even if it might mean paying a little more.

Also, you’re almost always on your bike, which means your cleats don’t wear out as fast.

Flat vs. Clipless Pedals for Commuting

If you’re a commuter, you’re riding in urban environments a lot. You stop, start, and stop again because there are traffic lights to obey and crossroads to keep an eye on. Other times you have to slow down and put your feet down to navigate between vehicles. In these situations, flat pedals may be preferable, especially wider ones that won’t let your feet slip off.

Double-sided clipless MTB pedals are also a good choice for commuting because you can clip in from either side. Besides that, clipping out tends to be easier because you can set them to lower tension compared to single-sided pedals.

What if you live in a climate that has you riding through wet weather most of the time? Clipless pedals are the best bet for wet road rides. Because it’s easy to slip off smooth flat pedals, lose balance, and fall.

Aside from that, there are those painful pedal strikes to the shin. If you prefer flat pedals for commuting, be sure they’re high-quality pedals that keep your feet on their platform.

Advantages of Flat Pedals

  • They’re easier to use compared to clipless ones.
  • They’re a great option for when your ride has lots of stops and starts.
  • You never worry about not being able to clip out fast enough in an emergency.
  • They’re typically cheap. Besides, there are no cleats to replace.
  • You don’t have to invest in expensive cycling shoes.

Disadvantages of Flat Pedals

  • Some flat pedals can damage your shoe soles.
  • Painful strikes to the shin are not uncommon.
  • They’re not as efficient as clipless options when going up hills or when doing high-intensity rides.
  • You won’t get the “I’m one with my bike” feeling.

Advantages of Clipless Pedals

  • Proved to offer greater pedaling efficiency/power transfer, especially during cycling sprints
  • Feeling you’re securely connected with your bike
  • Feet don’t slip out (secure foot placement on the pedal’s platform
  • No pedal strikes to the shin

Disadvantages of Clipless Pedals

  • You need specialized cycling shoes to use them, for the most part.
  • Cleats need frequent replacement.
  • They’re somewhat harder to learn compared to flat ones.
  • Cases of failed attempts at unclipping are not uncommon.

Clipless Pedals vs. Flat Pedals, What’s Better?

Both flat and clipless pedals are good. But you may see better performance in certain riding styles with one pedal type and not the other.

Clipless pedals and using toe clips and straps may offer greater efficiency in some situations, but they’re not always the best option for everyone in every situation. It’s best to experiment with different kinds of pedals to find what works best for you.