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 that age-old debate as to whether clipless pedals are better than flat-platform pedals and vice versa. I’ll list down all the pros and cons of each pedal type to make your decision-making easier.

Related Post: How to Choose Mountain Bike Pedals

What’s the Difference Between Flat and Clipless Pedals?

To understand the difference between flat bike pedals and clipless pedals, it’s essential to understand what each pedal type is and how it works. And in the next couple of sections, I describe each pedal style so you can see how they differ.

After the next few sections, I’ll answer two super important questions. Are clipless bike pedals better than flat bike pedals? And, which kind of pedal do you need for your specific riding style?

What Are Clipless Pedals?

Forget what the name suggests — clipless pedals have you actually clipping in to use them. The reason these pedals are described as clipless is that they don’t have a toe clip. So, they’re clipless, but to use them, you still have to clip into them.

A Short History of Clipless Pedals

In the early days of road cycling, cyclists used toe clips and straps to keep their feet secured on the pedals. And the pedals had a flat platform. But as cycling technology evolved and improved, pedal manufacturers invented clipless pedals.

These 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 kind of mechanism not dissimilar to what clipless pedals use. That’s how clipless pedals came on the biking scene.

Look Gave Cyclists the First-ever Clipless Pedals

Look was the first company to provide cyclists with clipless pedals. This company had tons of experience in the skiing industry, and that experience birthed clipless pedals.

Road cyclists were among the first adopters of clipless pedals. Clipless pedals have been growing in popularity from the time Greg Le-Mond and Bernard Hinault use them to compete in the Tour de France for the first time ever.

Some clipless pedals are wide enough so that you can ride them without specialized cycling shoes. Other clipless pedal types are quite small, sometimes too small, and you typically need bike shoes with cleats to use these pedals.

Also, some clipless are double-sided while others 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.

What Are Flat Pedals?

Flat pedals are exactly as the name suggests. These pedals have a flat platform, usually a wide one. And you don’t need any kind of fancy or specialized cycling shoes to use flat-platform pedals. You can pretty much ride your shred in your sneakers or skate shoes.

Clipless Pedals vs. Flat Pedals, Which is Better?

Even though flat pedals are easier to use and probably safer than clipless bike pedals, they’re not necessarily the better option. And even though clipless bicycle pedals make for better cadence and power transfer, they’re not necessarily better than flat pedals. The best bike pedal to use is that which works best for your riding style.

Are Clipless Pedals More Efficient Than Clipless Pedals?

In some situations, clipless pedals offer more pedaling efficiency than do flat pedals.  One scientific study published on 8th July 2016 found no significant difference in pedaling efficiency when wearing trainers or cleat-equipped cycling shoes. The tests performed in the research related to low-intensity cycling, specifically riding a stationary bike. But using clipless bike pedals may offer some benefit in higher-intensity cycling. How do I know that? I’ll let science speak.

Want More Pedaling Efficiency When Sprint Cycling? Ride Clipless

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 riding 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 stuff outsoles and cleats. And the bikes they rode had clipless pedals.

The study found that using clipless pedals and cycling shoes with stiff soles gave the cyclists about 16.6 percent more mechanical power output than in the case of 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.

Should I Choose Flat Pedals or Clipless Pedals?

The best way to determine what pedal style will work best for you is to take a look at your riding style. If you’ll mostly ride trails or downhill, you’ll need different pedals than s0meone that’ll mostly do cross-country riding (XC).

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, Which is Better for Off-road Riding?

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

If you’re riding in wet weather, riding berms, or tons of twisty turns, you’ll 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 flats. 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 riding in my 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.

If you’re a beginner, though, it’s perhaps best to use flat pedals. They’re super easy to use, but be sure to use proper knee shins. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a couple of nasty pedal strikes on your legs.

What Pedal Type Works Best for Downhill? 

When it comes to riding descents, some riders 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 clipless 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 out there won’t run flats no matter what. I’m not into downhill that much, but I prefer running flats when shredding gnarly descents.

And 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 if you’re running flats, but you’ll struggle a bit when riding short flats and when cycling up hills. So, definitely ride clipless if you race and either flats or clipless if you do recreational enduro.

What Pedals Are Best for Cross Country and Cyclocross? 

If you’ve watched cross-country and cyclocross riders, you’d have noticed that they mostly ride clipless. To win in these kinds of cycling races, you need all the pedal power you can muster. And there’s no better way to increase pedaling efficiency than riding clipped in. But if you don’t race, you can run either flats or clipless.

Flat Pedals or Clipless Pedals for Gravel Biking? 

Again, opinion remains divided here. Some cyclists are unrepentant flat-pedal fans while others prefer riding nice and clipped in. That said, clipless pedals tend to more common in gravel biking than are flat pedals.

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

Flat Pedals vs. Clipless for Road Cycling? 

Roadies typically use road biking-focused pedals. These are usually single-sided clipless pedals designed specifically for road cyclists. But some road cyclists favor double-sided clipless mountain bike pedals.

Here’s the thing: roadies almost always ride clipped in. That means they usually use stiff, carbon-soled shoes that make for really good power transfer. In road cycling, speed matters more than performing tricks. That’s why you need to ride in super-stiff road biking shoes that feature cleats.

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

Plus, since you’re almost always on your bike, your cleats don’t wear down as fast. That means the cleats stay in great condition for longer. And one way to avoid those terrifying “I can’t unclip” moments is to use properly functioning cleats.

Flat Pedals or Clipless Ones for Commuting? 

A bike commuter rides in an urban environment. That means you need to stop and start again from time to time. Think of when you need to stop at traffic lights and crossroads.

Other times you have to slow down and put your feet down when passing between vehicles. In those situations, you want to have flat pedals, preferably wide ones that won’t let your feet slip off.

But most commuters use double-sided clipless MTB pedals. That’s because you can clip in from either side. Also, clipping out tends to be easier than with one-sided MTB pedals. How so? It’s because double-sided clipless MTB pedals can be set to lower tension than their single-sided counterparts.

But if you ride through mostly wet weather, consider going with clipless pedals. It’s easy to slip off smooth flat pedals and lose balance and fall. And those painful pedal strikes to your 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

1.Easier to use compared to clipless pedals

2.A great option for when your ride has lots of stops and starts

3.No worrying that you might not manage to clip out fast enough

4.No cleats to replace

5. No need to invest in expensive cycling shoes and cleats

Disadvantages of Flat Pedals

1.Some flat pedals can damage your shoe soles

2.Painful strikes to the shin not uncommon

3. Not as efficient as clipless pedals when going up hills or during high-intensity rides

4. No “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

Specialized cycling shoes needed

Cleats need frequent replacement

Harder to use than flats

Cases of failed attempts at unclipping not uncommon

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

In the end, both flat pedals and clipless pedals are good. That said, you may see better performance in your riding if you use clipless pedals as opposed to flat pedals and vice versa.

While clipless pedals and using toe clips with straps may offer greater efficiency in some situations, they’re not always the best option for everyone in every situation. It’s best to experiment with each pedal type so you can find what works best in your specific riding situation.