Two Main Mountain Bike Pedal Options

Here we show you the two main bike pedal options, their differences and advantages so can have an informed decision depending on your style of biking.

A mountain biker making his way down a mountain trail.

Ask any professional mountain bike rider what the most important part of a mountain bike is, and most would say the pedals. With that said, because there are so many options to choose from, purchasing the right pedals is easier said than done.

On one hand, you have a myriad of clipless pedals; the other a collection of flat (or platform) pedals. Deciding which one is right for you is going to depend on your personal preference and what type of mountain bike you have. To make the decision easier, we’ve broken down the different types of mountain bike pedals below:

Exploring Mountain Bike Pedals

When it comes to pedals for mountain bikes, you can either go with clipless pedals or flat/platform pedals. Flat/platforms are, by far, more common, given that they’re used on a wide variety of bikes.

However, clipless pedals tend to be confusing since they require you to have cleats in order to be able to connect the pedals to your shoes. If you want to determine which mountain bike pedal is the best for you, read on.

The Difference Between Clipless & Flat Pedals

Both styles of mountain bike pedals offer distinct benefits and downsides. Whether you’re a beginner, a rider who likes to do loads of tricks, or someone who doesn’t like being restrained or clipped in, flat pedals might be the best for you. Riders who are looking for efficiency and security might want to consider clipless pedals.

A close look at the muddy mountain bike pedal.

Why Clipless MTB Pedals?

People who should consider clipless mountain bike pedals might be:

  • Those who put efficiency higher than convenience
  • Those looking for security in rough terrain
  • Someone who likes to be in better control of their bike
  • A rider who is comfortable with a learning curve

Why Flat MTB Pedals?

You might want to choose flat mountain bike pedals if you are any of the following:

  • A beginner
  • Someone who performs tricks
  • Someone who rides slopestyle or on terrain with unreliable traction
  • A rider who likes the freedom of being able to move your feet from the pedals at any time
  • Someone who isn’t interested in the monetary commitment of buying mountain bike shoes

Choosing Platform (flat) Pedals

Most riders use flat pedals. They allow you to ride in any shoes and don’t have anything tethering you to the pedal.

They also have pins, small spikes, that help prevent the painful experience of your shoes slipping off the pedals. Due to the familiarity and low commitment, most mountain bike riders choose these pedals. When trying to find the right flat pedal for you, there are important things to consider.

A set of red flat pedals for mountain bikes.

Size

Pedals come in various sizes, allowing you to find the best fit for you. Larger pedal platforms allow for force on the pedals to be distributed more evenly, allowing for a more comfortable riding experience.

It is also less likely for your foot to slip off of these kinds of pedals. However, if the platform is too big for your shoes and you are unable to engage all of the pins correctly, the platform might be too big for you.

Material

Flat pedals are either constructed out of metal or a nylon/plastic composite. While composite pedals are less expensive, they are more easily damaged. Metal pedals tend to be more durable and their stiffer construction allows for a better power transfer.

Pins

It is recommended that mountain bikers have flat pedals with at least 10-12 pins per side in order to get the best grip possible.

You should also pay attention to how sticky your pedals are and replace the ones that have fallen out, broken, or dulled. It is worth noting that some pedals are created with pins molded into the pedal, which means they’re not replaceable. If you’re someone who likes to customize your experience, these types of pedals might not be the best for you.

Shape

Despite the flat name, there are some platform pedals that use concavity to increase the grip. A similar effect can be emulated by adjusting the pins inside and outside your pedals to give you a better grip. These types of petals can sometimes offer more grip than truly flat pedals.

What Should You Look For in Platform Pedals?

A close look at a mountain bike's platform pedals.

The biggest way that platform pedals differ is by the amount of traction they offer. While more pins offer a better grip, they also pose a danger if your foot slips off the pedals. Larger platforms give your shoes more room to grip, and concave surfaces can cradle your feet for security.

The thickness of the pedal is also worth consideration. Thinner pedals are generally better since thicker pedals can be clunky under your feet. However, thinner pedals tend to be less durable. Consider where you’ll be riding your mountain bike and try to find pedals that are easily disassembled for servicing, with replaceable pins and body sections.

Choosing Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals

Shimano PD-M520L Clipless Bike Pedals 9/16in
Click image for more info

Clipless pedals don’t have a toe clip or basket, instead, they use a mechanical attachment that is placed in between the pedal and your shoe. They require a shoe with lugged soles and a recessed cleat, which allows for walking, so they are often used by casual road commuters, as well.

Clipless pedals use a 2-hole design to connect you securely to the pedal and release you when you twist your foot. They offer adjustable tension so that you can customize the release to your weight and strength, and also benefit those with knee issues by offering a bit of lateral float.

Clipless pedals are often dual-sided and have a larger platform than clipless road bike pedals. Because of this, riders feel a better sense of security when standing on the pedals. Similar to flat pedals, some clipless pedals even have pins that allow for better feel, traction, and power transmission.

Shimano’s Speed Pedaling Dynamics (SPD) cleat system is used in most mountain bike pedals, but there are a few other options if you are looking for something different.

Clipless Pedal Float

A close look at a man installing clipless pedals on the cycling shoes.

The term float refers to the degrees of rotations built into the pedal while it’s clipped in. It is a common spec for clipless pedals and allows for a margin of error, letting you use your feet and lower body to control the direction of the bike.

Most clipless mountain bike pedals have a degree of float. The smaller the float angle is, the greater your chances are of releasing unintentionally, and so your margin for error is smaller.

A grey area does exist between the angle that you release from the pedal and the float, so that must be factored into any calculations you make.

Shoe Compatibility

As opposed to the three-bolt pattern that is used for clipless road bike shoes and cleats, mountain bike shoes use a two-bolt cleat.

Five Ten Men's Kestrel Lace Mountain Bike Shoes (Clipless, Carbon Black, 5)
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Some clipless mountain bike shoes look similar to a road bike shoe, with the only differences being their sole patterns and curvature. Flatter soles are built for flatter pedals, and so it is important to consider the design of your pedal when picking out a shoe.

You have to be aware of the interaction between the shoe and the platform, noting which one allows for the best traction and feel. There is no superior style, and the choice ultimately depends on your own preference.

What Should You Look for in Clipless Bike Pedals?

This is a close look at a mountain bike's pedal.

There are three platform sizes offered for clipless pedals: traditional, midsize, and full-sized. The traditional option is the most compact and the lightest, with a small body used to house the retention mechanism.

The mid-sized option is referred to as the trail option and it adds a small cage. Full-sized options offer a larger, more stable foundation for your feet. It is important to choose your size with respect to your shoes and how much walking you anticipate doing.

Traditional pedals are paired with race-type cross country shoes who have stiff midsoles, whereas semi-flexible trail shoes work best with midsize pedals. The full-sized pedals are best complemented by skate-type shoes that are softer and have more flexibility.

Using MTB Pedals

There is a bit of a learning curve with clipless pedals, but once you get over the intimidation factor, riding with them becomes second-nature.

To grow comfortable with clipless pedals, it is recommended that you begin practicing clipping and unclipping next to a stable spot you can hang onto, like a wall or a fence.

In order to fasten your clipless pedals, you must first slide the cleat into the pedal, facing it forward with a bit of downward pressure. Since most clipless pedals are dual-sized, Which side you choose to clip into does not matter. Make sure you have enough practice clipping in both feet before you begin to ride.

Start with your dominant foot, the one you begin your pedal stroke with. Once you’re clipped in and able to gain some stable momentum, clip in your other foot.

In order to release your feet, all you have to do is twist your heel out and away from the bike. Even though unclipping looks difficult and you should expect a fall or two it is actually fairly simple.

It is natural to worry about whether or not you should clip or unclip when you fall, but the act of falling usually unclips you automatically from the pedals. This way you avoid getting tangled up with your bike when you fall.

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