Many have had the debate with mates about flat vs clipless pedals, but which is actually best? Yep, that’s right it’s not a simple one or the other answer. But we dive deep into the pros and cons of both so you can decide which is best for you.
If you are short on time then skip to the ‘So what you should ride’ section where we outline different riders and what would suit them best.
Benefits of Flats
We’ll start with the benefits of riding flats. I think there are many and that flats are underrated for all mountain bikers. There is a lot to be gained by riding in flats. They will point out any weaknesses you have with your position on the bike.
Flats are great for beginners as they are much more confidence-inspiring and ensure you develop the correct skills right from the start.
Going straight to clipless pedals will put many beginners off. The level of commitment is much greater, and your base skill level won’t thank you, as you will get lazy by relying on clips.
I noticed this myself when I switched back to flats after years of riding with clips. I had become too reliant on them.
Flat pedals are also safer than clip pedals, especially for beginners. It’s not that clips are dangerous, but the chance of coming off in clips is much higher for a beginner. You tend to forget or struggle to unclip. It’s completely understandable, as a lot is going on.
Another benefit is the ability to adjust your foot placement on the pedals, some people will like this, and some will hate it. It just comes down to personal preference, but adjusting your feet does have its advantages on technical terrain.
Benefits of Clipless
The number one advantage to clipless pedals is that your feet will remain attached to the pedals, through all-terrain, regardless of how good your technique is.
It can be incredibly reassuring to blast through a rough section of trail. You have the confidence that you’ll stay on your bike.
On a similar note, it is tough to pedal over rough sections with flat pedals. This poses a significant problem for cross-country riders as they want to pedal over just about everything. Hence, clips are great for them, as they can keep pedaling when the terrain gets rough.
Also, there is a slight gain in efficiency when pedaling while using clipless pedals, so you will be able to pedal that little bit faster and use less energy, which again is great for cross-country riders.
There is also the argument that clips lead to better bike control, and this is true. But it is mainly because it takes a lot longer to master the same control on flat pedals.
It is extremely handy just to pick the rear wheels up whenever you like and with little difficulty.
Drawbacks of Flats
The number one drawback of flat pedals is that your feet are not locked into the pedals. This is more of an issue for some riders than others, and depends on the shoes and pedals you use.
If you want to be pedaling through all terrain, no matter how rough. You are going to struggle with flats as you need to be attached to the pedals to manage that.
Another is the extreme pain that comes from hitting your shins on the pedals if your foot slips off. Although thankfully not that common, it does suck when it happens.
Also, it may seem nice and easy, and you can just use whatever pedals you have lying around and an old pair of shoes. However, this is not the case, and although you can get away with it at the very start. It will soon start holding you back from what you want to do.
That means another trip to the bike shop to purchase yet, more gear. Unfortunately, even flat shoes and pedals aren’t cheap, but they sure are worth it.
Nowadays, they’re pretty much the same price as clipless pedals. But the technology has come a long way, and the grip you get from a good set is incredible. You will find yourself feeling locked to the bike but with the ability to remove your feet. Which is a huge confidence boost.
Drawbacks of Clipless
We’ll start with the most important one, and that is the drop in confidence that comes with switching to clipless pedals.
The feeling of entering challenging terrain while being clipped to the pedals is undoubtedly a scary one. It takes a lot to get used to it.
Dropping in with clipless pedals takes a lot more commitment than flats. You need to be confident you can ride through without any issues. You will get there with time, but it will feel like you have taken a step backward in your riding.
Another point is that you can develop poor technique by relying on the clips. It is particularly noticeable when doing things like bunny hops, jumps and riding through rough terrain.
Often riders can get used to using the clips to pull up on the pedals and don’t use the correct full-body motion to get airborne. The same is true through rough terrain. You will naturally not drop your heels as much as you would with flats.
All this is why I believe going back and riding flat pedals is a great thing to do for your riding. It will force you to ride with good technique again.
Lastly, you are attached to your bike, which can lead to some pretty gnarly tangles in a crash. First of all, I would like to say that I don’t believe that clipless pedals are so dangerous that you shouldn’t consider using them, but they are more dangerous than flats.
Bailing out is not as easy as you can’t just jump off your bike, so you end up going down with the bike. Surprisingly, most of the time, you somehow become unclipped. All is fine, but sometimes you can get tangled up in it down a bank.
What I Learned Switching from Clipless to Flats
Looking back at how my riding progressed, I followed the natural path of progression and didn’t question it.
I started with flat pedals and running shoes and progressed as quickly as I could towards clipless pedals. It was just what everyone did, and I didn’t question it.
It wasn’t until I started testing flat pedals and shoes that I began to question why everyone was in such a rush to get clipless pedals.
Now I have completely switched over to flat pedals as my go-to. It’s great, and I have learned a lot by doing it, so here’s what I learned from switching and why I recommend all riders to give it a shot.
First of all, I couldn’t believe how far technology has come with pedals and shoes. They are surprisingly grippy and comfortable to ride in. Gone are the days where you had the bear trap pedals, and as soon as they got wet, it was like riding on ice blocks.
Also, having been riding for many years. I was surprised at just how much I relied on the clips to stay on my bike, and bunny hop around things. Switching to flats highlighted this, and I was forced to adopt the correct technique fast.
I thought I was pretty confident on most of my local trails. However, I found that switching to flats boosted my confidence on steep chutes and sections where you just need to commit.
I think it’s all psychological, but there was something about not being clipped in on these sections which make them feel a lot less scary and much more fun.
It just goes to show that flat pedals are not only a good confidence boost for beginners, but also more experienced riders too.
Another lesson is just how much fun riding flats is, particularly in the wet. It is a heap of fun just sending it down a trail and getting loose but just being able to pull your foot off the pedals when you need.
Again it comes back to that confidence of just being able to ride into a section knowing you’re not locked on your bike.
Overall, switching back to flats has been great and progressed my riding significantly. While also teaching me a lot about how you slowly creep into relying on clips just a little bit too much.
I would highly recommend all riders give it a go if they can. With the right pedals and shoes, you’ll be surprised how beneficial it is and just how much fun it is.
If you’re looking to learn more about flat pedals, check out our buyers guide.
So What Should You Ride?
Weighing up all the pros and cons of clipless vs flat pedals can only get you so far. At some point, you need to make a decision, so here it is, a round-up for a bunch of different riders.
If you’re a beginner and mainly ride easy, flat trails, go flats and don’t worry too much about your pedal and shoe combo.
Chances are just running shoes, and a standard set of flat pedals will do the job just fine.
As you progress and start riding more challenging trails, you will begin to notice the shoe and pedal combination holding you back. That is when it’s time to get some specific flat shoes and pedals to progress your riding.
If you are pretty decent on the bike but don’t race, you can really go either way with pedals.
But in my opinion, you will find flat pedals more fun to ride. Providing you have a decent set of pedals and shoes.
If you still want to go with the clipless pedals. I recommend checking out our recommendations for the best clipless pedals for beginners.
For cross country riding and racing, clipless pedals make a significant difference, and I would recommend them.
The main reason is that it will be much easier to pedal through rough terrain and maximize your pedaling efficiency.
This is the category I would consider myself, and it’s a bit more tricky to decide which is best. After lots of trials and experience with both, I now mix it up.
However, flat pedals are my go-to as I find them more fun to ride. I only switch to clipless pedals if I’m going on a particularly pedaly ride where I think it will make a significant difference.
I believe it’s more of a personal preference for enduro riding as both have their pros and cons as above.
It took a bit of getting used to but having switched to flats, I prefer them for downhill. I feel more comfortable pushing the limits of a trail a little bit more with flats.
Now my riding style has adapted to the flats, and I feel secure on them. I love them for downhill riding.
Again downhill riding is very much a personal preference for flats vs clipless pedals, so you will just have to give both a go and see which works best for you.
Well theres something to think about. Flat vs clipless pedals isn’t an easy decision as there is a lot of pros and cons to wigh up depending on your riding.
At the end of the day, you just need to pick one, start riding and see how you go. It’s always good to mix it up and try both if you are lucky enough to be able to.