Flats or Clips? Mountain Bike Pedal Options

Cycling is filled with all these ying and yang concepts. Road or Mountain? 27.5 or 29? Enduro or XC? Guided ride vs DIY? Clips or Flats? A million internet forum threads debate the pros and cons of each with passionate believers on each side. I’ll just have the time here to consider flat vs clipped-in mountain bike pedal options, such as SPD’s.

Flat or clipped mountain bike pedal options

Like many riders, I bought clip-in shoes almost immediately after beginning to mountain bike. The typical wisdom holds that riding clipped-in is the standard for performance, so that was what I did. As an added bonus, in the last 10 years these shoes have become veritable combat boots for your cycling feet, with toe protection, engineered cleat patterns and automatic lace tensioners.

Flats: the pros

But sometimes ultra-performance isn’t the goal. It has been a personal MTB mission in recent years to encourage riders to give up their clip-in shoes in favor of flat pedal shoes. Many of these riders are with Rim Tours out on the White Rim Trail of Canyonlands National Park. It is a casual, scenic tour with many side-hike opportunities. Typically, 50+ years age and with a road riding background, many folks are not as familiar riding challenging, variable terrain clipped-in.

Especially for those just starting out, but also for those pushing their limits, the option to quickly put a foot down is a huge confidence-booster and prevents minor spills that add to that “beat-up” feeling after few days riding in a row. With our incredibly rocky landscape here in Moab, the comfort of walking with rubber-soled shoes vs. a slippery, scratchy cleat is awesome. And “if you’re not hiking, you’re not mountain biking.”

bikers pushing up Murphys Hogback

Bikers pushing up Murphys Hogback (credit thewoksoflife.com)

Clip-ins: the pros

Don’t get me wrong, there are benefits to clip-in shoes. Ultra-stiff carbon fiber soles are extremely efficient at transferring power to the pedals, and having your foot locked in the perfect position feels great. However, if you’re like me and ride clipped in, you’ve probably also nearly toppled off a mountain because you couldn’t get a shoe un-clipped fast enough.

There was definitely a learning curve when I switched back to using flats again. Here are some ways to get the best out of flat pedals.

Getting the best out of flats

  • First off, protect your shins with tall socks, light knee and shin pads such as “G-Form” or pants. Good flat pedals should have some serious spikes – they can tear your skin easily, especially as you’re getting used to them.
  • A nice pair of flat pedal specific cycling shoes is great, but generally any trail hiker/runner is fine. Try to land the widest part of your shoe on the widest part of the pedal.
  • When riding, using a technique called the “foot wedge” will lock your feet into the pedals for descending. Point your rear toe down and point your front toes up to create a “\/” or wedge. This will create an engaged platform for your feet and also increase your front-to-back stability.
Mountain bike pedal technique
The “foot wedge” pedal technique; rear toes down, front toes up.

Both kinds of pedals have their merits and a well-rounded mountain biker should feel comfortable either way. Nowadays, if I am guiding, pushing my bike up a mountain or working on skills, I run flat pedals. If it is a huge XC day or a race I will clip-in. Many riders are “died-in-the-wool” adherents of one style or the other. But as with all yin/yang dichotomies, sometimes, keeping an open mind to different techniques is a great way to enhance your riding experience.