If you’re a road cyclist, you have clipless pedals. They attach to little cleats that are bolted to the bottom of your shoe, which is very stiff and tight and allows you to pull upward on the back end of your pedal stroke as well as pushing down on the front. It makes for a more powerful, efficient pedal stroke, better form, and more comfort over the long term. Eventually, you’ll come to a stop, forget to unclip, and fall down like an idiot. We know all this, and no one’s arguing it.
In the mountain biking world, however, the waters are a little murkier. While there are many who swear by the same benefits of clipless pedals on road bikes when applied to the dirt trails, there’s an equally large contingent who maintain that flat pedals make for a better rider. And given the increasing prevalence of thinner, lighter flats, that contingent is getting louder. Let’s talk differences.
If you’re trying to through-ride the White Rim in a day, or climb thousands of feet over dozens of miles, efficiency is king. You’re less concerned with hucking through tight corners or hitting big dirt jumps, you’re just trying to chew up the miles. And when it comes to power and efficiency, clipless pedals reign supreme. In MBR’s wattage test, clipless pedals were able to put down up to 10% more power, and those gains add up over time.
Flats win this one. While there are lots of mountain clipless pedals that are designed to handle a lot of nasty weather while still maintaining a solid connection to the cleat, there’s nothing like a big slab of metal (or plastic) with spikes in it for security in the wet stuff. While almost any clipless system will eventually get gummed up if the mud is sticky enough and thick enough, a flat pedal will still be a flat pedal no matter how much gunk you get on it.
This is where the big debate comes in. While it seems intuitive that being attached to the bike will let you throw it around better, many are arguing that clipless pedals make for bad habits. For example, riders who learn on clipless pedals, when they want to hop or unweight the rear wheel, simply pull with their legs rather than properly unweighting the bike. This can throw the frame and therefore your center of gravity forward, which makes you less stable and prone to crashing. It might work for jumping over roots here and there, but you’re going to run into trouble with the bigger logs and rocks.
Another problem area is weight distribution. A lot of people ride with their weight too far back, which leads to the front wheel washing out during cornering. Flat pedals force you to keep your weight planted in the center of the bike, heels down, which distributes weight to both wheels and keeps the center of gravity low.
On technical trails, many argue for the confidence that flats afford. When you’re picking your way through tight corners and sharp rocks, the ability to drop a foot or push off a tree without thinking about unclipping is a real security blanket, and gives you the self-assurance to push a little harder and a little faster. And if you’re interested in dirt jumps, bailing is much easier on flat pedals if something goes wrong.
When it really comes down to it, like a lot of bike-related debates, it’s a matter of personal preference. Do you prefer the security and efficiency of clipless? Or the confidence of a big bombproof slab of aluminum? Let us know!