Pedal choice may not seem like something that should be contentious but there is something about using clipless pedals over flat pedals (and vice-versa) that sparkes polarizing discussions and screaming matches.
There is also enough ‘cross’ over thanks to disciplines like Cyclocross, Gravel, and Enduro or ‘Trail’ oriented (non-racing) mountain biking that there can be a debate as to what pedal system is right, especially for non-pros when you have an option … or three for your pedal allegiances.
If you are racing road/track
We will get this one out of the way first, if you are among the most elite and specialized of athletes winning time-trials, sprints and triathlons then use the shoes that are ‘industry standard. This is the equipment used by the best and many of my arguments about using mountain bike shoes are moot if you are only pedaling maximally and looking for every second of efficiency, even at the cost of comfort and safety.
Road vs. MTB Clipless shoes
It is my belief that mountain bike clipless and flat-soled shoes are the way to go for many people who race.
Here’s why I believe this:
- Having two sets of shoes for most off-road disciplines is great.
- Having the ability to walk (and fall less) when you go into the cafe or down those sketchy steps at home is great.
- Having a bit more room for your foot to move in the shoe should be a good thing for foot health (which is apparently tied to everything…)
- Practicing clipping in every time you clip in is important for many disciplines … starting is important (maybe everything) in Cyclocross and MTB-XCO
- Practicing mounts/dismounts – This is important for most off-road disciplines and should be a year-round pursuit. Every time you get on your bike could be practice …
- Easy to switch between bikes and get ready to ride each day.
- Likely saving money on fewer total pedals/cleats purchased for ‘the stable’
It is difficult to argue for Road clipless shoes for the general public without resorting to personal attacks or ‘coolness’ or ‘tradition’ arguments. I tried in the above section for elites but aside from style (which is a fine argument I will accept and those who are pushing for podiums, I do not see the pros outweighing the small wins in skills, comfort, efficiency, money-savings, time-savings and so on.
It’s not just me saying this …
It also was also the basic conclusion in this GCN video that compared Road to Mountain Bike Clipless – there were ‘marginal gains’ in aerodynamics, possible comfort on long rides, and ‘perhaps’ more power transfer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykU99jLIFgg
Flat Pedals vs. Clipless: For the skills
Flat pedals (using a ‘skate-board type’ hard-soled shoe) are usually associated with BMX or with kids but many very good mountain bikers use flat pedals. If you don’t race but ride mountain bikes it is worth considering for safety, comfort and skill development. If you race, it is still worth considering how you can spend more time on flats.
2 Anecdotes supporting using Flat-Pedals as an adult:
- Anecdotally, I did a 2-week flat pedal challenge on my cyclocross bike this fall and HUGELY boosted by barrier hopping skill.
- In my Ryan Leech course on Cyclocross Mounts/dismounts, I have seen many clients in person and online make huge progress in cyclocross mounts and dismounts simply by removing the need to clip in and out (and fear of falling over) away for a few sessions or even just a few repetitions.
If you are just learning to ride bikes or looking to improve your bike skills then flat pedals are the fastest way to learn. Skills like balance, cornering, hopping, jumping and standing to pedal. This is my experience mostly but it also seems like common sense. It is very likely how you learned to ride and how you rode for many years if you rode as a child. Not being terrified of falling over (not unclipping) and being able to get going after a stop/’dab’ is a HUGE accelerator for the learning in kids and adults.
It is easy to forget the way you learned after you have been clipped in for so long.
If you are trying to get a young person or someone you like to learn to ride then please do not give them clipless pedals. Many kids have raced at a very high-level on flat pedals. They are not trying to win sprints or attack climbs and they will be fine in the kid’s race and hopefully even better after the race where they go and practice jumps and tricks with their friends.
Perhaps more contentious is that most people (yes you, adult cyclocross racer) should spend some time on flat pedals whether that is on a mountain bike, a commuter and/or a BMX / dirt jumper. Learning to push into the bike is important.
Why be clipped in at all?
There is fairly good evidence that clipping in will help with aggressive or maximal pedaling. Again, no one is riding flat pedals for sprints and fast hill climbing. Several studies have looked at this such as
- Mornieux et. All (2008) However, an active pulling-up action on the pedal during upstroke increased the pedaling effectiveness, while reducing net mechanical efficiency.
- Ostler (2008) Flats to Toe Clip Pedals (as opposed to clipless) comparison on a lab bike. ~1-2% difference.
Studies aside, any debate should be settled by a sprint competition … everyone uses both types of pedals and completes some sprints … heck there is a study (let me know if you do it or find it…)
I think it is worth finishing by considering how pedal/shoe choice may influence injury. As cyclists, we end up with a lot of repetition, especially if we only use one type of shoes/pedal/bike position.
If you find you struggle with things like IT Band tendonitis, knee pain, foot pain or hip pain then it might be worth playing with using only mountain bike shoes and/or switching to flat pedals for some or all of your rides. The latter can greatly increase your movement options and allow you to modify the lateral position (this alone can be huge) of the foot as well as fore-aft as you ride.
Indeed I found this study by Fletcher (2019) interesting because they found that some people with an injury did better with different levels of flex in their clipless shoes. If simply changing flex in the clipless shoe modified injury then it is not a jump to think modifying cleat or shoe type might also influence discomfort or pain.
Personally and professionally with coaching clients, I have seen the switch to mountain bike shoes and also to flat pedals (for short periods at least) resolve many issues of overuse. Perhaps variety is the answer, it often is, but in my mind, the economic, safety, comfort and ability to go hiking up a random trail on my road bike at a moment’s notice is worth it (that last part might just be me …)