No mountain bike is good without quality pedals. Your pedals are one of the most vital contact points on your bike. They’re crucial to everything from climbing to cornering and that’s why you need to get the right ones for you. If you don’t know your flats from your clips or what an SPD is when it’s at home, then read on. So what are the different types of pedals for mountain bikes?
There are two types of pedal currently used for mountain bikes. The first type is the flat or platform pedal. As the name suggests, it has a flat surface for your foot to sit on, often with the addition of pins that help dig into the sole of your shoe for extra traction. The second type is the ‘clipless’ pedal, which physically attaches you to the pedal using metal key or cleat on specific shoes and a spring-loaded mechanism on the pedal itself.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover the pros and cons of both styles below. Read on to find out more about the best MTB pedals and which are best for your bike and your style.
Flat or Clipless MTB pedals: What are They and Which are Best?
Clipless MTB pedals
- Increase your pedalling efficiency
- Hold your feet securely in place on rough terrain
- Make it easier to lift and hop the bike
- You can’t reposition your foot on the pedal once clipped in
- Require careful setup to protect your knees
- Can be tricky to clip in and out in a hurry
Clipless pedals are by far the most common choice of pedal for most mountain bikers. The main reason is that they offer much-improved efficiency as your foot is directly connected to the pedal and so allow you to pull up as well as push down with your foot. This same connection means that your foot can’t move on the pedal unless you unclip, so you’re much more secure when bouncing over rough terrain too.
They’re called clipless pedals – despite you actually clipping into them – because original bicycle pedals used flat platform pedals with toe clips and a strap at the front to secure your foot. As pedals with cleats didn’t require the use of a toe clip, they were called clipless. Yep, it still makes little sense.
There are a number of different designs of clipless pedal, from super lightweight and minimalist designs with just the locking mechanism and an axle to more solidly built designs that have an extra cage around the mechanism to offer more protection to the pedal and support to your shoe.
Unless low weight is a priority, a caged clipless pedal makes much more sense in the rough and tumble world of off-road riding.
Different brands also use different locking mechanisms. We’ll run through the main options below, but they all share some things in common. The first is a cleat that is secured to the sole of a specially designed shoe by bolts and is usually recessed to allow you to walk normally off the bike.
The second is some kind of spring-loaded mechanism on the pedal body that holds the cleat securely when you’re pulling up and down on it with your foot, but also allows you to release your foot when you want to get off or in the event of a crash. This is usually achieved by rotating your heel outwards to release the mechanism.
The amount of side to side and rotational movement before the cleat releases is known as float and varies from design to design. Having a secure fit but a predictable release is really important, for obvious reasons.
Shimano came up with the first effective mountain bike clipless system, Shimano Pedalling Dynamics – often shortened to SPDs or ‘spuds’. The general characteristics of the SPD system are that they don’t allow very much float at all, giving a firmly attached feeling with a very positive entry and exit feel that some people prefer.
It does mean you need to be very accurate when you set them up on your shoe, otherwise, they can cause joint pain and damage. They’re also the only clipless pedals that allow you to adjust the release tension of the cleats.
Shimano offers two kinds of cleat for their pedals. Single release cleats only allow you to exit the pedal by rotating your foot out of it. These are the cleats supplied as standard with all SPD pedals. Multi release cleats will allow you to release from the pedal by pulling upwards, provided you do it with sufficient force, which can be of benefit to beginners but might lead to unintentional release to more experienced riders.
Nukeproof, DMR and Ritchey all use mechanisms that are very similar to the SPD system and the cleats can often be used interchangeably.
Clipless pedals offer a very different feel to SPDs as they have much more float, both rotationally and laterally. They do feel much less positive in engagement and disengagement, but many people prefer this more natural feeling. The release tension isn’t adjustable, but the wire-like mechanism offers four-sided entry and clears mud very well.
Look, Time and Mavic pedals use the same design. It’s very broadly a similar to the Crank Brothers design, but with a feel that sits somewhere between two in terms of float and crispness.
HT is a newer brand to the clipless pedal market and their design is best described as an amalgamation of an SPDs pressed metal mechanism and a wire-like design such as Crank Brothers. Accordingly, the feel sits somewhere between the two, with the added advantage that the release force is adjustable.
Flat MTB Pedals
- Easy to get your foot off to correct a slide, escape a crash or just change position
- Can often improve confidence as you’re not locked in place
- They don’t clog up in muddy conditions
- Pedalling isn’t as efficient as clipless designs
- Need good technique to make the most of them
- Your feet can get bounced off on rough terrain
Initially popular with BMX riders, flat pedals caught on in mountain bike downhill riding because, as you’re not physically connected to the pedal, it’s easy to get off the bike in the hurry – something quite useful in the more crash prone world of gravity riding. They’re ideal for beginners, but they do require you to learn some specific techniques to get the most from them.
In recent years, they’ve become more popular for trail bike riding too, despite not being as efficient for pedalling as clipless designs.
Most flat pedal designs use a large platform with an arrangement of pins sitting proud of it to provide grip. The broader and longer the platform is, the more support it’ll offer you foot, but the trade-off is ground clearance. A thinner pedal platform means that’s less likely, but also means there’s less space inside the pedal for bearings. Most good designs have a slightly concave shape to the platform to help your foot sit into the pedal.
The platform itself is usually made from aluminium, though lighter and more expensive materials such as magnesium are sometimes used. Reinforced plastics are being more common as the material is inexpensive and tends to slide over obstacles more easily than metals. Titanium rather than steel axles are sometimes offered as a lighter upgrade, though usually at a serious price premium.
For everyone but those with deep pockets, lightweight and fragile materials are best avoided as flat pedals tend to take much more of a beating due to their relatively large size.
Ideally, the pins themselves should be replaceable as they’re prone to getting bent or bashed. Longer pics offer more grip but also can do more damage to you and your shins should you slip off. Many pedals allow you to tune the length and placement of the pins, so you can get a good compromise between outright grip and being able to reposition your feet on the pedal.
Note: If the pins are overly long, they can be uncomfortable underfoot too.
While flat pedals don’t require specialist shoes to work, in reality, they should be paired with a good set of flat pedal-specific shoes. These have a flatter and broader sole usually made from extra-grippy rubber that allows the pedal pins to grip hard.
Combination mountain bike pedals merge the advantages of both pedal types: a wide platform plus a clipping mechanism. There are two different styles. One type has a clip on one side and a platform on the other, and the other type has a clip integrated into the platform on both sides, so that each are accessible at the same time.
The main trade-off in choosing a combo pedal is that there is often a large weight penalty, and the clips may be a bit more difficult to engage than on a clipless-only pedal. One issue with many combo pedals that only have a clip on one side is that they tend to rotate so that the clip side is always pointing towards the ground, because it is the side that weighs more.
This makes getting clipped in a little more cumbersome, which can be annoying out on the trail. But they are a great choice if you have a bike that you use for a wide variety of applications and sometimes want to be clipped in, but also want to be able to easily jump on with normal shoes (like a commuter bike).
Other Pedal Factors to Consider
No matter which type of pedal you’re looking for, you may want to consider these additional items:
- Pedal weight — While lighter is generally better, sometimes it comes with durability consequences. Do some research before automatically choosing the lightest option.
- Mud shedding abilities — Look for open spaces in the pedals where mud can be pushed out when you place your feet on the pedals. This also applies to snow.
- Adjustability — This is mostly important when looking at clipless pedals where you’ll want to consider things like pedal tension settings (the amount of force it takes to clip and unclip) and float (the degree to which you can rotate your foot when clipped in). Platform pedals may allow you to replace spike pins or even change up the colors on the pedal body. More adjustability is better.
- Durability — It’s a good idea to choose a solid pedal with smooth bearings that won’t require a ton of maintenance. Great mountain bike pedals will stand up to the abuse of multiple rock strikes and scratches year after year.
- Ease of maintenance — Some pedals can be easily rebuilt and parts swapped out, while if others break, you have to buy a whole new pedal.
How Do I Choose The Right Mountain Bike Pedals For My Bike?
Choosing the right mountain bike pedals comes down to the rider’s comfort level as well as the type of riding they are looking to do.
While it is easier to test out and get a feel for flats, I recommend that riders at least test out the clipless pedals and shoes to ensure they find what ultimately feels the best for them.
Riding Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals
Riding clipless pedals allow mountain bikers the ability to get power out of the full stroke effectively getting the most power possible when pedaling.
This is really beneficial on long inclines allowing you optimal performance and saving your energy.
This is also beneficial in very technical sections like rock gardens where the constant impact could force your feet to come off of the flats.
However, some feel confined with being clipped into the pedal which can lead to crashes due to lack of confidence in coming unclipped when needed.
Riding Mountain Bike Flat pedals
Riding on flats allow mountain bike riders more freedom in the ride. It allows them the ability to quickly pop a foot out in a fast turn to prevent crashing.
It also helps take away the anxious/nervousness one might feel by being confined in the clipless.
While some will say that you lose power if you aren’t clipped in, I believe that having the right flat pedals limits how much of that power is actually lost.
Are Mountain Bike pedals universal?
Mountain bike pedals are standard than universal. I say this because most of the pedals you purchase today are all in the same size.
In today’s market many if not all of the pedals you will be looking at (like these Race Face Chester I bought from Jenson USA) are all a standard 9/16th and would work on most cranksets.
If your bike has a solid one-piece crankset you may end up needing 1/2″ set of pedals.
The other aspect to think about here is that you can’t simply purchase a pair of clipless pedals and go riding. You also have to find a compatible pair of mountain bike shoes that can mate with the pedal you purchase.
Are Mountain Bike pedals reverse threaded?
The term reverse threaded means that it goes counterclockwise. The old phrase “Right-Tighty” or “Time is Right” refers to how one would tighten bolts. In regards to mountain bike pedals, the left pedal or non-drive side needs to be reversely threaded in order to prevent the rider from spinning the pedal right off the crank.
The right pedal or drive side is your standard threading. In order to remove the drive side (right side pedal) simply grab and stabilize the pedal with one hand while using the other had to loosen the pedal with a counter-clockwise motion.
Common Problems With MTB Pedals
Cross threaded pedals on either flats or clipless
This is probably one of the easiest problems that a mountain biker can accidentally cause as well as prevented. I personally ran into this issue when rushing to pack up and prepare my bike for a ride.
Helicoil backing out
The morning of the ride I rushed putting on a new set of flats swapping out my old clipless pedals and unknowingly cross-threaded damaging the crank arm. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I had this problem until the end of the ride.
On the way out of the trail, I noticed that the non-drive was really wobbly. Much to my dismay, after placing my bike on the rack that the threads in the crank were almost completely.
In some situations, you may end up needing to purchase new cranks but there are other options. Check out my article on Common Crank Arm problems on how to resolve that issue.
Worn out studs on flats
If your riding on a good set of flats with pins they are more than likely replaceable. The pins wear out for a number of reasons from normal wear and tear as well as rock strikes out on the trail.
These are simple enough to replace with an Allen key and could benefit from having some Loctite.
Loose or Sticky clipless pedals
There are several settings on your clipless pedals and shoes that allow the mountain bike the ability to tighten or loosen the pedals for ultimate comfort.
The key is to have enough flexibility to allow you to quickly pop your shoe out in the event of a fall or crash so you can prevent injury.
You don’t want your binding to be so loose that you feel like you are in flats and lose the benefits of being in clipless, to begin with.
Why don’t all Mountain Bikes come with pedals?
While the lower end mountain bikes do come with pedals they come with a pair of cheap pedals. The higher-end bikes also focus more on other components of the bike because they know that the pedals are rider specific.
Where one rider might be comfortable with clipless others might prefer only flats. Riders are also fiercely brand loyal.
When researching pedals when I was looking to upgrade I found this to be a common trait for most. For more information and detail check out our post on Why don’t Mountain Bikes come with pedals? Reasons, Types, and Options
Why don’t Mountain Bikes Mudguards come standard?
While I am not a proponent of riding on wet trails, which is typically not an issue here in dry Albuquerque, sometimes you come across a mostly dry trail with a section or two of dampness.
That, or you have a section of trail with a creek crossing.
So why don’t mountain bikes come with mudguards? While mountain bike mudguards are fairly inexpensive, they are typically rider specific in that they come in various styles, shapes, and sizes.
Instead of having your local bike shop add it onto your new ride if you are buying one, purchase a set online and try to install them yourself first. If you want to learn more about mountain bike mudguards, check out our article here where we go into the reasons in more detail as well as aftermarket and DIY options.