What are the Best Pedals for Mountain Biking?

Flat Pedals or Clipless?  Well, it depends.

The biggest debate seems to be which pedals enable you to ride the fastest (as though speed is the only thing that matters in mountain biking).  I’m pretty sure it’s okay to just go out and have some FUN on our bikes.

Research shows that being clipped in may give you a slight speed advantage. We’re talking about 3% here. That may be important at the elite level, but for the average mountain biker it’s nothing.

There are world champion mountain bikers that race clipped in, and others (like Sam Hill) who race on flats. But they can all ride well on flats because they know how to ride a bike, have an efficient pedal stroke and good technique!  It’s not the pedal system that makes or breaks the rider.

The Coach’s Opinion on Flat Pedals or Clipless

If you’ve ridden with me in the last few years you know that I use flat pedals, love them and encourage others to use them if they’re having any challenges on the bike.

Prior to 2013, however, I used a couple different clipless pedal systems. I did it kind of backwards because I didn’t know any better, and I paid the price on many rides for the first year or so!

I was a roadie using SPD clipless pedals before trying mountain biking so I just thought that because I knew how to use that type of pedal that I’d be fine using them in the woods. I was naïve, and very wrong, and I came home with scrapes and bruises most every ride in the beginning. Of course, some of that was because I didn’t know about all the skills and techniques required for the sport.

I don’t want that to happen to you! You don’t have to learn the HARD way like I did.

Going into this I want you to know that I am pro-flats for most situations, but please don’t interpret that to mean that I’m anti-clipless, because I’m not.  There’s a time and place for each.

But, in my opinion as a MTB Instructor, you should have a really solid base of skills, such as being able to do the following without having your feet come off the pedals…

  • Seated pedaling
  • Standing pedaling
  • Seated climbing
  • Standing climbing

As well as being able to perform maneuvers, and catch some air, and still keep your feet on the pedals, like with…

  • Track stands
  • Rear wheel lifts
  • Level lifts
  • Bunny hops

If you can do all of the above well on flat pedals then you have the techniques under your belt and would be a candidate for switching over to a clipless pedal system.

If you really WANT to, that is. There’s nothing saying you ever NEED to switch to a clipless pedal system.

But They Insisted!

Sometimes a well-meaning friend or significant other will insist that you HAVE to mountain bike using clipless pedals, even if it scares the heck out of you.  They’ve been mountain biking for a while so you assume that if clipless is right for them, and they think it’s right for you, then it must be the way to go.  So you submit to the pressure and go clipless. After all, they are a friend, right? You’re certain they’re looking out for your best interest.

But now when you ride you have an overwhelming fear of not being able to get your cleats unclipped from your pedals in time to keep yourself from hitting the ground. You’re constantly anxious about it and that makes you tense.  You end up with a death grip on the bars when you try to ride and the whole experience feels awful. You’re not even sure you ever want to do it again.

I’m beyond counting how many times I’ve heard some variation of this story! It’s really unfortunate that a poor decision about going with flat pedals or clipless can totally ruin it for some people. So much so that they don’t want to mountain bike any more if that’s how it’s going to feel to them.

Why I Want My Students To Learn On Flat Pedals

Does it really matter whether someone learns on flat pedals or clipless pedals?

I think so!  And here’s why…

1. Less distraction means more focus – When you’re learning new skills and maneuvers, in a controlled environment or out on the trails, you won’t have all the anxiety that goes along with never being certain that you’ll be able to get out of your clipless pedals in time to avoid a tip-over or crash. Eliminate that distraction and you’ll be able to focus on learning, you’ll be willing to try more skills that challenge you and your confidence will build up much faster.

2. You will learn the proper techniques – Being “attached” to your bike can be a crutch. You may think you have the right techniques, but if you can’t climb and perform all the maneuvers mentioned above on flat pedals while keeping your feet glued to the pedals, you’re not using proper technique. And one day, as you’re pulling up on your pedals because that’s the only way you know how to make it work, you’re going to come unclipped and, well, it’s all going to fall apart. Undesirable results will likely occur.

3. Larger pedal surface – Most flat mountain bike specific pedals (not the typical cheap things that come on your bike when you purchase it!) are about 4” x 4” and have pins that help to keep your feet on the pedals. The bigger size gives your foot a nice solid platform to apply your awesome power to the drivetrain. When you’re clipped in the cleat is more under the ball of your foot so your movements are more calf dominant. When your foot is on a flat pedal you’re able to push with more of your foot so the movement uses the more powerful quadriceps and hip muscles. When in the “ready” position on your bike it’s a lot like a half squat position with the knees bent. Think about how much weight you could squat flat-footed compared with standing on the balls of your feet. Go ahead and try it now just using your body weight and you’ll see what I mean.

Those are my top 3 reasons for using flat pedals.

Once you have the skills and maneuvers down pat, decide for yourself whether flat pedals or clipless pedals are right for you.

Remember, I’m not anti-clipless but I AM pro-flats, especially for the first year or two of learning this sport.

Have a story of your own about an experience with pedals that you think could help someone decide which way to go?  

“Leave A Comment” below and share it with us!

Coach Margie Bowen


Flat Pedals or Clipless

“Clips” and Straps – Outdated, but how “Clipless” pedals (no clips) got their name.


Flat Pedals or Clipless

Flat/platform MTB-specific pedals – Required for clinics!


Flat Pedals or Clipless

“Clipless” Shimano SPD


Flat Pedals or Clipless

The type of cheap pedal that is apt to come with a new bike. These are NOT a pedal for MTB riding and it’s challenging to keep your feet on these pedals!