The Never-Ending Pedal Debate: Clipless Vs Flats

This age-old debate has been the centre of many post ride vigorous conversations and I’m here today to tell you that one is definitely better than the other!  Well, ok… that’s a lie… Maybe not better, but definitely different.

Fact vs Fiction

Clipless are more efficient = FACT* (I've discussed this one in further detail below)

You will have the slowest crash of your riding career while riding clipless = FACT

Flats are better for descending = FICTION

Clipless are bad for your knees/hips = FICTION

Flats are better for skill development = FACT

Clipless pedals result in a higher centre of gravity = FACT

Your shin or calf will look like it had ended up in a back-alley brawl with a cheese grater if you ride flats = FACT


Pros vs Cons

Clipless Pros

Pedalling over rough terrain – It is much easier to pedal over bumps, rocks and roots while your feet are stapled to your pedals.  When you’re clipped in you don’t need to ‘drop’ your heels in steep or rough terrain to maintain traction between your flat shoes and pedals.

Increased rear wheel control – It is much easier to lift/slide/scandi the rear wheel while clipped in.  This is due to the fact you don’t require such a high level of skill to complete such manoeuvres when you’re clipped in.

Feeling attached to the bike – Generally speaking, feeling attached to the bike feels great.  You feel more in control and less likely to ‘lose a foot’.

Potential ‘perfect lower half’ position – Spend a bit of your hard earned $$ and get a proper bike fit.  Even if it is only a ‘lower half’ (hips down) fit that includes cleat setup, your knees, hips and feet will be grateful for it.

Easier to maintain cadence – If you race most weekends and usually end up in the top three, you probably do some training.  Some of that training may include cadence training.  It is much, MUCH easier to train at higher cadence when you’re clipped into your pedals.


Clipless Cons

Incorrect cleat setup can lead to injury – This comment isn’t meant to scare you.  If you ride clipless and have no pain, awesome.  Continue on- nothing to see here… If you are having some pain- be it on the bike or after a ride. Get a bike fit done or at least get your shoes and cleats set up properly.

The inevitable ‘slow crash’ – These suck and will happen. 

Confidence takes time – The ability to quickly remove a foot and save ourselves from washing out in a corner is a beautiful thing.  It can be much harder to do when you’re clipped in.  You need to train your feet to move in a certain range of movements to un-clip.  This will become natural in time but in the beginning, you tend not to trust the pedals to ‘let go’ when they should; because of this you tend to slow down and go into self-preservation mode when the going gets hairy and scary.

Pedals/Shoes are thicker – Even though it’s only a few mm it’s a drawback.  When you consider some riders won’t buy that bike because its BB height is 340mm and not 335mm, every mm should count; regardless of where they are located.  The thicker the pedal and shoe tread/sole, the higher your centre of gravity will be.  Think about it…


Flat Pros

No cleats – This means no cleat setup or ‘incorrect cleat position’. Your body is a wonderful thing and it magically knows when it doesn’t like a position or movement.  When riding flats your feet find HAPPY TOWN all on their own!

Any shoe will do – Well that really depends on where you are riding.  Quick roll to the beach? Pluggers? There's a lot to be said for quality flat shoes with a sticky sole that practically hold onto your flat pedals though.

Modern flat pedals are thin – A thin pedal equates to a lower centre of gravity. 

Easy to emergency stop and dismount – At any point in time you can unconsciously remove a foot and put it down.  High speed, low speed, upside down, inside out (Ok, maybe not the last two).

Core skills – There are a handful of core skills that I feel every rider should learn before deciding to move over to clipless pedals.  They are: Front wheel lift, rear wheel lift, bunny-hop, j-hop, side-hop, rear wheel slide/skid/drift, and for the real go-getters scandi/cuttys.  Once you have mastered those you have developed a great sense of body position and weight transfer.  Learning those skills correctly on flats will make you faster, sooner.


Flat Cons

Pedal slip – Every flat pedalled rider has their own horror story and shin scar to go along with it (see above).

Less control/accuracy with the rear wheel – Generally speaking (unless you are Brandon Semenuk) there are times when your rear wheel ‘just ended up in that bomb-hole’ because you couldn’t move it the 7cm to the left while you were in the air.  Being clipped in makes those kinds of split-second decisions a possibility.  It also makes it easier to do core skill manoeuvres like rear wheel lifts and side hops.

Core skills take practice – Practise takes time, focused practice can be boring. Riding should be fun, so don’t feel like you should/shouldn’t try clipless because you can’t perform the list of core skills mentioned above. Give those skills some time to develop - hire a coach or do a skills session.

Hard to maintain high cadence – This is less important on the gravity scene but can be the difference between 1st and 50th on the XC scene.  When you fatigue your body loses ‘ideal position and form’.  That means when you’re tired you tend to just ‘plow-down’ on the pedals with no rhythm or rhyme.  This can get ugly if you aren’t attached to them.  Being clipped in will ensure your feet stay on and the circle keeps turning the circles.

Well there you have it.

There isn’t really a right or wrong.  More of a ‘what’s right for me.’ If you’ve been riding for some time and feel comfortable on your bike over varied terrain, I highly recommend you change out your pedals and try whatever it is you haven’t been riding.  I swap between flats and clipless every six months or so.  My friends think I’m crazy but I like keeping the skillsets up.  Both styles of pedals appeal to a different side of me as a rider.  I used to think I was fast, now I know I’m slow- so fun, reflection and development are high on my YAAAAAASSSS list these days.  Definitely not Strava KOM’s. Although I’ll take’m if you’re giving any out :-)


Clipless pedals, yes they are more efficient.
But not by as much as you might think!

A third party did their own test comparing heart rate and VO2 intake during two timed interval sessions in a controlled environment.

The bike was set up on a giant treadmill, the incline was set, and the rider was to ride for the allotted time.

Power, VO2 intake and heart rate were measured. Blood tests were even taken before and after each session to measure lactate.

The results…

Clipless pedals were MARGINALLY more efficient overall.  So marginal that in short one-minute sprints it could probably go either way.  The test showed when riding for ten minutes or more the clipless pedals were consistently more efficient, not by much but enough to see the clear advantages of using them for longer pedalling focused racing. Unless you are Sam Hill….

Comments (3)

Fewer pedal strikes

16 January 2019
"Modern flat pedals are thin – A thin pedal equates to a lower centre of gravity." This seems pretty marginal, dropping your bum 5mm would be just as effective. I find I get "fewer pedal strikes" on rocky ground when I'm on flats (due to the reduced stack height,). Of course, that has to be balanced with not getting my feet blown off when riding with clipless.

Mountain Bikes Direct Response
Hi Kevin, Thanks for the response. You are absolutely right! Dropping your bum 5mm will do more to lower your centre of gravity as the bulk of our mass is in our torso. But let's just imagine we all have perfect body position anyways (because we all do of course!!) and we are looking for that little edge to get that next Strava time... It never hurts to try new things! I agree with the pedal strikes as well. Sometimes a low centre of gravity (low bottom bracket, long cranks, etc.) can be a bad thing. If you ride with lots of techy sniper rocks in your climbs and descents a bit higher centre of gravity is a good thing. As you said- the quest for balance, there are always pros and cons. Sounds like you've got it pretty figured out though. Great job! Cheers, Phill - Ride fast and take chances!

put the power down, and up.

By: on 16 January 2019
I've been doing a flat pedal challenge course from a popular online coach. I only signed up because it was free. If it wasn't for my stubborness I would have given up by now. I cant't wait to complete the challenge so I can bin the flats and start enjoying my trail rides again securely clipped in. Also decent clipless shoe and pedal combos are cheaper than decent flat pedal and shoe combos. Go figure. If you are going for clipless the first time go straight to the Crank Brothers or Time pedals, They are a much nicer release feel than SPD.

Mountain Bikes Direct Response
Hey! Thanks for the comment :o) I know the exact flat pedal challenge you are speaking of and the rad human behind it. Learning those core skills can be super frustrating, especially when you have already developed a skill set using a clipless system. I applaud you for your determination (or stubbornness, as you call it). It takes a certain kind of someone to see something through when they aren't really enjoying it. Awesome job! Keep up the effort. I promise you, once you do put your clipless system back on the bike, your bike handling skills will have improved. Your body position and weight transfer skills will have grown and your body awareness on the bike will be sharper too. I have to agree with you on the 'which pedal do I choose?' front. I'm a Crank Brothers fan myself. I have had countless sets of Shimano XT Trail pedals but we just don't get along... Funny those things hey! That secure feeling of being attached to the bike is nice though. It takes a fair bit of riding to 'unconsciously drop your heels' in a steep section or 'get light' in a rough section when you are on flats. Like everything in life you can spend what you want, on what you want. If you want a $15,000 pocket watch that has a Tamaguchi function. Sure thing. All yours- I'm sure it's out there somewhere. MTB shoes/pedals are no different. I swear some of the grippiest flat pedal shoes around are plain old Vollies. The downside it a half decent flat pedal will tear them to bits in a few months and the shoe offers no real protection for any part of your foot. There is a lot of value in clipless shoes/pedals, you're right. But getting into the shoes and pedals can sometimes be only half the $$ battle. Unfortunately, there are a fair few clipless riders out there that finish a ride with numb toes, pain forming in their knee(s), the dreaded 'hot-foot', only to name a few complaints. Most of them just think it's part of riding and soldier on, or will only ride for 1h as the pain creeps in at the 1.5h marker. These riders sometimes need to get their wallet back out and go see a good bike fitter, costing more $$$. Horses for courses though! I say give'em a go! If you love flats, try clips and vice-versa!! Once again thanks for chiming in and leaving a comment! Phill - Ride fast and take chances!

There are more scars on my shins, than there are s

By: on 14 January 2019

Mountain Bikes Direct Response
Maybe we should host a photo comp of who has the largest 'road map' of pedal induced scars on their shins hey? Then again... maybe not.... I probably don't have the stomach for it. Thanks for the comment! Phill - Ride fast and take chances!

Leave a comment

Comments have to be approved before showing up