Flat Pedals vs Clipless Pedals – Which Is Best For Newbies?

Are you starting out getting into mountain biking and wondering which pedals are the best for your mountain bike? I remember when I started out, the question on whether to go clipless or flat was something that I kept wondering about.

And to be honest, in the beginning, clipless pedals scared me a little! So, in the beginning, I had flat pedals on my bike while I still built up my confidence on the trails.

My more experienced friends were all on clipless pedals and kept telling me that it is the only way to go! They kept telling about all the amazing benefits of going clipless.

But is clipless really the best option for newbies, or is it flat pedals? Or perhaps even a third option?

The Importance of Mountain Bike Pedals and Which Pedals Are The Best

Before I get into the pros and cons of each type of pedal and to find which pedals are the best? let me first just explain what types of pedals there are (there is actually a third type that you might not have been aware of).

Three Main Types of MTB Pedals

There are three types of pedals you can look at when you get started. I also list the pros and cons of each, to help you figure out which one is going to be the best for you.

Flat Pedals

About every kid learned to ride using classic flat pedals (mine were huge and made from plastic with giant reflectors on). Modern mountain bike flat pedals are exactly what they sound like, flat pedals with tiny pins that help hold your shoes in place (traction).

You can ride with any type of shoe using flat pedals or you can purchase specialized flat pedal shoes that provide better traction on the surface of the pedals.

Pros of Flat Pedals

It Gives You Some Reassurance

Novice mountain bike riders find flat pedals reassuring. When the trail becomes too hectic, you know that you can bail off the bike with no trouble or simply put your foot down when necessary (I have so often seen people new to clipless pedals tumble over because they could not unclip fast enough).

Also, a lot of riders like to put their foot down when cornering fast so with a flat pedal you are free to do exactly that. And let us face the facts, most of us learn to ride with the flat pedals so they give you confidence!

It Is The Best Way To Learn Techniques 

Do you like bunny hops or rear wheel lifts? Those techniques take practice and skill. They are a lot easier to learn using flat pedals which free up your feet so you can position them correctly.

Riders who learn techniques with clipless pedals often develop bad habits that are hard, if not impossible, to break later. Certain techniques such as track stands or front wheel lifts with power assist are hard.

At first, you are going to have to bail off the bike before you hone the skill so flat pedals free you. As a novice rider learning technique, flat pedals are your best bet.

It Is Easier To Get Moving Again

Stopping fast on a steep climb or when going down a descent you are going to be faced with getting going again. Flat pedals free you up and are far easier to get moving.

You Might Be Doing Some Walking

As a newbie rider, you are going to encounter sections of a backcountry trail that make you uncomfortable to navigate. This means that you will be dismounting your bike and walking.

Also, sometimes a section of the trail might be washed out or virtually impassable. You just never know what you are going to encounter in the wilderness, so a pair of flat pedal shoes is a lot easier to walk in than clipless pedal shoes.

You Might Also Be Doing Some Falling

Any novice, and even a pro rider, falls on occasion. If you go head over heels your feet are free with flat pedals. This means you can jump clear.

Cons of Flat Pedals

Bouncing Off

Your pedals have pins and soft pedal shoes do hold nicely to those pins but when you are riding a mountain bike you are not on a soft expanse of pavement.

On single track, the trail can get downright bumpy and even the best pair of shoes will not hold firm to the pedals. Your feet will bounce off.

Some Shin Damage

Yep, those grippy pins might seem like a great idea to hold your feet on the pedals but when your feet finally do bounce off and the pedals spin around, they are going to encounter your shin.

Any avid mountain bike enthusiast who has hit the trail hard with a pair of flats knows all too well that they are going to go home with bruised shins from the pedals slamming into you. This can be less than fun and is often enough to deter even a flat pedal lover.

Clipless Pedals

Clipless pedals are made up of two crucial components, a pedal with a locking mechanism and a cleat that attach to your shoe. Your shoes clip into the pedals (obviously).

The clipped in shoe provides a very firm connection with your bike, so your feet do not slip off the pedals on a rough trail. They also allow far more power transference for climbing. The added control provided by clipless pedals is often just what an expert rider needs for a double black diamond trail.

My friends swear that since they went clipless, they use a lot less energy to pedal than when they were still on flat pedals (this is due to the fact that you can now use more power more efficiently throughout the entire 360-degree pedal action).

There are many percentage stats floating around on how much energy clipless pedals save you, but I think it is one of those things that will probably differ from person to person depending on their riding style.

Many newbies find the term ‘clipless’ confusing because your shoes really do clip into the pedals. However, the name ‘clipless,’ arose because the pedals no longer have classic toe clips or cages as pedals used to back in the day.

Pros of Clipless

More Power

The stiff feel of the clipless pedal lets you effectively transfer power for steep climbs. In addition, you won’t be flexing your foot as much as you do with flats so your feet will thank you at the end of the day because they won’t’ be as sore or tired.

No Slippage

No matter how rough the terrain might get; your feet are not going to slip off the pedals. Overall clipless pedals gives you more control – I actually now feel much more in control of my bike when I am clipped in.

Technique Ease

Lifting and bunny hopping are far easier with clipless pedals, but this can also be a drawback instead of a pro because you do not learn the true techniques required and instead rely on the clipless pedals to achieve the maneuver.

Cons of Clipless

Not Great If You Do A Lot Of Falling

Yep, if you forget to unclip or you are unable to unclip then you are going to fall with your feet attached to the pedals. There is no jumping clear.

Getting Moving Again

Stopping on a steep climb can become a nightmare because you cannot get going again. This can be extremely difficult for a novice rider.

Dirt Clogs

All clipless pedal systems have a mud clearing mechanism. Unfortunately, they rarely work, especially in ice or snow. The system just becomes clogged and is a headache.

Hybrid Pedals

The third option! What if you could have the best of both worlds?!

Some manufacturers, such as Shimano, have come out with a pedal that features a flat on one side and a clip mechanism on the other.

The concept is that if you accidentally unclip, you can still accurately find and hold the pedal using the flat side. Some riders have complained that the flat side of such pedals is slippery though. Others have said that the clips on the clip side break or come loose easily.

Wrapping Up

You will have to decide which set of pedals fits your unique riding skills. Many people feel that a novice will never learn the skills they need using clipless pedals, so they become a handicap, but others view things differently.

Ideally, you should try all types of pedals; flats, clipless, and even hybrids, which are constantly evolving, to determine which set of mountain bike pedals best fits your needs.

Personally, I went the hybrid route for now. I find it useful to be able to unclip and use the flat side when I go through a rock garden where I might need to be able to put my foot down really quickly while clipping in when I build up some speed and momentum.

Then, I got shoes that are flat soled (so works well with the flat side of the pedal) but still has the cleats on to be able to clip in.

Now, I must say, I actually feel much more confident when I am clipping in than when I am not. I feel I can exert more control over my bike when I am clipped in.

What do you think? which pedals are the best?


Marek Leschinger