When it comes to choosing pedals for your bike, you have two main options. This guide outlines the pros and cons of flat pedals vs clipless to help you decide which is best for your style of cycling. I’ll also talk about knee pain and outline some of the different clipless systems available.
What Are Clipless Pedals?
Clipless pedals allow you to attach the soles of your shoes to your pedals. The goal is to keep your foot in the optimal position for pedaling. You want the ball of your foot on the center of the pedal. Clipless pedals are popular among road cyclists, mountain bikers, commuters, bicycle tourists, and more.
To attach your foot, you simply step on the pedal. Most systems make a clicking noise so you know you’re locked in. When you’re coming to a stop and you’re ready to remove your foot, you swing your heel out and the cleat detaches from the pedal.
Parts of a Clipless Pedal System
A clipless pedal system consists of three parts: pedals, shoes, and cleats. Cleats bolt to the bottom of the shoes. The shoes then attach to the pedals. The cleats allow you to quickly and easily attach and detach your shoes from the pedals.
Usually, the shoes or pedals come with cleats. Sometimes you have to buy them separately. Cleats wear out over time and must be replaced periodically. They usually last 3,000-5,000 miles.
Your pedals, shoes, and cleats must all be designed for the same type of clipless system. They are not cross-compatible. I’ll talk more about the different types of clipless systems later.
Why are they Called Clipless Pedals?
The name clipless is a bit of a misnomer. After all, clipless pedals clip to your shoes while flat pedals don’t have a clip at all. They’re called clipless is because they don’t have toe straps or cages. These were replaced by the locking mechanism that the pedals use to attach to the cleats.
Before clipless pedals became popular, the only way to attach your feet to the pedals was to use some type of strap over your shoes. These straps or clips are what is being referred to in the name clipless.
What Are Flat Pedals?
Flat pedals are a simple platform without any bindings. They usually have some kind of non-slip grippy design or dull metal pins on the top to prevent your feet from sliding around. Flat pedals can be made of metal or plastic. They are compatible with pretty much any type of athletic footwear including boots, shoes, and sandals. You can even ride them barefoot.
Clipless Pedals Pros
- Clipless pedals improve pedaling efficiency in some cases- Most studies show that clipless pedals on their own don’t improve efficiency. With optimal pedaling technique, flat pedals and clipless pedals perform about the same, efficiency-wise. Having said that, clipless pedals can improve efficiency for some riders. They achieve this by encouraging a better pedaling technique. Clipless pedals make sure that your feet stay in the proper position on the pedal at all times. This allows you to pedal smoothly and powerfully without worrying about your feet wandering around on the pedal. Clipless pedals also help you apply power through more of the pedal stroke. For example, you can pull up on the pedals. If you naturally have a sloppy or less than perfect pedal stroke, you may find it helpful to be clipped in. If you already have a perfect pedal stroke, you probably won’t see any improvement as far as efficiency goes. Another way that clipless pedals increase efficiency is by forcing you to wear proper footwear.
- Clipless pedals give you more control- When you attach yourself to the bike, you can use your feet and legs to help maneuver. This allows you to navigate technical trails more precisely. Imagine being able to easily hop or lift a tire over an obstacle in the trail. You can also use your weight to manhandle the bike without slipping off.
- You can apply more power with clipless- Because your feet are always in the ideal position and the fact that you can pedal through more of the pedal stroke by pulling up, going clipless allows you to apply more power to the pedals. This allows for faster climbing and acceleration. According to this interesting article from mtb.co.uk, the average power during their test was 757 watts while riding clipless, and 694 watts on flats.
- Clipless pedals put less stress on the knee joints- According to the scientific study Intervention at the foot-shoe-pedal interface in competitive cyclists from the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, “Clipless fixed pedals produced the greatest knee axial and varus moments, which were attenuated by use of a clipless system allowing transverse rotation, with 50% reduction in internal rotation moment at 250W power output.” The way I understand this, clipless pedals reduce knee stress by reducing unhealthy knee movement. Of course, this is the finding of one study and it’s not really conclusive.
- Clipless shoes and pedals are more technological advanced- Most pros these days ride clipless. This applies to both road and mountain bikers. These guys demand the best, most advanced gear the provides the best performance. Because of this, a lot of time and money goes into research and development to improve clipless shoes and pedals. Average cyclists like you and me get to take advantage of this same technology.
- Your feet can’t slip off the pedal- The cleats keep your feet attached to the pedals, even while riding in wet and slippery conditions or while riding rough terrain. This inspires confidence through rough or technical sections of the trail. Having your feet slip off the pedal is one less thing to worry about.
- You can pull up on the pedals- If you’re on a steep climb and your legs have reached the point of exhaustion, you can give your muscles a break by pulling up on the pedals. This uses a different set of muscles and helps you to get a bit more power to reach the top of the hill. Keep in mind that pulling up on the pedals is inefficient and isn’t proper technique. Having said this, most people who ride clipless do it anyway on occasion.
- Clipless shoes increase efficiency- According to this scientific study, rigid shoes with clipless pedals are more efficient than sneakers and flat pedals.
- More foot comfort while riding- Clipless shoes tend to be more rigid than regular athletic shoes. These rigid shoes distribute your weight across your entire foot instead of putting all of your weight on the ball of your foot. Rigid shoes also prevent foot flex. After a long day in the saddle, foot pain and fatigue are reduced by riding clipless.
- Clipless pedals allow you to ride at a higher cadence- When you ride at a high cadence, your feet sometimes want to lift off the pedals or shift around. When this happens, you’ll lose your rhythm and slow down. Clipless pedals keep your feet exactly where you want them. You can focus on your cadence rather than keeping your feet in place.
- Clipless pedals make the bike more narrow- With a thinner profile, you can ride between smaller gaps without getting hung up on a tree or rock.
- Less shin and calf scrapes and bruises- Because your feet are attached, you won’t have to endure any more pedals bashing your legs when your feet come off.
- Clipless is better on rough terrain- It’s easier to pedal over potholes, rocks, and bumps when you’re feet are attached to the bike. They won’t slip or bounce off when the trail gets rough.
- You can ride faster with clipless- The added power allows you to cover more ground than you would with flat pedals in the same amount of time. For example, maybe clipless allows you to ride an average of one mile per hour faster because of the increased power output. Over the course of a month-long tour, maybe travel 200 miles further and spend the same amount of time in the saddle. For some riders, this is significant.
- Clipless pedals are the current trend- If you are the type of person that always has to have the newest and highest tech equipment, clipless is what you want. Pretty much every racer rides clipless, after all. They also look sleek, minimalistic, and cool.
Clipless Pedals Cons
- Clipless pedals can cause injury- If you don’t properly adjust your bike fit and clipless cleats, you can cause some serious damage to your knees and hips. Knee pain is probably the most common sign that your clipless pedals aren’t adjusted properly. Don’t worry about this too much though. You’ll know if something isn’t right pretty quickly because you’ll begin experiencing pain either during the ride or shortly after. Pain is your indication that you need to make an adjustment. If you’re not experiencing any pain, keep on riding. Everything is fine.
- Riding clipless is more expensive- You have to buy clipless specific shoes, cleats, and pedals. Clipless pedals cost about 2-3 times more than comparable flat pedals. Expect to spend $35-$70 for a decent pair. Clipless shoes will cost you $60-$120. You don’t have this expense when you ride flat pedals because you can use whatever shoes you already have. This extra cost probably comes from research, development, and manufacturing. Clipless systems are more complex than flat pedals.
- Clipless pedals don’t really increase efficiency- Many riders assume that clipless pedals are more efficient than flats for one reason or another. When put to the test, there isn’t really a discernable difference. Most studies that have been done suggest that while riding at a constant level of power on a level road, both clipless and flat pedals perform about the same. For proof, check out this great Youtube video from GCN. This scientific study shows similar results.
- There is a learning curve to riding clipless- At first, it feels very awkward and even scary to clip yourself to the bike. Give it a fair chance before giving up. Let your body develop some muscle memory and get a feel for the new style of riding. I’d say by the 5th ride you should be feeling pretty confident with clipless. Most people grow to love it.
- You’ll probably crash- At some point, you’ll come to a stop, forget you’re clipped in, and fall over. It’s embarrassing but it happens to everyone.
- You have to set up and adjust the cleats- They need to be pretty much perfect for a safe and comfortable ride. You can adjust the fore/aft and side to side position as well as the angle. This can take a lot of trial and error if you don’t know what you’re doing. Setting up cleats has a bit of a learning curve. When just getting started, you may want to have a bike shop help you out. To get you started, check out this guide to setting up cleats from bike radar.
- Clipless gear is harder to find in developing countries- If you’re touring in a remote region of the world, you’ll have trouble finding replacement clipless gear if a part breaks or gets lost. For example, if your clipless shoe wears out or a cleat breaks, you may not be able to find a replacement. Clipless gear isn’t used in much of the world. Small bike shops and department stores don’t stock them. If you need new gear, you might need to wait for shipping or travel to the nearest capital city to buy what you need. You can solve this problem by packing a few spare cleats and bolts and using clipless pedals that are flat on one side.
- You have to wear clipless shoes- You have to buy and wear specialty shoes to use the clipless system. This means you can’t just hop on your bike in your running shoes or sandals and go for a ride. This is kind of annoying if you just want to go to the bar or pick something up at the grocery store.
- Walking in clipless shoes isn’t comfortable- If you have to walk your bike often or you plan to walk around in your cycling shoes while off the bike, clipless shoes aren’t ideal. With most clipless shoes, you can always feel the cleats while walking. This gets annoying after a while. Some clipless shoes recess the cleats into the shoe to make walking more comfortable. This is common in clipless shoes that are designed for mountain biking. Another problem is that the cleats can scratch up floors. You don’t want to tromp around on someone’s hardwood floors in your cycling shoes. One solution is to remove the cleats but this is time-consuming.
- While bicycle touring, you have to pack an extra pair of shoes- You’ll want to have a normal pair of shoes to wear when you’re not riding. Clipless shoes aren’t comfortable enough for casual wear and while out walking around sightseeing. This adds an extra 1.5-2.5 pounds of gear that you’ll have to carry. A pair of shoes also takes up a significant amount of weight in a pannier.
- You can’t adjust your foot position as easily with clipless- During a long day of touring, it’s nice to move your feet around on the peddles for more comfort. Most clipless setups offer some float but that may not be enough. In order to put your foot in a different position with clipless, you have to stop and adjust the cleats. You still may not get the position that you want.
- Clipless pedals give the bike a higher center of gravity- This happens because your body becomes an extension of the bike when clipped in.
- There are more parts that can break- Riding clipless increases the complexity of your setup. It is one more thing you have to worry about maintaining and carrying spare parts for. For example, a cleat can fail or a bolt could get lost. This could be a real annoyance if you’re out in the middle of nowhere.
- Clipless pedals aren’t ideal for learning proper technique- If you’re just getting into cycling, riding clipless can teach you some bad habits. Basically, they encourage laziness. For example, you’re not able to learn how to position your foot properly on the pedal because the clipless pedals do it for you. Additionally, you might not learn how to move your legs in an efficient pedaling motion. You don’t want to develop a poor pedal stroke. To overcome this problem, you may want to ride flat pedals once in a while to make sure you haven’t developed any bad habits.
Flat Pedal Pros
- Flat pedals reduce the risk of injury- Because your foot is free to move around on the pedal, you can’t inadvertently cause knee pain or joint damage from improper adjustment like you can with clipless. If you place your foot in an unnatural position, you instinctively move it to avoid discomfort and pain.
- You’re less likely to crash or fall over- If you have to put your foot down in an emergency for whatever reason, you can. No need to think to unclip. This greatly reduces the likelihood of falling over. If you do crash, It won’t be as bad with flat pedals.
- Riding flat pedals is cheaper- You don’t need to buy special shoes, cleats, or pedals. A cheap pair of flat pedals can be bought for just a few dollars at any bike shop. You can ride in the shoes that you already have.
- You don’t have to adjust or set up cleats- With flat pedals, your body naturally places your foot in a comfortable and healthy position. This saves you from having to get off your bike and mess with your cleats.
- You can buy flat pedals anywhere in the world- Even in the most remote regions, you can buy a pair of flat pedals. Every bike shop carries them. They are a standard part with a standard size. This makes finding a replacement easy and gets you back on the road faster.
- You don’t have to wear specialty shoes- You can ride in any shoes, boots, or sandals that you have. This is nice if you just want to hop on your bike and ride down to the grocery store. If you ride in the winter, you can wear boots to keep your feet warm. You don’t have to put on a particular pair of shoes just to ride your bike. You can even ride barefoot if you want but it’s not recommended for safety reasons.
- Flat pedals allow you to easily adjust your foot position- During a long day on the bike, it’s nice to be able to move your foot around on the pedal to avoid fatigue. While touring, sometimes I’ll pedal with the center of my foot or heel for a while to give the ball of my foot a rest.
- You can comfortably walk in the same shoes that you ride in- There is no need to bring a second pair of shoes when you go for a ride. This is particularly nice for bicycle touring where you’ll want to be able to walk around and explore off the bike. It’s also nice if you do a lot of hike a bike.
- Flat pedals are better for learning proper technique- If you’re new to cycling, start with flat pedals. There are a number of bike control skills that are best learned on flat pedals because they are more confidence-inspiring and you have a lower chance of injuring yourself while learning. You also avoid learning some bad habits that clipless can teach you. A few mountain bike skills you may want to learn before switching to clipless include front and rear wheel lifts, bunny hop, and J hop. These can help you avoid obstacles and ride faster.
- Some riders believe that flat pedals are easier on the knees- According to this interesting video, clipless pedals may cause overuse injuries over time because they hold your feet and legs rigidly in the same position at all times. It may be hard on the joints to move your legs in exactly the same way over and over again. Flat pedals allow you to make small adjustments to your feet so you’re not using your joint in the same way every time you pedal. Having said this, science does not back this claim up. Clipless pedals have float to overcome this problem. I thought I’d throw this point in anyway for your consideration.
- Flat pedals have a lower center of gravity- This can make the bike feel more stable.
- You don’t have to learn a new skill- Most of us started riding with flat pedals as children. We already have the muscle memory for it. Learning a new skill can be difficult and time-consuming. Sometimes it’s best to just stick to what we know. Particularly for casual or recreational cyclists. Having said this, learning new skills is always a good thing.
- Flat pedals make getting on and off the bike easy- No thought is required to dismount. You don’t have to worry about starting on a hill and missing your clip.
- Flat pedals are better for extreme conditions- When riding through really hairy conditions, you’ll be happy to have flats. For example riding through slippery snow, deep sand, mud, dangerously steep hills, or packed cities. If you have to put your foot down in a hurry, flats are best.
Flat Pedal Cons
- Flat pedals give you less control- It’s more difficult to lift a wheel or hop over an obstacle with flat pedals. For example, maybe you see a rut in the trail coming up and you need to shift your rear wheel 3 inches to the right to avoid it. With clipless pedals, you can fairly easily lift or slide your wheel where you want it to go. If you jump or lift your legs, your bike comes with you. Doing the same maneuvers with flat pedals is possible. It just takes more skill. You just can’t navigate obstacles as quickly and accurately with flat pedals.
- Pulling up on the pedals is impossible- With flat pedals, you can only apply power on the downstroke. With a good pair of pedals, grippy shoes, and proper technique, you can get grip and apply power for most of the stroke, but you can never pull up. Pulling up really comes in handy for climbing long hills. I know it’s not proper technique, but pulling up is a good tool to have when your legs are reaching the point of exhaustion. This is probably the thing I miss the most when riding flat pedals. It’s nice to give part of your leg muscles a break once in a while.
- You can’t apply as much power with flat pedals- Because your feet aren’t in the ideal position at all times, you usually aren’t generating maximum power. This is noticeable when climbing a steep hill or trying to accelerate fast. With practice and good technique, you can match the performance of clipless though. Some riders even produce more power with flat pedals.
- Flat pedals make it harder to maintain a high cadence- This is the reason are so few road cyclists use flat pedals these days. Average cyclists ride at about 60 RPM. Professionals ride at 80-100 RPM. If you’re pedaling a high cadence with flat pedals and you slow your legs down or make a mistake, your flat pedals can keep going faster than your legs. This throws your whole pedaling rhythm off and slows you down. When you get tired, you tend to start pushing down on the pedals without any rhythm. It’s easy to miss a stroke or slide your foot off the flat pedal when this happens. Clipless pedals ensure that the cranks keep moving at the same cadence that you’re pedaling and that your feet stay in place, even if you’re pedaling at a high cadence.
- Flat pedals make the bike wider- Most flat pedals have large platforms to give your feet extra support. The wider profile widens your bike so you can’t ride through narrow gaps between trees and rocks as easily. This makes it easy to get hung up in certain sections of the trail.
- You can’t cover as much ground as quickly with flat pedals- Because of the reduced power, your average speed will be slightly slower with flat pedals. For example, maybe while on tour you average 1 mile per hour slower than you would with a clipless system. Over long distances, this adds up. During a month-long tour, maybe you only cover 1000 miles when you could have covered 1200 with clipless using the same amount of energy and spending the same amount of time in the saddle. Depending on your style of touring, this may be significant.
- Flat pedals make certain skills and techniques harder to perform- Core skills like hops, drifts, skids, wheel lifts, etc. take a great deal of time and practice to learn. Most of these moves are harder to make with flat pedals.
- Flat pedals are heavier- They are big flat chunks of metal. If you are the kind of person to watch every ounce on your bike, flat pedals aren’t ideal. Lighter plastic models are available but aren’t as durable.
- Your feet can slip off- This is common when riding in rough or slippery conditions. Your foot can just bounce off. The result is a missed stroke which slows you down.
- Your shins and calves take a beating- When your foot slips off, the pedal usually ends up bashing into your leg causing cuts and bruising. This can cause some serious pain and scaring.
- Flat pedals are outdated- If you like to always keep up with the newest trends, flat pedals aren’t in right now. I don’t really care about this type of thing but some cyclists do.
- Flat pedals and shoes are less technologically advanced- Most pros don’t use flat pedals anymore so cycling companies put much less money and effort into developing flat equipment. You aren’t getting the newest, most advanced gear when you ride flat pedals.
More Cycling Pros and Cons Analyses from Where the Road Forks
Types of Clipless Pedals: Road Bike and Mountain Bike (Two Bolt and Three Bolt)
There are two main clipless system designs: those designed for road use and those designed for mountain bike use. Which system you choose depends on the type of riding you plan to do.
Mountain Bike Clipless Pedals (Two Bolt)
These systems are generally used for mountain biking, bikepacking, commuting, and bicycle touring. Mountain bike clipless pedals use cleats that are recessed into the sole of the shoes. They attach with two bolts.
Mountain bike clipless shoes are a bit more flexible than road shoes. For these reasons, they are more comfortable to walk around in. This system also clips and unclips easily because mountain bikers need to stop and put a foot down more frequently than road bikers.
The drawback to a two bolt clipless system is that they are a bit less efficient because the connection between the shoes and pedals is less rigid. A couple of popular two bolt clipless systems include Shimano’s SPD and Crank Brothers.
Mountain bike pedals come in two main designs:
1. Small clipless pedals- These are basically just a clipless mechanism mounted on a spindle. Your rigid cycling shoes act as a platform. Crankbrothers Eggbeater Clip-In Mountain Bike Pedals are one of the more popular examples of this design.
2. Clipless pedals with platforms- These work the same as small clipless pedals except they have a platform around the clipless mechanism for extra support. These allow you to use a less rigid shoe that is more comfortable for walking around off the bike.
Road Bike Clipless Pedals (Three Bolt)
These are almost exclusively used for road biking. Three bolt clipless pedals are designed to transmit the maximum amount of power from your legs to the pedals. They achieve this by forming a more rigid connection between your shoes and the pedals. The sacrifice is practicality.
Three bolt clipless shoes are usually less comfortable to walk in when off the bike because they are more rigid. The cleats also aren’t recessed into the sole of the shoe so you can always feel them while you walk.
A few of the more popular road bike clipless systems include Shimano SPD SL, Look, and Speedplay.
Combination Flat/Clipless Pedals (Single-Sided or Dual-sided)
If you don’t want to choose between flat and clipless pedals, an excellent option is the combination pedal. These are sometimes called single-sided or dual-sided clipless pedals.
Combination pedals offer a clipless mechanism on one side and a platform on the other side. This means you can ride them like normal flat pedals on the platform side or flip them over and ride them with your clipless shoes. It is a great compromise if you want the benefits of both types of pedals.
This is my favorite style of clipless pedal because of the flexibility. I use them on my touring bike. I use the flat side while riding through a crowded city, muddy trail, or technical off-road section. The flat side also comes in handy when I don’t want to put on my clipless shoes or if I break a cleat and don’t have a spare on me.
The only drawback is that you have to make sure that the correct side of the pedal is facing up when you put your feet on the pedals.
A Third Option: Clips and Straps
Before clipless pedals became popular, cyclists used toe clips and straps to secure their feet to the pedals. These attach to the pedal and create a cage to hold your foot in the proper position.
To secure your foot to the pedal, you slide it in until your toes hit the end of the clip. You then tighten the strap over your foot. Straps can be tightened and loosened with some type of buckle or Velcro.
The main benefit of clips and straps is that you don’t need special footwear to use them. They are also cheaper than clipless pedals. Clips and straps can attach to most flat pedals.
The main drawback is that clips and straps are hard to get in and out of. They can also be dangerous. It is possible to overtighten them and get your foot stuck.
Clipless Pedal and Shoe Recommendations
If you decide to go with clipless, you have a lot of shoes and peals to choose from. Here are a few popular options:
This is one of the more popular options on the market. They are simple, lightweight, affordable, and durable.
These two-in-one pedals feature a Crank Brothers clipless mechanism on one side and a large platform on the other. This is my favorite type of clipless pedals. They offer you all of the benefits of both systems. When you just need to bike to the coffee shop, you can just wear whatever shoes you have on. When you go for a full day of cycling, you can put on your cycling shoes and enjoy the benefits of clipless.
For shoes, I personally prefer models that don’t look like cycling shoes. I like to be able to get off my bike and walk around and not look like a cyclist. The Giro Rumble Vr MTB Shoes fit that requirement.
Flat Pedal Recommendations
If, after reading the pros and cons list, you decide to stick with flat pedals, I don’t blame you. I still love flat pedals and ride them much of the time.
I can recommend the RaceFace Chester Mountain Bike Pedals. They have a large platform with a nice thin profile. They’re also not too heavy.
If you’re not ready to make the switch to clipless but you still want the ability to pull up on the pedals for some extra power, straps offer an excellent compromise. They can also help you prepare for the feeling of riding clipless.
I like Power Grips Toe Straps. They are a simple, affordable, and robust strap that can attach to most pedals that are compatible with toe clips. When you pair these with a rigid pair of shoes, they feel very similar to a clipless system.
A Few Clipless Pedal Tips
- Practic clipping and unclipping while holding on to something- Hold on to a wall or fence and clip and unclip a few times to get a feel for your new pedals.
- Practice in a safe place- Find a grassy field or area without any traffic where you can ride around and practice unclipping and stopping. This way, if you make a mistake and fall over, you won’t get badly injured.
- Pack a spare cleat and bolts in your tool kit- Cleats wear out and bolts can come loose over time. Spares weigh very little.
Final Thoughts About Flat Pedals Vs Clipless
Unless you are cycling competitively, this choice really comes down to personal preference. You gain a bit of speed and efficiency by switching to clipless. You give up some functionality and freedom. I have noticed with my friends that most people who switch to clipless tend to stick with it.
I’m not really sold on clipless though. I enjoy the convenience of being able to ride in whatever shoes I want with flat pedals. Maybe after another season riding clipless I’ll feel differently. I plan to buy a pair of two-sided pedals with both clipless and flat to open up my options. As a bicycle tourist, this seems like the best of both worlds.
Where do you stand on the flat pedals vs clipless debate? Share your thoughts in the comments below!