Clipless vs Flat Pedals – A Helpful Guide To Decide


If you master the basics of cycling, you may be thinking of upgrading your pedals for clipless pedals in order to maximize your riding efficiency. But how can you decide whether you should go for clipless pedals or stick with flat pedals?

Beginners and most casual cyclists benefit more from flat pedals. They are simpler, safer, and don’t require special shoes. Clipless pedals are for enthusiasts looking to perfect their cycling form and efficiency, but they have a learning curve. SPD pedals made for MTBs are easier to get used to and the matching shoes are comfortable to walk in, while SPD-L pedals made for road bikes maximize riding efficiency, but have a steeper learning curve.

What is a clipless pedal?

First things first, why are they called clipless pedals when they have a clip?

In the past, pedals had a strap around your foot to hold it onto the pedal to increase the power transfer from your leg to the pedal when riding. These straps were called clips… Straps (or clips) are hard to remove as you need to reach down to release the clip to get your foot out. This can clearly be unsafe when you need to stop suddenly, so a better idea was needed. 

A traditional clip pedal with a strap

The cleat system, or clipless system, was introduced to solve the problem with hands-free clips. A “clip” does lock the shoe onto the pedal, so it still allows more load to be transferred to the pedals with the benefit that it can be released hands-free. The cleat is released from the pedal when you turn your heel outwards. The cleat is mounted on the sole of the shoe and connects to the lock mechanism on the pedal.

A modern mountain bike dual-sided clipless pedal with a cleat mounted on the sole of a cycling shoe

Picture: Left: , Middle: , Right:

Cycling shoes vs trainers/sneakers

In fact, to be able to use clipless pedals, you typically need to use specific bicycle shoes designed with a cleat on the sole to allow you to clip in.

There are various clipless pedal types, which I listed in this other article on the blog, but the two most common ones are SPD, found on mountain bikes, and SPD-L, found on road bikes.

The hidden benefit of cycling shoes is that the sole is very rigid, so the force from your leg when it pedals is more efficiently pushed into the pedal. So if you are looking for more speed, cycling shoes are the better option.

On the other hand, you use trainers with traditional clips or flat pedals. The stiffer the sole of your footwear the better it transmits power to your pedals. Stiff soles are also common on hiking boots, so you can also ride with hiking boots on flat pedals.

A flat pedal

Pros and Cons of clipless pedals compared to flat pedals

Pros

  • Faster ride as more power is transferred to the pedals
  • More control of the bike

Cons

  • More expensive pedals and shoes
  • Takes some time to learn to use the unclipping method (you will always fall at least once…) and the pedaling method, see picture
  • Can be difficult to use in urban traffic with sudden stops, crowds, or narrow gaps

How do you pedal correctly with a clipless pedal?

In short, you want the pedal stroke to be as smooth and continuous as possible. In the picture the diagram shows which muscles ideally should be working throughout the pedal rotation – note that this is for the entire rotation! This takes a lot of time and practice to master.

Picture: Diagram of muscles used throughout a pedal stroke with clipless pedals

How to choose the correct pedal type for my riding situation when beginning

As a beginner or an aspiring enthusiast, you should consider platform pedals (a.k.a. flat pedals), SPD pedals, or SPD-L pedals.

Flat pedals are everywhere, they don’t need any introduction. They work with any type of shoe, which is their biggest strength.

SPD pedals were developed for mountain biking and are easier to clip in even when they get some muck or grime in them. They are also used on gravel bikes since they can take a lot of beating and can be taken off-road, but they can also be used on road bikes in certain situations.

SPD-compatible shoes with cleats are easy to walk in, and you can actually find some that look just like regular shoes. They are either symmetrical, so you can clip in on either side or dual-platform, meaning that they can be used with cycling shoes to clip in on one side, or with regular shoes.

SHIMANO PD-EH500 Urban Riding & Cycle Touring Double Sided Bike Pedal
$122.00

If you want the advantages of a clipless and a flat pedal, this one gives you the best of both worlds.

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06/13/2022 06:51 pm GMT

SPD-L pedals are specific to road bikes. They can only be clipped in on one side, and the matching shoes can’t be used for walking, as the cleat bulges out on the bottom. 

Keep in mind that SPD and SPD-L shoes are not cross-compatible!

MTB & Gravel

Here, your ideal pedal is an SPD pedal, and as long as you’re getting used to it, you should probably consider a hybrid or dual platform pedal. 

Often speed and power are very useful in Mountain Biking, for example on a long climb on a relatively smooth trail, which means a clipless pedal is preferred in this case. Then when there are more technical sections or jumps on downhill sections, for example, being clipped-in can increase the risk of crashing and not being able to get off the bike in the case of a crash.

Therefore, it’s great to have the option to be able to clip in when needed or to have your feet loose at other times if you are not comfortable being clipped in.

SPD Cycling Shoe
$99.95

A stylish cycling shoe that you can wear not only when on the bike, but even to the office.

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Some further considerations:

  • Some people can find the dual-platform tricky to use as you can end up finding the wrong side of the pedal when you are trying to clip – Double-sided clipless pedals, common in mountain biking don’t have this issue.
  • Obviously having a flat side also means you can simply wear trainers if you are making a less serious or casual ride.

Road

If you own a road bike, you can consider flat, SPD, or SPD-L pedals, depending on the use case scenario and your experience level.

Shimano PD-R8000 Pro-Level Road Bike Pedal
$148.15

A great pedal once you are a confident rider and want to take your riding skills and speed to the next level.

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06/13/2022 06:51 pm GMT

If you are planning to ride in groups for social rides, it makes sense to use an SPD-L, road clipless pedal system. You will find climbs and sustaining high speeds easier and will be able to ride for longer once you are used to the system and your muscles develop.

Be aware that road clipless systems only have clips on one side and an aerodynamic cover on the bottom side. This means that each time you clip in you need to get the pedal turned to the correct side before you clip in and can pedal. 

Venzo Road Cycling Riding Shoes

Matching shoes for SPD-L pedals.

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On the other hand, if you want to be able to walk into a coffee shop or anywhere else mid-ride as you get off the bike without looking like a duck, you’re better off with SPD pedals (mountain bike). They can be mounted on road bike pedal cranks too despite not being made specifically for road bikes.

If you have both a mountain bike and a road bike, and you want to put MTB and road-specific shoes on them, then you need two sets of pedals and shoes. 

I have this case, and I choose to only use one pair of mountain bike shoes and mountain bike pedals on both my mountain bike and my road bike. It also means I only have to remember how to use a single system. 

This set-up does have the disadvantage of having slightly more aero drag on my road bike and I look a bit odd to road bike riders.

Urban riding

Flat pedals are generally good for urban riding. 

In urban riding, a flat pedal is often required in busy situations where you might need to turn or stop quickly. It also means you can ride with any shoe type you like, meaning you also don’t need a change of shoes.

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If you have some less busy stretches of a quiet road or dedicated cycle path AND want to be quicker, then a dual-platform pedal can make sense here too as you can switch between the two pedal types depending on the situation. Although it does mean you will be wearing a cycling shoe which makes it harder to walk around, or you do need to take a change of shoes (if you get sweaty on the ride, perhaps a change of shoe would be needed anyway!).

Common questions about bicycle shoes and pedals

Do cycling shoes make a difference? Do they make you faster? How much?

Yes, cycling shoes make a difference. They have a stiffer sole, so transmit more directly and efficiently the power from your legs to the pedals. They effectively reduce the flex in your foot. Shoes combined with a clipless pedal also increase the power transmitted.

With a combined cycling shoe and clipless pedal system, the increase in power is in the range of 5% to 30%. This increase in power is because with a clipless pedal you can power the pedal throughout the pedal stroke. This is a new pedaling technique, so it takes some practice for the coordination and also requires the development of additional muscle groups. 

There are also many other techniques Pro cyclists use to go faster that I won’t cover here but you can check this blog for more details.

Therefore, a cycling shoe, especially when combined with a clipless pedal, is much faster, though it will take some effort to become comfortable with it and to get the most out of the set-up.

What are some good cycling shoes for beginners?

A good point to consider is a cycling shoe (here I mean a shoe with a cleat mounted on the sole) that can also be used for walking. This makes it easier when you put your foot down when stopping, as many road bike shoes have an aerodynamic plastic base that is slippery and can make you fall. Also, the cycling shoe that can be used for walking makes it easier to move around the house, shops, office, or wherever you cycle to.

What are good clipless pedals for beginners?

The easiest clipless pedals to use are hybrid or dual-platform pedals. You can ride both clipped-in or on the flat side, so it allows you to become comfortable with the clipless system or to use whichever system best suits your current situation.

Should you use clipless pedals for commuting?

If you are comfortable with the clipless system (or are willing to learn) and have a decent length ride (more than 5km), you may benefit from clipless pedals for commuting. Let’s look at some Pros and Cons for commuting with clipless:

Pros

  • Faster ride as more power is transferred to the pedals
  • More control of the bike
  • Look like a more serious cyclist (if that is what you are looking for!)

Cons

  • You will normally need to take a spare pair of shoes for work unless you find a really good pair of cleated but comfortable shoes
  • If you have a lot of traffic or stops on the route, you might spend a lot of time unclipped anyway, so don’t get any real benefit from the clipless pedals
  • Higher cost for the pedals and cycling shoes (but conversely you don’t wear out your trainers or expensive office shoes more quickly either…)

Bonus tips

Adjusting clipless pedals

Getting used to clipless pedals can be tricky, so it is a good idea to relax the unlocking force when learning. Turn the screw anti-clockwise as far as possible, and this will mean it requires a lighter force to un-clip. 

When you feel you have become more comfortable with the clipless system, tighten the clipping force. The reason is that you don’t want to clip to accidentally release when you are pedaling hard – believe me, it can make you lose balance! 

Getting used to clipless pedals

Once you have the pedals installed and shoes on, put your bike next to a wall and simply sit on the bike and clip in one pedal without moving. Unclip it, then repeat until you feel good with the system. Try the other foot too, and then do some short rides with only one foot clipped in and clip it out so you get a feel for the system.

Then when you are out on a ride, be aware of when you might need to stop, and already unclip well before you need to start slowing down. This way you might even prevent yourself falling over at a surprise red light.

I almost fell onto a Porsche on my first clipped ride during a sudden stop at a red light, but instead fell onto a curb and broke a spoke in my wheel… Not an ideal start, but with practice you get used to it, like anything. 

Simon Faneco

Simon is a bicycle engineer and entrepreneur from Australia currently living in Switzerland. He's the inventor of the first true center mounted CVT for bicycles. Follow his invention at ratiox.ch.

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