Choosing Clipless or Flat Bike Pedals

How to Choose Clipless or Flat Bike Pedals

How to choose bike pedals

Pedal shoppers usually fall into one of several groups: 1) Those making the switch from flat to clipless pedals, 2) Those who are outfitting a new bike (many new road bikes do not come with pedals), or 3) Those upgrading from one shoe-pedal system to another. Here’s what to consider when shopping.

Who Needs Clipless Pedals?

If you ride using flat (platform) pedals, you’ve no doubt seen riders zipping by you with their feet firmly anchored to their pedals and wondered if that might be a wise choice for you. Fear not, bike shoes and clipless pedals are part of a natural progression to make your riding more efficient and less tiring.

Cycling shoes are usually paired with a compatible pedal to hold your feet securely on the bicycle. The so-called “clipless” shoe-pedal combination offers unmatched control with a minimum amount of your pedaling energy lost before it reaches the rear wheel.

You can start your shopping process with either shoes or pedals. Just make sure you keep shoe-pedal compatibility in mind as you decide.

The Misnomer of Clipless

“Clipless” is admittedly a confusing name for these pedals since you actually “clip in” to the pedal’s cleats much like you do with a ski binding. The origin of the name goes back a few decades when pedals with “toe clips” were a cyclist’s only choice for improved pedaling efficiency. The then-new clipless pedals dispensed with toe clips by offering a direct attachment between shoe and pedal. For better or worse, the clipless name has lived on ever since.

Non-clipless Pedal Options

Platform pedals

Platform Pedals

These “flat pedals” are the ones you probably had on your first bike. The most basic pedal system, they provide a wide stable surface to support your feet on both sides. They are not intended for use with clipless shoes.

Technology, however, has not left the platform pedal untouched. New versions use lightweight materials, sealed bearings to keep out moisture and grime, and even replaceable pins on the surface for increased grip in slippery situations you might encounter on the trail.

Many downhill mountain bikers prefer this type of pedal mated with a specifically designed shoe. This combination provides ample grip and control while remaining the easiest to get off of in the event of a crash. While clipless pedals will release in the event of a crash, platform pedals may give you the confidence to help avoid a crash.

Toe clips and straps

Toe Clips and Straps

Toe clips (also called “toe cages”) are small frames that attach to the front of a platform pedal and surround your toe. They allow you to pull up with your foot in the pedal stroke as well as pushing down, effectively doubling your efficiency. With the addition of an adjustable strap that threads through the top and bottom of the clip (encircling the ball of your foot), you have a basic retention system that is lightweight, affordable and durable.

Using toe clips requires righting the pedal first as the weight of the system causes the pedal to hang upside down. This is achieved with a quick flick of the toe. To remove your foot from a toe clip you simply pull it straight back.

Dual pedals

Platform/Clipless Dual Pedals

This hybrid approach combines the flexibility of platform pedals with the efficiency of a clipless system. It’s an excellent transition pedal for anyone looking to ease into clipless. While most folks thinking of clipless pedals go “all in” or not at all, these offer an alternative for those who don’t always ride with a cycling shoe.

Clipless Pedal Options

Clipless pedals are the most advanced pedal-retention system on the market. The system works by mounting a small plastic or metal cleat on the sole of your shoe. This cleat then snaps in to a set of spring-loaded “clips” on the face of the pedal.

Clipless pedal benefits include:

  • You can pull up and push down during the pedal stroke for maximum energy efficiency.
  • It offers a high level of control while executing moves like hopping up on to curbs or over logs.
  • Improved safety: Your feet are not able to bounce off the pedals while riding through the bumps and will not slip off as you apply power in rain or snow.

Mountain bike pedals

For Mountain Biking

The most versatile MTB clipless pedal system is the 2-hole cleat design . It can be used for all types of riding including road cycling, mountain biking, touring or commuting. The recessed cleat option when paired with some shoes also makes walking easier (and less noisy).

The 2-hole design is often referred to as the “SPD” system (short for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics). Shimano was one of the first companies to develop this system and continues to be a leader in the market today. Other manufacturers (like Crank Brothers’ Candy pedals and Time’s ATAC system) have developed very similar systems that work on the same principles.

For both mountain and road bikes: Screws are placed through the 2 holes securing the cleat to 2 tracks or slots in the bottom of a compatible shoe. This lets you slide the cleat back and forth slightly to achieve the proper angle and placement for maximum comfort and ease of engagement to the pedal.

Ideally, the cleat is mounted directly under the ball of the foot but that may not be the most comfortable position for every user. You can experiment to find the ideal position to engage the cleat most easily and pedal with the most comfort. The lateral or “twist” adjustment on the cleat allows them to be set to accommodate different pedaling styles. Some people pedal with their toes slightly inwards; others have them pointing straight ahead; still others have their heels farther inboard than their toes.

Road cycling pedals

For Road Cycling

Road cyclists most often use a 3-hole cleat design . This is often called a “Look” type cleat, after the company that pioneered its use. These cleats are larger, made out of the plastic and protrude farther from the sole of the shoe than a comparable 2-hole design. Other companies have since developed 3-hole cleats, such as the Shimano SPD-SL design.

The advantage of the 3-hole design is that the large cleat is able to spread the force load being applied to the pedal over a wider area. This reduces pressure on the connection points and allows a secure connection during the high stress loads that pedaling a road bike very hard can create. If you do not push your road bike to the edge of its performance envelope, you may opt for a 2-hole cleat system instead since it allows easier walking.

Shoe cleat configurations

Pedal Float

One final consideration is pedal float . When you step on a cleated pedal, the cleat locks into the pedal’s mechanism and is held firmly in place. Float refers to the amount of angular rotation allowed to the foot on the pedal. A few systems hold the foot at a fixed angle; others allow fixed amounts of float and a few allow customizable ranges of float. This largely becomes a personal preference as you become a more experienced rider.

Tip: Cyclists with knee issues should use cleats with built-in float.

Multiple-release Cleats

Most cleats release laterally. The so-called multiple-release cleat is very similar to these models except that it releases a bit more easily and at slightly increased angles (your heel can move outward or inward and slightly upward as well). The differences are subtle. The bottom line is that they do seem to be somewhat more forgiving than their lateral-release cousins.

Reminder: Be sure your pedals, cleats and shoes are designed to work as a system.

This article was written by Ed Snyder of REI if you are looking for some good hardware do check out


3 responses

  1. Pingback: Choosing Clipless or Flat Bike Pedals « Everything You Want To … | Bicycle News

  2. worksrider

    Great post. We (Ergon) have a different type of pedal. The PC2 Contour Pedal. It offers some advantages of a clipless pedal, but you aren’t clipped in at all. This is all done with 3M safety walk, a contour profile to correct the knee motion, oh, and lots and lots of research.


    24/05/2012 at 6:02 am

    • Awesome .. I went to look at the Ergon pedals at REI , and it rocks. but I am sure people who are used to being clipped in will not be used to it. Its a great for stepping stone for those who would like to start off


      24/05/2012 at 10:02 am

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