MTB Buying Guides

The demystifier: Everything you need to know about pedals

Everyone needs pedals, but for newcomers to cycling, the options can be a bit bewildering. Flats? SPDs? Clips and straps? And why are pedals that you clip into called clipless anyway?

Everyone needs pedals to ride, but which are the best style for you? Image by Sfllaw.

What does it all mean, and what should you choose for when? Read on for your perfect pedal primer. (That’s enough alliteration – Ed)

There are three main types of pedals: flats, clip-and-strap and clipless. Starting with the simplest, flat pedals, let’s look at each in turn.

1. Flat pedals

Flat pedals are favoured by BMXers, some mountain bikers and anyone else who doesn’t want to be attached to the pedals in any way. They vary from the cheap plastic pedals that come with a lot of bikes to expensive, shiny slabs of machined metal, with studs and spikes to help keep your feet in place.

Vavert Mountain Bike PVC Pedals. Solid and simple, they’ll get you from a to b but can be slippery in wet conditions.

Very cheap flat pedals are fine for dry-weather pootling about, but their plastic bodies don’t provide a lot of grip. Paradoxically, a flat pedal is better if it provides some way of stopping your feet slipping about, as that helps make you a bit safer when, say, setting off from junctions.

These DMR Vault Pedals at just under £100 are wide, light, slim and tuneable. They’d certainly add a bit of bling to your bike!

That’s why a lot of flat pedals have steel pins screwed into their aluminium bodies. The edges of the pins dig slightly into the soles of your shoes and stop your feet slipping about. These pedals are best used with soft-soled shoes like BMX and skate sneakers, or good old Converse All-Stars, which means you can pedal comfortably, easily hop on and off and still be right on trend.

Flat pedals are great for:

Off-road riding, commuting and all manner of casual and leisure cycling, especially if you don’t fancy being attached to the pedals more firmly

2. Clip-and-strap pedals

Clip-and-strap pedals have a leather or plastic strap that wraps round your foot, and a supporting cage – the clip – that holds it up so you can get your foot in. If you want to be firmly attached to the pedal, you reach down and pull the strap tight, but you have to be careful not to overdo it as getting out can then be tricky.

A beautiful retro styled clip-and-strap pedal. Image by Joeldinda.

One advantage of clips and straps over flats is that the clip puts the ball of your foot on the body of the pedal, which is generally accepted to be the most efficient location.

The body of a clip-and-strap pedal is usually quite small so it doesn’t provide much support. Clip-and-strap pedals are best with stiff-soled shoes, like mountain bike shoes or other shoes intended for mountain bike clipless systems.

Clip-and-strap pedals are great for:

Riders who want some attachment to the pedals, but are nervous about the mechanical attachment of a full clipless system.

3. Clipless pedals

Clipless pedals have a mechanism that grips a metal or plastic cleat on the sole of the shoe so you’re firmly attached to the pedal. You can get out by twisting your foot sideways. They’re called clipless pedals because they don’t have clips (or straps).

Some rather swanky Look Keo 2 pedals, with the cleats to go on the shoes above (in grey). Image by Moff.

The first widely-adopted clipless pedal system was made by Look, originally a ski-binding manufacturer. Intended for road cycling, Look’s pedals and similar systems from Shimano, Time and others have a large cleat that sits on the outside of a stiff-soled shoe. The cleat only fits into one side of the pedal, so there’s a learning period as you figure out how to flip up the pedal and catch the mechanism with the cleat. These systems are very efficient to pedal, but the shoes are hard to walk in because the cleat gets in the way.

Look cleats attached to hard soled cycling shoes. Not the easiest shoe to walk in, due to the protruding cleat! Image arturochang.

For long road rides, Look-style clipless pedals are great, as long as you can park your bike nice and close to the table at the cafe stop. Experienced riders get on fine with them for round-town riding too, but we would recommend getting adept away from the traffic.

Clipless pedals intended for mountain biking have the cleat recessed into the sole of the shoe. Shimano originated this type of pedal with the SPD system in the early 90s, so they’re almost universally known as SPD pedals even if they’re actually made by other manufacturers such as Crank Brothers or Time.

SPD pedals are usually double-sided so it’s easy to get into them: you just stomp on the pedal and the cleat clicks into the mechanism.

The recessed cleat makes it easy to walk in SPD system shoes, and there’s a vast range of shoes, from super-stiff carbon-soled shoes for mountain bike racing to SPD walking boots and even sandals.

Shimano m520 SPD pedals. The double sided aids clipping in as you don’t have to worry which way the pedal is facing.
Showcasing the recessed cleat, making SPDs a wise option if you’re set to do a lot of walking! Image by gabriel amadeus.

Look-style clipless pedals are great for:

Long road rides, sportives, road racing, and those commuters experienced in the one sided catch mechanism, you don’t want to be faffing trying to get your cleats engaged after the lights go green!

SPD pedals are great for:

Almost everything but road racing: commuters, mountain bikers, and even leisure riders can benefit from being efficiently attached to the pedals with soes that are stiff enough to prevent sore feet.

4. Quirky stuff

If you like the idea of clipless pedals, but are nervous about being too firmly attached to the pedals, take a look at Shimano’s Click’R system, which releases more easily than most.

Shimano T400 Click’R pedals have a lighter release action than most ‘clipless’ pedals.

Some SPD pedals have a mechanism on one side and are flat on the other so you can use them with either SPD shoes or regular shoes, or heels, or Uggs…

A popular alternative to single-sided road pedals, Speedplay pedals have the mechanism built into the cleat, are double-sided and the Zero model has adjustable float (see below). They’re great for fast commuting and people with knee problems.

Speedplay Zero Chrome-Moly Pedals have the engagement mechanism housed in the cleat, not the pedal.


1. Most clipless pedals have adjustable tension. Back it right off so they’re easier to get out of, especially if you have small feet.

2. If you have knee problems, look for pedals with some rotational free movement. Known as ‘float’ this can help reduce discomfort.

3. Get used to clipless pedals by learning to clip in and unclip while leaning on a wall or like that, well away from traffic.

4. Ditto for clip-and-strap pedals.

5. For mountain biking, pair flat pedals with grippy-soled shoes specifically designed for the job. Running shoes are designed to grip tarmac, not metal pedals.

Like this? These articles will be useful too!

How To: Master Clipless Pedals

Easy to Use Shimano ClickR Pedal Review

Beginners: Pros and Cons of Flats vs Clipless Pedals for Mountain Biking


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