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How to Choose the Best Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals

The pedals that made the cut for 2017 clipless pedal testing
By Joshua Hutchens ⋅ Review Editor
Wednesday June 21, 2017

Types of Pedals


There are many different types of pedals for different styles of bikes and types of riding. The type of bike and riding you're doing will help dictate which is best but there's more to it than that. Assuming you're riding a mountain bike, you'll have to decide if you want to clip in to clipless pedals (yes, that name is misleading), or ride on flat pedals. This review is comprised entirely of clipless pedals, let's make sure that is what you are looking for.

Clips vs. Clipless


A clip pedal. The outer part is sometimes referred to as a cage  but it is actually what clips the foot into the pedal.

Why are pedals that you clip into called clipless pedals? It has to do with how pedals have evolved over the years. Before modern clipless pedals using a cleat on the bottom of the shoe came along, there were pedals with toe cages that held the foot in place. These pedals made it rather difficult to take your foot out if you needed to step down.
So with modern clipless pedals, there is no cage to clip into, hence "clipless." To the right you can see a clip pedal on the top and a clipless pedal on the bottom. You won't likely see many clip style pedals around anymore.

Clipless vs. Flat pedals


Attaching your feet to the pedals or standing on top of them? There are pros and cons to each style. We recommend trying both styles of pedals and going with what feels most comfortable to you. You might even want a pair of each for different days and challenges.

Onward with clipless mountain bike pedals. Twenty five years ago, the idea of clipping into a mountain bike pedal was considered crazy. All that has changed and its now incredibly common to see mountain bikes with clipless pedals. The benefit of having your foot attached to the pedal was evident for many and certainly increased your efficiency. The danger of being attached to the pedals was also very evident. Technological leaps and innovation have made the pedals safer and far more user friendly. The cleats that we attach to the shoes recess into the sole and make walking or hiking feel similar to wearing a normal shoe. A simple heal twist to release your foot is much easier than pulling it out of the old style cage and being attached can help you maneuver the bike in technical situations. Flat pedals have also evolved to be more user friendly, the newer styles feature excellent traction and pair well with sticky soled shoes giving riders control and confidence.

Many riders can ride either type of pedal effectively and each type of pedal has its own distinct feel and comes with advantages and disadvantages. Listen to your friends, your local bike shop and do some research online, but ultimately, the choice is yours.

our lead tester using the clipless pedals to help hold up the no handed wheelie
our lead tester using the clipless pedals to help hold up the no handed wheelie

Here is a Brief List of Some of the Pros and Cons to Both Styles

Flats
Shimano Saint Flat Pedal

Pros
  • Can be best for learning bike handling skills and trying new techniques and terrain.
  • Forces you to learn appropriate pedal pressure with your feet.
  • Allows you to bail from your bike quicker.
  • There is no learning curve; you install them and go.

Cons
  • Feet can be bounced of the pedals accidentally and in rough terrain.
  • You cannot use your feet to pull upwards on the pedals when climbing and jumping, which reduces efficiency.

Clipless

Pros
  • Overall more efficient.
  • Can give you more control of your bike.
  • Can give you more power with each pedal stroke.
  • Allows you to get your foot in the exact same position on the pedal every time.

Cons
  • There is a learning curve to using clipless pedals.
  • Can slightly delay putting a foot on the ground.
  • Can take slightly longer to correctly position your foot when starting the bike.

Other Pedal Considerations


If you've decided that you're indeed interested in clipless mountain bike pedals, then you are in the right place. There are just a few other details that are important to consider before you start selecting a specific pedal to buy.

Cleats


Cleats come with your clipless pedals, so no need to worry about searching out and buying the compatible ones. In some cases you can purchase aftermarket cleats that have different amounts of float or release properties.

Cleats from left to right  Crank Brothers  Time  Xpedo and Shimano SPD.
Cleats from left to right, Crank Brothers, Time, Xpedo and Shimano SPD.

Q-Factor


Minutia to some but its a factor to consider. While the average biker may not need to know or care about Q-factor, its an important distinction when digging this deeply into pedals. Q-factor is the width of your stance side-to-side on the bike from the center of one pedal cleat to the center of the other pedal cleat. This is affected by the crank, bottom bracket and pedal dimensions. With a narrower wheel and tire to work around, road bikes have a narrower Q-factor than mountain bikes. Downhill bikes and snow bikes can push that Q-factor out quite a bit.

measuring the Q-factor on the Mallet E
measuring the Q-factor on the Mallet E

The advantage to a wider Q-factor is that it gives you more leverage from side-to-side when sprinting and cornering. On a mountain bike, especially a downhill bike, this can be advantageous. This also allows for increased room for your foot to unclip without contacting the crank arm, especially when wearing bulky shoes like downhillers often do.

The disadvantage to a wider Q-Factor is that you're more likely to make contact with obstacles such as rocks or even the trail itself. There is also a slight decrease in pedal efficiency as the Q-factor widens. It is widely agreed upon that a narrower Q-factor is more efficient, even Sheldon Brown thought so.

notice how much wider the Xpedo pedal is vs. the others  this higher q-factor sets it apart.
notice how much wider the Xpedo pedal is vs. the others, this higher q-factor sets it apart.

Stack Height is the distance measured from the center of the pedal spindle to the bottom of the shoe. The lower the stack height, the lower the rider can sit on the bike at their proper saddle height, hence a lower center of gravity. Additionally, less stack height results in less pedal protruding from the bottom of the shoe lowering the chances you'll strike that pedal on a rock or obstacle.

Intended use


Figuring out what you're desired type of riding is will help you make the proper pedal decision. Are you wearing spandex and going for cardio? In general cross country riders won't need quite as much platform and can be rewarded with smaller, lighter weight pedals. Are you an aggressive trail rider looking to test some limits? Trail and all mountain riders are going to benefit from a bit more substance beneath their soles. Mini platforms are a good place to start, they'll provide quicker entry and a much more solid base for your pedal stroke. More aggressive and gravity oriented riders are going to tend toward the larger, traction pin laden pedals. These are basic guidelines but they're also generalizations, keep reading to hone in on what might work best for you.

Adjustability


The most often discussed type of pedal adjustment is release tension and we feel its fairly important. Being able to have a release tension that you're comfortable with will help you feel confident. Some manufacturers provide a 'one tension works for all' product, we find that it works for most. Riders on either end of the strength or weight spectrum might prefer the ability to customize the release tension. Adjustability of float is another consideration and refers to how far your heel will have to move before initiating release. Most of the pedals we review offer some type of adjustment in the float, most often by changing the cleats or the orientation that they're mounted.

Shoes


Certain pedals are designed to work better with certain shoes, so it would be wise for you to consider your shoe and pedal purchase simultaneously. If you're prone to getting rowdy on the bike, (you know who you are) you'll benefit from a bit more shoe and pedal. We think of clipless mountain shoes in these two broad categories.

Cross country mountain bike shoes
These are generally designed with a stiff midsole for optimum power transfer, and tend to be constructed of breathable lightweight materials. They are often less durable than Enduro or Gravity oriented shoes. Examples include the Giro Privateer R, Sidi Dominator 5 Fit, and the Shimano XC31.

Enduro and downhill mountain bike shoes
These shoes are designed for pedal efficiency but also walk-ability and some degree of foot protection. You'll typically see lugged soles or sticky rubber instead of the hard plastic outsole you'd see on cross country shoes. Some examples of enduro shoes are the Giro Terraduro, and the Fiveten Kestrel.

Price


A set of clipless pedals with cleats included can be found for as low as $30 or as much as $450. Typically, the more you spend, the less (grams) you get. If weight isn't your main deciding factor, you'll probably be happier with the performance of your pedals and the have saved some dollars. There are bargains out there, like the Shimano M530 and there are $180 pedals that we feel are 'totally worth it'. Pedals constitute two of your five points of contact with the bike, we're of the opinion that being too frugal in this department can lower the overall ride quality you experience.

Conclusion


We hope that our research and testing helps you choose the best pair of pedals for your riding style and needs. Options are endless but following the basic guidelines we have laid out can really help with making a solid purchase.

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Joshua Hutchens
About the Author
Joshua prefers pedals to bi-pedals. Rolling on two wheels long before his first memory of life, he grew up on a BMX bike and took his first bike shop job at the age of 12. He's held most every position in the bike industry trying to impart his love of two wheels to others. Bikes have taken him around the world as a guide, to the podium as a racer, to countless mountain tops and a few emergency rooms. Now living in South Lake Tahoe with his wife Hillary and daughter Penny, Joshua can often be found on the amazing trails and beaches around the lake. Rarely seen on the same bike, he rarely sheds that silly grin.

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