The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How to Choose the Best Flat Pedals for Mountain Biking

Our lead tester on his backyard dirt jump in Carson City  NV at sunset.
By Sean Cronin ⋅ Review Editor
Wednesday January 11, 2017

Types of Pedals



Clipless vs. Flats


Do you want the freedom of flat pedals or do you prefer clipless pedals where your feet attach to the pedals with cleated shoes? There are pros and cons to each method. You should try out both styles of pedals and whatever makes you the most comfortable and lets you have the most fun is what you should choose. Maybe you even want a pair of each and will want to go back and forth between both styles.

This review is comprised entirely of mountain bike flat pedals. Maybe 15 years ago serious mountain bikers would scoff at the idea of riding flats. All that has changed and much of it has to do with how bikes have evolved over the years. Years ago it was simple to look at mountain bikers and their equipment and label them as either a cross-county (XC) or downhill (DH) rider. The XC riders wore lycra and rode clipless pedals, while the DH crowd had full-face helmets, baggy shorts, and flat platform pedals.

Riders at present day trailheads look quite a bit different than their predecessors. For starters, their bikes look a lot different. Modern enduro bikes or trail bikes weigh as little as the lightest XC race bikes of yore, yet have six or more inches of plush suspension travel at both ends. These bikes are equally suited to 50-mile mountain epics as they are being loaded onto chairlifts and bombing down steep technical terrain at ski resort bike parks.

As much as bike technology has come along, so too has trail design. In order to create sustainable trails, there has been a shift away from the straight-down, fall-line DH trails. Instead, trails meander and traverse hillsides in order to be suitable for uphill riding as well as downhill. They are armored with rock features to help hold the soil in place. Flow trails are cropping up everywhere, featuring smooth trail leading into berms, rollers, and tabletop jumps that were once exclusive to rowdy downhill courses. Wooden ladders and log rides litter the sides of trails, giving riders the option to spice things up a bit.

As a result, riders from all different disciplines of biking, be it XC, DH, trials, road, freestyle, cyclocross, enduro or BMX, are all showing up to ride the same trails. Everyone brings their own set of skills to the table and it's all on full display out there. What is most evident is that your everyday mountain biker is a lot harder to pigeon hole nowadays. They're all just…mountain bikers.

Younger riders or those new to the sport don't know any difference. They see their flat pedaled friend whipping thru the kickers and their clipless buddy cleaning technical staircase climbs all on the same ride and quite possibly on the same bikes. Loads of riders can do both on either type of pedal.

Our lead tester on his backyard dirt jump in Carson City  NV at sunset.
Our lead tester on his backyard dirt jump in Carson City, NV at sunset.

Here we break down the pros and cons of each.

Other Pedal Considerations



Shoes


A pair of mountain bike specific shoes with sticky rubber soles will greatly improve the performance of your flat pedals.  The 5.10 Freeriders pictured here with our Editors' Choice Deity Bladerunners are a very popular and versatile flat pedal shoe.
A pair of mountain bike specific shoes with sticky rubber soles will greatly improve the performance of your flat pedals. The 5.10 Freeriders pictured here with our Editors' Choice Deity Bladerunners are a very popular and versatile flat pedal shoe.

Finding the right flat pedal is only half of the equation. Using trail running sneakers with your new flat pedals will not unlock their true performance potential. You'll definitely want shoes that are specifically designed for riding flat pedals. These shoes use a sticky rubber compound that helps the pedal pins bite into the sole and keep your foot planted on the pedal over the roughest terrain. There are different shoes to suit every riding style from DH to freestyle. Downhill oriented shoes tend to be more heavily padded to protect from trail hazards and may feature lace covers for additional protection and to prevent the laces form interfering with the chain. Those spending most of their time in the bike park tend to prefer a lighter weight shoe, as less padding and thinner soles allow for increased sensitivity for more precise handling and maneuverability for tricks. Check out our flat pedal shoe review for a more in-depth analysis of some of the best shoes available.

Profile


The trend recently has been towards thinner pedal profiles. The argument is that a thinner pedal provides greater ground clearance, a lower center of gravity, increased efficiency, and resistance to unwanted flipping.

The recent trend in flat pedal design is towards a very thin profile to avoid pedal strikes  lower rider's center of gravity  and prevent unwanted pedal flop.  From top to bottom thinnest  thinner  thin (Deity  Crank Brothers 5050  Blackspire Robusto)
The recent trend in flat pedal design is towards a very thin profile to avoid pedal strikes, lower rider's center of gravity, and prevent unwanted pedal flop. From top to bottom thinnest, thinner, thin (Deity, Crank Brothers 5050, Blackspire Robusto)

A thinner pedal is less likely to come in contact with rocks and other trail debris while pedaling because of better clearance. If you've ever been launched off your bike unexpectedly when your pedal tagged a rock, you can understand the merits of a slim pedal.

Pins


Pedal pins dig in to the sole of the shoe, preventing your foot from skating around on the platform. Some less expensive pedals have nubs textured directly onto the pedal surface. Their position leaves them quite susceptible to damage, as they are very exposed to striking rocks, roots, and act like heat-seeking missiles to your tibia. Some pins are placed from the bottom with the heads of the pins recessed and protected within the body of the pedal.

A good example of how the heads of bottom-loading pins are protected against impact.
A good example of how the heads of bottom-loading pins are protected against impact.

Pins that insert from the top can become damaged and the allen head can become mangled from repeated ground strikes. Some pedals come with a choice of different pin height and thicknesses or use washers to dial in desired grip and performance.

Q-Factor


Q-factor is the distance from the center of one pedal to the center of the other pedal.


Advantages to a wider Q-factor include better cornering and a wider target for you foot to hit the pedal without first hitting the crankarm. You generally just have more control. So what are the disadvantages to a wider Q-Factor? You're more likely to pedal strike rocks and obstacles. You also lose pedal efficiency.


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