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How to Choose the Right Flat Pedals for Mountain Biking

Our lead tester on his backyard dirt jump in Carson City  NV at sunset.
By Sean Cronin ⋅ Review Editor
Thursday July 11, 2019
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This review is comprised entirely of mountain bike flat pedals. Serious mountain bikers would once scoff at the idea of riding flats, but with mountain biking growing fast in popularity, flat pedals are alive and well. From beginners to elite racers, flat pedals are being used in many disciplines all the way to the professional level in enduro, downhill, bike parks, and free riding. Flat pedals allow newcomers to the sport to quickly get out on trails and feel confident. They also enable elite athletes to perform various flips and maneuvers. Riders are demanding the best in flat pedal technology, and the industry is responding with cutting edge engineering and materials being used to deliver the best pedals to date.

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. There are advantages and disadvantages to using flats. Many riders prefer to ride with clipless systems while riding enduro, but enjoy being on flats at the bike park.

Riders at present-day trailheads look quite a bit different than their predecessors. For starters, their bikes are a lot lighter. 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. To create sustainable trails, there has been a shift away from the straight-down, fall-line DH trails. Instead, trails meander and traverse hillsides 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 trails 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. Continue reading to see how we tested our flat pedals and what we think is essential to consider when buying a pair of flat pedals.

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.
A pair of mountain bike specific shoes with sticky rubber soles will greatly improve the performance of your flat pedals.

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 want shoes that are specifically designed for riding flat pedals. Typical flat shoes feature flat bottoms and a sticky rubber compound that helps the pedal pins bite into the sole and keeps 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 from interfering with the chain. Those spending most of their time in the bike park tend to prefer a lighter weight shoe. 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 thinner profile also correlates to less weight, but requires stronger materials and can become an expensive process to manufacture, forcing prices higher and higher.

The recent trend in flat pedal design is towards a very thin profile to avoid pedal strikes  lower rider's center of gravity.  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. 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. Reducing pedal strikes not only keeps your pedals looking fresh, but it also helps maintain their grip and functionality.

Pins


Pedal pins dig into 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. By changing pin height, a rider can tune in the concavity of their pedals, tailoring their pedals to their needs.

Concavity


The difference in height between the highest pin and the center of the pedal body is called concavity. The idea is that the more concave or "cupped" a pedal is, the more you grip to the pedal. Typically the thinner the pedal, the lower the concavity, which is an interesting contrast since many of the pedals we've tested were designed to be as thin as possible. Some of the pedals we tested had high concavity, and all scored high in grip/traction but were thicker and more prone to pedal strikes. It's important to note that there is a significant difference in the feel of pedals that range from flat to concave or even convex. Not all riders prefer high concave pedals, and some prefer a flatter feel.

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 broader target for you foot to hit the pedal without first hitting the crankarm. You generally have more control. So what are the disadvantages to a wider Q-Factor? You're more likely to strike rocks and obstacles with your pedals. You also lose pedal efficiency.

Bottom Line


Choosing the correct pedals for your needs is an important part of mountain biking. Is all-out grip the most important? Are you looking to minimize pedal strikes? Are you trying to keep the weight on your newest bike build down? Or are you just looking to keep the costs down and getting out to ride? We've ridden hundreds of miles and descended thousands of feet testing some of the hottest pedals on the market today to help you decide what flat pedal is the best choice for you.


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