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

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 types of pedals, each tailored to riding styles and trail type. 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 into 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, which use a cleat on the bottom of the shoe, there were pedals with toe cages that held the foot in place. These pedals made it difficult to take your foot out if you needed to step down.
So modern clipless pedals have 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 these days.

Clipless vs. Flat vs. Clip-Flat Pedals


Do you want to attach your feet to the pedals or stand on top of them? There are pros and cons to each style. We recommend trying both and going with what feels most comfortable to you. If the idea of clipping in sounds daunting, or you want to ease into it, you might consider a Clip-Flat pedal, which features a flat pedal on one side and a caged clipless mechanism on the other.

Clipless


Twenty-five years ago, the idea of clipping into a mountain bike pedal was crazy. That's changed, and now it's incredibly common to see clipless pedals on the trail. The benefit of having your foot attached to the pedal, namely an increase in efficiency and control, was evident. The danger of being attached to the pedals was also very evident.

Technological leaps have made the pedals safer and far more user-friendly. A simple heal twist to release your foot is much easier than pulling it out of the old style cage. The pedal cleats attach to a recess in the sole of a clipless riding shoe, making walking or hiking feel similar to wearing a hiking shoe. Here's a summary of the pros and cons:

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 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 longer to correctly position your foot on the pedal.

Flats


Flat pedals have also evolved to be more user-friendly. Newer styles feature excellent traction and pair well with sticky soled shoes, giving riders control and confidence. Here are the major reasons to ride, and not to ride, flats:

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, just install them and go.

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

Many riders can ride either type of pedal effectively, and every kind of pedal has a 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 a no-handed wheelie.
Our lead tester using the clipless pedals to help hold up a no-handed wheelie.

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 them. In some cases, you can purchase aftermarket cleats to customize 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.

Intended use


What type of riding do you do? Are you wearing spandex and going for cardio? In general, cross-country riders won't need quite as much platform and can get by 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.

Notice how much wider the Xpedo pedal is than the others? This beefy platform helps to set that pedal apart.
Notice how much wider the Xpedo pedal is than the others? This beefy platform helps to set that pedal apart.

Adjustability


The most often discussed type of pedal adjustment is release tension, and we feel its fairly important. Finding 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 this works for most. Riders on either end of the strength or weight spectrum might prefer the ability to customize release tension. Float adjustability is another consideration and refers to how far your heel will have to move before initiating the release. Most of the pedals we review offer some type of float adjustment, most often by changing the cleats or their mounted orientation.

Stack Height


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. This gives them 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 the trail.

Q-Factor


The Q-factor is minutia to some, but it's a factor to consider. Q-factor is the width of your stance on the bike, measured from the center of one pedal cleat to the center of the other pedal cleat. It controls the ergonomics of your hips, knees, and ankles. 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 the 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 broader Q-factor is that you're more likely to make contact with obstacles, like rocks or even the trail itself. There is also a slight decrease in pedal efficiency as the Q-factor widens. It is widely acknowledged that a narrower Q-factor is more efficient.

Shoes


Certain pedals are designed to work better with certain shoes, so it's 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. Check out our ever-updating mountain bike shoe review for more information.

Cross-country mountain bike shoes

These are 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.

Enduro and downhill mountain bike shoes

These shoes are designed for pedal efficiency, but also for walkability and foot protection. You'll typically see lugged soles or sticky rubber instead of the hard plastic outsole you'd see on cross country shoes.

Price


You can find a set of clipless pedals with cleats included for as low as $30 and as much as $450. Typically, the more you spend, the less (weight) you get. If weight isn't your main concern, you'll probably save money and be happier with the performance of your pedals.

There are bargains out there, like the Shimano M530 SPD and there are $180 pedals that we feel are worth the money. 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 quality of your ride.

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 help you make a solid purchase.


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