This blog was written by Kevin Johnson, a loyal customer which plenty of seat time over the years. Having gone back and forth between flat and clipless pedals over the years, he thought it would be great to do an in-depth comparison on flat vs. clipless pedals, Let's take a look at what he had to say!
I’ve ridden clipless road and mountain bike pedals since the advent of the clunky Look Pedals in 1984 for road bikes, and Shimano’s SPD pedals in 1990 for mountain bikes. Prior to that, I’d ridden quill-type pedals with their horrible leather straps that never held my feet securely to the pedal platforms unless I cinched them so tight that my feet became numb due to constricted blood flow —AND— when sufficiently tight, they managed to stretch, becoming too loose and subsequently had to be readjusted; a frequently irritating, recurrent cycle.
Clipless pedals were a breath of fresh air. They fit securely, could be disengaged quickly, and were wonderful at promoting smooth spinning efficacy, plus were great for jumping potholes, tree stumps, rocks, and the like. For me, it was like experiencing the thrills of riding all over again. I thought I’d never look back on platform-type pedals again. Well………………………………???????
Thirty-three years later, I no longer ride road bikes, having surrendered decades’ past, to the enchanting allure of the sirens that habituate mountainous terrain. From hardtail to front suspension to full suspension bikes; from skinny tires to fat tires to tire widths in-between, I’ve experienced the joy of riding many mountain bikes. However, and after several protracted hike-a-bike excursions on steep mountain trails with only my beloved Sidi carbon-soled shoes between my feet and the scorching, hot, blistering desert trails, I’ve decided to experiment by altering my weekly riding sessions, 4-5 times per week, with my clipless and flat pedals.
After talking with several trainers that enthusiastically extolled the wondrous virtues involved with flat pedals, which they recommended altering with clipless pedals, I decided to be the guinea pig and find out for myself. My choice in pedals were as follows:
At a featherweight of merely 214.7 grams per pair, I’ve been running these pedals on my bikes for several years; having surrendered usage of my beloved XTR pedals, which are brutally heavy compared to the Xpedo M-Force pedals. Excellent construction, silky smooth rotation, plus tremendous durability and relative ease of entry, have rendered them my favorite pedals that I’ve installed on all my mountain bikes.
The pedals sport scales that indicate the level of tension for each pedal with a red indicator that’s easy to view. They are readily installed with an 8mm Allen key and the tensioning mechanism is adjusted with a 3mm Allen key.
Another minimal weight pedal, the HT ME03T’s weighed in at 218.6 grams/pair. These pedals provide a wide, sturdy platform with ten aluminum pins on each surface of each pedal that allows for endless fine tuning grip options. The body is magnesium while the spindle is titanium. The pedals have HT’s EVO bearing system that’s comprised of nine ball bearings sandwiched between two races. Pedal installation is performed via an 8mm Allen key and the aluminum pins are installed with a 2mm Allen key. Some individuals have complained about the perceived pedaling stiffness on the axles, however, HT has provided a spring that applies tension to the bearings so pedaling resistance is somewhat adjustable.
A stiff shoe with a small amount of built-in flexibility. The replaceable cleats are extremely soft and will not hold up against continuous use over rocky terrain. I wore mine out after only a few rides. I opted for the Sidi SRS Dragon 2 replacement cleats that are super durable, yet grip well on rocky trails. The shoes are very comfortable and reasonable light. Given the well-engineered replacement features, these shoes will last many years of rough use. Be sure to order the appropriately sized replacement cleats for your shoes as they are available in 3 sizes: 39-40, 41-44, and 45-48 (European sizing).
I was a bit concerned by the weight of these shoes considering I ride in the desert mountains where the temperatures, even in late October, are in the 90’s. But this concern was quickly laid to waste as they are neither hot on the feet nor unduly heavy. I like the lace covers as they provide protection from the laces coming loose and getting wrapped in the drivetrain. In addition, the covers keep dirt out of the laces. The shoes are reasonably stiff and do not hamper performance in any way when compared against the Sidi Spider shoes, though on flat, sandy desert trails, I’d ride with clipless pedals and Sidis’ any day. The sticky rubber is as good as the Stealth rubber Five Ten introduced over thirty years past, I’m serious. It grips like an octopus’s tentacles encircling its prey. I’ve experienced getting stuck momentarily when trying to reorient my feet on the platforms. But I’d rather stick then slip around those pedals.
I’ll be alternating pedals weekly and will journal my riding impressions over the next four weeks. In addition, I will ride identical trails on two successive weeks before switching to another trail, also for two successive weeks, which will continue over the four weeks’ duration.
Trail 1: Beverly Canyon/East/West Loops at South Mountain Park near Phoenix, AZ. Ratings are moderate with lots of baby mountain climbs peppered with a few technical rocky areas. This route will be a perfect starting point for trying flat pedal riding.
Beautiful day for riding with temperatures in the mid-90’s from early to mid-morning. I started riding on the East loop heading counterclockwise around the mountain. Upon encountering the first technical sections, I noticed a newfound feeling of foot freedom as I pedaled over the rocks. Remember, this is my first time riding a mountain bike with flat pedals; I began in clipless in the 1980’s. NO KIDDING. I’d move my feet anteriorly relative to the pedal axles, then move them posteriorly. At times, I felt as if my toes were pulling on the front of the pedals. (Note: I was not using my Freerider ELC shoes, but instead, was using Five Ten’s Guide Tennis Shoe that were old and torn yet very functional. My ELC shoes weren’t sized properly and replacements are on order.) While descending, I hit a corner hard and started to slide, which was rectified by a simple placement of my foot on a rock. That movement occurred quickly and automatically; something I would not have tried with clipless shoes, and which felt natural as I didn’t lose my momentum. I didn’t experience issues jumping over objects and I lost contact with my pedals on only a few occasions, far less that what I had imagined. Additionally, I felt like I had better traction control while cornering as I had more surface area of my feet in contact with the width of the HT ME03T pedals. My initial impressions were extremely favorable. Now, that the freshness has worn away, I’ll be able to focus my attention on the subtleties of riding with the flat pedals over rocks in terms of fore and aft foot movements.
Rode, for the 1st time, in my new Freerider ELC shoes and they made a big difference in pedaling efficiency. The stiffer soles afforded the application of more power in pedaling versus the Guide shoes. I climbed with greater ease and ability, while appreciating the performance of my new shoes. When jumping over a rock step, I forgot that I was in flat pedals and sloppily hoisted both feet into the air, which resulted in my body rising vertically airborne. Fortunately, I pulled myself, via the handlebars, back onto the saddle, while pedaling onward. Now, I understand how flat pedals foster good riding technique as I should have been pumping my bike for that jump, not lifting on the pedals. After two days of riding on flat pedals, I’ve come to an early conclusion that I might remain on flat pedals, at least for enduro-style riding, relegating my clipless pedals to the flat, sandy trails in the desert.
Next trails: East Loop to Beverly Classic trail to Desert Classic trail, which consists of small mountains that increase in height as you ride south, until you reach a long 22% gradient drop with plenty of rough, loose rocks to connect with Desert classic. Ratings are moderate.
Like the previous weeks of riding on flat pedals, I enjoyed the freedom of adjusting my foot positions at will, especially when climbing and descending. I am experiencing greater confidence and appreciate not having to twist-snap my shoes out from the clipless pedal system, and the attendant re-engagement of the cleats while riding. Flat pedals simplify the riding experience and have forced me to employ proper technique while jumping over and down obstacles while descending. Initially, I believed the heavier weight of my new Freerider shoes, versus the lighter and stiffer Sidis’, would hinder my riding enjoyment, especially in 100°F+ heat, but this has not been my experience. The firm platform provided by the soles aids in transferring increased power to my power train system, and, in consequence, I’m able to power up hills that were problematic previously.
After two more weeks of riding on flat pedals, I feel very comfortable and secure. I’m jumping effortlessly and without thought of foot placement. The freedom to adjust my foot position, while riding, is unmatched versus clipless systems. I’ve realized that removal and reinsertion of the shoe’s cleat with clipless systems is a bit stressful as re-engagement with the pedal is not always smooth and quick. I’d never considered that previously but it’s one of those things that’s easy to ignore until you’ve experienced a superior system or methodology. Even slight maneuvers like touching my foot to the ground during an occasional sharp corner is fluid with flat pedals. My jumping technique has improved and manipulating the clockwise/ counterclockwise positioning of the crankarms/pedals is natural, though I had mastered that technique with clipless in-order-to minimize irritating pedal strikes on the rock. At this point, the only issue I’m experiencing with the flat pedals is the occasional “shit, my foot is stuck on the pegs” syndrome, which is due to the grip of Five Ten’s incredible “Stealth Rubber”; an old friend since my earlier years as a rock climber. I’m happy to report that the rubber’s grip is as good as it was 30 years ago.
While riding the same trails I flipped over the handlebars and landed on my back, head, ribs, wrist, and thigh. Bruised, I will rest a few days until the ribs heal. Love the pedals, but what the hell happened???? Riding more aggressively and picking the hardest lines, I must have relaxed my attention a bit, and then crashed. Sloppy for sure, but a good lesson in always paying attention to the terrain, despite its familiarity.
I noticed a caged-in feel this time around because my feet lost their ability to dance around the pedal base at will, and the small platform felt uncomfortable. I missed the plush, sturdy feel of the larger pedaling base on the flat pedals. I executed a few sloppy jumps by pulling up on the pedals but I quickly corrected those flaws. It’s amazing how quickly the body learns, then teaches the consciousness needed lessons. I was more hesitant snapping my feet out of the clips, and was slower achieving reintegration with the clipless system; a ridiculous name “clipless”. I’m completely sold on flat pedals for mountain riding, though I will use clipless pedals on the rare occasions I find myself riding the “flats.”