What Type Of Mountain Bike Pedals Are Right For You?

Close-up rear-view of a bicycle on Gavel Road, New Zealand
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Bike pedals come in three main types: clipless, toe clip and platform. Each type has its place, but when you're looking for new pedals or buying a new bike, the pedals you choose can make a big difference in how you ride and how your bike performs. After all, bike pedals make up one of the most important connections between you and your bike.

Clipless Bike Pedals

For the average XC and trail rider, and for almost all serious single-track riders, clipless bike pedals are usually the best choice.

With clipless bike pedals, you wear special biking shoes that have a metal or plastic cleat on the bottom, underneath the ball of your foot. The cleat snaps into a spring-loaded mechanism on the pedal that holds your foot securely. A quick side rotation of the foot releases the connection, allowing you to get off the bike or put a foot down.

Clipless pedals provide a very stable connection to the bike that allows you to pedal more efficiently. This is because one leg lifts the pedal on the upstroke while the other leg simultaneously pushes down during the downstroke. The result is a more efficient full circle of motion. By contrast, platform pedals allow you to exert force only on the downstroke.

Some riders also prefer clipless pedals because they hold your foot to the pedal even in the roughest terrain and they make it easier to hop over obstacles.

The main drawback of clipless bike pedals is that beginners sometimes have difficulty pulling their feet out of the pedals in a hurry.

Also, the pedals require biking shoes with cleats, which means more specialized equipment for enjoying a ride. However, you quickly get used to popping out of your pedals, and you get stuck in them much less than with toe clip pedals. As for the shoes, serious cyclists consider these a major asset because they also add efficiency to your pedaling.

Toe Clip Bike Pedals

The second most common bike pedal type is the toe clip or cage-style pedal. With these, you wear sneakers or street shoes and slip your foot into a cage with a strap that adjusts around the top of your foot. These pedals often are found on lower-end and mid-range bikes, partly because they're cheaper for the manufacturer and partly because these bikes are made for more casual riding. But if you plan to do any serious riding, a clipless pedal probably will serve you better. 

When properly adjusted, cage-style bike pedals are slightly harder to get in and out of than clipless style pedals, and they do not increase your pedaling efficiency as much as clipless pedals. Sometimes the straps get stuck on your shoes and you can't pull out in time to save yourself.

It might make sense to use toe clip pedals if you're totally opposed to wearing biking shoes (for clipless pedals) but you want some of the increased pedaling efficiency afforded by having your feet somewhat secured to the pedal. Otherwise, you should commit to clipless or use platform pedals.

Platform Bike Pedals

Finally, platform or flat-style bike pedals offer no attachment between the foot and the pedal. These pedals are designed to provide a good amount of grip between the pedal and the shoe, but that is all you get.

As you might guess, with platform bike pedals, pedaling efficiency is compromised. This becomes readily apparent during technical climbs when every bit of pedaling force counts. That said, there are some great reasons to use platforms.

Platform pedals offer instant removal of the foot for any reason and with no obstructions. This makes them ideal for beginners as well as for riders who want to be able to put a foot down often or very quickly. Platform pedals are very popular among freeriders, downhillers and dirt jumpers, but are by no means exclusive to these ride categories.

The Bottom Line on Mountain Bike Pedals

Clipless: If you’ll be mountain biking a lot and you don't mind a brief learning curve to get used to releasing from your pedals, go clipless. For mountain biking, clipless pedals with good mud clearing capabilities and low lubrication and maintenance requirements are recommended.

Cages: If you have to use cage-style pedals, make sure you adjust them properly. Too tight and you'll get stuck; too loose and you might as well just use platforms, which is what I suggest anyway if you're not going to use clipless.

Platforms: Use platforms if you are going to ride stunts or any other high-stakes terrain. Platforms are also great for beginners who aren't ready to make the move to clipless and for riders who simply like a little extra freedom.