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How to choose bike pedals

When you buy a new bike, you often need to buy bike pedals separately – this is especially true for road bikes and mountain bikes. Or you might need new pedals because you’re about to make the switch from flats to clipless. To get set up with the best bike pedals for your riding plans, ask yourself:

  • Flat pedals or clipless? They offer different perks – see what option is right for you.
  • Do you need cleats? If you’re riding clipless, then 2-hole or 3-hole are your choices.
  • Why are some pedals more expensive? It’s good to know what to splurge on.
  • Do you know how to ride clipless? Follow our tips for newbie clipless riders to set out safely.

Flat pedals vs. clipless pedals

Are you commuting across town, planning a long-distance Fondo, or mountain biking local trails? Different riding goals might mean flat pedals or clipless pedals. Some pedals can do double-duty and give you the option to ride flat or clipless.

Flat pedals

Most people are familiar with good old flat pedals (also called platform pedals). They’re what most people picture when they think of a bike pedal, but there’s more variety than you may realize. While there are no-frill flat pedals available, there are also models with grippy pins hold your shoes in place – essential for mountain biking.

MEC flat pedals

Great for:

  • Working with any type of footwear and making it easy to get on and off your bike, which is why many casual riders and bike commuters like flat pedals.
  • For mountain biking, the wide base and pins give solid footing and spur-of-the-moment maneuverability in case you need to put a foot down to prevent a bail in extra sketchy terrain.

Clipless pedals

Clipless pedals let you “clip in” and “clip out” of your pedals with special cycling shoes and cleats. When you’re clipped in, you’re attached to your pedals, which comes with extra power potential. Unlike flat pedals, where you can only down on the pedals, clipless pedals let you both push and pull with each pedal stroke. The benefits? Maximizing power, smoothness, acceleration and efficiency.

You will need cleats and cycling shoes to ride clipless. If you’re new to these pedals, do a few practice sessions off the road to get comfortable – see our tips below.

Great for:

  • Making the most of your leg muscles to speed up quickly and ride efficiently (good for long rides).
  • As a general rule, road riders, dedicated bike commuters and cross-country mountain bikers tend to choose clipless pedals.
  • Most mountain bike pedals are the 2-hole clipless design, and most road bike pedals are the 3-hole clipless design.
Examples of clipless pedals

Why are clipless pedals called clipless?

If you “clip in” with clipless pedals, why are they called clipless? A little bike history lesson: before clipless pedals were invented, riders used toe clips that wrapped over their shoes to help them use the push/pull effect for efficiency and power. Once clipless pedals were invented, they called them “clipless” because they didn’t use traditional toe clips.

Types of bike cleats

Cleats are a must for clipless pedals (unless you get clipless pedals that also work as flats). Basically, cleats are small pieces of metal or plastic that attach to the soles of your bike shoes to connect your shoes to your bike pedals. The majority of pedals come with cleats, but you can also buy them separately if you need to replace worn ones, or if you want ones that offer more or less float.

When choosing cleats, remember that they need to fit both your bike pedals and your cycling shoes. All the parts need to work together – two out of three will get you nowhere. If you have any questions about compatibility, chat with a staffer at your local MEC store.

Shimano SPD cleats

Cleats for mountain biking and general biking

  • Most mountain bike pedals are made for 2-hole cleats.
  • 2-hole cleats are also a great generalist option for bike commuters and trail riders. Many spin bikes use this system too.
  • The 2-hole design is often called SPD (for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics). SPD pedals still serve as a sort of industry standard, but other brands like Crankbrothers and Time (for MTB) make 2-hole cleats.

Cleats for road cycling

  • Road bike pedals are much more specialized for long, fast, uninterrupted rides. They usually have cleats with 3 holes in a triangular pattern and are one-sided (they only engage on one side).
  • This is sometimes referred to as the “Look” system, named for Look Cycle, the brand that brought these cleats into the mainstream. Just to confuse things, Shimano makes its own 3-holed cleats for road cycling, known as SPD-SL.
  • The 3-hole system means more of your foot is engaged with the pedal to distribute force and increase the power of each pedal stroke.

Investing in the right pedals

Are some pedals better than others? Of course. Here’s what a higher-quality pedal gets you:

  • Better craftsmanship and materials. You’ll see some platforms that are made of metals such as aluminum and steel, while others are made with plastics or composites such as nylon. As a general rule, the lighter the pedal, the more expensive it is.
  • The quality of the spindle (the part that attaches to the crank arms) is something to look at if you really want to nitpick. Chromoly spindles are more rigid and durable than simple steel spindles.
  • Pedals have ball bearings that make them spin. There are different degrees of spin, and different systems of sealing and weatherproofing.

“Buy the best pedals your budget allows you to. I’ve seen some SPD pedals last through many years of consistent commuting. If you get a good product, it can work for a very, very long time.” – MEC staff tip

Riding clipless pedals: beginner tips

Biking in a grassy field to practice riding with clipless pedals

For some people, the thought of locking your feet to your bike pedals can be a bit nerve-racking. If you’re about to join the clipless rider crew for the first time, here are some tips:

  • On most models, unclipping requires a simple twist of the foot, but it takes time to get it right.
  • Practice on a stationary bike or find a grassy field where you can take a few tumbles without getting too scraped up. Everyone who practices will have a fall or two, and it’s better for it to happen in an empty playground than at a stop sign in traffic.
  • For riders who are new to clipless, pedals with relatively high “float” may be more comfortable. Float is the ability for your feet and legs to move naturally while still attached to clipless pedals. A higher degree of float (6° to 9° is considered pretty loose) means more freedom, which reduces strain on your muscles and joints.
  • On the other hand, 0° float offers no side-to-side movement, which helps your knee track perfectly. Experienced riders sometimes prefer this “locked-in” feel. Chat with a bike fitter before you move to 0° – it’s important to transition carefully to keep you injury-free.