How to Choose the Best Mountain Bike Pedals

Shimano XTR M9120 (full review)

On the surface, pedals on a mountain bike might not seem very important. They are small and seemingly insignificant. But the truth is, pedals are a very important facet of having a bike that fits you, and the difference between a quality pedal and one that doesn’t work very well for the type of riding you are doing can make or break the experience.

So, how do you choose which pedals to buy? There are a few different decisions you’re going to need to make, so let’s start by walking through some of the pros and cons of each.

Flat vs. Clipless Pedals

Race Face Atlas Flat Pedal (review)

Flat Pedals

When choosing a mountain bike pedal, the first thing you’ll want to decide is if you want platform (aka flat) or clipless pedals. The main advantages of platform pedals are:

  1. You don’t need special shoes to use them. Any sturdy pair of shoes with a flat bottom will work.
  2. It’s easy to bail off the bike if necessary (great for beginners, but also downhill/dirt jump/freeriders).
  3. Entry-level platform pedals are generally less expensive than entry level clipless pedals.

Flat pedals have come a long way in recent years. They are lighter, sleeker, and grippier than ever, and specially-designed shoes by brands like Five Ten make the experience even better (check out the mountain bike shoe buyers guide for more info on footwear options). Some people who ride flats claim that it’s just as stable as being clipped in.

In recent years, flat pedal technology has come a long way, with significant improvements in the pins and shape of flat pedals, and the grippiness of flat pedal-specific shoes. There’s never been a better time to purchase and ride flat pedals! Even if you have flats that you’ve owned for many years, now might be a great time to look into a flat pedal upgrade.

However, many people will turn to clipless pedals in search of a really solid foot-pedal attachment.

HT T1 (review)

Clipless Pedals

Clipless mountain bike pedal systems feature a special cleat that is attached to a mountain bike-specific shoe to give the rider a true connection between foot and pedal. The rider clips into the pedal by stepping down and releases by twisting his heel to the side. It can take beginners a bit of practice to get used to clipless mountain bike pedals, but there are some advantages:

  1. Improved pedal efficiency, as energy is transferred throughout the pedal stroke.
  2. Improved handling on technical rides. Clipless pedals keep your feet attached to the bike on bumpy descents and make things like bunny-hopping much easier.
  3. Decreased size. Clipless pedals cut a smaller footprint than platform pedals and can make clearing rocks easier. They also tend to be lighter for a similar-quality pedal.

There are several competing standards in the clipless pedal market, and cleats may not be compatible from one standard to another. The major clipless pedal standards are SPD, Time, and CrankBrothers. At the moment, SPD is the most widely-used standard across many brands, but unless you plan to share bikes or need to outfit multiple rigs, this may not be a very important consideration.

Crank Brothers Mallet E LS (review)

Combo Pedals

Combination mountain bike pedals merge the advantages of both pedal types: a wide platform plus a clipping mechanism. There are two different styles. One type has a clip on one side and a platform on the other, and the other type has a clip integrated into the platform on both sides, so that each are accessible at the same time.

The main trade-off in choosing a combo pedal is that there is often a large weight penalty, and the clips may be a bit more difficult to engage than on a clipless-only pedal. One issue with many combo pedals that only have a clip on one side is that they tend to rotate so that the clip side is always pointing towards the ground, because it is the side that weighs more. This makes getting clipped in a little more cumbersome, which can be annoying out on the trail. But they are a great choice if you have a bike that you use for a wide variety of applications and sometimes want to be clipped in, but also want to be able to easily jump on with normal shoes (like a commuter bike).

Other Pedal Factors to Consider

No matter which type of pedal you’re looking for, you may want to consider these additional items:

  • Pedal weight — While lighter is generally better, sometimes it comes with durability consequences. Do some research before automatically choosing the lightest option.
  • Mud shedding abilities — Look for open spaces in the pedals where mud can be pushed out when you place your feet on the pedals. This also applies to snow.
  • Adjustability — This is mostly important when looking at clipless pedals where you’ll want to consider things like pedal tension settings (the amount of force it takes to clip and unclip) and float (the degree to which you can rotate your foot when clipped in). Platform pedals may allow you to replace spike pins or even change up the colors on the pedal body. More adjustability is better.
  • Durability — It’s a good idea to choose a solid pedal with smooth bearings that won’t require a ton of maintenance. Great mountain bike pedals will stand up to the abuse of multiple rock strikes and scratches year after year.
  • Ease of maintenance — Some pedals can be easily rebuilt and parts swapped out, while if others break, you have to buy a whole new pedal.

MTB Pedal Recommendations

Check out some of our recent pedal reviews if you’re in the market for a new set of pedals:

For even more information about mountain bike pedals, don’t miss the Everything You Need to Know about Mountain Bike Pedals podcast.