Bike Pedal Buying Guide - GO Outdoors
Pedals have one of the most important jobs of any bike part: they are the part responsible for transferring power from your legs into the bike. As such, upgrading your pedals can be one of the biggest changes you can make to your cycling experience.
There are a wide variety of options, with different pedals suited to different types of riding. This guide will help you navigate these options to choose the right pedals for you.
Although there are many different types of pedals with different characteristics, there are some qualities that are desirable amongst them all:
Stiffness is a virtue of almost every bike part because stiff parts provide a more efficient ride with more reliable handling. As you push down on the pedals, you want them to be stiff so all that energy is transferred immediately into the drivetrain and into forward motion. A flexible pedal will bend slightly you push down on it, soaking up energy with every pedal stroke and causing a slight delay in acceleration.
Pedals have to be able to handle a great deal of force travelling through them. As a part that sticks out at the bottom of the bike, they also tend to see quite a bit of wear and tear. This is a particular issue off-road, where 'pedal strike' can occur when a pedal clips a rock, root or other outcropping on the trail. Pedals really are an essential part so it is imperative that they are strong enough to handle these difficulties.
Like with almost every bike part, the lighter the better! A lighter bike makes for faster acceleration, easier climbs and more agile handling. As a moving part, the weight of your pedals is even more important: it's a weight you have to lift every time you spin your legs. It might not seem like much, but think how often spin your pedals over an entire ride. Any weight saved will make each pedal stroke easier and that adds up to you feeling fresher at the end of a long ride.
Having reliable purchase on your pedals is essential to an efficient and powerful pedal stroke. If your feet are moving around on the pedals, that's wasted energy that's not going into the rear wheel. It also hampers the rhythm of your pedalling stroke. Good pedals will maintain a secure grip on your shoes no matter how hard you push. As one on your 'contact points' with the bike (along with the saddle and handlebars), it is also paramount that you have a secure grip on the pedals to safely control and handle the bike as a whole. Feet slipping off pedals is an easy way to have an accident.
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Flat pedals, also known as platform pedals, are the simplest option and the type of pedals we're all most familiar with. Generally constructed from either plastic or aluminium, flat pedals are - funnily enough - flat on the top and bottom, often with studs or pins sticking out for extra grip on the sole of the shoe. They are designed with a large surface area to interface with the sole of the shoe. This means greater grip, comfort and power transfer as the pedalling force is spread over more of the foot.
Flat pedals can be used with any sort of standard shoe, making them very popular for city and leisure use. You can just hop on the bike wearing your normal gear. There is nothing holding your feet onto the pedals, making them easy to use when stopping and starting frequently in traffic. They also allow extra peace of mind with the knowledge that you can easily stop and get off your bike in an emergency.
The ability to quickly and easily take your feet on the pedals also appeals to BMXers and aggressive mountain bikers so they can quickly jump off the bike to avoid a crash. It also means that you can 'dab' you foot on the ground for extra stability when cornering at high speed. Being the simplest type of pedal, they can also withstand the most abuse in the park or on the trails and the large surface area helps protect your feet as well. Combined with skate-style shoes with soft rubber soles, quality flat pedals can provide more than enough grip for the best riders.
As they are easiest pedals to use and offer a safe way out of crashes, flat pedals are also ideal for beginners.
What to look for in flat pedals
The more pins, the grippier the pedal. Pins are a wearable item and can be damaged by crashes and pedal strike. Removable pins mean that you can replace worn pins rather than having to replace the entire pedal. Removable pins also allow you to customise the pedals' grip to your liking by altering the pin layout. Pay a bit more and you get pins made from lighter, more durable alloys.
In terms of pedalling efficiency, it is best for your foot to be as close to the pedal axle as possible. In this sense, thinner pedals are better. Thinner pedals are also less susceptible to pedal strike. Thinner pedals also tend to be lighter. Thin pedals do require smaller bearings, however, which tend to wear out more quickly.
High-end pedals come with better bearings that run smoother for longer for more efficient pedalling. Some pedals have removable/servicable bearings, others do not. Pedals with removable bearings can last longer if looked after properly, but they do require extra maintenance.
Some flat pedals aren't actually flat at all, but have a slightly dished or concave surface. This means they cup your foot for extra grip and security, at the expense of some freedom of movement.
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Clipped pedals are flat pedals with a toe clip (also known as a toe strap or cage) fitted to the front of one side. The clip holds your foot onto the pedal more securely but also lets you pedal more efficiently. You can push forwards and pull up on the pedal as well as pushing down. This means a smoother, more efficient motion through the whole pedal stroke rather than a single downwards push with each stroke. It's also easier to get full power through the pedals when riding out of the saddle. All this means you can ride faster with the same amount of effort.
To use the pedals, you simply slide your foot into the back of the toe clip. Some clips include a strap which you can then tighten the clip around your shoe. This is easier to do once you are already steadily riding along, so many riders prefer to get up to speed using the non-clipped side before switching to the clip.
Like standard flat pedals, clipped pedals can be used with normal shoes. Whereas flat pedals require skate-style shoes for maximum grip, clipped pedals work just as well with many styles of shoe as long as they are the right size and shape to fit into the clip. This makes them a great option for extra speed when touring and commuting or during casual road rides.
Because they offer less freedom of movement and take a bit of getting used to, clipped pedals are not advised for beginners or mountain biking.
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Clipless pedals attach to cycling-specific shoes with a cleat system that you snap in and out of with a flick of the heel. This offers the most secure hold on your feet and hence the most efficient pedaling motion. Because your feet are fully attached to the pedal, you can utilise the entirety of your pedal stroke in a fully circular motion and make the most of all your leg muscles. You can give the pedals full power out of the saddle safe in the knowledge that your feet are staying put.
Despite the extra security, clipless pedals are actually easier to get in and out of than clipped pedals. For this reason, they are used by both mountain bikers and road riders and there are specific shoes and pedals designed for both. Mountain bike pedals are not just used off-road, however, so it is worth reading about both to find out which is for you.
Generally speaking, mountain bike pedals are only compatible with mountain bike shoes and road pedals are only compatible road shoes. As such, your choice of shoes will inform your choice of pedal and vice versa. Some information about shoes will be provided below but for more information please click here.
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Clipless mountain bike pedals are designed for durability and ease of use in off-road conditions. They are built to survive pedal strikes and to continue functioning reliably when covered in mud and dirt. They are easier to clip in and out of than clipless road pedals to help when dabbing a foot during cornering or bailing to avoid a crash. Many pedals are double sided so you can clip straight into the pedal without checking which way around it is. They take 2-bolt cleats and require cycling shoes drilled accordingly.
All the efficiency benefits listed above are relevant for mountain biking, but clipless mountain bike pedals really shine for providing extra stability and control. Rough ground or hard landings can sometimes bump feet off flat pedals, throwing you off balance, preventing you from pedalling and leaving you with two less contact points with which to control the bike. Clipless pedals prevent this, keeping you in full control of the bike. Being attached to the pedals also makes it easier to flick the rear wheel around corners or bunny-hop over obstacles.
Mountain bike rides inevitably involve some time spent walking and mountain bike shoes are designed accordingly. A thick tread is present for comfort and grip in muddy, rocky terrain. The pedal cleat is recessed into this tread to protect it from hard surfaces and from getting cloged with dirt. The design of MT shoes is what attracts commuters and tourers to MTB pedals, because both classes of rider also spend considerably time on their feet. Tourers in particular don't want to carry a second pair of shoes just for walking around in. Commuters also appreciate the easy clipping in and out of MTB pedals when stopping and starting at traffic lights.
One other group of cyclist that exclusively uses MTB pedals is cyclcross riders. As another offroad discipline, everything that makes these pedals good for mountain biking applies to cyclocross as well. The sport requires mounting and demounting the bike over and over again, so you need to be able to clip in and out quickly and easily. Crashes are inevitable and you need to be able to unclip easily should you crash or if you need to avoid someone else crashing in front of you. And, of course, cyclocross involves a great deal of running through mud so shoes with proper treads are essential.
What to look for in clipless mountain bike pedals
Some MTB pedals include a small platform around the cleat retension mechanism to mimic the support of a standard flat pedal. This helps spread pressure across more of the foot for extra comfort and stability. Whether or not this is necessary depends on the shoes you are using. Race-orientated shoes with stiff soles can spread pressure without the help of a platform. Shoes with flexible soles designed for more walking, on the other hand, do benefit from a platform. Note that any extra platform is also extra weight.
Pedals are harder to clip in and out of when they get clogged up with mud and can stop working all together. Good designs have plenty of open spaces within the mechanism for mud to be pushed out through when you engage the cleat.
Measured in degrees, float refers to how much you can rotate your foot while clipped in. Different pedal have different float and most are adjustable within a certain range. It is important to have enough float so you can move around and use your body weight to maintain control and balance on the bike. Float also lets your legs move naturally as they pedal instead of setting them in a single uncomfortable position. Too much float can be unnerving, however, and float is often a matter of personal preference.
This refers to how much force it takes to clip in and out of the pedal. A low release tension is easy to clip in and out of, but could also mean you accidentally unclip when you don't want to during hard efforts or aggressive riding. If you are just starting out with clipless pedals, you will want a low release tension to start with while you get used to clipping in and out. Most pedals have adjustable release tension within a certain range so you can set it to your preferences.
These pedals combine clipless functionality on one side with a standard flat pedal design on the other. These let you use the bike with either mountain bike shoes or normal shoes depending on the ride. The single sided design is slightly harder to use, however, as you may have to flip the pedal over to use the right side.
As with flat pedals, high-end clipless pedals have smoother, longer-lasting bearings. None will last without maintenance, however, so check how easy the pedal is to maintain and whether you'll need any special tools.
The focus for clipless road pedal designs is efficiency, pure and simple. That means stiff, lightweight, aerodynamic designs that grip the cleat tighter than MTB pedals for extra security during sprint finishes and hard, out of the saddle climbing. They generally take 3-bolt cleats and require shoes drilled accordingly.
As such, road cleats are much larger than MTB cleats to help with secure pedal retention. Large cleats also means a large contact area between the pedal and the foot for efficient power transfer. Mud-shedding and protection against pedal strikes aren't concerns, allowing for lighter, simpler pedal designs.
Perhaps the biggest difference with road pedals are the shoes used. Road shoes, like the pedals, are designed for maximum pedaling efficiency. This means ultra-stiff, lightweight soles without treads. Because the soles are so thin, the cleats are mounted to very the outside of the shoe. This makes the shoes rather awkward and uncomfortable to walk in - but very fast on the bike.
What to look for in clipless road bike pedals
As with MTB pedals, you can adjust the float on road pedals within a certain range to suit your preference. On some systems (such as those from Look and Shimano) this must be done by buying different cleats rather than adjusting a setting on the pedals themselves. Though float is not as necessary for controlling the bike when road riding, getting the right setting is still important for comfort.
Release tension is adjustable on some pedals and there are also specific models designed with extra-low release tensions that are ideal for beginners. Powerful road racers will want a high release tension so they can pedal as hard as possible.
Road pedals aim for the lowest possible 'stack height', or height between the pedal axle and your foot, for pedaling efficiency and aerodynamic performance.
Many road pedals do not have replacable bearings because they do not encounter as much mud, dust and dirt to wear them out. This allows for lighter, lower-profile designs to maximise efficiency. Most bearings will last the whole lifetime of a road pedal without being replaced or maintained.
- Cleats do wear out and need to be replaced every so often to maintain proper functionality. You'll notice that your cleats are starting to get worn as clipping in starts to feel less 'positive'. Please refer to the instructions supplied with your cleats or pedals for the manufacturer's instructions on cleat replacement.
- Try to avoid walking around in road shoes as much as possible as it damages the cleats.
- Just as mountain bike shoes aren't compatible with road pedals and vice versa, one manufacturer's cleats are not compatible with another manufacturer's pedals. With pedals from Shimano, Look, Time, Speedplay Crank Brothers and more on the market, make sure you get the right cleats!
- Clipless pedals are designed to disengage in the event of a crash to help prevent extra injury.