Flat Pedals vs. Clipless, Which is “Safer”


I recently volunteered to coach a MTB XC team, and the head coach is requiring all riders to be using clipless pedals by the start of the race season as he feels that it is “safer.” His thought is that by being clipped in, a rider will not be bounced off the pedals when he/she hits a bump or rock. This concept is being pushed by the league as well.

I have been using clipless pedals since 1998, so I decided to experiment by riding with pegged flats and skateboard shoes to see how dangerous it felt. Surprisingly it actually feels a lot more stable. Climbing is obviously more difficult as its’ harder to spin, but I have not had any trouble getting bounced off the pedals. Out of curiosity, have you seen any studies on this issue, or do you have an opinion? If not, no worries.

Tom Boardman
Berkeley, California

The more you click, the more I can post. Lee Likes Groceries dot com!

I always clip in for DH, but I ran flats on the North Shore. With all that funny business going on, I wanted to know I could hop off any time.

Hi Tom.

Studies? Ha! You’re confusing us with a real sport. But that’s the sort of thing I hope to study for my MTB PhD.

I would not say clip-in pedals are safer than flat pedals. It all depends on your riding experience and comfort level.

Beginners: Flats are definitely safer. They’re easier to get onto and off of, which creates greater confidence, which lets riders flow more easily. Mountain biking has so many variables: If a person is worrying about his/her feet, that takes away from everything else. At this level, confidence is the key enabler of fun (and safety).

Intermediates: It depends what kind of rider you are. For stiff-legged folks, clip-ins are indeed safer; many XC riders aren’t supple enough to stay in contact with flats. For more graceful riders, flats afford all the control, with easier bail-out.

Advanced: It’s all about style. Once you dial in your kung fu, run whichever you prefer. All XC racers run clip-ins; gravity racers are about 50/50.

In my book, 99% of riders are beginner to intermediate. You’re not advanced until you can porpoise through rock gardens, jump smoothly, drop gracefully and all that. The key differentiator is pump — are you working with the terrain, or are you still fighting it? Clip-ins let you fight terrain and stay on your bike; not so with flats.

When I’m confident, clip-in pedals give me greater control and finesse than flats. But I had to learn to rip with flats before I could rip clipped in.

If I was running a youth development program (which I do), I would teach everyone to ride on flats. This creates a more fluid connection with the ground, and a more stable connection to the bike. Once that’s dialed, XC riders should definitely clip in.

Here it is: Letting your athletes ride stiffly and improperly — relying on clip-in pedals to stay on their bikes — is unsafe. It gives them a false sense of ability, and it invites them to get into situations they can’t handle. Teach them to ride well, and make them practice clean technique.


— Lee

23 replies
  1. Wayne says:

    I ride at the unnamed level below beginner. I tried clipping in once on my son’s bkie, in front of the house. It scared me enough that I never ried it again.

    It turns out that my ankles do not rotate very well in the direction that you need to rotate them if you want to pop out. My son can pop in and out at will, but he races at a substantially higher level than I ride.

    Try this as an argument: Any rider with a beginners racing license should not be required to use clips.

    Any rider with an expert license should be *ENCOURAGED* to clip in, at least at practice, but maybe not in a race.

    Any rider that is *FORCED* to clip in and then crashes and gets hurt would likely have a strong case to file a lawsuit. Make sure you have adequate liability insurance.

    If this is Berkely High School ( I know they have a team) then you are dealing with minors. If this is UC (they have a team) then at least they are adults. I think if you look ath the other universities in the West Coast Conference you will likely find that very few “C” riders are clipped in. At the “A” level you will still find many that do not clip in.

    I used to know some of the UC riders a few years ago. Nice guys.

  2. Tom Boardman says:

    Just to clarify, nobody is being forced to do anything on the team or within the league. I should have used the word “encouraged”. Truth be told, you are going to be a faster racer if you ride clipped in. Particularly for the relatively non-technical courses being used for the races. However, for safety, I think Lee’s descriptions regarding the three different riding styles is spot on. Particularly regarding the suppleness, or flow, of the rider. And no, I do not coach for the Berkeley High School team. Their head coach is very experienced and has a great reputation, but I cannot speak for how they advise their riders.

  3. Adam says:

    It took me a while to adjust to clipless pedals due to motocross. Trying to put your foot down around a tight corner while clipped in doesn’t seem to work all that well, but is apparently entertaining to your buddies behind you, who so kindly take pictures while you lay there in a heap. Thanks guys.

  4. Tony says:

    Well, Doctor (that was a quick traipse through post grad work…).

    I have a riding buddy who introduced me to the “next level”: trails, full suspension, technique. Every time I ride with him, he coaches me on the finer points of MTB. One point we always butt heads over is the clipless vs. flats debate. He’s a clipless convert who swears by ’em for all the aforementioned reasons: balance, connectedness with bike, power stroke. I’ll admit, I’m a relative “newbie” at 4 years in the saddle, and my arguments go something like: I want to be able to bail out easily in the steeps and rockies, I don’t want my shoes to “click clack” in the taqeria after a ride, and I’d rather wear my Five.ten impacts and Braapp! I swear, I feel “clipped in” with these babies!
    ridin’down in PTown

  5. Martyn says:

    I started using them pretty early in my mtb life and honestly took about two rides to notice the benefits and enjoy them, mind you I at the time had a road bike and used clipless there first, and realised, or anticipated the comedy moments of falling off at junctions in front of people wasnt an option…..or safe.

  6. Mike Johnstone says:

    This is just an opinion but here goes. If you are racing you should be clipped in, the added pedal efficiency and the fact that you don’t have to think about your feet being vibrated off the pedals makes it worth while. I think most riders should do all technical/skills training on flats, if you’re not doing it right you’ll know about it very quickly, but for fitness training and pedal spin training be clipped in. One thing I’ve seen more then a few times is DHer’s who have not trained on flats try to to do jumps or hops and pull right out of their pedals because they’ve never learned to do pedal grabs.

  7. leelikesbikes says:

    Dude, I’m a poet.

    Imagine a porpoise moving through the water — up and down, having fun, working the waves.

  8. Todd Lundell says:

    This post is particularly salient for me right now. On Monday I was cruising down some singletrack with my friends and crashed in a sharp switchback. The crash was weak (more like “I tipped over”), but because I couldn’t pull my foot out of the clipless pedals in time I hit my face into a big rock on the way down. I broke my glasses and got a giant black eye.

    I am pretty much a beginner on a mountain bike, though I used to race motorcycles. I have considered going back to platforms. But I ride a lot of uphill fire roads (before taking the singletrack down) and am already the slowest in my group of friends on the way up, so I worry about losing even more ground by going to platforms.

    Are there any tricks to getting out of the pedals quickly or anything I could do to make the movement more second nature?

  9. leelikesbikes says:

    1. Twist from your hip, rather than your ankle. You have more range of motion and way more power.

    2. Practice. Whatever, wherever. Back in the day I watched TV on my bike, just clipping in and out a zillion times.

  10. Lianna says:

    Oooh, ooh, can I add to this? I’m an expert at falling over clipped in.
    Some mechanical checks I use to help avoid the ignominious dead stop, Oh-poop-I-can’t-get-out-of-my-stupid-clipless, crash is to make sure that…
    1.) My pedals aren’t set too hard. Pedals are like ski bindings; You can adjust the force it takes to unclip. Chances are this is not the problem–setting the binding really easy can also make for some scary scenarios, like popping out of your pedal as you go into full sprint.
    2.) My cleats aren’t worn out (I replace mine about once a year, Lee, maybe you recommend more or less?)
    3.) My pedals aren’t worn out. The spring dies over time and can make it darn near impossible to unclip.
    4.) Practice lots.

  11. Noah - OTE Sports says:

    I disagree with an earlier post that says “you will be a faster racer if clipped in.” Tell that to Sam Hill or Nathan Rennie. But it isn’t false only in the case of downhilling. A study that the US Olympic Training Center did in the 90’s showed that the idea that a rider that is clipped in benefits from the upstroke as well as the downstroke is untrue. To paraphrase, the power of the downstroke is so great that it negates any effect of the pull of the upstroke. Clipless pedals can be more efficient because they postion your foot on a fixed axis of rotation. But a rider with a well developed technique on flat pedals can be virtually as efficient.

    I agree with Lee’s suggestion that beginners should learn to ride with flats first. I alternate between flats and SPDs depending on the situation. For racing (and general XC riding) I prefer SPDs because there is less chance my foot will come off the pedal in a gnarly section. When at the resorts just ripping for fun or dirt jumping, I like flat pedals because I of the added security that I can bail without any interference and I can use the position of my feet on the pedals to maneuver the bike (foot english). I really hate jumping and doing drops on SPDs cause I feel I alter the flight path of the bike by lifting the rear unintentionally.

  12. Scott says:

    I read the same study and it indicated that the efficiency/power benefit came from unweighing the pedal on the up stroke, not actually producing torque on the upward leg. You point about the downstroke overwhelming the upstroke is correct. However, by unweighting the upstroke pedal, you have reduced the force necessary to turn the cranks and thus transfered more of the downward force to the propulsion of the bike…instead of lifing your leg with it. Bottom line: good pedaling technique results in greater power to the ground.

    Also, everybody fall for awhile…that’s no reason to quit trying.

  13. leelikesbikes says:


    Of course, it’s easier for most people to unweight the upstroke while they’re clipped in. Apparently guys like Hill and Rennie manage to unweight with flats.

    I was riding to town yesterday into a stiff headwind, and I was wishing for clips!

    BTW: I remember reading that Rennie posted the highest-ever wattage at the Australian sports testing center.

  14. m-dub says:

    I think too many newbees get forced into clips too early. I see alot of new riders get discoraged or hurt because of them. I had zero problem switching back and forth but many dont. I see new riders needing to work more on bike handling than to ad the worry of clips in the mix. It can all be overwelming.
    I found my local group XC rides becoming boring and myself not looking forward to riding. I switched back to flats and with a gravety post It became fun again. Brings me back to why I ride, pure fun. Nose wheelies, little kickers, bunnyhopping everything, just fun. Yes I lost a little on climbs but it was worth it and I may have gotten a few snickers/trash talk at the start of the ride but I still put the hurt on em.
    It may be mental but I can bunny hop twice to 3x higher on flats. I have had clips release a few times and its just scarry. Flats=fun clips=fitness (well at least for me) 🙂

  15. Chris says:

    For ‘safety’ reasons, I’d recommend flats. You can almost eliminate your feet coming off the pedals over rocks with good technique, but there is no substitute for ‘bailability’, especially for less-experienced riders. Fifteen years ago I started out in SPDs, now I only ride in flats on the hardest technical rockiest stuff I can find. My foot has NEVER slipped off my pedals with my current set-up. And more than once I have seen the back end of a bike lift up with the rider and flipover with them as their feet are stuck to the pedals. On flats, maybe one foot may have bounced off, which would be my preference.

  16. Rixter says:

    There are different clipless pedals which behave differently in different conditions (that’s alot of differences). What I’m getting at is that the ATAC and Eggbeaters are probably better in muddy conditions than SPDs (btw I’m not trying to spark a big brand debate). A newbie rider who does successfully unclip, but has any difficulty clipping back in, is likely going to be riding downhill half looking at his foot/pedal while also trying to maintain a forward perspective. That is not particularly safe. Even if he/she isn’t looking downward (which is uncessary), they will be distracted while trying to re-clip in. That’s one thing you never have to contend with with flats.

    Flats however have one particular disadvantage not offered by the clippless variety. Flats have a nice way of acting a meat-grinders on your shins (or calves) when a mishap occurs. Without shin guards, which a XC rider is not going to have, it is an experience nobody wants to go thru twice 😉

  17. benja says:

    Skills is skills. I’m a relatively “old skool” MTB rider (started in ’85) and while I started riding on the old SunTour beartraps, I quickly moved to toeclips and then SPDs as soon as they were released. To make a long story short, I’ve definitely been cheating for years.

    Just got myself some flats and some 5.10 Impacts and I’m out making up for lost time!

    I’ll still race in my clips, but the flats have made things fresh again. Super fun!

    Thanks for all the knowledge and inspiration Lee!

  18. vapor says:

    Clips vs Flats? Just cause they’re different doesn’t mean there should be a debate. I would encourage anyone new to mtb to ride flats for a while, especially if they have a coach to help speed up the learning curve. Let them ride whatever they choose and work with them. Bikes are bikes, pedals are pedals. The best scenario is being able to ride either pedal whenever you choose, but that certainly takes time, experience, and maybe discipline.

    Learning on flats will be a lifelong benefit.

    Maybe encourage skate or flat specific shoes for extra grip. (running and hiking are especially bad for technique)

    Clipped in can be hard on developing muscles and connective tissue on those new to cycling.

    Setting up clip in shoes is difficult for beginners if they haven’t developed a good riding position yet.

    Those that are already on clips and not comfortable on flats should be encouraged to learn to rock the flats.

    Clips and Flats, Not Clips vs Flats,


  19. leelikesbikes says:

    “Clips and Flats, Not Clips vs Flats”


    Hardtails and full suspension

    Chocolate and peanut butter …

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