Mountain bikers are faced with a broad array of pedal options from downhill-focused platforms with razor-sharp teeth to ultralight clipless models aimed at cross-country racers.
Here are some tips on how to determine the pedals that are best for you and your riding style.
Platforms vs clipless
At their essence, platform – or flat – pedals are barely different from what we all learned on as kids. They have big, broad shelves to place your feet along with some means of providing some grip for the bottom of your shoes.
As it pertains to mountain biking, though, platforms are generally preferred more by downhillers and gravity riders who prefer a larger surface area to help protect their feet from impact, and the freedom to instantly pull them off at will to help with balance when the trail gets dicey (which can also be handy for beginners). Sharpened cage plates and/or traction pins lend a little more security to keep you from getting bounced off, too, and while they can be used with virtually any type of conventional footwear, it's best to go with skate-type shoes with particularly sticky soles.
Platforms tend to be quite heavy, though, and some riders want an even more connected feeling than even the most aggressive pins and stickiest shoes can provide. In these cases, only clipless pedals will do and the range of options is tremendously broad.
So-called 'clipless' mountain bike pedals use cycling-specific shoes and metal cleats that bolt on underneath (instead of the old plastic cages, or 'toe clips', that wrapped around your feet and from which these pedals derive their name). Those cleats are then mechanically attached to the pedals like a lock-and-key, usually with spring-loaded devices that release your foot with a simple twist as needed – or if you crash.
What to look for in platform (flat) pedals
Platform, or flat, pedals differ most by the level of traction provided. Sharper and/or more numerous pins or teeth will give a better grip but they can also be dangerous if you slip. Alternatively, pedals with larger platforms give your shoes more room to bite as do concave surfaces that effectively 'cradle' your feet.
A selection of flat pedals from DMR, Nukeproof and Burgtec
Another factor to consider is the thickness of the pedal body itself. Fatter pedals can sometimes feel clunky underfoot so generally speaking, thinner is better. That thinness can sometimes come at the consequence of bearing durability, so stick to models with multiple seals or ones that are at least easily disassembled for servicing.
If you live in rocky areas, also think about how often the pedals will hit the ground. In those situations, it's important that the traction pins are replaceable (preferably from the back so that they can be removed even when ground down). Certain models also have replaceable body sections, too.
What to look for in clipless pedals
Mountain bike clipless pedals are generally offered with one of three different platform sizes: the traditional (and most compact) option with a small body to house the retention mechanism and little more; a mid-sized 'trail' option that adds a small cage; and full-sized models that provide a large and stable foundation for your feet.
While the traditional size is the lightest, it's best to choose based on what type of shoes you'll use – and how much walking you expect to do. Race-type cross country shoes with very stiff midsoles should typically be paired with traditionally sized pedals; softer and more flexible skate-type shoes are best able to make use of full-sized pedals' bigger platforms; and the new crop of semi-flexible trail shoes are usually best paired with medium-sized pedals.
A selection of clipless pedals from Shimano, Crank Brothers and Look
Shimano launched the clipless boom in the early 1990s yet despite its age, SPD (Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) is still the predominant format. It's not the best at shedding mud and snow nor are they usually the lightest around but the cleats are tough, the engagement is very secure, and the metal bodies are generally extremely durable. SPD is often the only option to offer an adjustable release tension, too, meaning you can start with a light hold on the cleat and gradually dial things up as your skills improve.
Crankbrothers is another major option with a feel that's at the opposite end of the spectrum. The attachment is less mechanical feeling but the upside is more freedom of movement on the pedal before the cleat disengages from the pedal. Mud clearance is generally outstanding, too, and they're among the lightest options out there.
For any choice, be sure to consider the pedals' serviceability. While most pedals have some sort of seals, their quality and effectiveness vary tremendously and they'll all eventually need maintenance. Look for options that don't require special tools (or if they do, make sure they're inexpensive and easy to obtain) and won't require an entire afternoon to relube.
Lastly, don't be overly tempted by low weight. Mountain bike clipless pedals live a tough life with lots of abuse so function and durability should be your primary concerns. Besides, any lightweight product can feel awfully heavy when you have to carry it home.