2021 was the year of choice:

Moderna or Pfizer?

Bruni or Vergier?

TikTok or Reels?

And in my little corner of the world—clipless or flat pedals?

Having been racing on clipless pedals since I was just five years old, the resurgent conversation around platform pedals surprised me. It felt like anytime I posted a riding clip to Instagram or visited the bike park, someone would inevitably discount my efforts due to my pedal choice. Suddenly, it seemed that everyone believed there was one superior pedal type, and they wanted you to know it.

Chances are, whether you got into cycling recently or you’re a seasoned vet, you’ve been exposed to “pedal-pressure” in recent months. Maybe it even made you reconsider your equipment choices altogether. Those critical of clipless pedals often say clipless leads riders to develop skills “the wrong way.” To the haters, the wrong way means (in the arbitrary competition of Riding Bikes For Fun) people think you’re cheating.

Digging into this criticism – essentially, clipless pedals allow you to learn skills in such a way that, if you were to hop on a bike with platform pedals, you might not be able to do them as well. Of course, you can learn these techniques – such as bunny hops, steep ride ups, jumps, riding up curbs, etc. – properly on clipless pedals. It’s just not guaranteed.

Let’s take a step back and look at what these pedal types are, anyway.

Platform Pedals

Often referred to as flats or flat pedals — are typically made of plastic or aluminum and are compatible with almost any shoe. They have a super low barrier to entry; if you know how to ride a bike, you know how to use these pedals. They are incredibly versatile — bike commuters ride them to work, kids ride them around the neighborhood, and some of the world’s best mountain bikers ride them to downhill- and enduro-victory.

Their versatility is reflected in their price range. You can buy a basic pair of platform pedals for under $10, or you could spend upwards of $200 on Crank Brothers flats with adjustable pins. Most of us will fall in between this, and you certainly don’t have to pay a ton to get some great pedals. Check out some options below to see some recommendations on platform pedals.

Clipless Pedals

Despite what their name would suggest, these are a pedal type that actually clips into the bottom of your shoe. The name “clipless” comes from toe clips, and the evolution to this type of pedal no longer relying on toe clips to secure your feet to the pedal. But enough of the history lesson. Clipless are a bit more esoteric than flats, with road-specific and off-road/all-around varieties. All clipless pedals use a cleat — like a puzzle piece — to connect your pedal to your shoe. Colloquially, these pedals are often referred to as clips. Confusing!

Clipless pedals tend to be more expensive when you factor in the cost of cycling-specific shoes. You can get a pair of generic clipless pedals for $35, or spend $450 on an aluminum/titanium pair. Clipless pedals allow you to engage more muscles through your pedal stroke, making them ideal for competition and performance-focused endeavors. Additionally, being clipped in means your feet won’t go sliding off of your pedals while you’re sprinting or riding technical terrain. For some riders, myself included, this feels far more confidence-inspiring than being unclipped.

Let's Give Flat Pedals a Shot

Given how much flack I have caught for riding clipless pedals, I decided to swap my clipless race pedals out for platforms on a couple of my bikes. At first it might have been just to prove a point. Initially, I was annoyed beyond belief at the audacious comments regarding my equipment. But once I got over those emotions, I was thrilled. For me, riding platform pedals is like ‘casual Friday’ at the office. I got to slide on my skate shoes and just ride. It changed my outlook on the riding I was doing — from serious training to low key, fun riding. I felt more playful and almost excited to explore and get loose.

It wasn’t all long rides into the sunset, though. I encountered some pretty major roadblocks in my time unclipped. For me, I couldn’t stand that my feet didn’t always land in the same place. I’m fickle, and that became very evident in my 3-hour ride on platform pedals and Vans. I missed the consistency and familiarity of my cleats. Additionally, my feet were freezing. Casual shoes aren’t made for the elements quite like cycling specific shoes. Lastly—and this is the biggest one—initially my skills suffered a bit, and that’s really common.

ellen noble riding her trek with flat pedals
Ellen Noble riding her Trek with flat pedals
Courtesy Ellen Noble

Even as someone who learned the “proper” technique of a skill such as bunnyhopping, when I first tried flat pedals I wasn’t expecting how much I needed to exaggerate my motions on platform pedals. I found myself hitting jumps or going over a feature mindlessly, and the next thing I knew I was flying off the pedals. If you are considering platform pedals as your choice, it’s important to know that they can make some skills harder to learn. Whenever I skills-coach athletes on flats, I have to be very honest with them: it’s going to be harder to learn certain skills (such as bunnyhopping over curbs or logs, riding bumpy terrain, or steep ride-ups). This doesn’t mean learning those skills is impossible – many top professional downhill and BMX riders have proven that. It does mean you should give yourself some grace when learning! You shouldn’t compare your progress to your clipped-in friends.

The debate between the two pedal types is really about trade-offs. With platform pedals, you have virtually no barrier to entry, but with higher energy expenditure to learn skills. While with clipless pedals, they’re harder to learn to ride. But, in my experience, once you master the pedals themselves, learning new skills can feel more natural.

The last detail to consider is falling. Learning how to clip-in, and more importantly, clip-out of clipless pedals can be tough. If you’re going to ride clipless, know that you will probably tip over once or twice while you learn, and periodically throughout your career. It happens to even the most seasoned cyclists from time to time. These tip-overs usually happen when you’re already in a bad mood, so beware.

The Right Shoes Matter

If you’re sold on the comfort and accessibility of platform pedals, now you can decide what shoes are right for you. You can probably ride in shoes you already own, which are both comfortable and budget-friendly. I would recommend a closed-toe shoe that is flat on the bottom. A skate shoe or something similar is best. Another option is to get a pair of platform-specific mountain bike shoes. These shoes are a bit thicker than everyday shoes and have a gripper sole. They are padded to protect against crashing and some shoes have light armor to prevent scuffing. These shoes can be incredibly comfortable and are more insulated than a thin pair of skate shoes.

If clipless pedals are your choice for their consistency or performance benefits, you're going to need clipless compatible shoes. There are many great options out there, with different uses and benefits. On the topic of mountain bike shoes, there are two styles to consider: XC shoes and trail shoes. I own both types and love them both for different reasons. For racing, XC shoes are unrivaled. But the comfort of trail shoes is fantastic, and is the perfect middle ground for me between the comfort of platform pedals and the consistency of clipless pedals.

What’s the Right Pedal for You?

So, what does it all mean? It means you have choices. If you’re an aspiring racer with speed on your mind, the choice is clear: clipless pedals all the way. If you’re someone who is absolutely terrified of falling or doesn’t want your feet locked into your pedals: ride platform pedals proudly! And if you’re someone who might fall somewhere in the middle: ride what best suits your needs, comfort level, and budget. There is no wrong answer when you are enjoying the ride.

Ellen Noble is a professional mountain biker, cyclocross star, cycling skills coach, and dog lover. You can follow Ellen on Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok at @ellenlikesbikes for more of her life on and off the bike.