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I have never been seriously off-road on a trail with a mountain bike.

I am curious; for any mountain bikers, do you ride clipped in on trails, and when if ever do you proactively clip out (e.g. like on a dirt bike you sometimes have people use there foot to add stability)?

For me, it would be a less-than-comfortable experience being clipped in off-road. What benefits are there to be had clipped in when off-road?

How common is it for serious mountain bikers to ride with flat pedals or is it taboo like it is on a road bike?

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For context, I ride in the North Shore of Vancouver, BC, Canada, which is an area famous for its steep and technically challenging trails. I'm comfortable riding black diamond-rated trails. Here's an example of one (not my video):

Personally, I ride SPD. I've tried Crankbrothers for six months, but I didn't like the feel, and I wanted more tension. Clipping out with CB is akin to walking up a ramp, where the resistance smoothly and gradually increases until you suddenly reach the release threshold. In comparison, SPD is like jumping up onto a ledge; there is no resistance whatsoever until you hit a definitive "wall" of resistance right before you clip out. I like to be in control of my clip in/out and didn't like the ambiguous feeling of CB. Unlike Shimano, CB also lacks a tension adjustment.

I almost never proactively clip out. I rarely ride in loose enough conditions where the foot out technique is greatly beneficial. I'm always clipped in unless I'm crashing or losing my balance during a technical climb (known as a "dab").

At the recreational level, riding flats or clips on mountain bikes is mainly a matter of personal preference. If you feel better riding clipped in, go with that. If you prefer riding flats instead, then you should do that.

Some of the benefits:

  1. Foot stability. Especially with the stiffer soles typical of clipless shoes, your foot has to do less work to keep itself rigid and held in place, especially during repeated heavy impacts.
  2. Sprint power. MTB involves a lot of sprinting, and the increased number of muscles you can engage by pulling up when riding clipped in helps significantly.
  3. Pedaling smoothness. This is not critical for downhill-focused riders, but if you're interesting in riding technical climbs, you can get a smoother pedal stroke with clips which will help you to not lose traction.
  4. Foot retention. This is the obvious one; riding clipped in means your feet are less likely to inadvertently fly off the pedals.
  5. Pulling up. Although this should only be used once proper weight transfer skills are learned, riding clipped in means you can "cheat" and pull up occasionally instead of having to do a full body movement every time you want to hop/ride over a small obstacle. This is more efficient and saves you energy.

Downsides:

  1. Foot retention. This is one of the biggest sticking points for clipless beginners, who are often frightened by the prospect of being mechanically latched onto their bike during a crash. By training your reflexes, you can clip out during crashes no problem, but it is ultimately going to be harder to some extent to clip out than it is to simply step away like you can with flats. This can be a major detriment towards confidence. Sometimes, riders will not try to ride a challenging feature because "I'm clipped in".
  2. Skills development (mostly for beginners). Being clipped in means you can procrastinate on learning weight transfer skills, which are mandatory. Instead of being forced to shift your body weight to perform maneuvers such as bunny hops and riding jumps, you can just pull up on the clips instead. This façade will be inadequate someday and you will immediately realize that you are unable to progress as a rider because you lack those basic skills.
  3. Makes riding the bicycle more complicated. Now you have to put on special shoes every time you want to ride, and you will have the additional cognitive load of controlling clip/unclip decisions. Additionally, your non-cyclist friends will struggle to try riding the bike and you'll have to explain the clipless pedal system to every single one of your (curious) friends, family, spouse, children...
  4. Fixed foot placement. Current clipless shoes don’t allow you to adjust the cleat position on the fly. This means that you might not be in the best foot position for every situation; for example, you might want the pedal spindle farther forwards during a climb or sprint for more power, while you will want the spindle farther back while you are descending. Flats allow for this flexibility. Another factor is how many pairs of shoes you own: I can only afford one nice pair, so I have my cleats slammed all the way back for MTB riding, which is a position that isn’t always best for road riding. Flat pedals would allow me to place my foot wherever I want.

Of course, your local trails are a factor. Someone whose trails are long, mellow singletrack routes may benefit from riding clipped in, while someone whose bread and butter is absurdly steep technical features or jump trails might have a bias towards flats.

At the professional level, the benefits of clipless in terms of power transfer outweigh the confidence-related side effects because the riders are all extremely experienced. They're not going to be scared of riding something just because they're clipped in. There are notable exceptions to this generalization though because of people who use the confidence boost to ride faster than having the power benefits could.

And again, the type of riding needs to be considered. Hardly anyone rides flats at XC races, while the opposite is true for dirt jumping or other stylish jump disciplines. If you plan on racing or doing any other kind of competitive riding, I would recommend trying both clips and flats for a decent time each (several months minimum) and doing timed runs as a comparison.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with learning how to be proficient and confident in riding both pedal systems either.

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    Great answer. Just wanted to add that for somebody riding clipped-in and "whose bread and butter is absurdly steep technical features or jump trails", I think no one is a better example of what is possible than Remy Metailler, a mind blowingly impressive pro rider whose riding you can check on his eponymous YouTube channel. – Mick Jan 14 at 11:16
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    To be fair, the only pair of clipless I've owned is a pair of Look from the late 80s for my road bike. After clipping in and out a couple of times while leaning on a tree for practice, I never had a problem getting my foot out when coming to a stop - planned or otherwise. Getting your foot out of the clip (with those, at least) was as natural as pulling my foot off the pedal to put it on the ground. Now, the hard plastic clip/shoe sole did slide on wet pavement a couple of times, but that's a totally different issue. – FreeMan Jan 14 at 15:51
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There are plenty of people who do both.

Flat pedals are common, sometimes with added pins to give more traction on the foot.

Cleats are common too, with a larger proportion preferring 2-bolt designs over the larger 3 bolt road-style of cleat (however I have ridden casual MTB with 3 bolt keo cleats cos its what I own)

Some people like eggbeaters or frog cleats too, MTB puts a higher importance on ease of clipping in with mud in the mech, and less on aero compared to road.

One thing that is uncommon in MTB is toe straps - I can't think of anytime I've seen someone properly off-road there, tend to be the domain of the vintage road rider and the brakeless fixie.


Riding clipped-in gives one a good "connection" with the bike which can help, and it makes it easier to move the back end around. Some riders will say that clipping in teaches you bad habits while jumping, YMMV.

Personally I prefer to be clipped in to keep the foot on the pedal in rougher terrain, but if its all going badly I would unclip one foot, or even just half-unclip by swinging the heel out.

Most pedals have a "release tension" which can be used to back off the clamping force, and give you more confidence you won't get (as) entangled in a fall.

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    Great point about control over the back end - totally forgot about that one even though it’s one of the biggest reasons I ride clipped in. – MaplePanda Jan 14 at 6:39
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    "One thing that is uncommon in MTB is toe straps" -- I remember when "Power Bands" were a thing. Had a friend who swore by them until he ended up with a spiral fracture of the lower leg after a fall... – Gary McGill Jan 14 at 16:55
  • @GaryMcGill ouch! I guess they had no "fuse" or intentional release under pressure. The few times I've come off while cleated, the release has popped the cleat out. Straps don't do that. I've never fallen from my single bike with pedal straps, so no news there. – Criggie Jan 16 at 1:08
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This is much more at the casual end.

I tend to fit SPDs when doing solo MTB rides, which tend to be quite a long way and mixed surface: some mild technical stuff, lots of gravel/dirt paths, too much mud and too much road.

At the trail centres I'm more often in a group and prefer not to clip in (so swap pedals preemptively). I'm far from the most skilled rider, but I'm reasonably strong so tend to power up sudden steep rises. If the person in front goes from struggling up, fiddling with gears, to stopping suddenly that can mean me having to stop fairly abruptly, though I'd been hanging well back on the flat (like only just keeping them in sight on twisty stuff, 10s of metres). Stopping on a really steep bit can often mean wanting both feet down in quick succession on rocky terrain and while I can unclip one foot quick enough if the bike stops dead, I can't do both. But then on continuous barely technical climbs or undulating sections I miss being clipped in.

So don't feel bad about not clipping in - it's good, plenty of people do, plenty of people don't, at most skill levels. I suggest starting on flat pedals, for confidence about being able to get a foot down, and so you get used to keeping the weight on the pedals instead of the saddle on fairly easy stuff where foot retention would allow you to bash through seated, a particular issue for those more used to the road

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    The best of both worlds: flat pedals with a built-in clipping mechanism. What about those? – Carel Jan 14 at 8:34
  • @Carel I utterly detest them! They always seem to end up the wrong way up so you either fiddle or don't get the behaviour you expect. It's much better to use something like M424 (SPD) which have a cage allowing you to pedal unclipped quite easily in MTB shoes (I had them on my tourer, but put M520s on that for summer so used the spare M424s on the MTB) – Chris H Jan 14 at 9:23
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Great answers already. Just to add one more data point...

I like riding clipped in (SPD) a lot, for all the reasons MaplePanda mentioned. This being Norway, it's another case in point that clips are well suited for really gnarly terrain!
Perhaps surprisingly, I find the advantage to be biggest in the bike park, where pedalling isn't really required at all (ski lifts): with the bike constantly shaken by large and small hits at fast speed, it really helps not having to worry to keep the feet on the pedals. I can descent much more relaxed with clips, despite running my rear suspension at quite firm pressure (or hardtail).

The actual pedalling advantages are of course also quite significant.

I never clip out proactively – by now my reflexes are such that my feet leave the clips just as naturally as they leave flat pedals. Of course, when I want a foot on the ground (or simply stretched out for balance) I do clip out, but only right when I needed.

I once had the cliché “can't get the foot on the ground” crash and scratched my elbow, shortly after I'd started with clips; since then no issues.

That said – most of my weekly riding is actually on flat pedals!

  • On my enduro bike, I normally go on the mountains here around Bergen, where it's at many places just impossible to ride at all, i.e. a lot of carrying over huge slippery rocks, deep mud, snow etc.. This is not something I like to do with cleats on the shoes (although SPD cleats are not the worst in that regard).
  • On my trials bike, – well, it's trials, nobody uses clips! Specifically, in trials I need to bail out all the time, and unlike in downhill that often means literally jumping off straight over the back or over the bars, rather than to the side. Clips would be dangerous here.
  • On my hardtail, I have double-sided pedals – flat on one side, clips on the other. Most riders dislike those pedals, because regardless which side you actually want, it's always fiddly to get them in the right orientation. The reason I use them is that I use the hardtail for both longer tours on road or lighter off-road (where clips are really benefitial, but I seldom need to put a foot down so it's not so bad with the two side), and also as my city bike (where I usually don't bother putting on the cycling shoes).

One more point that could be made against clipping: it has a reputation of teaching bad technique. Specifically, the way you can bunny hop in clips by just pulling up the bike doesn't really scale, isn't really useful for MTB in the way the “proper” back-to-front or “American” bunny hop is. It's certainly not a bad idea to occasionally ride on flat pedals for a change.

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    I quite agree about downhill riding--the last time I did it with flat pedals, I kept worrying that my feet were going to slip off the pedals. Probably unnecessarily, but it distracted me anyway. Probably didn't help that it was on a double black diamond ski run, which was right at the limits of my riding ability at the time though. – Jerry Coffin Jan 15 at 20:34

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