Flat to Clipless MTB Pedals - Why Change?

Flat to Clipless MTB Pedals - Why Change?

Thinking of making the switch from flat to clipless MTB pedals? Read on.

Why in the name of all things good would I even think about switching your pedals and shoe set up after 10 years of riding flat mountain bike pedals with grippy shoes to clipless pedals with stiff sole shoes with cleats? What in the world is going on? 

Keep reading or if you'd rather watch the vid click HERE

Flats MTB pedals to Clipless - which is better?


Have you ever been riding your bike uphill and thought, “I wish this bike was easier to pedal.” I did almost every time I pointed the bike uphill and tried to put the pedal to the metal. 

For the last 10 years I rode a mountain bike that had 155 mm (6.1”) of rear travel that was very much intended to be a blast downhill and also be efficient “enough” to get you uphill too. 

When it came time to buy a new bike, I wanted a bike that had more uphill pedaling efficiency and was still a blast downhill too. I live in northern Utah and most of the trails near me climb up and up to the top and then you descend down. The new bike I chose was a 120mm (4.7”) rear travel bike. I bought some new flat pedals, threw on my old grippy shoes and hit the trails. I was ready to rock and roll.

The bike was great! It was so fast uphill and was such a fun switch from the old bike. There was one thing that seemed a bit off to methe pedals. They felt a bit awkward, like my feet weren’t in the right place and that I was missing something, like there was more this bike could offer. So I did the unthinkable. I took off the pedals from my road bike and swapped out the flat pedals on my new mountain bike. 

What it's like to switch from flat mtb to clipless mtb pedals

I know, I know. Drugs are bad, stay in school, and all that jazz. But I wanted to see if that would fix what was missing on the new bike.

You have to have a "why" otherwise you may not make it through the ups and downs of transitioning from one system to another.

So that was the reason behind the switch. After riding flat pedals for 10 or so years, I picked up a wrench and made the switch. I wanted more. More efficiency, more power, more connection to the bike. I wanted to elevate my skills and the enjoyment I got from riding. Making the switch just made sense and I was willing to give it a try. 

The Gear: Clipless Pedal Options

Now let’s get into what I had to work out with the new set-up, and then we can talk about the first few rides, learning curve, initial thoughts and if this experiment will continue. 

What are the basics you need to have to transition from flats to clip in pedals? That’s easy. You need clipless pedals and shoes with matching cleats. Where it gets complicated is all of the pedal and shoes choices as there are a crap ton of options. Here are the basics that may help start your research.


There are two main styles of clipless pedals:

  1. SPD (which are found on Shimano, Time, Look and others)
  2. Crank Brothers

From what I could gather, the SPD type offers a more straightforward installation and offers a more fixed foot position. Much like the Shimano brakes, they’re either off or on and they just work without a lot of fuss.

The Crank Brothers offer more freedom and range of movement to move your foot while remaining clipped in (referred to as float). This may be most similar to the feel of flat pedals with grippy shoes. Many say setting up the cleats on your shoes is a more involved process for this style, and can be a bit tricky to get right. 

Since I already had the SPD style on my road bike, the Shimano XTR PD-M9100, that's what I used. And what I read about the “in or out” straight forwardness of the clip engagement was true. I could easily tell if I was clipped-in or not with these, and I knew if I “floated” my foot around too much I would be clipped-out of them, which for a beginner was great. If I needed to quickly bail to put a foot down, I just had to twist my foot and I was free. 

Learning Curve

Let’s move into the adjustment period, or learning curve. It was easier in some ways and a little scary in others than I had thought it would be. My first ride was on a super easy trail that for the most part was a fire road with gradual elevation gain. I did manage to almost crash into a bridge when I wasn’t paying attention. A minor freak out with an emergency foot jerk and some f-bombs saved me that time.  

On the plus side, I immediately noticed the power I could put down, even at a super chill pace. It was incredible. I could use the full circle of the pedal stroke for power and it just felt good. When the trail on my easy first ride evolved into a single track and started snaking up the small hill, I couldn’t help but smile. I felt like a power pedaling machine. The power transfer and connected feeling was amazing. 

It wasn’t long before we reached the top of the hill. I wasn’t sure about the ride down so I asked my friend to go first. I had zero confidence in descending and it was better to follow in case I needed to slow my roll. My friend took off in a hurry and I, of course, followed. And to my surprise I kept up! The trail wasn’t crazy by any means, but we reached 23 mph and descended about 750 feet. It really wasn’t scary. Maybe my experience with using the clipless pedals on my road bike helped out, or maybe just beginner's luck. 

Since that first test, I’ve been on 10 rides with the clipless pedal for about 120 miles total. I can recall two tip overs—one into the trees on the downside of the trail and the other was at a tight s-curve where someone in front of me stopped suddenly. In both cases I released the wrong foot and just tipped over. Awkward… 

Final Thoughts

At this point my confidence isn’t quite where it used to be on the flat pedals especially on super gnarly technical sections but it is coming along. I’ve noticed that if I just commit and go for it, on both uphill or down obstacles, I make it through most of the time. 

So after getting a few rides in, I was feeling good about extending the pedal experiment. I gave my road bike back its pedals and shoes and got a new set for the mountain bike. For pedals, I went with the Shimano XTR with small platforms (PD-M9120) and the Lake MX-238 for the shoes. 

The extra bit of platform on the pedals has been great. It makes it super easy to orient the pedal to clip-in and provides enough surface area to start pedaling on trickier sections of the trail even when not fully clipped in.

The shoes have been a work in progress to get fitted properly. I am on my third pair after the first one proved too tight and the second too big. Wide feet are a bit troublesome, especially since having good fitting shoes that are comfy is super important. This may be the next story - how to find the right shoes, when you have wide feet. More to come on that one! 

The Most Important Takeaway: Know Your WHY

Be clear on your "why" because changing your pedal set-up is a big switch. And when you introduce something new, especially when it's majorly different, you have to expect a transitional period, where the hoped for gains aren’t fully realized. This is why being clear and identifying your “why” is super important. It can help you get to the other side.

My “why” for changing from flats pedals to clipless was I wanted to gain a level up on performance, connection, and efficiency. For me the learning curve, including the drop in confidence, skills and the occasional fall, was all part of the process. But I can totally see if you switched over on a whim, or weren’t clear on your “why” how these things could be a deal breaker and send you back to your old ways. 

So what’s next? I just bought the new gear so I want to really give these things a go. I love the connectedness and power transfer and it feels like I have a real advantage over my previous pedals and shoes. The new pedals seem to fit the new bike better, and the bike is really starting to feel great. I am still learning and regaining confidence with the new shoes and pedals, but each ride pushes me closer and closer to feeling as free and easy as the flats did. As the season progresses, I will report back every so often with my thoughts and experiences but that’s good enough for now. 

Have you made the same transition recently or thinking about dancing with the devil and going clipless? Leave a comment below. 

Thanks and adios!

El Roo

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