UPDATE: We've published a new, more comprehensive guide for the best clipless trail pedals for 2021 here.
Cycling jargon is rife with misnomers that should have been put to death years ago. "Clipless pedals" is one of the first I'd send to the gallows. It's doubtful that anyone living outside Portland, Oregon, would attempt a trail ride with shoes bound to their pedals with toe-clips, buckles and straps, so it's safe to say that every contemporary mountain biker rides clipless pedals, Whether they are flat, or have step-in bindings like the six popular trail pedals we compare in this tech feature, they're all clipless. "Clip-in pedals" sounds enough like "click-in" to make it the more accurate description on the street, so I'll use it here.
Six Clip-In Trail Pedals
"Trail pedals" generally share the same mechanisms as the brand's cross-country models with the addition of a longer, sometimes wider platform and quite often feature a modest number of adjustable pins. All of those added features play well with flexible, flat-soled shoes, which need more support. They also provide a more secure landing pad should you need to dab a foot and get back on the gas before you get your foot locked in.
Today, we compare some of the best examples: Shimano's XTR M9120, Crankbrothers' Mallet E, HT's T-1, Time's Speciale 8, Look's X-Track, and DMR's V-Twin. While there are many pedals to choose from, this selection represents a cross-section of the genre's trendsetters and, arguably, the top six performers presently on the market.
Tribute to Shimano SPD
My vintage Shimano 737s (with aftermarket titanium axles), still working fine after 20 years.
Almost every modern component maker has tried its hand at producing a competitive pedal mechanism and all of them owe a debt of gratitude Shimano.
The breakthrough step-in mountain bike pedal was Shimano's SPD M737, which co-introduced the micro-cleat, slotted two-track mounting system and, most importantly, the "tunnel" relief in the sole that guides the cleat into the pedal mechanism, and prevents the slippery metal bits from turning your shoes into ice skates on smooth surfaces. The legacy of Shimano's SPD system cannot be understated - it paved the way for every successful pedal and shoe system we use today and remains the most reliable and durable pedal of its kind.
DMR's V-Twin pedals fit Shimano SPD cleats, but come with a dedicated one that boosts the shoe's float angle from four to five degrees. The pedal's two stand-out features are its spring-loaded engagement mechanism that rotates about ten degrees to make it easier for the rider click in. (Shimano's old nylon-body all-mountain pedals had that feature and it worked great.)
The second is DMR's spacing system. V-Twin pedals ship with a number of thin spacers that fit beneath the platform's plastic inserts. Variations in the soles of shoes often require spacers be placed under the cleat to ensure perfect operation. DMR's solution allows you to leave your shoes alone, so they won't be dedicated to one bike or a single pair of pedals. Also, replacement parts are all stocked on the company's website, so your V-Twins could be around for a long time.
• 95 x 80mm aluminum platform
• Adjustable platform height
• Adjustable release tension
• SPD-compatible, easy access rotating mechanism
• 4140 chromoly axle, bushing/ball bearing internals
• Colors: black, blue, gold, magenta, LemLime, grey, orange, red
• Weight: 560 grams (pair)
• Price: $159 USD
|DMR's V-Twin pedals are a solid choice for riders in the market for a tough set of pedals with a larger platform underfoot. They're not light, and they're not cheap, but they are more customizable than other options on the market.—From the PB review.|
Easy entry spring-loaded mechanism +
Fits readily available Shimano cleats+
Generously sized platform
Look X-Track En-Rage
Look's X-Track pedal is relatively new, but the French brand pioneered the clip-in concept back in the early 1980s under a road racer named Greg Lemond. X-Track uses the same cleat and a similar mechanism as Shimano, which deviates sharply from the Time lookalikes they sold for decades.
Look's contributions to the time-proven SPD design are a well engineered platform, shaped to be more stable and efficient when paired with flat soled shoes, and a modified cleat which provides six degrees of float. Two adjustable pins, located in the forward section of the platforms can be tuned for extra security, and for those who prefer to be locked in tightly over rough terrain, Look's latching tension can be set significantly higher than its Shimano cousins.
• Forged-aluminum body
• Wide platform: 67mm x 92mm
• Chromoly axle W/bushing & 2 cartridge bearings
• 2 adjustable forward pins
• Adjustable release tension
• 6-degree float/13-degree release
• Cleat interchangeable with Shimano
• Weight: 450 grams (pair)
• Gold or black
• MSRP: $130 USD
• Contact: Look Cycle
Every part of the X-Track pedal can be disassembled for service or repair, and the body is built to take a beating and it sheds mud well. It's not quite as easy to enter or exit as, say a Shimano XTR or XT trail pedal, but we're talking less than a two percent difference, and in exchange you get a very secure feel at the pedal and a very smooth, predictable release, even at high latch-tension values.
|I think SPD fans will also appreciate the way the tension builds up to the release point, which may be this pedal's defining performance feature. Look's new X-Track En-Rage pedal is a worthy competitor to both Shimano and, considering its enhancements, Crankbrothers as well.—From the PB review|
Smooth, predictable release+
Six degrees of float+
Wide platform engineered to support flat shoes
A number of the sport's top competitors are using HT pedals, and for good reason. They weigh only 366 grams for the pair, provide more lateral movement for your feet than most offerings, and the platform is one of the thinnest, which is critical to stabilizing your feet over rough ground. Inside, HT goes the distance, replacing the draggy bushing that we see in most pedals with a highly efficient needle bearing where the loads are highest. Outboard, where loads are minimal, a small bushing, combined with a ball thrust-bearing remove free play from the system.
T-1 pedals shed mud pretty well, and they telegraph
• Aluminum body, chromoly spindle
• Dedicated cleat: X1 - 4° float, X1F - 8° float
• Two replaceable pins on each side
• Internals: Evo+ needle-bearing system
• Eleven color options
• Weight: 366 grams (pair)
• MSRP: $135 USD
engagement with a loud "click." Release tension can be set higher than any pedal we've tried as of late, which is good news for anyone who has trouble staying clipped in at speed. The downside of that feature, though, is that entering and
exiting the pedal are proportionally more difficult as tension is increased. Engagement resistance of Time and Shimano pedals, for instance, increases very little as release tension nears their maximum limits. That said, the security that HT's proprietary mechanism brings to the table may be key to its popularity among elite racers.
|I didn't have any unexpected or inadvertent releases while using the T1's, and clipping in and out was trouble free in all but the muddiest of conditions... I actually ended up preferring the HT's release feel over Shimano. It's a little less on/off, which means there's a greater range of foot motion for those moments when you need to almost—but not quite—unclip.—From the PB review|
Widest range of adjustment+
Engagement tension increases proportionally with release tension-
Mud shedding is good, but not great-
Bearings don't have the longest lifespan
Time Speciale 8
Time's simple engagement system has proven to be one of the most consistent and reliable options. Like Crankbrothers' pedals, the Time's Speciale 8 mechanism gradually builds pressure until the cleat reaches its release point and pops free. Many riders prefer its slower, more predictable nature over the precise, instant release characteristic of Shimano's SPD mechanism. Engaging the pedal requires a slight forward thrust of the shoe, whereas, with Shimano and Crankbrothers, you just need to place your cleat near the center of the platform and pedal. That said, clicking into the Speciale 8 feels intuitive and consistent in both clean and muddy conditions, which is why they've earned so many fans.
Disclosure: the $125 Speciale 8 is Time's second-tier pedal. Just so you know, their top-drawer
• Aluminum platform, hollow alloy steel spindle, ATAC release mechanism
• Sealed ball bearing and DU-type bushing
• Micro-adjustable release-tension
• Reversible cleat: for 13° or 17° release angles
• 90 x 64 x 21mm platform
• Removable front pins
• Weight: 400 grams (pair)
• MSRP: $125 USD
• Contact: TIME
has a slightly longer platform, but otherwise, shares the same weight, mechanism and features at an MSRP of $350 USD. I'll admit that it's a bit unfair to lump the '8 in with elite-level pedals from Look, DMR, and HT, but the existence of the Speciale 8 leaves little reason to buy the '12.
Moving on, Time's cleat and pedal design sheds mud nearly as well as the bar-setting Crankbrothers Mallet. A twist of the shoe will clear the '8 of the most tenacious crud, otherwise, the pedal ignores the existence of slop. Platform thickness is this pedal's weak spot. At 21 millimeters, you'll feel it rock slightly unless you set your cleats well back in the slots.
Similar to Crankbrothers's system. Time's engagement loops are forged, rather than formed wire pieces..
Time's ATAC cleats can be reversed for either a 13° or 17° release angle.
|I used the 13-degree cleat position. Time's dual-loop ATAC mechanism feels smooth and progressive, so I can anticipate the release and feel confident that I'm securely clipped in right up to that point.—From the PB review|
Can survive a massive beating+
Smooth, predictable release+
Excellent mud-shedding design.
Platform could be 10mm longer
Crankbrothers Mallet E
Crankbrothers Mallet E showcase everything their designers have learned since the inception of the Eggbeater over two decades ago. Its platform is slightly concave in the flat-pedal tradition. Previous pedals often required adding shims beneath the cleat to operate properly. Now, "traction pads" - plastic inserts in the center of the platforms - can be used to shim the sole of the shoe to set cleat height. Six grub-screw pins on each side of the pedal can be adjusted to suit, and you can get the Mallet in two axle widths. The 'E measures 52-millimeters from crank-face to pedal centerline, while the longer-axle E LS measures 57 millimeters. Most riders prefer the LS model because it allows for enough angle to release with an inboard twist. The popular four-loop non-adjustable mechanism remains unchanged.
• 6 adjustable pins per side
• Aluminum body, forged chromoly axle
• Two axle widths: 52 or 57mm "Q-factor"
• 88mm x 75mm x 18mm concave platform
• Replaceable "traction pad" shims
• Choose standard or "easy release" cleats, with either 0° or 6° float
• Internals: cartridge bearing, bushing
• Black, silver, red, or blue
• Weight: 425 grams (pair)
• MSRP: $165 USD
s are also available: "Standard release" ejects the cleat at 15 degrees and allow the most lateral movement, while "Easy release" ejects with less resistance at ten degrees. Both Standard and Easy cleats provide six degrees of float, but if you like your feet to stay firmly in place while you pedal, both types are also sold with a zero-float option. Confusion aside, Mallet E pedals are proving to be the most durable and crash worthy Crankbrothers have ever made. Their forged chromoly axles rarely bend and the seals are much more effective. If you learned on flat pedals and want freedom of movement, or wish to ride with a more substantial feeling platform, the Mallet E can do that in any weather conditions.
Crankbrothers' four-loop mechanism rotates within the pedal body and can engage the cleat forward or back.
The platform is slightly concave, with angled reliefs that assist cornering clearance. Plastic pads above the axle adjust for cleat height
|I came to appreciate the extra float – the additional freedom of movement makes using the Mallets feel more like riding with flat pedals, allowing for more possible foot positions, which can be helpful when extra body language is required to wiggle through a tricky section of trail.—From the PB review|
Lots of pins and a concave platform+
Predictable fore/aft engagement +
A bit heavy-
Release can be vague with standard cleats
Shimano XTR M9120
Shimano wisely left the best parts of its XTR pedal untouched, like its user-serviceable cartridge-type axle that screw in from one side of the pedal with a 15mm wrench, and its bomb-proof, step-on-the-pedal-and-go engagement.
The major improvement is its wider and longer platform. The platform itself is a work of art. It has been profiled with organic curves and angles, derived from real-world testing to maximize cornering and pedaling clearance. The inside has been hollowed noticeably in the quest to shed mud and crud. Cup-and-cone ball bearings may seem dated, but Shimano uses them because they allow for a larger-diameter shaft, and more balls (22 of them) to share the load. There's also a bushing in there to protect the bearings from hucks to flat.
• Aluminum body, heat-treated alloy steel axle
• Larger, 98mm x 68mm x 16mm platform
• Two adjustable ball bearings, one overload bushing
• Adjustable tension
• 4° of float
• Standard SM51 cleat, optional SM56 multi-release cleat
• Black/silver only
• Weight: 398 grams (pair)
• MSRP: $179 USD
The new platform design trickles down to XT later this year, which should knock $75 off the XTR's asking price for near identical performance. How does it feel? "Solid" was the word PB's reviewer used. It actually feels larger than it is, and having that larger target makes it quicker to get back on the gas after dabbing a foot. Shimano did not make any provision for pins, which is fine for me. If you need them, Shimano's new Saint pedal
s have two on each side. For too long, Saints were the only option for aggressive riding Shimano fans. The redesign of the XTR trail pedal addressed the need for a similarly capable, lighter-weight option.
XTR axles spin on a pair of adjustable ball bearings, backed up by a small bushing that prevents overloads.
This contact seal wiggled out of its track. Shimano says they already have made a running change and fixed it.
|I keep the XTR pedals on my personal bike. We're always testing new pedals, and every time I think some other pedal has won me over, I ride these again... They're so consistent. I never think about them and they last for eternity.—From the reviewer|
Larger, longer platform+
Same SPD mechanism +
No pins for flat-pedal fans-
Picking a Winner
Two well-established camps, riders who place a high value on pins and platforms and those who don't, make choosing one pedal to rule them all nearly impossible.
Camp One put Five Ten's sticky rubber flat shoes on the map, and most of those folks learned to ride on spiky flat pedals way before they transitioned to clip-ins. If this was a popularity contest, Crankbrothers would have won it before the first word of this review was typed.
The Mallet E checks all the boxes: generously sized concave platform, six pins per side, class-leading mud shedding, and its cleat accepts either forward or rearward engagement. The Mallet E wins this
category, but it would not have had a chance against the second place DMR V-Twin if Crankbrothers had not exorcised the daemons of anti-quality that plagued the Mallet's predecessors.
DMR's V-Twin wins the Most Features in a Trail Pedal award. It's rotating SPD-type mechanism is the standout, and surrounded by its innovative outboard shim system, extra wide platform, and a small forest of adjustable pins, the V-twin challenges the throne of the mighty Mallet. Riders who prefer SPD-style pedals and want old-school flat pedal features will not find a better alternative, but it falls short of the Mallet E in both weight and price.
Camp Two is all about seamless entry and exits. Consider that pins exist to prevent the shoe from moving on the pedal - and that the act of unclipping from the pedal requires you to twist the sole of your shoes on the face of the platform... You see where I'm going here? Trail pedals with minimal or no pins and a convex shape - the opposite of Camp One's darling Mallet E's - offer the fastest and most efficient ingress and egress from the pedal. Shimano's new XTR 9120 wins this one, with
step-on-and-pedal engagement and a generous platform, contoured to maximize cornering clearance and minimize rock strikes. That said, we had an issue with a wandering contact seal (reportedly fixed), and it costs $179 USD - so let's look at the runner up:
HT's H-1 is an ass-kicking pedal. It's the lightest in this group. Its hybrid mechanism shares the adjustable precision of Shimano's SPD, with the smoother, more gradual release of a thick wire loop forward-trap like the Time and Crankbrothers pedals. HT's platform design is similar to XTR's and it has two pins on each side to satisfy fence sitters. HT's T-1 has a greater range of cleat tension adjustment than the XTR 9120 pedal, but we didn't like that entering the pedal grows equally more difficult as exiting tension is increased.
What about the French pedals? These are the top six trail pedals available, so the performance spread between the winners and losers is only around five percent. I could easily be happy riding Look's X-Track En-Rage or Time Speciale 8's for the rest of my life. If anything, the takeaway from this Ridden and Rated is that the two perennial favorites, Shimano and Crankbrothers, have been successfully challenged for both technology and performance.
I was around before the first spd and used to ride in toe clips, then came clip in pedals but because they did not have toe clips they were called "clipless" that made sense to us. . . . . Back then. Now we have a bunch of the younger generation riding bikes who think how the fukc can a clip in pedal be " clipless" when i actually clip into it, which is a valid point.
Anyway, i am sure many of you know this and many don't, either way lets start calling them clip in.
Secondly, anyone know where i can get some Tioga Snakeskin toe straps ?
And yes it doesn't make sense to call them clipless anymore, as it was wrong in the first place and still is the wrong discription. Historic fans can than go and ride toe straps again.
But let us not devide by something so dull and profane like the term being used for a f*cking pedal - just go out and shred like you stole it.
Following your nice logic, should kids also keep calling homosexual people "f*ggots" ?
+1 for moving on and simply calling them clips.
+1 on HT. I've tried every different pedal system and they all have their strengths and weaknesses, and HT seems to get the best mix: lighter and better mud performance than Shimano, better retention and durability than Time/Crankbros, plus they are reasonably priced and come in a bunch of anodized colors.
I started riding with toe straps when I was but a wee one- still have a set on my 1991 Gary Fisher Hoo Koo E Koo hanging on the wall of the garage. I then remember going to clips in my early teens and getting clipped in no problem, stopping at the stop light, and slowly beginning to teeter on that massive bike as I desperately tried to pull my feet loose to no avail and eating s@#t in front of a row of vehicles. I thought the hipsters in Portland comment was funny- toe straps on a true fixie are a must- you blow off a pedal and you are in some real trouble- that said- outside of a low maintenance fun challenge- can't see myself ever revisiting fixies.
I like to pour it on though:
"Back in the formative days of MTB, when the men were men and the sheep lived in fear there were only toe clips... blah... blah... blah"
I got better.
Couldnt agree more. Loved the functionality for 4 rides repaired. Another 5-6 rides back to re grease, is this a CB off shoot?
That's my in-depth analysis for what @seraph said in one sentence.
You'll go through 4-5 of them for every steel Shimano or HT cleat!
Don't know about overseas but in NZ the Crank Bros cleats are crazy expensive as well... The wholesale is more than the retail on Shimano's cleats!
The other downside to them is the pedal to ground (ever more common with today's low BB height trail/enduo bikes) will often result in your foot popping out on the other side of the pedal.
Special 8 Cons: Platform could be 10mm longer
Now you should have taken the Special 12 in your group, with Cons: too expensive.
My knees like the TIme style of float, and the are the only pedals I don't blow out of in the throes of panic moves. Likely due to the ability to move my feet around a bit. Don't get me started on Crank Bros, even though they feel about the same (maybe a little more vague). They left me stranded at least twice, the most memorable being at the exact top of Mr. toads in Tahoe, after riding for two hours to get there. Still bitter about that one.
I had found a pair of XT pedals on clearance for $40 about 6 months ago and gave them a try. Hated them due to the mud clearance issues. When its gritty mud its hard to get in and even harder to get out.
I had been debating trying the 12's but couldnt justify the entry fee of $350. When the 8's made their appearance I jumped on a set and they have been perfect. My knees and hips just get along better with the free lateral and rotational float of Time ATACs and they just plain work no matter how muddy it is. Time will tell if they hold up to rock strikes, but all indications look like they are rock solid.
How about "Fastest runner with one leg", "Sharpest spoon in the drawer", or "Most fragrant decomposing carcass ever!"
If you don't know what I'm talking about, nevermind..
This is the reason I changed from Mallet E's to Nukeproof but came back because Cranbros are otherwise the best performing pedal I've had, and hated Nukeproof's accidental releases with pedal strikes.
Most people who've been on Crank Brothers for a few years will go to the harder metal for the solid engagement & less wear. But if brass is all they got, I'll take em. They click in smooth & easy.
Crank Brothers Mallets addressed the #1 issue of East Coast racing...drying clay mud. Only pedal I know of that you can click straight down into regardless. Have even forgotten to clean the clay out, have it harden overnight and just pop right in as the clay pops out the bottom. The only folks I know who don't want to run them anymore are the guys who sheered pedals off on the 1st gen stuff that bearings would dry up in and saw on the axle & snap.
I forgave them because being stuck in a pedal because of mud not letting you release in any other brand...was TERRIFYING. And dumping your foot into the mechanism no matter what was gobbed up in it and the pedal happily engaging every time....they're #1 & #1A needs of a clipless pedal.
*Unless you really really care about the weight of your pedals.
That said, I find that m530 flat area is not big enough if paired with newer AM9 because the sole is too flexible. I switch to Funn Mamba, which has similar design as the Saint clip-in pedal, and it help a lot.
Best clipless pedal of all time.
I'm sure you could make your own raised platform out of some aluminum and bolt it into the pin holes. I cannot stress enough how important it is to not ruin any of your precious riding time by buying VTwins.
VTwins - one summer of bullshit, terrible customer service, pedals with mis matched internals, tons of play right out of the box. One of them eventually seized after being demoted to the commuter bike,
Saints - one full year of being my only pedals, used on mtb, fat bike, gravel bike, thousands of miles of riding and I've adjusted the release tension once. That's it.
On that note, I have original Kona Wah Wahs that have been on over a dozen bikes since 2012, have never been serviced in any way, and still spin butter smooth with no play in the spindle.
The Wahs Wahs are a great pedal and I'm not saying that because I'm an unapologetic Kona buff. They hold up well. I currently use the similar OneUp composite flats and they have given me nothing but smiles for 2 seasons. Well that and a few holes in my leg. NBD there.
I also have a set of M520s I used before the flats and while they could use some greasing I did nothing to them for 4 seasons. So hopefully the M820s do the same.
I have tried the HT X2 as well which were really great pedals (kinda of like a much firmer version of the mallets), but they only lasted a few months as one fell off my bike on the roadtrip back from Queenstown...
Edit: Nvm, I see they're made out of brass... That explains it.
I prefer riding flats but even with 10mm screws and five ten shoes or bontrager shoes I move my foots and not always place it perfect. I find myself riding much smoother in the spd but less jumping confidence. I was riding spd m540 but it was to little, currently from time to time I put some m530 but the platform give just a little bit of support actually because of the width.
I had HT pedals previously and absolutely loved them. you KNOW when you are locked in. I also have Crankbrothers pedals (on my DH bike) and it's the exact opposite. No adjustment, engagement/disengagement feels like a wet noodle. Cleats wear out like the seasons in a year change.
Like a bikini, less material, more money, I’m not complaining tho.
Every single pedal in this article is overpriced.
Ever since owning my first pair of 737s, I have been sold on Shimano's clip in pedals. If I break a pair I will be lining up for the new XTR trail pedals.
If anyone is looking for some vintage 737s and SM SH 50 cleats in amazing shape, I am selling some here on the buy and sell.
I remember my first crash with them like it was yesterday. Out in Koksila provincial park riding solo through a creek bed on a hillside, hit a big rock mid stream and over the highside and down into the rocky stream bed. Feet never came out. Cripes I was lucky to be able to ride out with only a sore back...
Wasn't so much a pedal release problem but rather my inexperience in getting my feet out in a hurry....
This can be changed into an absolute and more useful statement: "The slower, predictable nature of the Time Speciale 8 mechanism is better than the instant release of Shimano's SPD mechanism".
I use some XT race pedals in my CX/Commuter, I probably have close to 12000mi on them, I've cleaned and regreased them once. I used the XT trail pedals on my MTB, and are flawless.
On that note, I am ecstatic with my 6 pair of 10+ year old Time ATACs.
I have the ones that came with my XT's their black. I have a fresh set as well that I could install. My last set of Shimano's were the Deore or something I put the fresh set of cleats on because they kept releasing and cranked the tension but it turned out the tension hex head was striped because it couldn't overcome the spring force before the hex would slip. My Time/Mavics just sucked and the spring just plain wore out got weak it was way worse than flats.
Detto, all leather, hard plastic sole shoes, talk about sketchy