As a long-term flat pedal rider, I just haven't had any curiosity to ride clips for a very very long time. That said, once the bug bit, it's been something I've had to dedicate some time to setting up. The setup I've landed on is not without its foibles, though, and it makes the most of the large amount of adjustment on Crankbrothers' Mallet E pedals.
Tech Editor & Kettle SupervisorClips/Flats Time Split:
50/50Preferred shoe style:
Crankbrothers Mallet E
I used to ride Shimano SPDs, prior to my flat pedal binge, so unclipping isn't so much of a concern. Rather, just finding something that gave me the attributes I wanted was. The things that I didn't like when riding a clipless system was the small contact patch and lack of grip to resist twisting forces, unclipping into the bike as I drove my inside foot towards the bike, and a loose vague feeling - where I couldn't be sure where the mechanism would release me. The problem I've had is that I've found Shimano's pedals couldn't give me the traction and Crankbrothers' pedals couldn't give me the distinctive in-out feeling. So, I ended up doing lots of trial and error and this is the setup I feel best balances these needs.
Starting with the pedals, I run a set of Mallet E's with all the pins wound in. I've always disliked the feeling of being clipped in and the pins dragging across the rubber of the shoe. I know that for some it's the vital way to get traction on the pedal, but for me it just feels like a very inelegant solution. Instead, I've decided to run a mix-match of traction pads, with the thicker 2mm option installed on the outside. I really feel like this gives me just the level of support that I'm after. 2mm on both sides make the entry too difficult, whereas 1mm all round isn't enough traction, and I feel like having the outer edge on the outside really helps me replicate the feeling of flat pedals - where you can really load the pedal on the exit of turns or really push out if you want to square off a turn. I could probably file them down to 1.5mm and have them equal but I haven't really felt a need. Ergonomically, the 1mm difference feels fine, although who's to say it isn't doing something catastrophic to my knees? Only time will tell.
In the pedals, I also run the longer axles to give me clearance to the crank. Again, this makes unclipping easier for me.
I've found my preferred cleats are the standard gold Premium 6-degree float cleats - and I run them on their correct side in the 15-degree release setting. If you run them inverse of their denoted side, you can increase the release setting to 20-degrees. Here is where another peculiarity creeps in - I have them pointing towards my big toe. This has been a huge part for me and really helps me get the flat-pedal feeling I was after. I still pedal straight, obviously, but my outer release is almost instantaneous and it's near impossible for me to clip in as I drive my heels toward the bike. This, combined with the traction pads, gives me loads of grip and support on the pedal without having any issue clipping out or getting back in. It also staves off unwanted uncoupling through turns.
I don't run a spacer underneath the cleat on my Shimano GR901 clipless shoes, and love the support and platform they offer.
Mike Levy - HT Leopard M1
I've spent about half my riding life on platform pedals, much of it with an inside foot hanging off, possibly with the rear brake locked, and definitely wearing a shit-eating grin. I used them for years of wheelie-dropping off the roofs of outhouses with roll-ins roughly zero feet long and only to flat landings, and they were on my bike for week-long cross-country races with over 30,000-feet of climbing and all the cramping.
Tech Editor; authority on lizard peopleClips/Flats Time Split:
99/1 (in the last ten years)Preferred shoe style:
stiff and lightChosen Pedal:
HT Leopard M1
Jump forward a decade and now all I'm looking for is the exact opposite - a pedal that can essentially lock my feet into place so strongly that I need to slide out of my shoes and leave them attached to the bike when I have to stop to pee.
For that, I've used HT's pint-sized Leopard M1 pedals for the last six or seven years because their adjustable entry/exit tension can be set absurdly high. For some reason, likely terrible form and a bunch of annoying ankle injuries, I can't keep myself from rotating my feet over the pedals through corners or while messing around, and no other system is able to keep me from accidentally unclipping at least a few times during every ride. Yes, I've tried almost everything else. Yes, I realize this is a 'me' problem and not an everyone problem. Yes, I'm tired of their tiny RC car bearings wearing out every twenty minutes and breaking one every twenty rides (including at the latest Field Test). And yes, I do walk down the road to buy three sets at a time from my local bike shop.
I also might be the only editor here using pedals without some sort of Trail Bike Approved-platform for me to stand on when I'm not clipped in but, as someone who's had some bad crashes from catching a pedal on rocks and roots, I've always had bit of a dumb opinion about that. And since you asked about it, pedal strikes are always rider error, but the much smaller body of the M1s gives me a bit more room for those errors. What about when it gets sketchy and I just need a set of TBA pedals to stand on? Don't worry, they're too tight for me to unclip, even if I wanted to, and I like the commitment that entails.
As for cleats, I use the normal ones and have moved them back from their original 'I raced cross-country in the 90s' at the very front of the slots to nearly the very back of them. One downside of not using a pedal with a platform is more casual-looking shoes with flexible soles don't provide enough support; they bend over the tiny pedal body, so I usually prefer to wear something a bit stiffer and sportier for that reason. And because rotating weight, but that's another dumb opinion...
But for what I need from a set of pedals, which is for them to hold onto my feet like I stepped into a set of damn bear traps, the security the HTs offer far outweighs the reliability they don't. Now I just need to stop peeing on my socks.
Matt Beer - Crankbrothers Mallet DH
Growing up as a die-hard flat pedal rider, I found the transition to clipless more natural with the Crankbrothers Mallet DH model. Unlike SPD systems, the Mallet’s design can lock the cleat into the mechanism from either direction; place your foot on the pedal platform and wiggle the shoe from in front of or behind the spring to clip in. That’s because the design of the mechanism can articulate 360-degrees around the axle, independently of the pedal body and “roll” with the cleat, which is where the Eggbeater system gets its name from.
Tech Editor & allergy kidClips/Flats Time Split:
80/20Preferred shoe style:
Crankbrothers Mallet DH
I also believe this makes better use of the traction pins, since the shoe can pivot onto the grippy screws and then “unweight” from the pedal body. Other clipless pedals that have the spring fixed to the platform rely on the sole flexing to grip the pins, which might make twisting your foot to release more likely to catch the pins. The float on the Crankbrother system also has an even spring tension that I find to be more natural, whereas the SPDs have a “looser” feel that quickly ramps up before releasing.
As for the shoe to pedal interface, that can vary depending on the depth of the cleat mounting area. On these Bontrager Rally shoes and other Five Ten models, I use the plastic spacer provided, but on the Fizik Artica winter shoes, the sole is not as recessed into the rubber grip under the shoe, so I leave that out in that case. I’d like to see the grub screws on the Mallets accessible from the back of the pedal body because once they are damaged, getting a 2mm Allen key in there is nearly impossible. Once the pins are dialled in, I rarely unexpectedly unclip, as long as the cleats aren’t worn down to nubs.
I prefer to have the cleat behind the ball of my foot to take pressure off of my calves and let the larger leg muscles, similar to how you might perform a squat. I also like to move the cleats as far inboard as possible to widen my stance across the bike. I’ve played with angling the cleats, like Henry, and although I do ride somewhat duck-footed, I found that it’s more natural to enter the clip straight on and therefore leave them aligned with the length of the shoe.
Pedals have a hard life, often subjected to submersion and blows to rocks. A little maintenance once in a while goes a long way. The Mallets may not last as long as some other sealed pedals, but the cartridge bearings are easy to replace, don’t require special tools to work on, or unthread themselves. I’m open to trying new styles of clipless pedals, but so far the Mallet’s have been the easiest and most natural for me to get along with.
Mike Kazimer - Shimano XT
When the moon is full and the night is clear I grab my tools and head out into the woods. There, by the light of a roaring fire I set to work on my clipless pedal set up. I start by heating up each cleat until it's glowing red, and then I forge it into an entirely new shape that was inspired by the construction secrets of the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. Next, it's time for positioning those custom cleats, which requires two calipers, a strand of silk, and an eagle feather....
Managing Tech Editor, nap aficionadoClips/Flats Time Split:
60/40Preferred Shoe Style:
Nah, just kidding. I actually don't spend too
much time obsessing over my cleat or pedal setup. I test so many different shoe and pedal combinations over the course of a year that I'd drive myself mad if I worried about achieving the absolute best, totally correct cleat position every single time.
Speaking of shoes, my current favorites are Crankbrothers Mallet BOA
(it turns out that Crankbrothers shoes with Shimano pedals is a great combo). I also get along well with pretty much all of Shimano's offerings; I had to reluctantly retire a pair of AM7's the other day, and I'm now testing the new AM9 shoes
. The shoes pictured here are the Five Ten Trailcross Clip
, which I'm also in the process of reviewing. They're light and quick drying, but so far they're not quite as comfy as the Mallet Boa or the AM9. I also still haven't been able to shake the feeling that I'm wearing a pair of New Balance sneakers every time I put them on.
I typically put my cleats in the upper mounting holes, and then slide the carrier all the way rearward. This puts the pedal axle slightly behind the ball of my foot for what I'd consider to be a fairly neutral position. Shimano's XT pedals are what I use when I'm not testing something else – the super predictable entry and exit is what keeps me coming back to them. They're also incredibly durable. I can't remember how long I've had the PD-8020 pedals pictured here, but they're still spinning smoothly, and when they do need fresh grease that procedure only takes a few minutes.
I have several pairs of Shimano pedals kicking around so that I don't need to keep swapping one set between different bikes, but no matter the model they all feel the same once I'm clipped in. I set the spring tension in the middle of the range, and usually don't need to touch it after that. I typically don't twist my feet too much when I'm riding, so I don't need a crazy high amount of tension to keep from unclipping.
Matt Wragg - Shimano XT
For the first 15 years or so of my riding life I had never even thought about trying anything other than a flat pedal. After moving to the South of France in 2013 I started doing more long distance rides and thought I should see what the fuss was about. Mavic had given me some shoes at a launch and I bought a pair of Shimano XT pedals. I've run them ever since. Ok, not the same pair of pedals, but when it came time to change bike, shoe or pedal, I bought the same thing again. It worked, it kept working and felt decent. This particular pair are not from the current generation of XT, but the one prior - I was running the newer ones before this, but even XTs can only survive so much pedal vs boulder action. I grabbed these from the spares box maybe 9 months ago and forgot about them until I came to write this. They are currently paired to these Shimano AM7 shoes, which seem appropriate to me as they too are solid and no nonsense (although I wish the wide sizes were available for more models, as the standards are a touch long for me).
I have become very stuck in my ways. A couple of years ago my wife was sponsored by Crank Brothers, so we had a spare set I could have tried, but the embarrassing truth is that I did not want to go through the setup and learning phase. Worse than that, I tried flats on my trail bike a couple of winters ago and it felt less fun than I remembered.
Editor-at-LargeClips/Flats Time Split:
95/5Preferred shoe style:
I have never spent much time thinking about my setup. In fact, I usually leave the tension adjust in the factory setting. When I first got on SPDs, I remember setting the cleat so it feels like I am driving from the ball of my foot as it felt most natural, which seems to be fairly far forwards compared to most people. Then I angled the cleats in a bit as I have wonky legs, running them with Shimano shoes, I have never felt the need to space the cleat out vertically. Since then every time I get a new set of shoes or cleats, I grab the old ones and try and replicate it as closely as I can. There was a brief period a few years ago when I tried a different brand of shoe and accidentally set the cleat too far forwards, so every time I pulled up the extra leverage unclipped me, but beyond that this setup is what I think all bike parts should aspire to - fit and forget.
Seb Stott - Crankbrothers Mallet DH
I learned to ride on flat pedals for many years but after changing to clips about ten years ago, I haven't looked back. I've given them a go a few times since, but I just can't stand my foot being in slightly the wrong place, and I also like how a clipless pedal allows my foot to "float" (rotate a few degrees relative to the pedal); this allows my knee to self-align throughout the pedal stroke which I find gives me fewer knee problems.
Position: Tech Editor, UK
Clips/Flats Time Split: 99% clips
Preferred shoe style: Speciailzed 2FO Cliplite
Chosen Pedal: Crank Brothers Mallet DH / Mallet E
I've tried most of the major clipless pedal brands but my firm favourite is Crankbrothers. I like the large range of free float when moving around on the bike and for pedalling, the mud-shedding mechanism, the ease of clipping in both forwards and backwards and the large platform which makes it easier to ride out a section unclipped after dabbing.
The setup is finicky though. Even with Crankbrothers' own shoes you'll either have to wind the pins all the way in or add an extra cleat spacer to make engaging the pedal easier. I prefer the cleat spacer approach as it means there's more grip when riding unclipped, plus I have more pairs of pedals than shoes so its easier to add a spacer than to wind in the pins on multiple pairs of pedals. I point the front of the cleat a few degrees inboard (towards the big toe) in order to make them unclip slightly sooner. Otherwise, the shoe can hit the crank before unclipping.
I set the cleats all the way back and I only ride with Crankbrothers' Mallet DH shoe or the Specialized's 2FO Clip / Cliplite as they allow the cleat to go far enough back for my preference. The 2FO Cliplite is my favourite as it has a rare combination of stiffness and lightness typical of a trail shoe with a rearward cleat slot usually reserved for DH shoes. This puts your feet further in front of the saddle which in turn demands a steeper seat angle to compensate. By the way, this Journal of Biomechanics study suggests fore-aft cleat position doesn't affect pedalling efficiency
The reliability of the internals isn't great and a rebuild kit is pricey, which makes me wish I preferred Shimano. But sadly, I'm a sucker for the Mallet's free-floating mechanism.
I'm a relative newcomer to the world of clipless and only took the plunge when I first bought a gravel bike in October 2019. Two and a half years later and and only one traffic light tumble later and I'm fully convinced that it's the superior pedal system. When I'm able to get my hands on a new mountain bike (yes, MTB journos are being affected by the supply chain issues too), I'll be investing in a more substantial set up but for now I'm running Adidas Velosambas with Shimano M530 pedals.
Honestly, the pedals I bought simply because they were on sale and in stock on Chain Reaction and until recently I'd been using a pair of Giro Rumble VR shoes with them. The shoes were fine for getting started but they are about as waterproof as a sponge with holes in it, which presented a fairly terminal issue for riding through a Scottish winter. So, I started looking for something else.
Truth be told, the Velosambas probably aren't it. I missed the first drop back when they were released in March last year
as they sold out within a week but Adidas did a run of vegan shoes more recently and I was able to snag a pair in this updated colourway. I've only had two rides on them so far but I'll start with the pros - they are simply the best looking cycling shoes ever, easily nicer than shoes with goofball meshes, random bits of velcro and arthitis-alleviating thick soles. They also are very nice to walk in, there's still a small amount of clicking and crunching underfoot but keeping a natural gait is easy.
The bad? Well, to dispel you of any illusion, this isn't a performance cycling shoe. Adidas has since released more specialized kicks
but this comparatively floppy shoe isn't great for longer rides. I'm going to keep them for riding around town and for casual rides but will have to try something more serious before I'm fully happy with my set up.
Alicia Leggett - Shimano XT
I wish I had a good origin story for my love of Shimano SPDs - I once found myself at a bridge crossing with a wizard, who told me he would bestow upon me superhuman speed and style if I just chose to run the proper, the best, the most reliable clipless pedals of all time - but not only do I still lack that superhuman speed and style, I have only met a few wizards, and none have given me advice about my pedals.
News Editor? Tech Editor? At this point, who knows?Clips/Flats Time Split:
85/15Preferred shoe style:
Nothing too complicated, pleaseChosen Pedal:
Shimano XT PD-M8120
I started running Shimano SPDs because when I was a teenager, a guy who sold me one of my first mountain bikes threw in a set of old ball-shaped SPDs just in case I ever wanted to try clipping in. When I started to enter my first cross country races, I decided clipping in was what the real
mountain bikers did, so I'd better figure it out. Aside from my semi-regular fling with a pair of flat pedals, I've been riding SPDs ever since. They work, they hold up against an astonishing amount of abuse, they offer what feels to me like just the right amount of float, and the tension is adjustable. I've just never seen any reason to switch over to anything else.
For roughly the last decade, I've used essentially the same pair of XT pedals as half the other editors in this article, both the older, more rounded style, and this newer 2020-and-onward version, which Shimano claims improves the shoe-pedal contact area (they feel pretty much the same to me, though) and allows more room for mud clearance (thankfully true, though the older version isn't too bad). The mid-sized platform gives just the right amount of extra support around the shoe, meaning that there isn't a need for ultra-stiff-soled shoes to compensate for a tiny contact patch and there's that extra bit of confidence that comes from knowing you'll still have somewhere to put your foot if, for whatever reason, you aren't clipped in when you'd really rather prefer to be. Also, the updated version looks so good. Look at those clean, angular lines!
I've been mainly riding in the Pacific Northwest these days, and these pedals, cleats, and shoes can handle the abuse that accompanies the constant wet and muddy conditions.
As for my shoes, I've been testing several different pairs lately, but my go-to over the last few months have been the Ride Concepts Hellion Clip. They come in a women's version, but it turns out my feet are too big for Ride Concepts' women's sizing, so I wear a men's pair. They're low-volume and suit my relatively narrow feet, the only weird fit things being that the laces and lace cover straps are extremely long. No problem there. They're quite comfortable and seem to dry quickly enough, as I put them on my boot dryer whenever I return from a wet ride and they're always dry by the next day or so when I go to put them on again.
I've also long been a big fan of Shimano's shoes, both clipless (SH-AM902) and flat (SH-GR901). Those are essentially the same shoe, aside from the clip/flat difference, so don't be like me and get them in the same exact color. You'll mix them up all the time. If you pay close attention to the latest Field Test videos, you'll also notice that I also often wear the Bontrager Rally shoes pictured above that Matt Beer is running.
I'm a little less scientific than some of the other tech editors when it comes to my cleat setup. I mount the cleats, depending on the shoes, pretty close to the center of the channel side-to-side and right behind the ball of my foot, pointing straight ahead. Since I haven't been using any shoes with overly aggressive tread, I don't use any shims or other adjustments. When I get on my bike, if something feels off, I'll move my cleat accordingly. If it feels fine, I roll with it. I don't overthink it, and I think I'm pretty adaptable when it comes to setup.
Speaking of being adaptable, I recently acquired several sets of TIME pedals and cleats. I also have a few new sets of shoes that I need to test sooner rather than later and I'm all out of SPD cleats, so I'm hyping myself up to try something different. Ask me about my pedal setup in a month or two and we'll see how things have changed.
Ryan Palmer - Shimano XTR XC
Do you remember the Onza HO pedals? Those ones that used elastomers instead of springs to control cleat release tension. They came with four colors, clear, gray, blue and black; each a different durometer. The concept seemed cool at the time, and the pedals worked alright in the summertime, but as soon as the temp dropped, the elastomers would freeze up and lock you in. Those were my first clipless pedals. Things could only improve from there.
Beta Senior Tech EditorClips/Flats Time Split:
I used to try running flats on DH bikes until I realized that they’re stupid on those, too. Preferred shoe style:
Trail bike shoes, but if they have shoelaces I won’t touch them.Chosen Pedal:
Shimano XTR XC
Next, I went to Ritchey Logics, mostly because they were red. I was like 12 years old, so color mattered more to me then. Who am I kidding, color still means way more to me than it should.
The Ritcheys lasted a couple years, until I got turned on to the Time A.T.A.C pedals for their superior tolerance to muddy conditions. That’s what I ran through college, until I got a job working for a team that was sponsored by Crankbrothers. I started running those pedals because, you know, they were free, but I was never a huge fan.
So when I had to start paying for pedals again in 2009, I decided to ''finally
'' hop on the SPD bandwagon. I’ve been happy ever since.
I generally run the Shimano XC-style pedals because I don’t feel like the pseudo platform on the Trail-style ones adds any function for me. The first couple generations added the tiniest amount of extra support for sideloading, but it was negligible in my opinion. The newest version does have much more of a platform, but I still don’t feel like it adds any benefit for me, because I run good shoes: Shimanos
If a company makes both pedals and shoes, I say match them up. It only makes sense that the shoe/pedal interface will be perfect, right? In my experience running Shimano/Shimano for shoes and pedals, the shoe lugs are always at the right height to allow float without dragging on the pedal body, and the cleats never require any special spacing or anything. When there’s too much friction preventing float, I get knee pain, so it’s something I’m always keenly aware of..
I also like the support of the shimano shoes. They range in stiffness from model to model, but they publish the stiffness number of each shoe so you can figure out what will work best for you. Most shoes are totally ambiguous when it comes to stiffness rating.
Shimano’s more walkable AM-series shoes have flex in the toes, but plenty of stiffness under the cleat where it counts, which I believe is why I’m happy with the platformless pedals. The platform is in the shoe rather than on the pedal. I realize this creates a different feel, but it’s one that I prefer.
Now, back to the pedals. I typically run XTR because I’m a total snob. I run them despite the fact that they’re not as good as the XT pedals, and never have been. Every set of XTR pedals I’ve ever owned have wandering spindle seals that allow a free pass for water and grime. They also develop play remarkably quickly, so I’m always rebuilding or re-adjusting the bearing play. It’s cool that you can adjust them like a cup and cone hub, but the frequency of service isn’t.
I’m not sure why Shimano hasn’t done any development on the guts of the XTR pedal for so long, because I’m sure they’re aware how imperfect they are. Perhaps because dummies like me keep using them.
If I were less pretentious, I’d run XT pedals since I know that in reality they’re a better, more robust product.
Sarah Moore - Shimano XTR
I suppose I did learn to ride on flat pedals as a little kid, but what I would consider my first "real" mountain bike, a hardtail Devinci Cactus, came with Shimano SPDs and so my first experiences with actually riding on trails were with clip pedals. Along with clip pedals, the Cactus also came with a pair of used clip shoes.
Content Manager & Maple Syrup Connaisseur Clips/Flats Time Split:
99.5% clipsPreferred shoe style:
Unfortunately, the shoes were a size too big for me and I also didn't know that you could back the tension on your pedals off to make them easier to get out of, so a lot of my crashes in my first year mountain biking came on the uphills, where I would either tip over clipped in (ie: like Mike Levy likes to do) or pull my entire foot out of my shoe accidentally.
I started racing cross-country almost as soon as I learned how to mountain bike - "There aren't any girls racing, you'll do great" my coach said - so there was never any question that I would give up the efficiency on the climbs for being able to dab on the downhills. Eventually, I got shoes that fit (of the tap-dancing variety of course) and figured out how to back the tension off on the pedals, so the number of times I crashed climbing rapidly diminished, although I still managed to finish most every ride with a new bruise or two.
I never really gave flat pedals a fair chance until 2020, over 15 years after I got into mountain biking. I decided they would be safer to learn to wheelie on. While I enjoy flat pedals for wheelie practice and trips in the Chilcotins with lots of hike-a-biking, my day-to-day riding is done on a pair of Shimano SPDs. 15-year-old me would be appalled at the "heavy" cages on my pedals these days and shoes without a painfully stiff sole, but I like being comfortable and being able to smash my pedals and not worry about them.
I tried a lot of clip pedals for the Trail MTB Pedals Buyer's Guide
last year, but like many of the editors in this article, Shimano pedals are the ones I've spent the most time on in the past several years. When my trusty XT pedals got stolen alongside my bike in November, I decided that there was no reason to "save" the XTR pedals I'd received for the Buyer's Guide for some special occasion (I'm not even sure what I thought that might be) and so I installed them on my new Norco Sight.
I suppose I could have waited until I got new shoes, but I quite like my disintegrating Shimano AM9 shoes with the cleats in exactly the right position. They're starting to feel a bit like slippers but I've been procrastinating getting new shoes since I know I'll have to stop multiple times in the first ride and fiddle around to get the new cleats "just right". I like Shimano shoes since they allow me to run my cleats as far back as I like to. I'm not sure if my calves are really weak or need stretching, but I feel like I'm on my tippy-toes with some other shoes. Last time I got new shoes, I replaced them with exactly the same model since I knew that I'd be comfortable with the cleats centred and all the way back.