Flat Versus Clip-in Pedals

Eli Post
Lisa Najavits

Most of us grow up incrementally with regards to cycling. As kids, we start off on bikes with training wheels, and perhaps as teenagers we move on to bikes with gears and other bells and whistles. At some point, when we take biking more seriously, we gravitate to road bikes, and wear bike specific clothing. We also learn from our riding friends which equipment to use, and other protocols. Generally, we accept these protocols as given or scientifically established, especially when everyone else is doing or using it. For example, on any given club ride most riders will be clipped into their pedals. In the world of cycling, it's said  that in order to engage in serious riding you need foot retention, which means using some type of clip-in pedal system to provide maximum power transfer between your legs and the bicycle's transmission. The long-established basis for clipless is the claim that they offer power on the upstroke. That is, you not only generate power when you push down on them, but when you pull up as well.           

However, there are some real advantages to flat pedals, and also some surprises from scientific studies.  This is especially relevant when comfort and freedom from pain requires a change—for example, if you are an older rider and not competing in the Tour de France. Eli, an author of this article, says, ”After decades of clip-in use, I broke ranks and switched from clip-ins to flat pedals. I was having balance issues and was not comfortable being clipped in. I am not alone making the switch, and have a friend whose leg was in pain when fixed in one position, know another who had hip surgery and was having trouble unclipping, another who had a leg fracture from a home accident and does not have the leg strength to unclip, and finally someone who was in a recent accident and no longer is comfortable being clipped in.”

If you love your clip-ins, then by all means keep using them. But flat pedals may serve your needs and should not be dismissed as kid stuff. Indeed, there are some interesting new developments and recent studies with flats.

For example, Global Cycling Network conducted a comparison of clip-ins vs. flat pedals, measuring one. rider’s cadence, heart rate, VO2, and lactate in real time with each type of pedal. The results are surprising, and the rider’s reaction to them is equally fascinating:


Also relevant to this topic is the development of a new product: a much longer flat pedal--same width as regular flats, but much longer front-to-back (143 mm)-- called Catalyst pedals. The originator of these pedals focuses on the idea of by supporting both the front and back of the arch of the foot, and having the midfoot aligned with the spindle, creates better power with less fatigue and helps recruit the glutes and hips more than the calves and Achilles tendon. The Catalyst website identifies physiology studies that they state support this and make a case for longer flat pedals vs. clip-ins. Reviews for the pedals are cited at the end of this article. Extra-wide flat pedals have been around for a long time and serve other purposes, but the new ultra-long pedal is unique.

There’s a lot more to say about flats vs. clip-ins including optimal placement of the foot on the pedal, injury prevention, rider comfort, relevance to road vs. mountain-biking, and the state of the science. This article came about in a discussion the authors had after a ride. Both of us have tried the Catalyst pedals and use them. We are letting you know there is a new option available as well as new developments in this area.