Clips vs Flats: Which pedal is more efficient?

Science sheds light into a classic trail side arguement

Pedals Video
To try and finally put an end to the flats v clips argument, GMBN headed to the lab.

In an effort to settle the flats-vs-clips argument, GMBN headed to the test lab (click to enlarge).

There are a number of arguments that constantly reoccur in our forums: 1x vs. 2x drivetrains, Shimano vs. all other brakes, and of course clips vs. flat pedals. While most mountain bikers opt to ride clipped in, the Mtbr staff is split down the middle. Gregg and Jason prefer clips. Francis and I usually ride flats. So how much efficiency are we sacrificing due to our choice in pedal?

To find out we turn to the crew at the Global Mountain Biking Network, who took to the lab at the U.K.’s University of Bath to measure several metrics including power output, heart rate, V02 max, and blood lactate. Each test consisted of professional rider and show host Neil Donoghue keeping a consistent 16.7mph pace on a treadmill using both types of pedals. For the first test, the gradient was set at 2% and Donoghue pedaled for a period of 10 minutes. The second test was designed to emulate a short hard sprint, so the gradient was set at 8% and Donoghue laid down the power for a minute and a half.

The end results were surprising. As you might have guessed, clips were more efficient over longer distances, but not by a huge margin. Donoghue’s V02 max and lactate levels were marginally lower over a 10-minute period when clipped in, but his heart rate was comparable regardless of pedal choice.

For the second test, which mimicked a short hard sprint, Donoghue’s V02 max and lactate were lower on flat pedals, although his heart rate was much higher. So while he wasn’t working as hard when clipped in (as evidenced by his lower heart rate), he was using more oxygen and producing more lactate. The GMBN crew speculates this is because his body was engaging more muscles and his cadence was different when clipped in.

This video offers some interesting insights into the classic flats vs. clipless argument, but we’d be curious to see the tests performed again with a larger sample group. Until then the debate will rage on. Check out the video and then let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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  • Andy says:

    Unless you’re riding with no food or covering an EXTREMELY long distance, relatively slowly, who cares about efficiency?

    Personally, I care about getting from point A to point B as fast as possible. Which is mostly influenced by, you guessed it, power production. There are quite a few peer reviewed papers demonstrating an advantage to clipless in that area.

  • Richard Parcells says:

    For pavement and graded/compacted “bike paths”, clips are a good choice, though NEVER mandatory. For true “Off-Road” trail riding, AIN’T NO WAY I would clip in!!! If it isn’t off road, then it’s just roadies with course tread fat tires. It is NOT a question of gradient. Off road involves obstacles like rocks, roots, uneven and downright very rough surfaces, soft soil, rocky bottom creek crossings, portages, dab spots and other reasons to need to step off the cranks. Try THAT sort of trail with clip-ins.

    • M5 says:

      I have been riding “true off-road” for 15+ years on clipless, it’s not hard to pull your foot out to “dab” when you need to once you learn how to do it. There are lots of “true” MTBers that ride “off-road” with clipless. Just because you’re too intimdated to try it, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.

    • Luke says:

      If you look at pro downhill racers, the vast majority ride clipped in and only a few ride flat pedals. Keep in mind that these guys are reaching breakneck speeds over the absolute roughest and gnarliest terrain you can find. They use clipless instead of flats because it provides a more reliable connection to their bike; in the rough stuff, they don’t get chattered off of clipless pedals. It has less to do with efficiency or power output than it does bike control.

  • MissedThePoint says:

    The problem is they used the word efficiency too literally, using its proper definition. When people speak of efficiency, they speak of effectiveness.

    You are able to put out more power with clipless, which allows you to brute force your way through clutch situations. Flat pedals only saves you roughly 1/3 of a second, to get your foot off the pedals, which only is useful if you’re dabbing or trying to eject.

    Might be no more efficient, but if you already know the course and practiced your lines, clipless will serve you better by lessening situations where you could lose time, especially the kind where your bike is being knocked around. If dabbing around a tight techy section saves time, it’s not you can’t also do that on clipless.

  • Nancy Theory says:

    One rider? that’s not science.
    Test a hundred then come back and tell us what you find.

  • Sean says:

    Clips give you more power, and more constant power throughout the pedal stroke. I can climb things with clip in pedals that I can’t with flats. I haven’t been with a rider yet for whom this is not the case. So if you are trying to ride everything, advantage to clipless pedals. If you are ok with pushing the bike up hills, then the advantage on the downhill may go to flats.

    The only time I would care about efficiency is when you are able to do the same thing with either choice. Since you can’t make it up the hard stuff in flats, you aren’t being more efficient, you aren’t even doing it.

    • John says:

      I’m not sure why you have problems climbing hills in flats as I certainly don’t, I primarily ride natural trails which have steep uphill sections that others in the group (clipped and flat) end up walking due to the steepness and never had any problems climbing with flats. In fact some of my best times overall are from quickly climbing hills.

      I’m not bothered whether people ride clipless or flats nor what benefits others get from them, having tried both flat pedals work far better for me but I do find it odd how often I’m told what’s not possible with flats and at that point I’ll need to go clipless when I’ve already done said activities regularly on flats.

  • Butters says:

    @Nancy – In what way is the test not ‘scientific’??? What a stupid statement.

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