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Flat or clipless. What is the best pedal for commuting?

Shimano commuter pedal
(Image credit: Shimano)

The golden age of bicycle commuting is upon us. As lockdown restrictions ease, fewer cars exist on the road and governments promise better bicycle transport integration, there has never been a better time to make most of your journeys by bicycle.

One component which is common across all bikes, and can affect the ride of even the best commuter bikes, is pedals. Whether you are rolling about town on a steel-framed fixie or using one of the latest e-bike commuters, pedal choice is every bit as important as it would be on a carbon-fibre road racing frame indoor Smart trainer.

The pedal choices are seemingly simple: flat or clipless. But which is best for your commute? That depends on the bike you will be riding, the distances involved and a personal fitness threshold.

Riders who have built dedicated lightweight commuters, purposed to travel significant distances each day, will have different pedal needs to someone who is using one of the latest e-bikes to journey a few blocks down, to the store or park.

Weather conditions, fitness and riding skill should guide your pedal choice. Clipless pedals can make novice riders anxious, best not risk learning to clip and unclip by crashing. If you are unsure, ride flats.

Experienced riders who might be at the mercy of longer routes, with greater wind exposure, can benefit from the efficiency of being clipped-in and powering along.

FiveTen's District sneakers look casual, with soles offering immense flat pedal grip. 

FiveTen's District sneakers look casual, with soles offering immense flat pedal grip.  (Image credit: FiveTen)

Where flats are best

While clipless has taken over in competition, flat pedals are still in popular demand with the mountain biking fraternity. Advances in platform shape, materials and durability are still in development and mountain bike pedals have become extremely refined. If you are keen on riding your commuter with flat pedals, what is there to be learned from mountain bikers about making the best possible choice?

The answer is simple: shoes. Mountain bikers have long considered the pedal and shoe to be a singular system. As a commuter, you might not wish to be wheelieing your way to work, but you would be mightily annoyed slipping a pedal every so often.

Having your shoes slip off a flat pedal, especially in rainy conditions, can have consequences which vary between momentary pain and severe injury. A shin strike can be wincing, but when travelling at speed among traffic, a slipped pedal could trigger an even worse crash.

Applying the same logic to your commuting pedal choice means you need appropriately patterned rubber soles to bind with the pins or rubber studs of a flat pedal. Shoes complete the look for many and there is no reason why you should sacrifice the balance of a tailored appearance, for having a safe flat pedal commute.

There is plenty of choice in stylish flat pedal riding shoes, all with quality rubber soles that will create a secure contact point with your choice of flat pedals. You can now confidently step on a set of pedals with ergonomically tailored casual riding shoes which won’t painfully slip a pedal – or embarrass you when sauntering into the local store or the office.

Flat pedals are also the obvious choice for e-bike commuters, where battery-assistance negates any need for clipped-in pedalling efficiency. Inexperienced riders who are starting their e-bike journey will feel a great deal more confident on flat pedals, to familiarise themselves with the synchronicity of their own cadence and a battery-powered hub motor helping them along.

DZR's Cove Timber is a stylish casual shoe, with can ride clipped-in. 

DZR's Cove Timber is a stylish casual shoe, with can ride clipped-in.  (Image credit: DZR)

The case for clipless

Considering on-the-bike application alone, clipless pedals are a superior choice. Designed for cycling, the clipless pedal is more efficient at power delivery, it negates the possibility of slipping a pedal, and offers greater comfort due to optimising the interface position between foot and pedal. 

For rides who are not going to be using electric bikes and wish to convert their pedalling power to obsessively efficient propulsion, there is no arguing against clipless pedals. Yes, there is the risk of not being able to unclip swiftly enough at low speeds, but with practice and some loosening of the pedals' tension screw, this issue is easily resolved.

As with flat pedal riding shoes and the question of appearance, there are some wonderfully fashionable clipless options available.

You can have the efficiency of a clipless pedal's power transfer, without the awkwardness of arriving at a meeting or social occasion, in shoes which look like they should be in a Grand Tour pro peloton.