Not so long ago, being a cycling enthusiast meant that your bike absolutely had to be equipped with clipless pedals. Whether you rode pavement, dirt, or gravel, those clipless pedals (and shoes) were a sign that you had made the transition from newbie to serious cyclist. But then, a few years ago, flat pedals began to enjoy a resurgence in popularity. Riders of all disciplines rediscovered the benefits–and freedom–of flat pedals.
One of the reasons for flat pedals’ increased popularity is the simple fact that modern flats are nothing like the old rat-trap designs that remained unchanged for the better part of a century. Today’s flat pedals are bigger, grippier, and offer support that rivals–and in some cases, exceeds–clipless pedals’ performance. Factor in the ability to wear virtually any type of shoe, and it’s no wonder that more and more riders are making the switch to flat pedals.
As flat pedals have grown in popularity, so has the number of choices. A quick search of one major online retailer’s site returned 200+ models of flat pedals. With so many options available, how do you choose the right pedal? As is often the case with bicycle components, the answer is, it depends.
Platform Size & Profile
Flat pedals can and do vary greatly in size. Although most manufacturers employ a one size fits most approach, some pedals–such as Crankbrother’s Stamp–are available in multiple sizes. When it comes to choosing a platform size, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Riders with smaller feet generally prefer proportionally smaller platforms, whereas riders with large feet tend to feel more at home on larger pedals. And while bigger platforms offer more support and traction, they can be overkill for commuting and gravel riding, and in some cases, more prone to pedal strike (especially on bikes with low bottom brackets).
Despite their name, most flat pedals aren’t actually flat. Like skateboard decks, many flats feature a concave profile, which is designed to improve traction and keep the foot centered over the pedal. Some pedals achieve concave by utilizing different height traction pins (sometimes referred to as virtual concave), while others reduce the pedal body’s thickness over the spindle. Concavity (or lack thereof) can also affect the pedal’s (stack) height. Most concave pedals are taller/thicker at the ends, which reduces obstacle clearance. Additionally, some riders prefer thinner pedals, as they feel more stable with their foot closer to the pedal’s axle.
Materials & Bearings
Until recently, nearly all high-quality flat pedals featured aluminum (or magnesium) bodies. Composite–or, nylon–pedals were usually considered inferior, but that’s no longer the case. Many composite pedals utilize the same chrome-moly spindles and sealed bearings as their alloy counterparts, and feature replaceable metal pins for improved traction. With their lower price tag, composite-bodied models are often a better choice for riders who need to frequently replace damaged pedals.
With the exception of the Shimano’s PD-GR500, all of the pedals tested feature sealed cartridge or sleeve-style bearings. The Shimano pedal is unique in that it utilizes traditional cup-and-cone bearings. The manufacturer’s bearing choice is often dictated by the pedal’s thickness. As pedal bodies become thinner, there’s less room for bulkier cartridge bearings. In some cases, such as the aforementioned Crankbrothers Stamp, the manufacturer forgoes ball bearings altogether in favor of sleeve bearings (aka, bushings).
Pin Style & Installation
One of the biggest improvement in flat pedals’ performance was the switch to threaded metal traction pins. Unlike their cast or molded-in counterparts, the threaded pins could be replaced when worn, or upgraded with longer pins for even more traction. On the composite Fyxation and Race Face pedals that I tested, the pins thread into recessed metal nuts. Alloy pedals can be threaded directly, and the pins install from the top or bottom of the platform. Bottom-mount pins are often easier to replace because the heads do not directly contact the riders’ shoes.
If you’ve ever had to tighten a loose pedal in the wild, you’ll appreciate spindles with Allen-style fittings (assuming you’re carrying a multi-tool). Although a few of the pedals in our test can be installed with traditional pedal spanners, most require 6 mm or 8mm hex keys. Regardless of the tools required, always grease the pedals’ threads, and use pedal washers where needed. Lastly, left pedals are reverse threaded, but both pedals tighten towards the front of the bicycle when viewed from the side.