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Are fat bikes more fun with flat pedals or clipless?

Which style of pedal works best for deep winter riding?

Photo by: Tim Foster / Unsplash Photography

When it comes to pedals, most mountain bikers are firmly set on one side of the flats vs. clipless debate or the other. Die-hard flat pedal devotees scoff at SPDs, while clipped in riders can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want the advantage of being attached to the pedals.

But, when it comes to winter fat biking, snow makes pedal choice a whole different equation. There are pros and cons to both pedal styles. Ultimately, which pedal will get you through winter best could depend on what kind of riding you’re doing.

Frosty Fat Bike Race Jasper EXC
Both flat and clipless pedals were in use at Frosty’s Fat Bike Race in Jasper, Alta in 2019.

Stay warm in cold weather

When temperatures really drop, flats have one advantage over cleats. Warmth. Clipless shoes bleed heat out through the metal of the cleat and its hardware. With flats, you can adjust your footwear to the weather, from thin shoes to Sorels. There are some excellent SPD boot options, for the clipless diehard, but flats make staying warm much easier for the rest of us.

Deep snow and clogged cleats

When it comes to staying clean and holding, flats have the advantage. While intuitively, clipless will keep you attached to the pedal more securely, this only holds true when the cleats are clear of debris. Any time you step off the bike and walk some snow will make it back into the pedals. Like riding in thick mud, this will eventually clog or bind clipless pedals and leave you skating on top of the metal pedal. Flats, especially those with sizeable pins for grip, clear snow more effectively.

Frosty Fat Bike Race Jasper EXC
How much time you will spend on your feet vs. on your bike could influence pedal choice

Fresh snow vs. groomed trails

Where you are riding can make a huge difference in what pedals are best. If you’re fording a path through untracked snow or riding in fresh powder, flats could be the way to go. But, if you’re spending most of your time riding groomed tracks at a trail center, clipless pedals aren’t likely to clog up or freeze.

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Just like in warmer weather, clipless pedals are well proven to be more efficient. Riding in snow isn’t easy and traction is never perfect. Clipless pedals will still give you better control over the pressure you put on the pedals. A smooth pedal stroke will help avoid spinning out on slippery climbs.

Fat Bike Pedals
Clipless pedals are great for groomed trails. Photo Credit: Citizen 4474 via Compfight

Foot out flat out

As mentioned above, snow is slippery. If you’re riding a fat bike you’re probably going to slide out at least once on your ride (which is part of the fun!). Not being attached to the pedal makes it easier to get a foot down when you do start sliding, making slippery situations more fun – and less frightening – than riding clipped in.

Any pedal is better than no pedals at all

Ultimately, the answer to which is better – flats or clipless – comes down to which will make you have more fun. Both pedal styles have a place in winter riding, with their own advantages and disadvantages. Whichever will make you ride more is the right answer for you. Because any day outside on bikes is better than a day with no bikes at all!