If you want maximum power transfer and secure mountain bike to rider connection then clipless pedals are the way to go. That said, it's important to choose the best pedal for the type of riding you enjoy.
For most riders, the latest evolution of the original Shimano SPD design still sets the standard to beat in terms of cost-effective reliability. Nukeproof’s Horizon and Ritchey’s WCS offer interesting twists on the Shimano template if you’re after a tough trail pedal or a featherweight foot connection. Crank Brothers’ Mallet and Time’s ATAC show it’s worth setting foot outside the world of Shimano if you’re after a different, potentially more knee friendly feel, too.
That’s just a select handful from the shoe-grabbing selection you’ll find when shopping though. So how do you work out which gives the best foothold for your budget and your style of riding, and which should you avoid?
Best for trail / XC
Shimano’s entry-level M520 can be bought ridiculously cheap and is as near to indestructible as you’ll find. It might not have the fancy coatings or lighter materials of posher Shimano SPDs, but the actual on-trail operation is indistinguishable. From experience they often last longer than their more sophisticated siblings too, and the bearings are fully serviceable if they do start to develop play. The axles are heavier than the 8mm Allen key shafts on 540 and above but it means you can fit and remove them with a garage spanner if you don’t have an 8mm.
The ‘toe-in’ engagement is easy once learned and connection and release are clearly communicated. Spring tension is adjustable, they shrug off rock strikes very well and Shimano cleats last longer than any others, too. The ‘Multi-Release’ cleats let you pull out upwards as well as sideways if you’re scared of being trapped but premature ejection means we generally stick with the standard cleats.
The only real downside is lack of shoe support as the body sits below the level of the mechanism so you’re often wobbling about on the cleat rather than the cage. That’s the same as all Shimano ‘trail’ pedals though and while it concentrates pressure through the cleat it means more 3D-float for knee health than a broader, closer connection.
It’s the relentless reliability and price of the 520 that makes it the ‘no brainer’ cost-effective choice though and means there are about a dozen pairs of these roaming free in the northern BikePerfect workshop as the default pedal for any test trail bikes that come in.
Crank Brothers makes 3 versions of its Candy pedal and the 3 sits right in the middle, offering a full range of tuning features in a relatively wide one-piece, three-colour-option body design. The mechanism is the classic X-Wing Eggbeater design which rotates freely in the centre of the shoe to give all angle release and engagement whatever filth is on your shoe. While the medium spring tension is fixed float and release angle can be altered by switching cleats left to right or choosing from premium standard or easy-release options that give 0-10 degrees of float and 10-20 degrees release angles.
Clearance between shoe and pedal can be tuned with shims under the cleat and the Candy 3 also comes with clip-on ‘traction pads’ for the body. That means with a bit of fettling you can get just the right amount of foot support and connection for your riding tastes. The extra body support also reduces shoe wear from the stainless steel wings compared to the skeletal Eggbeater design. Protection is improved too but they are 75g heavier than a pair of Eggbeater 3s.
As well as having the traction pads included as standard the 3s get a Hex key end cap and double seal system protecting the Enduro cartridge bearings and Igus bushings inside. Reliability of recent pedals has been excellent too and they’re covered by a five-year warranty if you do have problems.
This makes them a great trail option for riders who want a softer release feel and more tuneable support than Shimano with a similar level of reliability and weight.
The 540 takes the 520 body and ‘upgrades’ it with a lighter, sculpted axle to save 11g of weight from each pedal. That’s not a massive amount considering they generally sell for around £10 more. While the 8mm Allen key axle looks slick you can’t use a 15mm spanner to fit/remove the pedals either. You do get a metal bearing collar rather than the plastic one on the 520s though which means you don’t need the matching collar removal tool.
If it seizes in place (which they can do) there’s no option to melt it out and fit a new one like there is on 520s. Otherwise the bearings are the same user serviceable, relentlessly reliable arrangement. Despite having used far more of them we’ve definitely had less issues with 520 and 540 pedals over the years than pricier XTR units so, in comparative terms, they’re still a total bargain.
As the mechanism sits on top of the body rather than embedded, there’s more sideways wobble and play between shoe and pedal than larger platform options. The mechanism is also more exposed and there are less cleat options than some competition as the ‘multi-release’ is a lot less predictable than a simple increased float design.
Ritchey has a reputation for lightweight racer friendly components and even its entry-level Comp pedals are significantly lighter than most. The gram shaving mostly comes from the minimalist cold-forged body with bolted-on front catch. There’s still enough side support for stiffer shoes though but with no shim system the tightness of that connection varies on shoe tread design/depth. There is a ‘trail’ version with extended front and rear cage if you want more cage under your mid foot though.
It’s worth noting that they normally come with tension set to minimum. That’s a nice touch for beginners but you’ll need to add some clicks if you don’t want your feet to fly off too easily.
Ball bearings inboard and outboard give a decent run life and they can be regreased and serviced if they do start to get dry of wobbly. The WCS version uses needle bearings, bushings and a cartridge bearing to drop another 35g. If weight isn’t an issue for you though they both look expensive compared to the indestructible Shimano competition.
Time has been using its twin-loop ATAC mechanism for years, gaining foul-weather fans from the fact the forward hoop forces out muck as it engages. They float easily and disengage very smoothly too so they’ve always been a favourite of riders with knees that don’t like a fixed foot position or a hard click-in or out. All those things hold true in the latest range of Time pedals which covers every use from DH and Enduro to XC.
It’s lightweight XC where Time really excel though with the mud-shedding design, low weight and high-mileage durability giving them a cult following particularly among racers and cross riders. The XC6 uses a tough but lightweight composite body to add relatively wide side support and protect the mechanism. The XC6 is also one of the few ATAC pedals to come with adjustable spring tension. A hollow cro-mo steel axle keeps it competitive in weight terms with less protected and supportive ‘skeleton’ pedals.
There’s no Crank Brothers-style shim adjustment to tune shoe-to-body clearance/connection so you might get some wobble depending on shoe choice. The brass cleats only come in two versions (standard and easy release) and wear quickly but that means they don’t wear out the pedals themselves.
While the unslotted design means no sideways adjustment in the shoe the broad hoops mean your foot can slide from side-to-side anyway. That’s either a big plus or a minus depending on your personal pedalling taste but it can definitely make disengagement slightly less consistent than other pedals. It’s so smooth and mobile you can’t always tell whether you’re clipped in or not either. The fact the tall, short body tends to roll forwards or backwards can also complicate connection.
They’re still a great option If you find SPD-style pedals too restrictive.
Best for enduro
The 530 takes the same bombproof mechanism and axle system as the 520 and imbeds it into a mid-sized platform cage. Because the mechanism is actually inset into the body not perched on top that also means proper ‘grounded’ shoe support either side. The cage drops away front and rear so there’s no toe/midfoot support but it still makes it easier to flip kick round to engage. It also provides a bit of impact protection in front of the mechanism. This all makes the M530 more suited to aggressive trail use with flatter soled trail/DH shoes than the 520 but they are significantly heavier as a result. Engagement and release is potentially slightly tighter and 3D ‘float’ reduced as well depending on the shoe you’re using - but it’s always a positive click-in and out when it happens.
Otherwise the 6mm Allen Key/15mm wrench axle and serviceable bearings hidden behind the plastic axle collar are as relentlessly reliable and user friendly as ever. The adjustable mechanism is utterly consistent in use as long as you don’t let your cleats wear too much and they work just as well in mud as the 520/540s. Cleat/float options are limited though as aggressive/dynamic riders likely to be drawn to the bigger body should definitely stick with the default 4 degree cleat rather than the less predictable easy-pop-out ‘multi-release’ option.
Nukeproof’s Horizon CS is the smaller platform Enduro/Trail version of its big, 100g heavier CL DH pedal. You still get a decent amount of sideways and mid-foot shoe support as well as two grip pins front and rear (the CL has 3 each end). The pins are adjustable to suit different tread/soles and they’re well placed to offer extra twist input when you’re clipped or unclipped grip if you want it, or screw out of the way if you don’t.
The double-sprung SPD design works in the same ‘toe-in, twist-out’ way as a genuine SPD. The slightly raised mechanism makes hitting the target easier than most pedals though without impacting the level of support on several flatter-soled trail shoes (Icon, 5:10, Specialized and Giro) we tried them with. There are 4 and 8 degree float cleats available to tune feel and release and it’s a clean ejection when you get to the right angle. The raw and anodised design is available in several colours and they’ve proved impressively durable when battered through rocks. The bearings have held up well on all the samples we’ve used. Add keen pricing and they’re an outstanding option if you want an SPD feel with more connection/support adjustability than average.
After issues with early versions of the Candy, the Mallet helped save Crank Brothers' pedal reputation by becoming the gravity footholder of choice for a ton of high-profile riders. The Mallet E uses a slightly smaller platform but all the same adjustable pin and shim features to create an outstanding, fully tuneable lightweight Enduro/hardcore trail pedal.
As with all Crank Brothers pedals the mechanism at the centre is the brilliantly simple and effective stainless steel X-Wing Eggbeater design. That means easy, soft clip-in at all angles, no matter the amount of dirt on your foot. Spring tension is fixed but choosing different cleats or switching them left to right gives between 0-10 degrees of float and 10-20 degrees release angles making them (and other CB pedals) the most adjustable around. Shoe-to-pedal clearance can be tuned with shims under the cleat or changeable ‘traction pads’ slotted into the two-tone anodised body (four colours are available) alongside the mechanism. Foot connection when clipped or unclipped can be further modified by screwing the six steel grip screws in or out of the body. This means you can have your feet locked down or skating around as you want but still get great impact and pedalling support at a reasonable weight. The LS (Long Shaft) axle gives a 57mm (rather than 2mm) extension for more leverage and crank clearance if you’re duck footed.
Reliability of recent Crank Brothers pedals has been excellent and they’re covered by a five-year warranty. With eight different versions of Mallet from the entry-level E11 to the limited-edition ‘Super Bruni’ DH World Champion version there’s an option for most wallets and preferences.
HT’s T1 looks very similar to Shimano’s XT 8020 pedal but actually works very differently and that’s obvious in the on-trail feel. The first difference is that they use a specific cleat design with a broad rear shelf and won’t work with SPD compatible cleats. While the toe-down step-in feels similar to SPD both front bar and rear jaw are spring loaded with a very firm and clear click into place. While tension is adjustable, the overall range is much higher than average, with medium being similar to tightest on Shimano and tightest on HT being almost immovable.
The release feel is very different too, with increasing spring resistance right through the float, rather than nothing and then a quick clip out as normal. That can be scary at first and they’re not best suited to novices but our more-aggressive testers really liked the progressive release once they’d adjusted to the feel.
The 68mm wide cage gives decent side and some mid-foot support and they come in 11 different anodised colours. Reliability from the mix of bushings and needle bearings is not too bad and there’s a Ti axle version that reduces the low weight even further.
When DMR introduced a clipless pedal to its legendary flat-pedal line-up, clip-in DH fans everywhere started salivating. The V-Twin has some great contact and connection features but durability hasn’t matched up to DMR’s previous bombproof reputation. The chunky alloy cage offers reasonable side support and comes with plastic bumpers at either end that can be shimmed higher to tune foot gap. They also have seven (four front, three rear) grip pins that can be screwed in/out for more bite whether you’re clipped in or not. The central ‘SPD’ style mechanism pivots within the body so toe-in engagement is easy. Float and clean release are comparable to Shimano (presuming you’ve not locked your shoe down with the pins) and they work fine with SPD cleats.
We’ve smashed the front ‘hook’ of two sets of V-Twins on rocks in relatively quick succession. Our third set has survived better but the body is now slightly loose inside the cage and the bearings need to be adjusted regularly to combat looseness.
How to choose
There are a few questions you need to ask yourself before buying pedals but they’re all pretty straightforward. What isn’t so predictable are the answers.
1. Pedal size
The larger the pedal, the easier it is to find with your foot. Bigger pedals like the DMR V- Twin, Nukeproof Horizon CL, Crank Brothers Mallet DH, HT X2 and old Shimano DX also give more support under your shoe. Adjustable grip pins screwed into the platforms increase foot security whether you’re clipped in or not. Bigger pedals are heavier though so really big platforms are generally just used by gravity riders.
That’s led to the development of the latest category of medium or ‘enduro’ sized platform pedals like the Crank Brothers Mallet E, HT T1, Shimano 9120 XTR/8100 XT and Nukeproof Horizon CS. These use a smaller, lighter platform but often keep grip pins so they’re still useable unclipped.
Small platform pedals - like Crank Brothers Candy and Shimano 530 - offer a bit more contact area and mechanism protection than a trail pedal but without the extra front and rear support of a caged option. Trail pedals - Shimano M525, Time ATAC, H2 M1 and Ritchey - have enough body to give some support under your shoe on either side and protect the clipless mechanism from impacts. Finally 'skeleton’ mechanism only pedals like Crank Brothers Eggbeaters are super light and basically impervious to mud clogging. With no support platform or protection around the mechanism though they’re best suited to very stiff shoes and more careful riders.
How much you’ve got to spend is always a significant factor but with pedals the gains aren’t always inline with the investment. Spending more does get you more choice. The cheapest pedals are all minimal platform ‘trail’ platforms and then price tends to increase as pedals get bigger.
Features like adjustable pins also cost more and some pedal systems use different coatings on mechanisms to potentially improve performance.
Changes in axle material - better quality steel or titanium on really fancy pedals - and more sculpted bodies reduce weight but push the price up further.
However as with many components more expensive/complex doesn’t always mean more reliable. The prime example here is Shimano’s SPD (Shimano Pedalling Dynamics) range. XTR (and to a lesser extent XT) are built from fancier materials and treated to smarter coatings than entry-level pedals to reduce weight and improve performance. You’d be hard-pressed to notice any difference between them and the basic £36.99 M520 model under your feet though. More importantly Shimano’s cheapest pedals outlast pretty much any pedal from anyone, despite sometimes being sold for less than a spare pair of cleats (that they come with as standard).
As well as weight, platform size and price, the ‘feel’ and operation of some pedals can make them particularly suitable for some riders. All the Shimano compatible designs feel broadly similar and have adjustable release spring tension. Those tension ranges and clip-in/out action can vary though and there’s no way to adjust shoe-to-pedal spacing. Time and Crank Brothers pedals use hoop-based mechanisms that give a very smooth, quiet, mud-proof engagement and disengagement. In contrast H2 pedals come from a BMX background and use double-sprung mechanisms with a very obvious and secure feel.
Crank Brothers pedals don’t have spring-tension adjustment but use pedal and cleat shims to tune the gap - and therefore connection/movement - between your shoe and the pedal. DMR use different pedal shims and rubber bumper heights to do the same job. While some riders like a fixed foot connection, more rotational movement before the cleat unclips from the shoe (float) can reduce strain on your knees. Float varies between pedal designs but it can also be altered from 0 to 20 degrees by using different shapes of cleat, or switching the cleats from left to right. Crank Brothers currently offer the widest range of options.
Now that you know what you’re looking for you can hopefully narrow down suitable pedals for your budget, riding style and knee health yourself. If you want to benefit from several decades worth of riding and testing every pedal type in a vast range of conditions though, then check out the reviews of our recommended pedals below.