The 6 Best Mountain Bike PedalsPublished on 05/12/2023 · 8 min readHaving good pedals for your mountain bike is key for making your rides more fun and easier! Cycling Expert Adam L. lists the top 6 mountain bike pedals!
Photo by KBO Bike
tl;dr When you think about the most important features on a mountain bike, your mind might jump to the frame, suspension components, or wheels. All those are crucial, but 100% of the power transfer from rider to bike goes through the pedals. In this article, we’ll provide an overview of mountain biking pedals, then jump into the six expert-recommended models.
Pedals, often overlooked, are actually some of the most important components on a bike. The perfect pair will maximize power transfer and make sure you stay glued to your mountain bike no matter how rough the terrain is. Pick the wrong pedals, and you’ll experience sloppy power transfer at best, and find yourself kicked off the bike on steep downhills at worst. Pedals are also relatively inexpensive and straightforward to swap, making them one of the easiest ways to upgrade or personalize your ride.
At Curated, our specialized team of Bike Experts has experience with just about every pedal on the market today. So I’ve compiled a list of our most recommended pedals in the category, with options for everyone: including aggressive trail riders, cross-country racers, and casual trail and road riders.
MTB Pedals 101
Before diving into the pedals, let’s cover some background information and basic features shared by most mountain biking pedals.
All modern pedals and cranks use the same axle size and are cross-compatible (just don’t cross-thread them). There’s a small chance an older or special-purpose bike will have different pedals, but 99% of bikes and pedals on the market today are compatible. This makes pedals one of the simplest upgrades one can make at home.
Unlike most road pedals, mountain bike pedals are dual-sided, meaning either side can be used for riding. This makes it easy to hop on and off no matter where the pedals are oriented on the cranks, or what the trail throws at you.
Flat vs. Clipless
There are two main types of pedals: flat and clipless. Generally, flat pedals are used by more casual riders as well as gravity-oriented and enduro riders. Whereas cross-country and trail riders prefer clipless pedals.
These pedals can be ridden with sneakers or flat riding shoes and don’t require the rider to clip in. Depending on the model, they will feature plastic ridges or metal pins for additional grip. Casual riders can get away with using standard shoes, but serious riders should opt for specialized mountain bike shoes. These shoes have stiff soles for maximum power transfer with grippy rubber to stay glued to the pedals. Benefits:
- Can use regular shoes
- Easier to quickly dismount or bail on rough trails
- Not as efficient for longer rides as clipless pedals
Despite their name, clipless pedals require special shoes that clip into the pedals for an extremely secure rider/pedal connection throughout the pedal stroke. Benefits:
- Increased efficiency
- Better pedal retention in moderate to rough terrain
- Harder to get on and off pedals
- Requires specific cycling shoes
Most pedals use either an allen key in the axle or a 15mm pedal wrench to install and remove. The left side pedal is usually reverse threaded, while the right side pedal has standard threads.
This can be a little confusing, so I use a shortcut that applies to both sides: when removing pedals, turn the wrench towards the rear wheel; when installing, turn the wrench towards the front wheel.
Further, you’ll want to make sure the pedals go in smoothly and aren’t cross-threaded; this can tear up the inside of your crankset. It’s also a good idea to add some grease or anti seize to the pedal threads before installation to make removal easier down the road.
The 6 Expert-Recommended Mountain Bike Pedals
1. Crank Brothers Stamp 1
The Crankbrothers Stamp 1 is one of my favorite high-value pairs of alloy mountain bike pedals. It’s got a composite body with nine traction pins per side. Also, the Stamp 1 is one of the cheapest pairs of pedals to be offered in two sizes: small for US men’s sizes 5–10, and large for sizes 10–15. Multiple sizes ensure proper foot placement for every rider.
Like other quality pedals, these are available in multiple color options. For these reasons and more, and despite being much cheaper than some higher-end models, these won the VitalMTB 2021 “Pedal of the Year” audience award.
Finally, Crank Brothers offers a service kit for refreshing bearings and other wear parts. From both a value and sustainability perspective, I really like that these pedals can be serviced instead of just thrown out and replaced.
2. Crank Brothers Stamp 2
We’ll stick with Crank Brothers for our next most-recommended pedal, the upgraded Stamp 2 model. The biggest difference is this pedal is built out of lightweight and durable aluminum and has a sleek design that cuts down on material but increases the number of traction pins to ten per pedal. The downside of the aluminum body is that only two color options, gray and black, are offered.
The Stamp 2 shares the same sizing options as well as steel axle and sealed cartridge bearings with its composite sibling. And just like the Stamp 1, a pedal refresh kit is available for home mechanics.
3. OneUp Components Aluminum Pedals
OneUp Components, based in Squamish, British Columbia, kept things simple when they designed their aptly named Aluminum Pedals. Looking at the pedal, you’ll notice a low-profile design that features just enough material to hold the ten traction pins. Excess material has been removed to keep weight down and make the pedal body just 8mm thick, which reduces pedal strikes on trail obstacles. There’s also a subtle contour that matches your foot shape and helps maximize grip.
Bearings are also serviceable with a standard cassette lock ring tool, making it easy to do for most home mechanics. Finally, they’re available in eight color options to suit any rider’s style—including a sleek oil slick finish.
4. RaceFace Ride
The RaceFace Ride are an awesome pair of entry-level composite pedals. They have a composite body without any sharp pins. Instead, raised grip zones keep shoes and pedals in contact on rough trails or streets. The lack of pins means these can be ridden with street shoes or sneakers—which is a useful feature for riders who also use their mountain bikes to commute.
Compared to basic pedals that may be included with any bike, their durable plastic and advanced grip make the RideFace Ride a worthy upgrade. Plus, they’re available in several colors to match your bike or personal style!
5. Shimano M520/M540
Shimano M520 and M540 pedals are perhaps the best-selling and most durable mountain bike pedals out there. They use Shimano’s super popular SPD cleat. While the two models are very similar, they include a few key differences:
- Weight: the M540 sheds 25g from the M520
- Installation: the M540 requires an 8mm allen key, while the M520 can be installed with a pedal wrench or 8mm key
- Bearings: the M540 has longer-lasting bearings
Further, these pedals feature a simple tension adjustment mechanism that sets easier or harder releases and can be used even when filled with mud and dirt. They’re a great choice for not only mountain, but also gravel, cyclo-cross, and road riders who prefer a recessed cleat. Service is easy, as the pedal body and axle can be separated for cleaning and regreasing.
Shimano also makes higher-end XT and XTR versions of these pedals, but for most riders, the MT520/540 will provide excellent performance at an unbeatable price.
6. Shimano XT M8120
The Shimano XT M8120 is a wide-body clipless pedal that offers a nice balance between the benefits of clipless and platform pedals. It uses the same SPD cleat as the M520/M540, but has a rugged aluminum body that provides a larger grip area and more stability. These pedals are designed for trail riders who won’t mind the slight weight penalty and will appreciate the larger grip. They have four degrees of float and entry/exit tension is adjustable with an allen key.
As with Shimano’s other pedals, these use standard bearings and are easily serviceable. A super durable steel spindle shrugs off hard impacts and pedal strikes as well. My favorite feature on these pedals is the larger platform, which makes it much easier to get a foot back on the pedal in hairy situations. Even if I can’t clip in right away, getting a little grip on the pedal body helps me easily remount on technical sections.
Need a Little Help Turning the Pedals Over?
Pedals are some of the most important and underappreciated components on today’s mountain bikes. And a pedal swap is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to breathe new life and style into your ride.
We’ve taken a course in some of Curated’s most recommended pedals, including composite and aluminum flat options, as well as cross country and trail clipless pedals, but there’s plenty more options too. If you’d like to learn more about clipless and flat pedals, or dig into specific features, check our our other Expert Journal cycling articles here on Curated!