The Great Pedal Debate: Road or Mountain Bike

I currently ride a 2007 Trek 5.2 Madone SL. I also ride a mountain bike. And since I had the mountain bike first, I put the same brand of mountain bike pedals (Time ATAC) on my road bike, which saved me from having to buy another pair of shoes.

They also have the advantage that you can click in on either side of the pedal and you can walk around easier in mountain bike shoes. I am thinking of changing over to road pedals on the road bike, but I would like your opinion as to any advantages road pedals have over mountain pedals on a road bike. I would probably go with road pedals from Look or Shimano.

-- Denis K.

There is no real advantage, ergonomically speaking, between road and mountain bike pedal systems. Mountain bike racing shoes are slightly more flexible at the toe to allow for walking, but this is not an area in the shoe that affects power transmission.

The lighter weight and aerodynamic benefits of a one-sided road pedal like a Look or Shimano, combined with the smoother sole of a dedicated road shoe, will add a touch of speed to your game, though.

One aspect of using the same shoe and pedal for both road and mountain that is not often addressed is that the Q-Factor (the distance from the center of the pedal to the centerline of the frame) is wider on a mountain bike. Many riders suffer knee problems due to slight cleat misalignments when they switch to the narrower pedaling stance of a road bike.

I am not one of these people, so I often ride the road with my mountain bike shoes and pedals. I, too, like the fact that I can walk in my mountain bike shoes without feeling like a city-zoo penguin.

A Shoe's Hot Spot

Do you feel there is any substance to the "hot spot" effect mountain bike shoes and pedals give or don't give due to the smaller footprint of the pedal? I currently use road shoes and pedals and I am thinking of switching.

Secondly, other than losing a few seconds in a time trial, the wider Q factor, and the "not cool" factor putting mountain style pedals on my 2009 Madone Trek 4.5, is there any additional reason not to use a mountain bike shoe and pedal with my recent bike purchase? My local bike shop thinks a road shoe and pedal is best vs. my son's pushing the mountain bike version.

He rides his road bike to work with mountain shoes and sometimes keeps his mountain bike shoes on all day during work. I do not like the penguin walk, but I value the expertise of my bike shop. In addition, my son's experience speaks volumes for a mountain-style choice.

Finally, I am 61 and did 3,000 miles this last season in training for long distance rides like RAGBRAI. On a few occasions during RAGBRAI, I did find my road style shoes easily "clogged" with mud, making it difficult to easily enter and exit. Not having ever used the mountain bike style, are they more easily clogged due to the indent nature of the shoe-clip location or less, since they are designed for the dirty environment of mountain biking?

-- Steve M.

You answered your own question when you mentioned that you ride RAGBRAI. First, however, I'll tackle the hot spot worry with a big Fagettaboutit! The only way your foot will know what kind of pedal is beneath it is if it has a flexible sole in that region. In that case, you need better shoes.

Both road and mountain shoes have super-stiff soles between the cleat and heel area where flexibility will rob power, so you won't get hot spots for any reason other than your shoe simply doesn't fit. Some MTB shoes build in a small degree of flex in the front of the shoe for better walking, but most makers opt for a more pronounced "rocker," which is the name for the curve in the front region of the sole that aids in a smooth step-through when walking. If you never walk, ride a good road shoe and pedal.

If you ride RAGBRAI, choose a mountain bike shoe and pedal—you probably ride similar style events throughout the season and you will be happy to have a more versatile shoe.


Road Bike Action is an enthusiast magazine focusing on new products, bikes, training and the transformative culture of bicycles. Check us out at www.roadbikeaction.com.

Contact Richard Cunningham for questions or comments, or just to talk bikes at: askRC@roadbikeaction.com 

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