Even Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks

by Mike Harris, PCI #1125
Mill Creek (WA) Police Department (Retired)
IPMBA Treasurer

[Ed.’s Note:  IPMBA has approved the use of flat pedals as pedal retention under certain conditions.  Read the position paper for details.] 

As many of you public safety cyclists can relate to, I have been riding a bike since I can remember.  While growing up in Alaska, my friends and I rode everywhere.  Today they would call it cross country, enduro, or downhill.  You get the idea.  All we wanted to do was explore our little corner of big Alaska.  My first “off-road” bike was an English three speed, a gift from my Mom, which I quickly destroyed in a month.  

A few years later, my good friend and I decided that we were going to be the next winners of the Tour de France, which meant that we had to ride on the road.  This also meant that my Montgomery Ward special was not going to cut it and that I had to have a “fancy” bike.  Back then in the 70’s, a “fancy” bike cost around $250.00.  So I worked two paper routes, one morning and one night, to save enough money to buy the bike that was going to lead me to glory.  As soon as I had enough saved, I ran to the local bike shop and bought a Schwinn Super Le Tour. 

The Super Le Tour was my first bike that had pedal retention.  Of course, just like putting on a new pair of running shoes, I put my feet into the pedals and tightened the straps as hard as I could, because I thought that the tighter the strap, the faster I would go.  It made sense to me until I came to my first stop, which just happened to be a four-way stop sign with cars lined up on all corners.  That’s when pure panic set in.  I could not get my feet out of the pedals. 

I must have appeared to be doing a fancy gymnastic balancing act while attempting to keep from falling over while trying to get my feet out of the pedals.  Needless to say, it did not end well.  I fell in slow motion and landed on the ground with both feet still in the pedals.  As a future Tour de France winner, I was highly embarrassed as I listened to the sound of laughter fading away from cars as they drove off into the distance.  But as time went on I figured it out and got quite good at getting my feet out of the cages. 

Over the years I tried every type of pedal retention that was available, until I settled into SPD pedals and cleats that came out around the year 1990.  I have been riding with SPD’s ever since and had not given another thought to my pedals or their relation to my riding until about two years ago.  Then things changed. 

There are three contact points on the bike:  the handle bar, the seat and the pedals.  I had transitioned from drop bars to flat bars.  I have experienced seats of all shapes and sizes.  However, I didn’t think much about the pedals except I knew that I had to be clipped in to be considered a respectable rider, and of course, I was.

In recent years, after going through a Level 2 instructor class taught by IMIC instructors (now under IMBA),  I was asked to volunteer teach with a local mountain bike group in Washington State.  The first question I was asked caught me off guard. “Do you have flat pedals”?   I thought, “Of course not.  No good rider rides on flats”.  Fortunately I kept my mouth shut, since I was then told that we were required to teach classes with flats. 

So off I went to my local bike shop, picked up some entry level flat pedals, installed them on my bike, and went out for a ride at our local bike park.  This is where I became quite perplexed.  I could no longer clear obstacles or ride over the rocks and roots.  My feet were flying off my pedals and causing me to lose control and execute a few unplanned dismounts, as if I didn’t know how to ride.

Then the light bulb went off.  All those years I had been riding strapped or clipped into my pedals had made me complacent.  I had been relying on and using physical mechanical retention system instead of the skill-based techniques that have been developed to get over tough areas on the trails. 

But I was still in denial.  In the back of my mind I was convinced it was an equipment issue, so again, off I went to the bike shop, in search of a better pair of flat pedals.  I thought, “Of course it was the pedals and not my riding form”.   So, I bought new pedals and went back to the bike park to test them out.  Much like my first experience with toe clips, it did not end well.  The last thing I remember was a big drop, a so-so landing, and a huge tree, resulting in a broken shoulder followed by six months of light duty.

During this time, filing the endless paperwork that never gets done until someone is on light duty, I was finally able to reflect and put it all together.  I realized that I had forgotten that there are two parts to pedal retention, be it clipless or flats:  the pedal and the shoes.  Although I had bought good pedals, I tried to go cheap by using my hiking shoes instead of a good pair of biking shoes made for riding with flat pedals, which would have helped my feet stay secured to the pedals.  So while I was healing, I used our Product Purchase Program and picked up a pair of Five Ten shoes.

When I had fully recovered and was out on my first ride, I was prepared with my new shoes and pedals.  Right away I could feel the difference.  When I placed my shoes down on the pedals as it felt almost like I was locked in.  In fact, what surprised me the most was feeling more secure and locked into the pedals than I had with any clip or strap pedal system that I used in the past.  It took some getting used to, but over time, I started riding more in control.  It was most noticeable when I went back to riding with clips; my riding and control was much better in the rough sections.  I was now using proper form and techniques in addition to my pedals.

I challenge you to try flat pedals too, especially if you have only been riding clipped or strapped into your pedals as all good riders do.  Pick up some good shoes, flat pedals and give it a chance.  You might have better luck in the beginning then I did!   Also, if you take the time to practice your technique, I am certain that you will see an improvement in your riding, whether it is off-road or, as I like to call my patrol environment, riding urban off-road.

Mike is a 27-year law enforcement veteran.  He retired in 2015 after serving 22 years with Mill Creek Police Department.  He has been a bike officer for 22 years and an IPMBA Instructor since 2008.  He currently serves as treasurer on the IPMBA Board of Directors and can be reached at mikeharris2139@gmail.com

(c) 2017 IPMBA. This article appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of IPMBA News.

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