By MTB Action. This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of Mountain Bike Action.
SKILL VERSUS SPEED
Chances are, if you're an avid mountain biker you have experimented with clipless pedals. Most riders do, and when we look around on our group rides we see the majority of riders attaching their feet to their pedals.
Now, we aren't saying clipless pedals are the enemy here, but we would like to point out that in some cases they might be doing more harm than good.
Clipless pedals are nothing new to our sport. In fact. clipless pedals became popular back in the mid-'80s and early '90s as an innovative way to improve upon metal toe covers with leather straps, which were referred to as toe clips. Clipless pedals soon became the next biggest thing since sliced bread and every racer wanted them, while flat pedals became associated with BMX and freeride mountain bikers.
The benefits of clipless pedals tend to be obvious to many riders. They provide more power for blasting up the hills, and they keep your feet securely planted on the way back down; however, clipless pedals cause many riders to develop bad habits. Flat pedals, on the other hand, force riders to use proper technique and to develop positive riding habits that will improve their skills. As a bonus, modern flat pedals are lighter and stronger and provide more traction than ever before. So, is it time to switch to flats?
As we mentioned earlier, there are a few obvious pros to clipless pedals, such as keeping your feet securely in place and improving your power, but there are many cons as well. Clipless-pedal users tend to have poor bunnyhopping skills.
Long-term users of clipless pedals may also find that their bunnyhop is less of a hop and more of a lift of their bike with their shoes. This often results in a nose-heavy hop that causes nothing but problems. Clipless pedals can also cause riders to become fearful of learning new skills, such as wheelies, manuals and track stands, or make them skittish about attempting technical climbs. The root of the fear comes from not being able to detach their feet in time to prevent a crash. Many riders overcome these fears when they get more comfortable with their clipless pedals, but it's possible they could have learned these skills more easily and safely with flat pedals.
The first thing we want to clarify is that those cheap plastic pedals that came with your bike so you could ride it around the parking lot are not the type of flat pedals we're talking about here.
We would recommend something more like the Spike pedals from Spank or the Rivera pedals from Kore. Along with these pedals you will want a proper pair of shoes to get the most from your flat-pedal experience. We recommend a pair of Five Ten shoes similar to the ones we reviewed on page 64. Now, at this point, we're sure you're questioning why you should go out and purchase another pair of pedals and riding shoes, but we promise this will pay dividends in the form of improved riding skills-and you will have a total blast. Yes, we're even talking to cross-country riders here.
Flat pedals are a great way to learn new skills and perfect old ones, and they're fun to ride. Flat pedals are also surprisingly efficient for climbing. Seriously, we felt just as fast on flat-pedal ride days. If you haven't used flat pedals in a while, or at all, then the first few rides might feel a little strange. Your feet may feel out of place for most of your ride, and you may think you're going to slip off; however, you rarely, if ever, will with the right shoe-and-pedal combo. The initial awkward feeling will go away much faster than you think. Just give yourself two or three good rides with them. After being forced to perfect your basic technical riding skills, such as proper bunnyhopping or learning to place your feet in the correct position, you will start to feel much more confident on your bike.
Soon you'll notice yourself dipping your heels naturally and weighting your feet to help utilize your bike's suspension on rough terrain. The feedback you'll be feeling from the trails will help you learn to take smoother and faster lines down the mountain. You may also notice more comfort, since your shoes will now closely resemble the type of shoes you wear on a regular basis. Who knows? You might find yourself wearing your new riding shoes when you're not riding. Some of our Five Tens are that comfortable.
The misconception that flat pedals are only for beginners or hard-core gravity riders simply isn't true. Every rider from any style or background can benefit from occasional flat-pedal riding. Save the clips for race days, and use a pair of flats for training and bettering your riding skills. Over the last few months we have been loving the transition between clips and flats and hope you get to experience it as well. As for current flat-pedal riders, we applaud you. And for you clipped-in guys and gals, we invite you to give flat pedals a fair shot.