Clipless Versus Flat Pedals

For most mountain bikers, our two-wheeled lives begin on flat pedals. Usually, whichever set happened to come on our first bike and likely accompanied by a pair of runners from the closet. But, as life on two wheels progresses and bikes get upgraded, pedals become a thing that you’re forced to think about. Particularly, since most mid- to high-end bikes don’t come with any.

Often, this is the moment when a lot of riders take the plunge and try clipless pedals. Confusingly termed clipless because they were developed as an alternative to the older styled “toe-clips” but, in reality, more clipped in than ever before.

The promise of easier climbing and more efficient pedaling is the main draw. Stick with it long enough to get past the initial falling in the driveway stage and you’ll likely stay with it.

On the other side of the coin, there are incredibly strong riders who never make the move to clipless. For them, the concept of being attached to their bikes is far too restrictive.

After spending most of my mountain biking life riding clipless pedals, I made the move back to flats. Then, after two years on flats, I returned to clipless. I learned a few things along the way.

For me personally, my riding had reached a point where I needed to mix things up and push myself in different ways. I wanted to corner more confidently and become a better jumper, maybe even learn a few basic tricks too. Being clipped in left me feeling scared to push my comfort zone in these areas.

Investing in the right shoe is key, regardless of the type of pedal. When I first switched to flats, I started with a fairly flexible soled shoe that I later upgraded to something stiffer. Stiffness typically comes at the expense of pedal-feel (i.e. being able to feel the presence and support of the pedal). However, stiffer shoes help to increase pedaling power, particularly when climbing, which is something that mattered to me.

After returning to clipless, I moved my cleat position further back to match the foot position that I had grown accustomed to while riding flats. This new position allowed me to drive more of my body weight into the pedals, which absolutely helped with cornering.

Riding flats forced me to learn proper bunny hopping technique. Not only did this help with jumping but also with trail riding in general. The motion of driving the hips down into the bike is what provides the leverage needed to lift the front end of the bike up during a bunny hop. This technique turns out to be helpful in all kinds of trail situations, even when there’s no obstacle to clear.

In the end, it was technical climbing that drove me back to clipless. While the trails in and around Millbrook aren’t particularly technical, I have always felt strong when riding more technically challenging trail systems. I noticed an appreciable decline with flat pedals.

The ability to shift your weight and pull the bike through rough low-speed or uphill terrain while continuing to pedal forward is a difficult dance on flats. Strong riders can do it. I couldn’t. Not well, at least. And it wasn’t something I wanted to leave behind.

In summary, clipless pedals are a great choice for improving pedaling power and maneuverability as well as boosting pedaling efficiency overall. Flat pedals offer a feeling of freedom and help facilitate new skill development and progression. For everything else, there’s no clear winner.

This month’s trail tip: Shake things up. Make a change.

A Singletrack Mind – David D’Agostino

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