May
28

Being pro-flat pedals doesn’t mean I’m anti-clipless pedals…

This article is one I have been wanting to write for a while simply to clarify my overall position on this whole “flats vs. clipless pedals” debate. The internet is a double edged sword for me on this subject because, on one hand, it allows me a platform to easily get my ideas on this subject out there to riders who need the info but, on the other hand, it is easy to read one thing I write and take it out of context.

I almost have to come across as “anti-clipless” just to start dragging this debate back to center but I am really not a “flat pedal only” zealot.

I have created a couple of dozen articles and videos over the last few years explaining the multiple layers of my position but I understand that not everyone has read/ seen more than a couple of them, making it easy to misunderstand my ultimate position. To add even more confusion, this blog has seen me flesh out my ideas and positions in front of a live audience and those things have evolved over the years.

I realized after my article on Which Muscles are Really Used During the Pedal Stroke that a lot of riders still think that I dislike clipless pedals and every time I point out a myth about them or promote the use of flats I am, in essence, saying that clipless pedals suck and are worse than flats. I think that some riders even envision me harassing everyone I see about the subject and will only ride with someone if they are on flats. However, this is far from the truth.

I wrote this in a response to a comment and I’ll repeat it here because it sums up my overall position perfectly-

I am not anti-clipless pedals, I am pro flat pedals. I think that both have their place in riding, specifically I believe that flats make you better and that clipless can make you faster.

This is a very important distinction because it means that I am not saying that one is better than the other, simply that both have pluses and minuses and, unlike the vast majority of the cycling world, I champion the advantages of flats. I do believe that there are a lot of myths and half-truths surrounding the subject – mainly on the perceived disadvantages of flats – and that riders deserve to know both sides of the story before making a decision about which is better for them.

I think that the are pluses and minuses to both pedal system but for too long the deck has been stacked firmly against flats, with a downplaying of any disadvantage to clipless pedals and no mention of any advantage for flats. There were even some pluses being stacked on the clipless pedal side that simply weren’t true, like the need for them to use the hamstrings during the upstroke.

All I am trying to do is help bring the whole story to the table, which means that I have to point out the advantages of flats, the disadvantages of clipless pedals and clear up the myths surrounding the whole subject. Taken out of context of the bigger picture that I am trying to even out an argument that is decidedly one sided it is easy to take those things and interpret my position as being “anti-clipless”. I almost have to come across as “anti-clipless” just to start dragging this debate back to center but I am really not a “flat pedal only” zealot.

This really hit home for me a few weeks back when I found myself actually defending the use of clipless pedals for racing. Clipless pedals do have advantages in high performance situations like racing and when someone started going down the road of flats being the best choice for everybody, all of the time I found myself defending their use, given that whoever was using them could ride flats in the first place.

Which brings me to my last point – what I am against is the use of clipless pedals before someone can ride at a proficient level with flats. I think that there is a process for learning how to pedal and maneuver your bike on the trail and that it begins with flats and, even if  you do use clipless pedals, you should retain your ability to ride at a reasonable level with flats. Flats keep you honest and force you to learn good technique and clipless pedals should make you faster by enhancing that good technique, but this is not the case with most riders on clipless pedals.

Most riders have never spent any real time on flats, much less a good set of flats and flat specific shoes like 5-10s, and instead went into clipless pedals right away. My message to them is not that they should throw their clipless shoes and pedals away but that they will get more out of them and be better overall riders if they took a break from them and re-learned how to ride with flats. After learning how to ride without them you’ll find clipless pedals to make you even faster when you go back to them.

Before I close, I do think that it is important to point out the elephant in the room – clipless pedals do contribute to crashes and scare new riders away. I have spoken to too may riders who start their injury story off with “I couldn’t get unclipped” and other cyclists who talked about how they tried mountain biking but being clipped in scared them to pretend that this isn’t happening.

I think that new riders should spend at least 6-12 months learning on flats before considering the switch to clipless pedals. The snobbery of riders who are able to ride clipless pedals at a high level and then dismiss people’s very real fears and concerns with an “I’ve never had any problems so neither should you” attitude as they continue to tell every new rider they meet that they need to get clipless pedals ASAP is ridiculous.

So ride clipless pedals, I honestly don’t care. If you took the time to learn on flats and are using them for high performance/ racing situations then they can offer an advantage. Just don’t tell me that there are not very real disadvantages to clipless pedals for the new and average rider (especially for mountain biking) and that you can not be a very good rider on flats, doing everything with them that you can with clipless. Being pro-flats isn’t the same as being anti-clipless and misapplying either pedal system in the name of blind ideology isn’t helping advance our sport as a whole.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Brian MacDonald says:

    Good job on not giving up on the topic James.

    I trail ride on flats (okay my bike is also my dirt jump hard tail with a long seat post) and race DH with clips. It has been my experience that the foot placement that clips allow you to have for high speed, rock gardens definitely out weighs any advantages of flats (which I used to run up to mid-last year) around ease of putting a foot down or re-positioning.

    The bigger question for me is what I’ll do when I finally get around to picking up a 5 inch trail/XC bike. I suspect for trail riding I will likely stick with my flats. I’ve been doing a lot of road riding recently and realize how different the muscle use is and how clips clearly make sense. It’s such a different activity, so less of the intense sharp climbs that you get on any trail ride.

    Either way, thanks for keeping the conversation rolling.

    Brian

    Reply • May 28 at 8:51 am
  2. Markus says:

    Hi James,

    very good article. Just a random fact to support your theory: in France (and some other european countries) you are not allowed to use clipless pedals in BMX racing if you are under 17 years of age. The french cycling federation applied this rule years ago yet France still produces a vast number of world class junior and elite riders. Ask any BMX pro and he will tell you exactly what you are writing above: learn to ride on flat pedals, perfect your technique on flat pedals, use clipless pedals for pro racing but always spend some time on flat pedals.

    Reply • May 28 at 10:15 am
  3. John K. says:

    James I think you’ve done a good job over the past 2 years clarifying your position on the issue. Hopefully this post solidifies your argument.

    You’ve done a great job explaining how to maximize your pedal stroke on flats. I’m still hearing a lot of confusion among the clipped-in crowd about jumping and hopping with flats. “How do you lift your back end without clips?” is a common question I hear.

    Once my clipped-in buddies learned how easy it is to lift the back end on flats, they bought flats right away. I think for freeride and agressive all-mountain, flats are much safer than clipless.

    Reply • May 28 at 12:35 pm
  4. ED BIRCH says:

    Considering the last world d.h. champs were won by greg minaar on flat pedals and 5.10 shoes; is there much more to say?for those who ride mountain bikes for the pure adrenelinn/enjoyment of riding “off-road” on inknown tracks/trials, i cannot see myself clipping in to a pedal……………..sure if you are racing circuits and set courses there may be something; but i very much doubt if the perceived extra ‘power’ of clipless will make any difference to the average rider who has ridden flats
    thanks for the imput james…………

    Reply • May 29 at 12:25 am
    • K1 says:

      The last Dh world Championships where won by Danny Hart on Clipless pedals. Minnaar was DH world Champ in 2003. The last World cup round was won by Greg Minnaar on Clipless also with Crank brothers pedals and his signature 5.10 Clipless shoes.

      Reply • May 29 at 9:09 am
    • justin lee says:

      False, Minnaar= races clipless

      Gee= races clipless

      Gwin= races clipless

      Hart= races clipless

      Brosnan= races clipless

      stevie smith = races clipless

      Reply • June 7 at 12:13 pm
      • bikejames bikejames says:

        And they all also can – and do – ride flats as well and as almost as fast. And don’t forget that Sam Hill Dominated the World Cup scene on flats. Like I said, flats make you better and clipless make you faster.

        Reply • June 9 at 10:05 am
      • Diarmuid says:

        Brook MacDonald = races flats
        Josh Bryceland = races flats
        Sam Hill – races flats

        All of the above can win on any round of the WC racing flats. Sam Hill was dominating Val di Sol in 07 on flats and that is the roughest track of the year. Its possible to win WCs on flats.

        Reply • March 3 at 3:42 pm
  5. PM says:

    I think the most sensible thing said in this whole ‘clips vs flat’ debate nonsense is that new riders should ride flats for the first 6-12 months before thinking about trying clips.

    Then try ‘em if you want to and if you like them then keep using them. If you don’t like them don’t use them, if you don’t want to try them then don’t. Simple.

    Reply • May 29 at 3:15 am
  6. Phil says:

    One problem here is that bikes come with either no pedals or they come with those crappy plastic flat pedals and I am sure that most new bike owners feel like the only choice they have is to either ride the flat pedals with their tennis shoes on or they have to drop some change on these expensive pedals and shoes that look dangerous. Personally I started out on the plastic pedals and subsequently beat the heck out of my shins for over a year. I then bought some clipless pedals and shoes and thought they were the best thing ever made. No one in a bike shop ever mentioned that there were good flats that could be bought. All I ever heard until finding your site was get these pedals and then you will have more power because you can pull up and push down and they actually worked but now I know that they were really only covering up my lack of pedaling skill. I have nothing against them but I do mostly all mountain type riding and love my flats. The flats really helped me take my technical riding to a new level.

    Reply • May 29 at 7:24 am
  7. Steve says:

    I rode clipless for over 5 years because I thought that it’s what we “have to do”. I was good at unclipping but, frankly, hated most not being able to clip back in quickly in dicey conditions. Still, my last fall on dry loose gravel (at 11,000′ in Breck) left one knee jacked up for weeks when I couldn’t unclip quite fast enough.
    Thanks to James for educating us all – and keeping at it! I’ve switched to Answer Rove FR flat pedals (excellent pedals) and 5-10s and will never look back. Flat pedals and sticky shoes rule!! Off/On instantly and PLENTY of control – just pay attention to foot position on the pedal for max efficiency.

    Reply • May 29 at 8:37 am
  8. WAKi says:

    I’ve got a bit into “science” of marketing lately. I really have no problem understanding to see such absurds like complete amateurs riding clipped in to work, silverbullet syndrome – it’s not entirely people’s fault to have such mentality.

    James (and anyone interested), if you haven’t – you should watch that documentary from BBC “The century of self” in the link below, it should relieve you some headache and show how right you were saying in one of the latest podcasts that truth is not mainstream… it’s no conspiracy theory, it’s science. Part one is interesting enough but I recommend the whole 4 part thing.

    To tease you a bit, the part one is called: the happiness machines :)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prTarrgvkjo

    Reply • May 29 at 9:56 am
  9. Mike says:

    What would be a good set of flats I could try? I have only ever ridden clipless and don’t understand all the hubbub. I think people should use what works best for them. I love your balanced approach and am a better rider now because of the tips I’ve read here…

    Reply • May 29 at 2:18 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I personally run the Deity Decoy and Decoy LT pedals but there are a lot of good pedals to choose from, no one pedal has the market cornered on being “better”. I agree that riders should run what works best from them but most riders are not really given that choice – they are told to run clipless pedals and flats are not given a fair chance. Try them out, even if you don’t stick with them forever you will be a better rider for it.

      Reply • May 29 at 3:35 pm
  10. Chris says:

    Hey James, thanks for being the whipping boy on this topic :) You are serving to effectively explain the concepts that many of us more well rounded riders are trying to convey to our own ride groups… I raced BMX for 15 years on razor sharp “Urchins” pedal cages with Vans shoes and became a top 5 state ranked rider and top 14 national rider during my career… When I later became a mountainbiker and now have 15 years of that under my belt; I adopted clipless about year three, the very first day on clipless put a full right leg of road rash up to my knee at the start of a 2 week mountainbiking trip in the North Carolina mountains :/ Fast forward to modern day, I am currently “Pedal Ambidextrious”. I frequently challenge the local “clipless only preachers” I am just as fast on my flats as my clipless, they are generally quite surprised to see me smoke them riding flat pedals and then do the same by a much larger margin the following week on clipless ;)… The real point is to become a more rounded rider and develop your “natural skills” before applying performance aids to the mix; clipless took my years of developed flats skills and cranked them up to eleven. For anyone looking for suggestions; I run “Straitline Amp’s” on one bike and “Twenty 6′s” on another with “Teva” mountain shoes and/or “Vans”… Crank Brothers for clipless. The Amp’s with Teva’s are my favorite.

    Reply • May 29 at 4:27 pm
  11. Davemud says:

    Hi again James, to the rest I live in Vancouver BC and have ridden the North Shore clipped in for over 20 years. to recap a previous post in one of the other threads. Even in our extremely technical terrain and muddy conditions those times I could not unclip are few and far between and i have never been injured by not being able to unclip and get away from my bike. My injuries have been due to stupid rider error, LOL!

    When my pedals have gotten sticky its been because my cleats were worn out and or I hadn’t kept up with the basic cleaning and lubing. I also run multi release cleats on SPD DX DH pedals but they do release as well as my 15 year old 747s. I am a 160 pound finesse rider with a nice smooth spin. If you can believe it I used to run actual straps and cages in the old days before SPDs were introduced.

    I am the organizer for the 900 member Vancouver mountain Bike Meet up. I do many learn to ride clinics every year and spent the last 4 seasons working in bike shops. I agree completely that clipless pedals are not for beginner riders, actually they are completely inappropriate for beginner riders especially around here. Fortuneatly shops around here don’t push clipless on anyone, they are happy to stock and sell flat setups.

    Riding clipless in this market I am certainly in the minority. I admit I use my clipless as a crutch to help lift my rear wheel but not as much as as I used to. I do know I would benefit from getting a good flat setup and improving my technique with them. I also think Brian Lopes makes a great point about learning to ride flats and riding flats in the off season so you can really rip it up when/if you go back to clip less in the summer.

    I agree with what you are saying James and acknowledge you have modified how you state your position about clip less over time. The only thing I felt personally was that you were over stating the issue of injuries being due to not getting unclipped for experienced clip less riders based on my nearly 30 years riding on and around the Vancouver North Shore.

    You do a great job and a great thing for the mountain bike community James and I really enjoy your blog. Keep up the great work!

    Reply • May 29 at 5:43 pm
  12. David Parkhurst says:

    Well said. I rode clipless for years on my road bike, not knowing that doing so on mountain trails was a different kettle of beans. After a couple of healthy crashes I realized that it was my hesitancy in riding combined with SPDs that was causing my demise. I recently slapped a set of flats on my MTB and the difference in my confidence level was noticeable. I agree that clipless have a place in riding, especially in uphill climbing, but until I feel comfortable with my new bike in general, I’m using the flats and feeling happy about it.

    Reply • May 29 at 9:38 pm
  13. shane says:

    I have been an avid mountain biker since ’93 and have been riding clip less since ’94. I follow your posts regularly and this year decided to switch to flats. It has really improved my riding. It may have made me faster in certain situations and has definitely made me more confident on some downhills that I normally either crept down or stayed away from completely. What the flats did for me mostly was that it identified some real holes in my both my pedal stroke and riding overall. I didn’t realize how much I was using my clip less pedals when I was jumping or bunny hopping obstacles. I know how to do those things without clipless pedals but haven’t in a long time and had to re-teach myself how to do it the right way. If I switch back to clipless pedals, which honestly I probably will at some point, at the very least I will have my cleats in a completely different position. As that is probably the biggest difference for me on flats. I used to have my cleats centered over the ball of my foot. I’ll have them slid back all the way now. Riding flats has forced me to find where the real power comes from in the pedal stroke. Regardless of what people have to say keep up the good work James. Its nice to know someone is out there thinking about us mountain bikers and giving real world advice for both on the bike and off.

    Reply • May 30 at 6:09 am
  14. James says:

    When I started to leard mt. biking I used flats for 6-12 months.
    Once however while incorrectly bunny hopping a speed bump, my foot flew off the peddle putting a gash in my shin requireing stitches. Do you guys wear shin guards/knee guards? If so, what brands do you like (especially for hot weather).
    Thanks,
    James

    Reply • May 30 at 12:21 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      When I first started riding I wore shin pads, even on easy trail rides. Eventually you get to the point you don’t need them but even then you’ll still blow your shins up from time to time. Still, I’ll take a few stitches in my shin over breaking a wrist or hip because I stopped and couldn’t get unclipped.

      As far as brands, I don’t know but I found a pair of plastic shin pads that were open on the back. I’ll have to put together a Flat Pedal Riders Handbook and do some research on shin pads to recommend.

      Reply • May 30 at 1:33 pm
  15. John K. says:

    They’re expensive, but POC came out with a new kneepad that extends down over the shin for those pedal bites. I think I’ll pick a pair up after the season…

    Reply • May 31 at 1:52 pm
  16. Heather says:

    Flat pedal handbook would be great! I’m thinking of switching to flat pedals because of bad foot pain and numbness. What shoes and pedals do you recommend? I do a lot of XC racing. Thanks!

    Reply • June 11 at 10:35 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I use 5-10 Freeriders and Deity pedals.

      Reply • June 11 at 1:49 pm
  17. Great points.

    Years ago in my 20′s I raced road and did triathlons with Time clipless.

    Then I took a biking break and switched to other sports (including couch training. haha).

    I just purchased a nicely priced used Schwinn Moab 2 with flats. I was going to switch them out but now vow to do at least 6 months with them and keep the flats for intermittent training thereafter. Good wisdom.

    Reply • July 22 at 6:42 pm
  18. Leith says:

    James,

    It’s so awesome to see someone with the balls to say things that completely go against what is jammed down our throats as mountain bikers. I raced DH and SD/Enduro DH for years on SPD’s. After finding your site about a year and a half ago I have been primarily on flats. I still struggle with thinking I will be faster if I just forget about flat pedals and just clip in, but even real world timed runs confirm that flats are just as fast and often faster. Thanks for your continued passion on this subject.

    Reply • July 25 at 9:13 pm
  19. Jonathan says:

    Good and thoughtful post. The following quote says it all:

    “The snobbery of riders who are able to ride clipless pedals at a high level and then dismiss people’s very real fears and concerns with an “I’ve never had any problems so neither should you” attitude as they continue to tell every new rider they meet that they need to get clipless pedals ASAP is ridiculous.”

    Thank you for giving the rest of us some ammunition by which to defend our choices.

    Reply • July 31 at 6:23 am
  20. [...] Você deve vez em quando pedalar sem sapatilha. Tente fazer uma pedalada curta a cada 15 dias sem sua sapatilha. Eu por exemplo costumo ir ao trabalho de bike, de vez em quando sem sapatilha. Isso permite que você se concentre em produzir mais propulsão na parte de empurrar o pedal, ao mesmo tempo que pode perceber como fazer força com os posteriores de coxa, sem estar de sapatilha. Experimente, isso realmente irá trazer uma maior consciência a sua pedalada. Alguns treinadores ainda são mais radicais e acham que o uso de pedais de encaixe antes da hora por iniciantes, atrapalha o processo de aprendizagem do ciclista iniciante. [...]

    Reply • September 4 at 7:47 am
  21. Clay says:

    I have read some very polarizing posts in different forums on this subject in the past, this current post seems to be a very fair summary on the topic. The last thing someone new to mountain biking needs is to worry about whether or not they can put their feet down to save themselves from getting hurt, especially when they are having significant technique and confidence issues navigating the terrain/steepness of mountain trails. That said, I have ridden mountain bikes [XC/AM/FR/DH] on clipless pedals for over 20 years now, the last six with a mix of flats/clipless [AM/FR/DH/DJ]. Before that I rode and did bike freestyle and half pipes for 12 years on flats (yes, getting old). There is value to both.

    Personally, I have better balance, control, and can make subtle adjustments to hit and maintain narrow lines with clipless pedals [and obviously have more power/endurance climbing]. Flats force you to use proper techniques and can be more fun if you want the freedom to pull off different tricks or moves. I rode Freeride clipped in back when MANY said not to, and rode lines those many couldn’t. A few years went by and I noticed I was starting to have difficulty on some newer/bigger jump lines, especially ones with steeper lips. I went back to flats on my DH bike and bought a DJ bike [with flats] to force myself to re-learn proper jump, pump, scrub, and boost techniques. I actually was riding DH worse for a while after making the switch, but the days doing DJ on flats made me re-learn the proper jump techniques, instead of using my ‘easier’ clipless crutch techniques. I am now back on clipless for DH and am hitting jump and technical lines smoother, with more control, confidence, and better overall flow. I will continue to flip flop between flats and clipless depending on what bike I am on and where I am at with my riding.

    Reply • December 9 at 11:36 pm
  22. Sam says:

    I was wondering why clipless pedals place the ball of our foot on the pedal ,but when riding flats we are supposed to place the pedal under the middle of our foot. Thanks for sharing all your knowledge.

    Reply • June 7 at 11:41 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No problem, glad to help…

      Reply • June 11 at 1:37 pm
  23. Jorge says:

    This is so refreshing. Clipless pedals give me a boost when riding off-road, but in the trail they really make me a shy rider. I’m constantly thinking about uncliping and recliping, and not focusing on more critical stuff. I also fell off a small cliff, didn’t hurt myself (too much) but started wondering about flat pedals.

    Reply • October 9 at 2:26 pm
  24. James,
    Thanks for a balance discussion. I have friend that use flats and agree shops should have decent flats as alternatives.

    Way back when, I started on rigid bikes with flat pedals(all there was). Never was a BMXer. Got suspension, then clipless. Lost the Suspension and kept the clipless. Still use them as a “Crutch” to bunny hop. I often ride SS as well and run my pedal retention cranked all the way up and still pull out on standing up strokes sometimes. Now that is Hip flexors and not hamstrings. Seated I spin out less on climbs cause I can be smoother with clipless. Pulling back smoothes out the dead spot, so you don’t have to over torque the down stroke, which causes most spins.

    But it makes sense for total beginners to use flats. Roadies should have the heal twist down.

    I feel I can exert more english on the bike clipped in.

    But I was crappy on a skateboard too :-)

    Reply • December 19 at 10:31 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’d suggest checking out some of the pedal stroke articles and resources I have such as Which Muscles are Really Used During the Pedal Stroke and the studies I reference in the Flat Pedal Revolution Manifesto.

      In them you’ll see that the pedal stroke you describe is actually less powerful and efficient than simply pushing down hard on the pedals and that you can – and should – use the same pedal stroke with clipless that you would use with flats. Pulling up on the backstroke is simply the wrong way to pedal no matter how good you get at it.

      Humans have a attendance to think that whatever they have experienced is the best there is. In other words, we think that the most powerful pedal stroke we have experienced is the most powerful type there is. But in truth this may not be the case and if you are pulling up on the backstroke then you are experiencing this problem. Changing your pedal stroke by using flat pedals to force yourself to relearn your pedal stroke and technique in the most efficient manner possible will actually improve your performance on clipless pedals.

      Anyways, thanks for checking out the site and hope you can keep an open mind on this. The cycling world as a whole has been lied to about the pedal stroke and I fell victim to it as well. However, when you look at the evidence you’ll see that relying too much on clipless pedals means that you have some technique issues that robbing you of performance.

      Reply • December 20 at 10:06 am
  25. Leigh says:

    I really enjoy all your articles and this makes me reconsider trying flats again. The biggest reason I have clipless is because when I first started, I kept peeling my shins on my pedals from my foot bouncing off on rooty sections of trail. I would be willing to try flats again.

    Reply • January 10 at 7:27 am

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