Most people go through life never realizing that most of “reality” is nothing more than their paradigm on stuff, shaped by physical and mental experiences. For example, most people would think that running a marathon is extremely hard, if not impossible. Based on their lack of endurance and experience running, plus the extra 20-30 pounds they are likely carrying, their mind forms the reality that a marathon is “hard”.
However, someone who trains for a marathon and runs them regularly probably has a different opinion on the subject. Their brain scans their physical shape and mental experiences and says that running for a few hours at a good clip isn’t so bad and is, in fact, enjoyable. Each person has their reality…and it can change.
If the first person decided to train hard and make it happen they could get to the physical and mental place where they too feel than running a marathon isn’t “hard” anymore. If the second person broke their leg and had to take a lot of time off their physical and mental state would change and what used to be easy is once again hard. Your reality isn’t permanent and it can be changed rather easily.
So, what the heck does all this have to do with mountain biking? There are a lot of “truths” surrounding clipless pedals that are nothing more than a shared paradigm towards working around common weaknesses. Here are a few of the ones that really drive me nuts:
- Clipless pedals let you pedal with more power. Absolutely not true…there is nothing that shows that clipless pedals definitively let you produce more raw “power”. They do let you artificially strengthen the weak link of the feet which allows you to pedal longer before power starts to wane, which is useful for multi-hour/ multi-day racing, but there is absolutely no raw “power” advantage in clipless pedals. The fact that you can’t climb that steep hill without them is more in your head and lack of pedaling technique (see below).
- You need to be able to pull up on your pedals to produce max power. Again, this is simply not true no matter how many times it gets repeated. When studied, the best peddlers are not pulling up and producing power on the upstroke. They are instead getting the trail leg un-weighted and out of the way for the far more powerful down stroke of the lead leg. They can finish the pedal stroke off with their hips, which makes the pulling motion unnecessary. Less skilled peddlers use the clipless interface as a crutch to bypass the hips and place extra stress on the already chronically tight hip flexors.
- Standing up to pedal is hard and doing it too much will tire you out; it is better to sit and spin and save your energy. While not directly tied to clipless pedals, most of the advantages of clipless pedals are lost when you stand and so riders that use them tend to sit and spin a lot. Standing up to pedal is only hard if you lack the core strength and hip drive to stabilize and power from the standing position. Most riders come into mountain biking with weak cores, weak hips and serious dysfunctions from sitting all the time. The old “standing is hard” mindset isn’t true once you fix these things (and yes, they do need fixing if you value your knees and hips).
I think that a lot of riders are trapped by the paradigm that clipless pedals are somehow definitively superior when the facts tell us something much different. Just because most people come into mountain biking with dysfunctions that make it initially easier to use clipless pedals doesn’t mean that they are hands down better.
In the hands of someone whose reality isn’t shaped by the same dysfunctions flat pedals allow you to ride every bit as hard and far; you just have to use a different technique that isn’t possible without addressing the core and hip weakness that are really at the root of the issue.
Let me close with this…in the hands of someone who isn’t using them to mask dysfunction clipless shoes and pedals are a useful tool. However, I think that they are like competition shoes in track.
Track runners don’t train in the same shoes they race in; they know that race shoes are specialized equipment that should be used to enhance race day performance. They don’t use them everyday in practice simply to massage their ego and run faster times. They know that they will run slower in training but be faster for it on race day.
I think that clipless shoes and pedals should be looked at the same way – competition level performance enhancing technology that isn’t meant to be used everyday by your average rider. Flat pedals will enhance your technical skills and confidence, teach you better pedaling technique and save your knees, hips and low back – not a bad trade off if you can get past the “myths” surrounding clipless pedals.