There comes a time in every rider’s life when they have to decide if clipless pedals are something that they want to try. And contrary to popular belief I am completely fine with that…I have just as many riding buddies who ride clipless as flats. I’ve never said that flats are better than clipless pedals and for some riders they can offer some advantages.

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 9.54.04 AMBut what I don’t like to see is for a rider to start using clipless pedals too soon and not take advantage of the lessons that flat pedals force them to learn. Too often a well-meaning fellow rider will see them struggling on the trail and suggest to them that getting clipless pedals will help them out. They know that being attached to the pedals keeps your feet from flying off and makes it easier to bunny hop so why not help a newbie by encouraging them to make the switch?

The problem is that a lot of riders have a tough time learning several key lessons on clipless pedals and this makes it important for them to develop these skills before making the switch. Those struggles that are avoided with clipless pedals contain lessons that help you pedal and ride more efficiently. By working through those struggles on flats you become a much better, well rounded rider who can then transfer those skills to the more complex clipless pedal system.

So what are these essential skills? Besides obvious things like shifting and braking (seriously, we expect people to learn to do that while clipped in?) I’ve identified 6 skills you need to have dialed in before you can get the most out of a switch to clipless pedals.

1 – Pedaling. Yes, the skill of pedaling is best learned on flat pedals. While it will take a while for it to take hold, more and more evidence is coming out that shows there is not only no need to pull up on the backstroke but that doing so is a less efficient way to do it. And the best way to learn how to pedal without pulling up on the backstroke is to not be able to in the first place. Once you have this skill down then you can go to clipless and enjoy the small increase in power transfer you get but your pedal stroke itself should look the same no matter what system you use.


2 – Standing pedaling and standing climbing. Clipless pedals are set up to make it hard to balance on your feet when standing and this makes it hard to learn how to stand up and pedal effectively on them. Standing pedaling is your most powerful pedaling position and is not as inefficient as many would lead you to believe. Turning standing pedaling into a strength, especially on climbs, before switching to clipless will really help you when trying to transfer the skill to the smaller clipless platform with lateral float.

3 – Bunny hopping. This is the skill that really blows the lifelong clipless pedal user’s mind. Being able to bunny hop without just pulling up on your handlebars and pedals is one of the great mysteries in life to most mountain bikers and that is simply because they haven’t been forced to learn how. A true bunny hop can be done with either flats or clipless pedals and it allows you to jump up and over things that just pulling up on your pedals can’t. Pick this skill up early and without the aid of being attached to your pedals and it will serve you well your entire riding career.

Image courtesy iStock photo

4 –Keeping your feet grounded through rock gardens. Knowing how to ground your feet is a skill that takes time to learn…but you won’t necessarily learn it unless you have to. Much like the skilled martial artist learns to ground himself in order to increase his striking power or make it harder for someone to move him, we must learn to keep our feet heavy while being able to move freely on top of them. When you attach your feet to the pedals you take away the need for this skill, so picking it up first will help you apply it better to clipless pedals.

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

5 – Track stand with either foot forward. While some people don’t like to hear it, there are distinct disadvantages to clipless pedals. Two of the negative side effects are interfering with balance and confidence. When you lock your foot into place it sends a signal to the brain that it can’t react normally and this causes the brain to inhibit balance so you don’t place your body in a bad spot. Most riders also have a tough time sticking with a trackstand and not unclipping if they feel themselves wobble. Trackstands are an invaluable skill for a lot of reasons and learning how to do them without inhibiting your balance or confidence can help you build them to the point that you can easily overcome those drawbacks.

6 – Picking up the rear end of the bike. Much like bunny hopping, being able to pick up the rear end of the bike to clear a ledge is tough to imagine for a lot of riders. But once you know how to use your wrist to lift the rear end of the bike you can easily pick it up without using your feet at all. Because clipless pedals can also pull free when you don’t expect them, knowing how to not need them will ensure you can execute this skill efficiently and safely.

For most riders it will take between 1-2 years to get these skills to the point that they feel comfortable executing them in most situations without a lot of thought or effort. At that point you can consider using clipless pedals as well as flats. You never want to switch completely to clipless pedals, coming back to flats when you are ready to learn a new skill like jumping or cornering while also using them on occasion to keep your skills sharp.

Trying to learn a skill while on clipless pedals is not the same as learning it on flats and then transferring it to clipless pedals. The struggles you have to work through on flats contain lessons you don’t want to avoid. Embrace the learning process knowing that you will be a better rider for it. Learn these 6 skills first and you’ll get more out of your riding no matter what pedals you rock.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

MTB Strength Training Systems

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