One of the hardest things to overcome when having a discussion about the value and role of both flat and clipless pedals is that everyone knows that the fastest riders in the world use clipless pedals. Most World Cup and National Level DH races are won on clipless and every XC and similar discipline is won on them as well.
There has to be another explanation of how clipless pedals help increase pedaling power because there certainly isn’t a magic pedal stroke that only exists when you strap your foot the pedal.
Hell, you even have some studies that show a (slight) increase in power from using them too.
This would all seem to indicate that they are “better” than flats, right?
Unfortunately the answer is a little more complex than a simple yes or no. To answer that question let me pose another question to you…
In the weight room, can you deadlift more weight with a weight belt on?
I’m sure that everyone reading that question would agree that yes, all other things being equal if you strapped a weight belt on you could lift at least a little more weight than you could without it. This is why pro power lifter and Olympic weightlifters use them.
Now, ask yourself the same question we apply to clipless pedals…does this make lifting with a weight belt “better” than lifting without one?
Again, in this situation most of you reading this won’t be so quick to answer “yes”. Most of us recognize that just because you can lift more weight with a weight belt that certainly doesn’t make it “better” than not using one.
In this situation we naturally recognize the need to not use the weight belt all of the time for everything we do. Building your core strength and movement without the aid of the weight belt will help you be stronger and more injury resistant both in the gym and in the real world.
So the answer to the question of “is a weight belt better than lifting without one” is that it depends on the situation.
If you are using a max load and trying to break a PR on the deadlift then it might be a good idea to use one.
But if you are just doing a regular workout you should probably “train raw”, which means to use no support equipment. The strongest guys in the world know that the stronger you are “raw” the stronger you will be when you use the weight belts and other support equipment.
So, let’s bring this back to the question of “are clipless pedals better than flats”? And right now some of you may be wondering what the hell a weight belt has to do with clipless pedals and your feet.
The truth is that clipless pedals are really just a weight belt for your feet. They improve your performance through the same basic mechanism, which is to artificially strengthen the weak link the kinetic chain.
Now, this is where I have to back up and explain why this statement makes little to no sense to most cyclists. The reason is because we have been taught that clipless pedals enhance your performance by allowing you to use your legs in a different way than you can with flats.
We’ve been told that you need to pull up on the back stroke while you are pushing down with the other leg. The story is that this ability to use the hamstrings and hip flexors to pull up is what is adding additional power to the pedal stroke.
And that seems to make sense when you first hear it. On paper, that is exactly what you would design a machine to do.
But what we’ve found out is that this is not what is going on. There are 2 studies and an EMG reading I’ve found that show that this picture of the pedal stroke is a myth and doesn’t exist. If you aren’t familiar with the Mornieux (et al. Int J Sports Med 2008; 29:817-822) and Korf (et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007; 39:991-995) Cycling Efficiency Studies I have them referenced in the Flat Pedal Revolution Manifesto.
What science has shown us is that the human body prefers to push down hard and let the trail leg return in a more passive manner. Just like when you run, you are pushing hard with the lead leg and pulling up just hard enough to get the trail in place to push hard again.
And, the dirty little secret among the pros and those have actually looked at the science is that clipless pedals can help…but not that much. Among the top riders we’re talking a few percentage points of an increase, which is huge for them but certainly not the huge difference we’re lead to believe exists.
In other words, take the pros clipless pedals away and they are still the fastest riders in the world. But take your average riders clipless pedals away and they are like a fish out of water.
Add it all up and something isn’t right. There has to be another explanation of how clipless pedals help increase pedaling power because there certainly isn’t a magic pedal stroke that only exists when you strap your foot the pedal.
And this is where the analogy of the weight belt comes back in. When you wear a weight belt you aren’t using your leg muscles in a different way or recruiting more of your leg muscles. Your legs produce the same power in the same way so that isn’t how a weight belt helps.
The weight belt helps because it artificially strengthens the weak link in the kinetic/ movement chain, which is the core. More of the power that you are producing with your legs gets transferred through the core and into the upper body, which is holding the weight.
It is this increased power transfer through the weak link in the movement chain that results in the increased performance.
And this is exactly what is happening with the “weight belt for your feet”, also known as clipless pedals.
The science has shown us that they don’t let you use your legs in a different way or let your legs produce power more efficiently. They just artificially strengthen the weak link in the movement chain, which is the foot.
By solidifying the foots ability to transfer the power being generated into the pedal, clipless pedals help a little more power make its way into the crank arms. And that shows up as increased pedaling power in the lab and in certain racing situations.
Plus, in mountain biking the foot can get knocked out of place from pounding down the trail so not having to worry about that can also help when you need to be your fastest.
But, just like with a weight belt, there are advantages to training “raw” and not letting the technology that can enhance performance become a crutch for lazy technique.
Even if you find that clipless pedals make you faster, using them all the time for every ride is still not a good idea. You need an opportunity to train your pedal stroke and technical skills “raw” to keep them sharp and reduce the wear and tear on your body.
This is why it is important that new riders not be rushed into clipless pedals too soon. They need the chance to train their pedal stroke and skills “raw”. Being rushed into clipless pedals can allow them to build bad habits and not allow them the chance to develop their skills properly.
This is also why it is important for every rider to spend some time on flat pedals. We would all see the problem with the guy in the gym wearing his weight belt every day, even for something simple like bicep curls. But we think nothing of strapping on clipless pedals every day for every ride, which is essentially the same thing.
The truth us that you will actually be faster on clipless pedals if you spend time on flats. It isn’t a matter of one pedal system being better than the other, it is about understanding how they exist on the same continuum and how they can work together to create a high performance rider.
I’d argue that by letting your ego get in the way – not wanting to show up for a group ride with flats and put up with the comments and/ or being a minute or two slower on a ride – you are actually holding back your performance with clipless pedals.
So, in conclusion, clipless pedals certainly do benefit some riders in certain situations. But that benefit is not derived from allowing your legs to do something different than what they can do on flats.
They do it by artificially strengthening the weak link in the movement chain, which is the feet. However, the tradeoff is potential bad habits and unnatural weak and tear on other joints.
This means that if you are going to use clipless pedals that you should have a strong base built on flats (I suggest at least a year on them exclusively) and that you still use flats to keep your pedal stroke and skills honest while reducing potential overuse injuries
Learn to ride on flats. After building a strong base on flats then you can consider using clipless pedals for racing and high performance purposes. But don’t use clipless pedals as an everyday crutch or think that you need to use them to be a really good rider. This approach will let you use both pedal systems to maximum effectiveness for your needs instead of getting caught up in the dogma of which is “better”.
Until next time…