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-

1 thoughts on “Being pro-flat pedals doesn’t mean I’m anti-clipless pedals…

  1. Tallbikeman says:

    I raced MTB in the early 1980’s and rode BMX toothed pedals. The things that can get you hurt are a high top bar on the frame and clipless pedals. Both can effectively high side you off of a cliff, and what good MTB ride doesn’t have its dangerous sections. I haven’t competed since the mid 1980’s and courses were already being dumbed down by promoters at that time and you could ride safely on some of them with clipless pedals. These courses tended to resemble today’s gravel rides. Seriously hard terrain where MTB’s shine is much more dangerous and getting your feet to the ground instantly is very important for your safety. Every one is different and where I wouldn’t use clipless pedals maybe someone else has the skill and talent to be perfectly fine on that ride. I have continued to use platform pedals for decades now and never felt a need to ride clipless unless I was trying to go ultimately fast. I didn’t know all the facts and figures for flat pedals but it is good to see so much debunking of cycling myths by you and others.

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