Is the lie that you need clipless pedals driving away thousands of riders every year?

Before I start in on my rant let me share a real life conversation I had a few months back with one of the guys I do BJJ with…

Is the industry wide accepted lie that you need clipless pedals to be a serious mountain biker good or bad for our sport?

Him – “Hey man, nice bike.”

Me – “Thanks, do your ride?”

Him – “I bought a bike last summer but I only rode it 3 or 4 times.”

Me – “You planning on riding more this year?”

Him – “I don’t know. I didn’t have much fun on the rides I went on and I fell over a lot. I can’t afford to get hurt so I kind of stopped riding.”

Me – “Let me guess, you were on clipless pedals.”

Him (puzzled look on his face) – “Of course. The guys at the bike shop said that I would need them so I might as well get used to them right away.”

Me – “Well, that’s not really true. You see… (at this point I went into the TRUTH about clipless vs. flats).”

Him (look of relief on his face) – “You mean I don’t need those things? Well, that sounds a lot more fun. I’ll have to get some flats and get out there again.”

So, what is the point of this story?

We were going to lose this guy as a rider because as a new rider he was (rightly) scared of trying to learn to ride on clipless pedals.

And this isn’t an isolated incident by any stretch of the imagination.

I’ve gotten dozens and dozens of emails from riders around the world with similar stories. They were getting ready to quit mountain biking because they were tired of feeling scared and timid on the trail and they didn’t want to get hurt. Or they had gotten hurt as a direct result of not being able to unclip and had begun to question if it was really worth it.

Worse yet, they had been coerced into getting clipless pedals in the first place based on lies and half-truths.

They had been told early on that they “needed” clipless pedals to “spin circles/ pull up on the backstroke/ keep even tension on the pedals” and that “serious riders use them” so they needed to get on them ASAP.

As a not-so-funny side note – the guys who sold my brother-in-law his first mountain bike told him the same thing. He told me that if he didn’t know what I had told him about flats he probably would have just gotten clipless pedals.

My brother-in-law hasn’t ridden a bike of any kind for a decade and he’s getting pressured into clipless pedals before he’s even test ridden a bike in the parking lot – stories like that just make me wonder what the hell is going on with our sport.

Besides affecting new riders, this idea that you need clipless pedals is keeping countless people from even trying our sport. I’ve had numerous conversations with people who said they could never “do what I do” when I tell them I ride mountain bikes.

A lot of them had a totally different outlook when they were told they could just ride flat pedals like they did when they were a kid on a BMX bike ripping around the neighborhood.

I’ve even gotten a few of these people out onto the trail for the first time, converting some to becoming mountain bikers…new riders our sport never would have had if they were left to the conventional wisdom about mountain biking.

Because these riders/ potential new riders had never heard about the benefits of learning to ride on flat pedals and the truth about which muscles are used during the pedal stroke they never even thought that flats were a viable option. They had been told or were under the impression that flats were vastly inferior to clipless.

And based on this logic, quitting or not even trying mountain biking is a more viable option to most people than using flat pedals.

This is absolutely nuts when you think about it. I’ve thought this for a while but I think it is time to say it and see what other people think –

This insane stance taken by the mountain biking industry at large about the “need” to ride clipless pedals is driving away thousands of new riders every year between people quitting and others simply not even trying our sport.

And here is where I have to insert my obligatory Just because I’m Pro-Flats doesn’t mean I’m Anti-Clipless link for those who think I “hate clipless pedals” or some other nonsense. Clipless pedals have a time and place, it just isn’t on a new rider’s bike for at least the first year or on any mountain bike 100% of the time.

Also, just because it hasn’t happened to you or isn’t as prevalent in your area doesn’t mean that it isn’t an issue in most places. I’m stoked that some riding communities – especially in areas that don’t let you get away with just being a “dirt roadie” – are more progressive about this but in most areas you still get a lot of the usual clipless pedal propaganda.

So, enough of my rant, what do you think?

Is the industry wide accepted lie that you need clipless pedals to be a serious mountain biker good or bad for our sport?

Yes, it is a loaded question but I’m not really sure how else to put it, I’m open to suggestions…

So post a comment below and let me know your thoughts. And please click one of the Like or Share buttons to help spread the word – who knows, with your help this post might get in front of someone who needs to see it.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

The Catalyst Pedal

The Catalyst PedalThe Catalyst Pedal from Pedaling Innovations is the world’s best performing, most comfortable pedal. It is the first pedal that looks first at how the foot and lower leg optimally move then applies that insight to the bike. The result is a patent pending design that supports your foot the way that nature intended, increasing power, efficiency, stability and comfort. Backed with a no questions asked 30 day money back guarantee, this is the pedal that gives you the performance of clipless pedals with the fun, safety and comfort of flat pedals.
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  1. John says:

    I simply have more fun with the flats. No question about it.

    Reply • September 16 at 11:46 am
    • Larry says:

      I’ve been riding clipless for 10 years on my road bike. I’ve fallen maybe 10 times, mostly in the first 2 or 3 years and never got seriously hurt. Two months ago, I was coming to a stop sign on a steep hill. I had my right foot unclipped but still managed to fall awkwardly, breaking four ribs. I’ve come to the conclusion that being clamped to your bike is inherently dangerous. At age 61, I don’t need any more injuries, so I’m switching back to toe clips without a strap, which are easier to get out of.

      Reply • August 10 at 2:05 pm
  2. alex y says:

    Anybody who tells me I need to ‘this’ or ‘that’ to be ‘serious’…in anything…loses my already limited attention span…now has anybody seen my Five Tens?

    Reply • September 16 at 12:20 pm
  3. Tony says:

    I was at a bike shop recently and was checking out the inventory while a lady was getting her new road bike set up. The employee says to her, ‘ you’re getting clipless pedals right?’ The lady, confused, says ‘do I need them?’ The employee then gives her this line that made me chuckle, ‘clipless gives you 40% more power during your pedal stroke..’ And continued to tell her these things. I wanted to stop him and tell her the downsides of clipless and benefits of flats but I didn’t. Clipless is great for those who like them, but I agree with you James, seeing people struggle with them and then hang up the bike altogether is a shame.

    Reply • September 16 at 12:21 pm
  4. Scott says:

    I went to flats about 3 months ago after reading your articles. Riding with flats revealed areas of my pedal stroke that needed to be worked on. When I first rode the flats, I was not consistently connected to the pedals and noticed how choppy my pedal stroke was. After three months, ride flats pretty efficiently on the mountain bike and touring bike but feel the greatest difference when riding “clipless” on my road bike. Thanks James!!!

    Reply • September 16 at 12:32 pm
  5. ian says:

    my five ten stealth rubber is clipless enough for me…

    Reply • September 16 at 12:41 pm
  6. Robin says:

    I am quite comfortable with clipless pedals and use them for cross country and road. But I prefer flats for all mountain/enduro because I feel I can move my weight the around the bike easier with flats. I don’t notice much difference in pedalling without clipless. If I think about, I suppose I use clipless for cross country just because ‘”it’s what you should” and not because I feel a lot of benefit from it.

    Reply • September 16 at 12:44 pm
  7. John says:

    I honestly love riding clipless pedals. I had some bad crashes while I was learning, but I didn’t mind crashing. I was glad I was encouraged to use them, but that being said, I know it’s not for everyone.

    Reply • September 16 at 12:46 pm
  8. Anne says:

    Anything to sell more product. But they can sell more product by selling high end flat pedals and good shoes too.

    I switched permanently to flats after knee surgery. My confidence has increased on the bike tremendously.

    Reply • September 16 at 12:57 pm
  9. Shawn says:

    I once fell into “you need to ride clipless… because all the real mountain bikers use them”. I adapted to clipless pedals but only after a multitude of wrecks. Only after breaking my eggbeaters did I try flats again. Now on flats I had to learn to pedal properly because I was told to spin circles. My conference rose greatly but my grip on cheap flats and tennis shoes also left me wanting. Research on the WWW led me FiveTen shoes and Azonic 420 pedals. Now the world seems right. No more slipping on the pedals. The only thing that felt out of place was the comments about giving up clipless pedals and that I was some how giving up on efficiency.
    More research on the WWW and James Wilson was discovered. I can only described his words as a revelation. Now I recommend his website to anyone willimg and open minded wenough to read about flat pedals.
    I can not thank James enough for his blogs, they really are game changing.

    Reply • September 16 at 1:04 pm
  10. Todd says:

    Clip-in pedals are probably more efficient, due to the stiff soles.
    So most roadies and XC racers are probably faster on clip-ins than flats so they use clip-ins.
    Many (but not all) gravity racers also use clip-ins.

    But the vast majority of bikers are not racers.
    So efficiency should never be concern for them at all.
    Cost is a factor and clip-ins cost more (pedals + special shoes)
    compared to flats (cheap stock pedals + plain old tennies everyone already owns).
    Crashes are a factor and there are more crashes due to not being able to unclip in time
    than due to feet slipping off flat pedals.
    Therefore most bikers should use flat pedals.
    And bike shops should suggest clip-ins for some racing customers.

    (Note: I race various kinds of bikes and use both clips and flats, both with special shoes.)

    Reply • September 16 at 1:07 pm
  11. Iam Canadian says:

    Definitely drives people away.

    The industry has gone way to far. My most recent
    Case was this weekend. I am looking for a new bike;
    Was out shopping and stopped into a shop to try
    A very specific bike. The sales person said, sure
    We can set up a test ride, just come back with
    Your shoes and pedals and we will get you setup.

    I was standing there in my 5-10s scratching my head.

    Clearly assumed that if I don’t ride clipless, then why am I wasting
    His time.

    I ride both setups… And truly think it makes me a better rider.

    Reply • September 16 at 1:45 pm
  12. Steve says:

    Keep this conversation going, James! On one of my last rides in clipless I couldn’t exit *quite* fast enough, torqued my knee and then slammed it into loose gravel – at tip top of my 11,000′ ride.
    I was so done with clipless when 2 years ago I found a post by you – yay! I’m now faster, more confident and ride stuff I never would’ve ridden clipped in. Oh – and injury free! Thanks again.

    Reply • September 16 at 1:46 pm
  13. Luis says:

    I have to thank you for waking me up two years ago. I came from motorcycling and somehow knew that I did not have to attach myself to the pedals, but hey, clipping in was what everyone was doing, so I fell for it, and fell a lot. It wasn’t until I read one of your articles that I tried and then switched to flats. Now I ride better, have more fun and very rarely take a spill. We ride very technical terrain and I have the freedom to do a little dab, a sudden push or a quick correction without missing a beat or losing momentum. My buddies still think I’m crazy, but it’s a mutual thought. Thank you again.

    Reply • September 16 at 2:00 pm
  14. David says:

    I rode clipless pedals for almost 25 years. It was the “right” thing to do—all that extra power, connectedness, etc. Then I took an MTB clinic with Gene Hamilton (highly recommended) and he mentioned you. I looked you up and started reading your articles. That led me to other research and the realization that most of the “science” associated with bike fitting and clipless pedals has no true supporting research. Most of it seems to be based on old traditions that have somehow become institutionalized as the “truth” (sorry about all the quotes). Got me thinking that I didn’t crash much because I could not unclip, but almost 100% of the times I did crash, it was because I couldn’t unclip. All this led me to try the flats two years ago. I basically had to relearn how to ride my bike again. The first jump I went off, I tried to lift the bike by the clips. Of course, it didn’t come with me. I somehow managed to land on the seat and get my feet back on the pedals without crashing. Went to the local dirt park to learn how to jump properly. I am now having so much more fun, getting more air and riding things I never would have tried if I was clipped in. I didn’t think about crashing because I couldn’t unclip, but it was obviously somewhere in the back of my mind. Knees and hips also feel so much better. Have several friends that have made the switch now and they are all happy they did. I am still working on two other friends to try flats. One almost never clips in for fear of crashing so what’s the point of being on clipless pedals. The other clips in, but then she rides slowly because she is afraid she may not be able to unclip and crash. Thanks for making me see the light and fighting the good fight.

    Reply • September 16 at 3:32 pm
  15. John says:

    Any good quality bike shop should let the consumer test ride the bike before they take the bike home. If the bike is not right for the rider it should not go home. If clipless are right for you, more power to you. I however, have been riding more off road than on and have been on flats 100% of the time. I have occasionally slipped off of my pedals but have attributed that to my own mistakes and not the style of pedal I was using. I guess the same could be said for clipless also in the same retrospect. I would say that in my opinion there is only one “right” way and that is the riders way.

    Reply • September 16 at 4:17 pm
  16. I’ve been riding and racing clipped in for years (and years!). Just the other day I got back from 4 weeks of riding XC and DH in Whistler. After dabbling with flats on a couple of occasions I committed to flats @ Whistler. Four weeks (~120 hours of riding) only on flats.
    On day 2 I had a really big, painful crash when I slipped a foot on a jump landing and couldn’t reset before the next jump (pedal with foot on it was obviously down, suspension compression on jump face plowed pedal into ground launching me into air). Other than that I didn’t have any issues with flats.
    I can ride some pretty technical climbs seated when clipped in. On flats I had to stand to accomplish the same thing – pulling up is not an option. Now I fully understand why James talks about standing climbing so often on this forum – flats and standing go hand in hand.

    I’ve got a 50 km XC race on Sunday. I’ll be clipped in for that for sure. But I don’t know if my DH or trail bike will see clipless pedals anytime soon.

    As a cycle coach, I’ve put a lot of my clients on flats (to avert knee problems, to avert crashing issues and to promote development of sound fundamental skills). I’m really happy with the results of doing the same thing to myself!

    Reply • September 16 at 5:18 pm
  17. Ed Mackey says:

    I ride both clip less and flats. I think it’s a shame that anyone is told they have to ride clip less if they’re a serious rider. That’s ridiculous! I agree that clip less pedals encourage certain bad habits, but they also make me feel connected to the bike in a way that flats do not. The one thing I would tell anyone interested in trying clip less is to buy Shimano SH-56 Multi-Directional Release SPD Cleats. I don’t know why these are not publicized more for new riders. They were a godsend for me when learning to ride clip less. You can get out of your pedals in a panic as easily as you can step off of flats. I don’t think clip less is necessary for anyone, but if you’re gonna try them please start with these cleats.

    Reply • September 16 at 7:21 pm
  18. Mike says:

    I agree with you James. Using clipless pedals has somehow become “conventional wisdom” within the cycling community, and people accept it without question. This belief is so pervasive that other riders react as though they have stumbled upon the village idiot whenever I share how I switched from clipless to flats. I think the way to deal with this is through positive presentation and education. That’s what won me over. Between your well reasoned argument and your chart that shows which muscles are really being used during the pedal stroke, I was convinced.

    Reply • September 16 at 7:30 pm
  19. Keith says:

    Yikes! Not sure what planet you all live on, but here in Oz we (the riders) choose what feels right for us! I’ve ridden flats and clip-ins/clippless. I’ve crashed on both, but never as a result of the pedals. If you blame the pedals for crashing you’re making excuses for lack of expertise or technique. You don’t see pro-motorcycle riders blame their helmets for their crashes!

    I’ve never been told by anyone I must ride clip-ins/clipless if I want to be better. If I ever am I will certainly ask for some well reasoned arguments as to why, and how they know this will work for me personally. I doubt I’d be convinced!

    Personally I think flats are easier to learn on and enable a rider to build confidence without having something else to worry about. Once they have developed a decent base, using clip-ins or not is a matter of choice for them. I’d argue that (based on my own experience) using clip-in/clipless pedals at their loosest setting is the best way to start and to minimise issues.

    There are pros and cons of both. The crashing argument is a distraction, as is the efficiency argument. We should be focussing on empowering all riders to make their own decisions based on what works best for them based on their own preference, capability, riding style, goals, etc.

    James, your viewpoint comes across as very anti-clip/pro-flat, but I think what you’re really trying to say is let riders make informed choices for themselves and just get out and ride without the whole pedal angst!

    Reply • September 16 at 10:12 pm
  20. ED says:

    have got to the stage where I just ignore the ignorant……..would you buy a bike for your kid and put him on clipless?… you let him learn on flats; and hopefully as he progresses, he stays there. with the right pedals and rubber on your shoes riding flats is only advantageous. I can, if I feel the need, ‘lift’ the trailing leg by pushing the pedal backwards, but would quite frankly rather stop riding if clipping-in was the only option.enjoy your blog JAMES and still learning the art of biking at 64..!

    Reply • September 16 at 11:10 pm
  21. NeilB says:

    Hi James,
    Youre right.
    I’ve heard that “upgrade to clipless” argument, hey, I probably even made it myself in the early days of SPDs
    My 2c, if you want to feel really connected to the bike (and the terrain) get flats and learn to ride them right.
    20 years on SPDs and four on flats, I went back to my old Time clipless for an XC ride, just to try em, and it felt like my feet were balanced on 2 ice cubes. Plus I stalled a steep gravelly climb and fell straight into a thornbush still clipped in. As I lay there your wisdom came to mind. I’ve sent a lot of riders to your site to look up the debate.
    I’m even putting flats on the road bike.
    Maybe the shop guys just want commission for selling upgrades. I’ve an idea, if clipless came standard then flats and fivetens would be the upgrade, now, that’s the right way around.

    Reply • September 17 at 1:36 am
  22. Anthony says:

    This is just another thing about elitist that turns people away the sport, if you listen to enough of them you can’t ride unless you have the latest trendy setup, and the newest hi-tech clothing, the whole idea that you need a special bike for every circumstance and a matching costume to along with it really irks me. Ride what you got and wear what’s comfortable and safe. Back on the subject at hand everyone should start on platforms grow into what they need based on their own style and circumstance. I personally just switched to clipless on my cyclocross bike and love them on the road but still am unsure about racing with them, as far as mountain biking goes, I still have to bail to often, but its a consideration.

    Reply • September 17 at 2:22 pm
  23. Mike Garbee says:

    I changed my riding style and workouts 3 years ago, after a buddy told me about and bike james. After riding the last 15 years and few broken bones,lots of crashes your information on strength training and the riding tips changed my mountain biking for the better. Us old guys suffered learning clipless and all the bad advice your buddies can give you, still ride clipless and flats on urban and practice the riding skills like i’m riding flats. You want to learn to ride take a course or 2 and try the kettlebell workouts, easy,quick,3x week and you will see and ride stronger each time out. THANKS for giving me a new way to better my ride and ride with more confidence . mikenbike>tulsa,ok

    Reply • September 17 at 4:07 pm
  24. When I started serious riding both a coach and a “flashy” bike shop said I needed clipless, luckily I take foever to make decisions and searched online forever and discovered James.

    I love the latest tech and when it is pushed on me, not fun. i take my time choose my prefrerred bike shop where people care about me and my needs.

    i see forums online clips v flats pages and pages long with people adamently defending clipless as a the only way… If something needs to be defended that heavily I question it.

    I feel like I ride pretty fast in my flats and have done alright and had a blast in XC competitions. My feet feel one with my pedals and do not slip ever. Going clipless is the furthest thing from my mind… my focus is on fitness, strength, skills… If I max on that perhaps I would consider clipless for racing.

    I am excited right now because Giro are releasing what looks like an awesome shoe, the Giro Jacket Mid with super sticky soles. The shoe is made of synthetic leather which as a vegan is cool as all the ten fives are leather.

    Reply • September 17 at 9:05 pm
  25. Mark says:

    Have to agree with you James, every time I go out on lbs rides I ask people why they are on clipless and nearly every time I get the answer that they it’s what the shop recommended and anyway their better.
    I’m always miffed by this as no one seems to have their own reasons.
    I myself converted to clipless yes on lbs advise but I find that although my climbing may be a little better It is my crashes I notice the difference, for example when you crash with clipless and are unable to unclip you have to go with the bike which isn’t always good as oppose to a crash with flats you can fall however you want.
    Just my two pennies worth but I’m staying with flats as I fe more confident and safe.

    Reply • September 18 at 10:01 am
  26. Trent says:

    Have been riding MTB for 24 years. The last 5 in different clip ins thinking it was “the way”. Also ride road with clip ins. I have spent the last 3 months on platforms after reading through some of your reasoning and docs James. I began having way more fun immediately! Standing and powering through flat sections (and pumping the bike over obstacles), hammering downhills with more confidence, standing while climbing, using the hips to generate the power…these changes have woken up my senses on the trail like nothing else in a long time.

    In racing I do agree clips still have an edge on efficiency. On the trail with buddies I don’t feel I have lost a bit – in fact I feel faster somehow. I am spreading the good word and have some converts already. It’s a new game!

    Thanks for the enlightenment James.

    Reply • September 18 at 9:25 pm
  27. Robert says:

    I’m a weekend mountain biker (XC)
    During my first race I almost fell off my bike (having cheap default flats and sport shoes) on a downhill section on a wide grassland with some invisible small hops. Then I found out from a friend that clipless pedals are preventing you from “loosing” the bike. He also said that uphill there are no real benefits of clipless pedals. The friend was top level rider in the country at that time (on clipless).
    Went to the shop and the guy there told me that my pedals are basically for city/touring, and for MTB I would need some more decent (read: a bit more expensive) pedals. Sold me a pair of good FLATS! I have them ever since. Then you came in the picture, with the theory behind. Thank you!

    Reply • September 25 at 2:17 am
  28. Julie says:

    People (including me and my husband) when riding clipless pedals in sketchy situations sometimes “unclip” before going into rock gardens, exposed areas or basically wherever you feel sketchy and uncomfortable. To me, there couldn’t be anything more dangerous! The cleats slide all around and you have NO connection to the bike at all. I only notice a big difference in efficiency on the road with clipless pedals.

    Reply • December 2 at 12:16 pm
  29. Jeff Brierton says:

    I am a 63 roadie and have been for 20 years. I have raced mountain bike in flat pedals and raced criterium in clipless. Bottom line: If you’re really racing competitively clipless is a good option because of the power. But…I just had a horrific crash on my road bike and spent 5 days in the hospital. I smacked my helmet and don’t remember jack but am pretty sure the bike broke my ribs because I was clipped in. When I finally get back on the bike I am riding pin pedals and 5/10 sticky shoes. I am done with clipless because my racing days are over and I want to feel safer on the bike. Half of being safe is feeling safe.Any shop who tells a new rider, road or MTB, or a non-competitive rider that they”must” have clipless is full of bull and borderline irresponsible. Thanks for taking this position on flat pedals. J

    Reply • June 30 at 8:17 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Sorry to hear about your injury but I’m glad you are making a full recovery. I know it isn’t popular but someone has to tell the truth about the value and drawbacks for both systems so riders can choose based on the facts and not hype.

      Reply • July 3 at 1:21 pm
  30. Andy says:

    Just recently (April 2016) started riding clipless. First ride out over 2 hours, I fell 7 times. All of them slow falls. So I said to myself, “be a man, tough it out!” I have now gone on several more rides and feel my confidence lowering each time. Though it Felt as if I was getting used to them I am still very nervous.
    The weekend of July 9, 2016, I started falling again (5 times this day) on slippery roots. On one crash I slammed my left ribs into a log because I could not get out in time. Today (July20) I am still in pain. I have ridden on flats for 35 years (dating myself here) until someone said “DOOOD, get clipless, they are awesome!!”
    Lately I have no desire to ride and I keep worrying about crashing. 🙁
    I have to go back to flats…

    Reply • July 20 at 9:51 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It sucks you had to go through that but I hope that you get back onto your flats soon and get back to having fun!

      Reply • July 25 at 4:38 pm
  31. Susie Wells says:

    Thank you so much for all this information and for the above posts. In my 70’s I’ve decided to take up cycling and after 50 years of not riding was very excited to be on the trails and greenways again. I’ve been riding about a year now and was really beginning to feel like I am an inferior rider because I don’t ride clipless. I can not take many falls and have had knee and hip surgeries. I have good cycling shoes but just don’t feel comfortable attached to my pedals. Thank you so much for assuring me that it is perfectly acceptable to ride flats – even when my riding pals are say different! I’m a rider that will keep on riding “with my chin up”!

    Reply • April 20 at 6:14 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Rock on Susie, thanks for sharing!

      Reply • April 26 at 11:31 am

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