The end of flat pedals for World Cup DH racing?

Last Wednesday an article ran on Pinkbike.com that caused some pretty big waves in the mountain bike community. Richard Cunningham, the technical editor for the site, wrote an in depth article spelling out his theory on why flat pedals, after enjoying several years of wins and podiums, have suddenly become almost absent from the top of World Cup DH Racing. Needless to say, as one of the leaders for the Flat Pedal Revolution my email inbox was flooded with riders wanting to know my take on it.

We have to look at things from both a mechanical and movement standpoint and understand how the mechanical side is working to support and enhance good movement.

While my instinct was to fire off a reply right away I’ve learned that it is often better to settle down before posting things on the internet – it isn’t hard to find some replies I’ve posted on various forums that I’m pretty embarrassed about now. So, I wrote a reply and sent it to Richard to get his take on it, plus I wanted to give myself some time to think about what he wrote.

After hearing back from Richard and changing a few things based on his reply I’m finally ready to post my take on his article. Be sure to check it out and let me know what you think about the subject…

The basic premise of the article was this – the significant improvements we’ve seen on the World Cup DH circuit were partially from clipless pedals allowing for a more forward riding style. Being forward on the bike with the feet more level is not possible with flat pedals, which require you to drop your heels more and get into a more rearward position. Since this riding style was “better” then it stands to reason that you must use clipless pedals to be competitive at the highest levels.

Aaron Gwin, clipped in and showing off the moto inspired forward riding style.

While I don’t disagree that clipless pedals are often better for World Cup DH racing (which doesn’t mean that they are better for your average racer competing locally) I completely disagree on the rationale being used. In my opinion their superiority lies in the fact that your foot doesn’t move no matter how fast you fly into a rock garden or roots. The truth is that while a good pair of flats and 5-10 shoes will keep your feet on the pedals at the highest speeds, your feet do shift around a bit and when tenths of a second count, even a little bit of movement can be too much.

This also allows for the rider to be a bit more “sloppy” with their foot positions on the pedal and lets them do whatever they need to in order to accommodate their body position on the bike. If the trail calls for you to get heavy on the front end then they can do that, letting their foot do whatever it wants without worry of it coming off.

The problem with highlighting the role of this potentially new body position is that it sends the message that there is a fundamentally different riding style only allowed by clipless pedals, which is a potentially dangerous argument for several reasons…

This is looking at the improvements in overall times we’ve seen over the last 5+ years on the World Cup DH Circuit through a very narrow lens. I would point to the vast improvements in training and nutrition as the major factors, and then improvements in the bike itself. Guys on flats may not be on the podium as often but they are still right there, indicating that there is something they are doing as well that is causing the biggest improvements.

From a movement standpoint, dropping your toes causes shifts in how your body holds itself and powers movement from the heels (when they are dropped) to the quads. The hips are your center of gravity and the most powerful muscles in your body, which means that they are essential to good bike control and leg power. While a top rider may be able to get over the front end more by dropping their toes, their bread and butter will always be heels down, hips back position. The time they spend in that position will always far outweigh the time they spend on their toes.

Sam Hill showing textbook flat pedal foot position.

These top DH racers would still kick everyone’s ass on flats. Their fundamental skills would work on either platform since riding a bike isn’t a mechanical problem but a functional movement problem. How you pedal and control your bike on clipless should be the same as on flats and while they may be able to lean into the clipless pedals to get away with some things on race day, everything is built on the fundamental movement that could be applied to flats as well.

Lastly, the influx of moto talent and influence on the sport is apparent. More guys – like Aaron Gwin – are coming into racing with a strong moto background and most other guys use moto riding as a way to train. Since moto riders are taught to get heavy on the front end I am not surprised to see its influence on how they ride their mountain bikes as well.

As a side note, when I was working with him one of Aaron’s breakthroughs was getting away from his super upright moto riding style he had the first couple of years he raced and starting figuring out how to sit back more into the cockpit. He now owns both positions and can use them at will on the trail and it shows.

To be fair to Richard he did mention the role of training and bike set up in his article but those points seemed to get pushed aside as people immediately started arguing about which pedal system is “better”. There are subtleties to this discussion that get lost very easily and this article was a perfect example of this.

Again, I don’t have an issue with a presentation of a theory on why clipless pedals are winning so many races on the World Cup DH Circuit but, as someone who has spent years trying to demystify clipless pedals and their role in performance, it is frustrating to see it presented in a way that suggests a superior riding style only available with clipless pedals.

Switching to clipless pedals and/ or adopting a more “toes down” riding style isn’t going to help you improve nearly as much as improving your training, nutrition and overall bike set up. Plus, no matter what type of advantage clipless pedals can give you (and there are several) all of it should be built on fundamental movement skills that can be applied to flats as well.

Mountain biking is a really cool sport because it intersects fitness and technology like few other sports in the world. However, you have to look at the two together – when you try to examine things from a mechanical standpoint without looking at basic functional movement facts you can end up way off track.

The suggestion to curl your hamstring to pull up on the backstroke of the pedal stroke happened the same way – by looking at things from a mechanical view with no regard for movement fundamentals. Now that we have several studies showing us that this advice was wrong but it will take years to fix the damage done.

So, in conclusion, while I do disagree with the premise of a “superior” riding style being developed that is only possible with clipless pedals I’d really like to point out that even if you believe it don’t lose sight of the big picture. We have to look at things from both a mechanical and movement standpoint and understand how the mechanical side is working to support and enhance good movement. By trying to separate the two you run the risk of people losing sight of the other side of the equation and keeping them from maximally benefiting from technology.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Dave Pike says:

    “We have to look at things from both a mechanical and movement standpoint and understand how the mechanical side is working to support and enhance good movement.”
    So true. In the gym as a trainer I see so many clients and other trainers seeing things only from the mechanical point of view and never apply them to the way the human body actually moves. I think it’s our nature (with all the machines, computers, etc. around us) to think of ourselves and our bodies as machines and not flesh and bone. While we can use technical applications to assist us in reaching our goals, we have to remember that we’re still animals at heart and have to move like one.
    I’m personally a fan of both clipless and flat pedals so I must say I was, and still am, on the fence about the argument of one vs. the other. But, that being said, I completely agree with what you’ve written here. Clipless pedals alone are not the reason WC riders have gotten faster. They’re just a part of a much bigger picture, most of us we don’t see on race day.

    Reply • October 10 at 6:37 am
  2. Luis says:

    I suggest neglecting all the noise about theory and science and just go out and make your own judgement. As a result of one of James’ articles, I went out and tried flats and will not go back to clipless. They simply feel better. Period.
    I hit my shin once or twice, but have also avoided numerous drops and have kept my momentum on highly technical situations with an immediate dab without slowing down. Freedom, fun and safety are always good.
    And by the way, judging by my place in the group on Sunday mornings, flats did not make me faster or slower.

    Reply • October 10 at 10:24 am
  3. Randy says:

    I’ve been following this topic for years and here’s my two cents:

    There is absolutely no doubt – nor can there be any argument that nearly all riders at every level are “pushed” into clips FAR sooner than they should be. There’s far too much that needs to be learned from a movement perspective and bike skills perspective that being clipped in can just not accomplish. Riders see the pro’s with a particular technology, and rush to copy it – regardless of whether it makes any sense at their level or not. I would virtually guarantee that a $5000 budget split 80% on strength/skills training and 20% on “bike” would produce a vastly better/faster rider than the reverse. Yet I would be extremely surprised to find most riders ‘investing’ this way.

    On the flip side, I also believe that at the top levels of racing, clips make a measurable, positive, performance difference. This is absolutely not to say that flats have no place in elite level racing – on the contrary, I would be very surprised if riding flats did not make up a significant portion of training time on the bike at even the highest levels. Again, I firmly believe that many important movement patterns and bike skills improve significantly faster riding flats.

    Here’s where things become more controversial: I would argue that being clipped in can increase the fun factor even for the average rider under the right conditions – just as many other technological “cheats” can increase fun factor. But the fact is that for the average rider, being clipped in is a “cheat” that artificially compensates for a lack of fundamental skill. In fact, “cheating” in this way is actually re-enforcing improper movement patterns on the bike – using the fact that you are attached to the bike to get it up over obstacles and flick it around corners is NOT the skill you want embedded in your neuromuscular system. Being clipped in allows the average rider to quickly increase their APPARENT riding level by bypassing the need for specific movement skill. Unfortunately, I would argue that riders leaping to clips in this fashion will plateau very quickly and stop progressing as a rider – or at least not progress as rapidly as if they would have developed the proper skills using flat pedals.

    Personally, I ride flats almost exclusively all winter long and as much as I can through the summer, I race XC (very un-competitively) in clips, and I “cheat” most of the time when out on significant trail rides with “the group”.

    Reply • October 10 at 11:10 am
    • Mike says:

      I am that average rider Randy. You described me to a Tee. I started with clipless pedals because that’s what the pros were using, and that’s what conventional wisdom said you were supposed to do. I plateaued years ago for the exact reasons you stated. Because of James’s compelling arguments I made the switch to flats. I’m having fun with that, but I feel as though I have gone back to square one. I can’t even get through a 30 minute ride now on a very easy trail without having to cheat a lot. James is absolutely right ~ riding with flats will expose your weaknesses.

      Reply • October 10 at 5:34 pm
  4. neil says:

    nice post, thanks for taking the time to make a considered reply.
    I read that Pinkbike article and it did present a good argument. However, I don’t like the feel of clips now though, so it made me feel a little perplexed.
    It is a fact here that Wc bikes have become much more slack [like 63 degee head angles] and this means the front wheel is way ahead of the bars – and I’m willing to accept that means more weight is needed over the front. But I think weighting the front CAN be achieved on flats myself – however, I am no racer for sure ;-), my trail bike does have a 65 degree head angle (and Burgtec Flats, the best!).
    Whilst it may be true that a WC DH is unlikely to be won on flats anytime soon, as Richard proposes on Pinkbike, I feel that for the majority of riders flats are just more fun. And they help cure those bad habits like lifting and pulling up. I certainly found them more fun myself once I got used to them (and 5-10 shoes of course) about 5 years ago. For me, this was a big change as I’d been using SPDs ever since they were first introduced by Shimano long long ago and we were rif ding bikes with 150mm stems and cutting down 600 mm wide bars.
    Those WC guys are in a different place to most guys – right on the very edge and they have to push into an area way beyond the ability of almost all riders. I like to think I can get my foot down fast if need be, and that allows me, personally, more speed and more fun in muddy rooty conditions.
    thanks again James, this is indeed a great resource
    (from the UK – where it sure is mud season now)

    Reply • October 10 at 11:36 am
  5. dan says:

    …Not to mention a “toes down” foot position leaves you vulnerable to squishing your toes between an obstacle and you pedal and somersaulting off the bike, especially with compressed suspension. The Pros can certainly get away with it, but I’ve had this happen a few times too many and it’s not fun!

    Reply • October 10 at 1:29 pm
  6. Lee McGuffey says:

    there is still, and for whatever reason, the simple truth that, at least in the last 2 seasons, flat pedals aren’t making their way up on the blocs and the end of the race. Not reading a single thing into that…just find it pretty interesting.

    Reply • October 10 at 4:32 pm
  7. Mike says:

    I share your frustration James. It’s because of these kinds of articles that I bought into the idea of riding with clipless pedals in the first place, and why I never developed much as a rider. The take away I get from Cunningham’s piece is, “blah, blah, blah, clipless is the way to go, blah, blah, blah.” I have basically been a roadie on dirt for the past 25 years because that’s the kind of information that saturates the Internet. Nobody I’ve ever come across explains the fundamentals like you do, and because of this huge void I remained oblivious to the importance of body position, and the fitness level required to attain that. What little speed I had was built around bad posture and weaknesses, and I would have never discovered them if it weren’t for your compelling articles about switching to flats. Your passion for this is the only reason why I made the switch. While some here may be sick of hearing it, I for one needed every article, every word, and every video in order to challenge my long held beliefs and to reconsider my methods. You’re a great teacher James, and you know your stuff. Thanks again for the wealth of information that you provide, and continue to preach your message.

    Reply • October 10 at 5:05 pm
  8. Jon says:

    Reductio ad absurdum is the problem with Cunningham’s article. James presents more evidence for both sides. Ride what works for you, but for the vast majority of riders flats teach better technique. Come race day run clipless, your technique will be there. As for the forward position, if it works better then fine. But knowing this position and not knowing how to properly control your feet is a waste.

    Reply • October 10 at 6:31 pm
  9. John (aka Wish I Were Riding) says:

    I’m definitely a weekend warrior even when I ride 4 times per week. I’m sure my technique is pretty average. Since switching to flats at the beginning of the year I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Even if I could be faster with clips, I don’t care. I just wish I could get my technique to improve to the point where I could jump etc without worrying about my feet coming off the flat pedals. This is pretty much the only thing I still have trouble with.

    Another anecdote about the switch is I no longer have boughts of severe leg pain on the outside of my of my lower legs. Not once since switching to flats. I do however have tight feet and heel cords after riding that I didn’t used to have. But I will trade a little morning stiffness in the feet over the leg pain any day!

    Reply • October 10 at 9:08 pm
  10. Joe says:

    This discussion comes up a lot. My 2 cents is… RIDE FLATS to get stronger, more efficient and improve your skills. RIDE clipless if you are racing someone or riding for time. The mistake everyone makes is they immediately go to clipless because they think it will make them faster.. the problem is they end up plateauing very quickly. So this whole discussion really comes down to are you Training ? Are you Racing ? Are you riding for fun ?

    Training ? – Flats
    Racing ? – Clipless
    Fun ? – Flats (for me anyway)

    Reply • October 12 at 10:56 am
  11. WAKi says:

    I have a very strange feeling that RC desires to hit certain debatable issues so hard that they get blown into the dark hole and are terrified to come back. That is not only a bad thing to do from the point of view of “scientifical contribution to society”, but also completely futile. Dirt TV made a vid on how heavy are the bikes of WC riders, they were above 35lbs, all of them, so the weight of nearly entry level DH bike. Yet people will still be killing themselves if given enough resources to push the bikes under the magic 32lbs!

    I wouldn’t be surprised if he was also drawing up an article on superiority of 29ers in XC racing but latest world champ victory of Nino Schurter on 650B might have put a bucket of cold water on his head – why? because 650B uses ONLY an inch (effectively, half of an inch)bigger than 26″ wheel, as compared to relatively much bigger diameter on 29er which is nearly a 1.5″ larger in effective diameter than 26.

    You know, I killed that noisy bee, I can go to bed now… with all the respect.

    The reality is that no matter whether it is a clipless, 29er, dropper post, electronic shifting, electronic controlled suspension, more suspension – we deal with situation of a kid with the knife VS the soldier with the knife. It depends how you use it and how you respect it. You might cut your hand or survive for weeks in wilderness. From another angle, when kid is given a bazooka of huge firepower and possibilities, he will throw away the knife…

    Reply • October 16 at 7:30 am
  12. Dean Williamson says:


    You mention being at the forefront of the “flat pedal revolution”. So am I. In fact, I am so into flat pedals, that I have invented the World’s thinnest flat pedal, the FlyPaper Pedal. At a mere 3.7 mm thick, NOTHING even comes close…except for my new design, which will be waaaaay thinner!

    The first 7 pairs of prototypes of my new HoneyBadger Pedals, “The World’s Most Fearless Pedal”, are currently being machined, and will be debuted in two weeks, at the Red Bull Rampage, an event that I was instrumental in helping to create.

    Being as you understand flats better than almost anyone, I thought that perhaps you may want to become involved with what I am doing. If so, call me at (928) 399-9669 or email me at bikedoc@esedona.net for more info.

    Thank you for helping to enlighten the masses!


    Reply • September 8 at 12:31 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the invite, I’d love to check out what you have going on. I’ll give you a call, always happy to discuss flat pedals.

      Reply • September 10 at 9:40 am
  13. Jake Carsten says:

    I’m curious to hear more about this ‘toes down’ position the pros use as I’d never heard of anyone doing that intentionally (I admittedly am not a pro racer which could be why I’ve never heard of it). For mere mortal riders like myself, my biggest concern with someone trying to ride toes down is that it will rotate the body and hips forward while making it incredibly difficult to use your forward leg as a bracing leg to keep the body from shifting forward and getting out of balance when braking and or the bike being slammed into obstacles like rocks or roots – encouraging too much weight on the front and increasing odds of going over the bars.

    Love your blog James and your common sense approach to technique. Keep up the great work!

    Reply • September 8 at 9:01 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’ve got no idea – I think the problem we had with that article is someone who doesn’t understand movement was trying to interpret what he thought he saw the pros doing. Sports history is full of people trying to guess about how a pro does something without the per-requisite movement knowledge needed to do it properly. Just look at the pedal stroke and where we are today when people guessed wrong about the need to pull up on the backstroke.

      I don’t doubt that in some instances you’ll see the pros getting really heavy on the front, which will get the feet more level or pointed down. But that is not a necessary position to be a fast rider.

      Glad you like the blog and the message, thanks for the support.

      Reply • September 10 at 9:37 am

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