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-

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *