One of the common reasons given for why clipless pedals are better or needed is because they “connect” or “attach” you to the bike. However, I think that there is a difference between being “connected” to your bike and being “attached” to it. The two have nothing to do with each other and this causes confusion when discussing the pro’s and con’s of either pedaling system.
To make my case I point to surfers and skate boarders. You can’t tell me that they don’t feel connected to their boards yet they are not mechanically attached in any way. Connecting with your board or bike happens at an almost spiritual level and has nothing to do with equipment.
However, to connect with your bike you must first connect with yourself. If you don’t have the body awareness needed to intentionally apply strong movement to the trail then there is no way you can connect with your bike, at least not at the same level you could.
Clipless pedals simply attach you to the bike and shouldn’t affect how you actually move on the bike. You should be able to ground your feet so they don’t fly off and be able to pedal without your feet coming off no matter what pedal system you use. Losing your mechanical attachment point to the bike should not drop your performance by more than 3-5%, otherwise you’re not creating the movement in the most efficient and powerful manner.
I think that this gets lost in the whole discussion – the pro riders that everyone points to in defense of the superiority of clipless pedals can rip with flats as well. They can flat out ride a bike and know how to apply a clean, efficient pedal stroke and riding technique regardless of the pedal interface. Sure, they may be faster with clipless pedals but it isn’t this massive performance gap that you see with the average clipless user.
There are lessons that you learn from being able to ride, manual, bunny hop and jump with flat pedals that you can get around learning with clipless pedals. Learning those lessons will make you a better rider with clipless pedals if you even choose to use them.
I guess that’s my ultimate point – make sure that you can ride a bike first and then look to use equipment and technology to potentially enhance your progress. You need to know how to apply good, functional movement to the bike and that means being able to do it without being attached to your bike. If I had my way everyone would start out on a hard tail bike with flat pedals and graduate to more technology once they’ve learned to ride without it.
It isn’t really about clipless pedals and being attached to your bike, it is about an industry wide misuse of the technology. Using that attachment point to feed into dysfunctions is one of the main reasons cycling has such an insane overuse injury rate. Learn to pedal without the aid of technology and then you’ll be healthier and more powerful with it.
For a lot of riders, finding out that you can pedal up anything with flats that you can with clipless and that you can learn to keep your feet planted has been a revelation. They are realizing that most of the advantages given to clipless pedals are not really in the system itself, it is in the power given to it in the mind of riders told from day one that it is a vastly superior system and a must for all serious riders.
To draw this to a close, I’m not saying that flats are “better”. I am saying that they are not the inferior choice they are made out to be by the mountain biking industry. You can “connect” with your bike on either system, but from a movement and technique perspective you should be able to ride flats without a serious performance drop off. Using them as a crutch and using them as a true performance enhancer are two different things and recognizing this can help make you a much better overall rider.