Why clipless pedals don’t “connect” you to your bike…

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.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Tim says:

    I have a set Crank Bro Mallets but I was getting a lot of pedal strikes on our more rocky trails. I switched to their Acid pedals which I love and don’t have nearly as many problems. I want to try some standard platform pedals but I can’t find any that are as narrow as the Acids. Any suggestions?

    Reply • October 28 at 11:51 am
  2. Michael says:

    I have a pair of acids. Great pedals. For flats I run Xpedo Face Off XMX13s. They’re bigger than the acids but not as big as the mallets. I’ve been running them for about a month. I’m happy with them.

    Reply • October 28 at 7:04 pm
  3. Paul says:

    I’m over it.

    I just don’t see ‘the industry’ pushing anything on anyone in my neck of the woods. Frankly the only person I come across pushing anything in the way of pedal choice is this website and I resent it.

    Reply • October 28 at 8:55 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Really? If no one pushed clipless pedals on you by telling you that they were a better option than flats then why did you try them in the first place? As long as the majority of riders end up on clipless pedals before they can pedal well without them then they are being pushed on you whether you realize it or not. And you can’t honestly tell me that the predominant advice in mountain biking is to go clipless so even if you hear it that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

      Reply • October 29 at 1:28 pm
  4. Forrest says:

    Well said,great post.
    @Tim…I use Kona’s and love them.Time your stroke and pump more

    Reply • October 28 at 9:01 pm
  5. WAKi says:

    Tim just make sure you don’t hit any stone with Acids. I hit one with mine, on an uphill at 5km/h and well it I don’t have these fancy carbon covers anymore which in fact appeared to be plastic )off course you read carbon in CB description – gravity racing pedal – yea right…)

    Reply • October 29 at 12:04 pm
  6. WCC says:

    I have ridden bikes for 35 years and mountain bikes exclusively for the last ten years. I originally found your website after researching sites to find core strengthen training technics while recovering from back surgery. I’m tired of hearing about flat pedals, is this a blog or a strength training website?

    Reply • October 29 at 1:18 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Both. No offense but if you’ve been riding for 35 years and had to have back surgery then some of the movement issues I’m talking about here may have contributed to your original injury (if it was an overuse type injury then it almost surely was) and applying some of this stuff to your riding technique will help your back. It isn’t about having a strong lower back, it is about how that back helps create movement and if your movement on the bike isn’t authentic then you will end up with injuries. Standing up to pedal more and making sure that you are not getting away with a faulty pedal stroke through being attached to your bike will make a big difference in your durability.

      Reply • October 29 at 1:25 pm
  7. Julie says:

    Can you write/post a similar article on the side effects of over-engineered running/cross training shoes? Maybe people will get that first, then relate it to the pedals?

    Reply • October 29 at 7:47 pm
  8. William says:

    Well that’s a step back from the “flats are better” that you have been espousing earlier this year. I can ride both, and do depending on my mood, but riding with flats makes my arches sore so I keep it down to less than 20% if my rides. It was getting to the point that I was uncomfortable reading your site, so I am pleased to see the change in your attitude. Not that my opinion should sway your attitude or actions, just saying that I support your new take on the topic.

    Reply • October 29 at 8:12 pm
  9. MatthewD says:

    James, Thanks for your passionate and well articulated views on this subject. I encourage you to continue dispelling the myth of clipless superiority; it has everything to do with the subtitle on your website, “Ride Harder, Ride Faster, Ride Stronger”.

    I just finished Year 1 of MTBing. After dumping, $2,000+ on a bike a year ago, I immediately went out and bought some SIDIs and clipless pedals. Why? Well, that’s what everyone else had. The salesrep at REI had no problem encouraging this purchase and the benefits of clipless. Though, to his credit, he did tell me that I would fall over, “Everyone does”.

    And yes, I fell over/unclipped awkwardly 5-6 times last year from a variety of situations. The results: 1) nasty cut on my lower leg with a permanent scar; 2) almost snapped my tibia; 3) landed square on my hip a couple of times; 4) shoulder pile-drived into the ground . Not fun and totally UNACCEPTABLE, especially in light of the fact that I do most of my riding by myself.

    So with your encouragement, I went to a couple bike shops and REI to explore going to flats. I only found one shop in the whole Seattle area that sells Five-Tens. Moreover, I explained why I was switching, “risking serious injury through no fault of my own 4-5 times a year is not acceptable”. I thought I would get a “Yeah, I totally know what you mean” from the bike shop/REI folks. I was wrong, no one seem to be particularly moved by this argument. I tried to make the argument that I want to get better, ie practice track stands, riding skinnies at the bike park, etc. The typical type of response from the REI/bike shop folks, “I find a grass field or park to practice my track stands, so if I fall over it doesn’t hurt as bad”. STUPID!!

    I’ve already proven that I can spin fireroads/coverted rail trails in my Sidis with the best of them. So, Year 2 of my MTBing career will be dedicated to actually learning how to ride a MTB. I purchased 50/50s and a sweet pair of Five-Ten Sam Hill’s, which I wear every wear and have received tons of compliments, “Cool shoes”. I’ve already noticed instant improvement on skinnies; I’m less likely to bail. My track stands are way better because I can practice on my asphalt driveway. And most importantly, I’m riding singletrack with a lot more confidence.

    To you negative posters: It’s okay to take a contrary opinion, as long as you articulate your point of view. In the anonymous world of the internet, it doesn’t take a lot of courage to post short, one/two sentence negative missives that don’t add to the debate. These types of posts say more about you as a person than the topic being discussed. So do what I learned to do a long time ago when I wrote these types of posts – HIT THE DELETE BUTTON.

    Ultimately, what James and others like him are doing is noble and goes beyond improving your MTB skills. It’s about helping people dedicate themselves to a Lifestyle of Health and Fitness, in whatever form that is. Sadly, too few Americans don’t choose a lifestyle of health and fitness; one person in ten is my guess. Think about what a better world we would have if we could increase that number.

    Reply • October 30 at 10:10 am
  10. John K. says:

    James first off this is probably one of the best MTB websites out there. Second, for the record I ride 100% flats and I do a mix of x-c/freeride, often in the same ride. I’ve also used clipless but I had a few scary disconnects while in the air – flats are more predictable in my opinion.

    I think you’re running the risk of losing credibility here though. You’ve made an eloquent and convincing argument for riders to consider flats. Now I think the issue needs to rest – it’s up to your readers to make a decision for themselves. Continuing to post on this issue only makes you appear dogmatic, which I know you’re not trying to be.

    How about giving us what we really want – a video on manualling, j-hopping, drops, etc… Your cornering video REALLY helped me out. You have a great approach to teaching and it especially comes through on video.

    Reply • October 30 at 10:33 pm
    • bikejames says:

      I appreciate where your coming from, I have just had a lot of riders mention the “but how do you stay connected to your bike” question and I felt compelled to address it. Now that I’ve written about the pedal stroke and the “staying connected” arguments I won’t hammer it down anyone’s throat but if I get another idea about the subject or get a recurring question I’ll still bring it up.

      Plus I feel strongly that there needs to be a loud voice letting riders who are told that clipless pedals are better and encouraged to get on them right away that there is another viewpoint. As far as I know I am the only person on the internet bringing science and functional movement to the discussion and as the only one doing it I may mention it more often.

      Thanks for the feedback, though, as soon as my thumb heels I’m going to get on the other skills vids.

      Reply • October 31 at 9:21 am
  11. Paul says:

    I tried to reply to the comment above but for some reason I could not. So here goes:

    No-one told me that clipless pedals were better than flats. No-one in the bike shops I went to and none of the people I rode with. Some of the people I ride with ride clipless and some of them ride flats. When I started riding mountain bikes I rode flats for the first two years in spite of the fact that I was really comfortable riding clipless pedals when I rode my commuter bike to work and back. They felt good and I felt no reason to change them for clipless. I made the switch to clipless as an experiment – copying the guys I was riding with who were faster than me to see if it could make me faster too. And I think they did.

    I still ride flats – my street / trials bike has a nice set of DMR V12’s and I have a pair of very grippy skate shoes that I ride in so I’m not anti flats or pro clipless. I think that they both are useful tools when used in the right circumstances. I think that everyone should try both and ride what works for them.

    Certainly if you are riding clipless and they make you feel nervous or uncomfortable then I would recommend that you ditch them asap and get flats. How can you have fun and ride harder, ride faster or ride stronger if you are nervous or scared that you can’t get your feet out in time?

    The MTB media I read / watch (primarily Dirt magazine, mtbdirt.com.au and rotorburn.com.au) do not have a ‘pro-clipless’ stance and I simply choose not to hang around the type of person who feels they have to tell you what is best for you. I can’t say that the predominant advice in mountain biking is to go clipless – all I can say is that I don’t come across anyone pushing clipless as superior to flats.

    That said – James – I’ve had a look at some of your videos of your local trails and if I was riding them I’d be on flats for sure. My local trails are pretty tame in comparison and clipless works just fine on them. Once again it is all about choosing the right tool for the job.

    Reply • October 30 at 11:56 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Thank for the viewpoint, however I think that if you actually posed the question on any MTB forum or website you’d find far more pro-clipless than pro-flat responses. Also, just because you missed being influenced (I managed to avoid it as well) doesn’t mean that most rider’s aren’t told that clipless is vastly superior. The number of unskilled riders poking around the trail every weekend speaks to the spoken or un-spoken influence they have on this sport.

      And I realized that I need to clarify my main point of the post – it isn’t about the equipment you use, it is about how authentic is your movement. If you really own your pedal stroke it shouldn’t matter what you use. If clipless pedals make you significantly better then you don’t own your pedal stroke and skill, they do. Own your pedal stroke and skills first and then any bike or any piece of equipment you use you’ll be able to rip on.

      Reply • October 31 at 9:38 am
  12. StefT says:

    I agree 100% with James about clipless pedals. First of all, yes they are sold to newbies without alternative. I was riding clipless pedals for years, but switched to flats a few years ago, first I was thinking I would still be using clipless. Never used them again. Don’t miss them at all and I do all day rides with tons of climbing with flats and don’t feel slower at all. In addition, I do not want to ride extremely technical and exposed alpine terrain with clipless pedals any longer. I admit sometimes I still make holes in my shins – usually while pushing the bike (I don’t always wear pads) and not while riding.
    And clipless pedals prevent newbies to learn correct riding techniques. Once you have mastered them, then it is ok to ride clipless, but everyone should start out riding flats.
    In fact, clipless pedals can cause serious injuries, my girlfriend tore her ACL when she could not unclip in time and her foot got tangled up in a root and she fell off the trail…flats only for her as well….and the accident did not happen when she was a beginner, but with years of experience..not cool at all.

    Reply • October 31 at 10:00 am
  13. Joe says:

    I also agree that James is probably the only one voicing riding flats, where no one else steps up to the plate and challenges the “herd”. I started MTbing over a year ago and everyone recommended clipless. Go in any LBS and that’s all they will sell you. So.. I bought some clipless and internalized pretty quickly it was a very bad idea.. after several falls in technical exposed areas.. because I couldn’t unclip. (fyi… I rode clipless on road bikes for years so was familiar with them). I ended up getting 5.10 impacts with excellent flat pedals after some research. I’ve been riding with flats now for about a year and could not be happier. I rarely if ever come off my pedals. I made the decision to go with flats before discovering this website. I think what James is trying to make everyone understand (since no one else is) .. especially for newbies getting started in mountain biking… is that the “risks” of using clipless far outweigh any perceived “return” you think you will get from them.

    There have been some real serious accidents due to people not being able to unclip..

    Reply • October 31 at 7:08 pm
  14. WAKi says:

    My five cents here… or five tenners 🙂 Seriously it was James who recently convinced me a devoted SPD user to change to flats. All I found in SPD was confidence, never crashed due to riding in SPDs, like I couldn’t clip out, I mean if you ride CBros or anything that doesn’t clip out while pulling the foot up, not only due to twist: well you are destined for bad consequences of your crashes. I rode Shimanos and never had an issue with them. Tried Cbros and Times, and well_no! bla bla it’s a matter of getting used to bla bla, no!

    What convinced me was not the negatives of SPDs. It was what the flats can do for you, because If you want to ride flats you have to do stuff in a right way. So I thought to myself: flats are going to make me a better rider, and I fell for some time now that I am cheating physics with SPDs, I started to find myself doing some movements on the bike like pulling the rear wheel over ledges, rocks, jumping up with pulling bike up, not mentioning bad pedalling technique… lots of stuff that started to feel: this is cheating, and a time will come when I am going to pay double…

    Regarding pedalling power: on normal city bike flat pedals for shoe clips I just made a pretty steep uphill on my city bike on 42 teeth chain ring. So I agree here: SPD = power? maybe for PROs.

    So I bought five tens instead of new SPD shoes as a replacement for my worn out ones, made few descends on them, few uphills and… I’M A BELIEVER!!!

    Reply • November 1 at 7:11 am
  15. chris says:

    By all means, learn to ride on flats if you are new to the sport. I agree completely. Also, mix it up to stay fresh.
    But seriously, clips are not some evil contraption designed to take you down with your bike the way this continuous piling up of anecdotal evidence from these replies would lead one to believe.
    It is MUCH easier to un-clip on ANY clipless system if you are heavily weighting your pedals JUST like you would (and should) on flats.
    Also, in case no one has thought of this yet, i believe the benefit from clip-less lies not in the ability to “pull up” on the pedals with the hip flexors but in that it allows one to “pull back” and engage the hamstrings with a mild stretch the same way a full range athletic squat would. This helps stabilize the pelvis/hip joint ON the saddle giving you something solid to push off of.
    And to the people that keep downplaying the fact that you are not “pros”..Stop selling yourself short. Why limit what you can do or what equipment you can use because of negative self talk?

    Reply • November 2 at 11:13 am
  16. Max Jansons says:

    One of the main problems that I have discovered the hard way with clipless pedals is that they allow you to pedal without very much pressure or weight on your feet. I have found that without my weight distributed evenly over the width of my feet it places me, my joints, and muscles in an unbalanced and unnatural position on the bike that has led to pain and underdeveloped muscles in my inner quads around my knees. Working those muscles to correct the imbalance and switching to flats alleviated that problem.

    Reply • November 8 at 10:17 am
  17. Randy Harris says:

    I just sold my FS bike yesterday, and the guy was new to mountain biking – my advise to him was get a nice pair of flats not clipless pedals.

    Though I must say, when I am climbing 10% plus grades on my singlespeed, I will frequently pull up rather hard as I crank up the big hill, this wouldnt be possible with flats.

    Reply • January 27 at 12:46 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Check the newest podcast to see why that really isn’t an advantage and may, in fact, be a less powerful and efficient way to pedal. However, good advise to the newbie. Keeping him on flats will let him have some fun instead of just sitting and spinning away.

      Reply • January 28 at 1:47 pm
  18. Pete says:

    Thanks James. I just switched back to flats for techy type riding. Why, it just feels better. I ride for fun, who cares if I’m 3-5% slower.

    Reply • February 1 at 5:39 am
  19. JRE says:

    I agree with James on this.

    I’m not sure what article some of you are reading but I didn’t get that James was pushing flats over clipless at all. I believe he may be saying that flats tend to be overlooked by many people, especially those in the retail side of things, even though there are many benefits to learning proper technique that will easily translate to riding clipless. James also stated that clipless IS more efficient.

    Being able to keep a good cadence, bunny hop, manual, etc. on flats is only going to make you a better rider when making the switch to clips.

    Reply • November 5 at 2:49 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Thanks, I appreciate that you actually read what I wrote instead of viewing through the filter of “James hates clipless pedals”. Everything you stated is exactly what I wish every rider in the world would realize – they would have more fun and get hurt less if they used flats to be come better riders before using clipless pedals.

      Reply • November 6 at 7:54 am
  20. Ragtag says:

    Hello James,

    Thanks for the posts on this topic. I am a road bike rider riding flats for the past 3 years. I have been climbing hills and riding on flat roads with them. Sometimes I even exceed 100 rpm at 48 km/hr on flats but have never got the feeling that my foot will slip on flat pedals.

    Nonetheless, people still tell me that imagine how much more I can do on clipless pedals on a road bike. What are your thoughts on that?



    Reply • October 6 at 10:36 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I think that they misunderstand how pedaling works. I’m not going to say you couldn’t be a little faster in some situations but they think that you will see a huge increase in performance. Even if you are a little faster, it still doesn’t make them “better” and using flats is still the best way to train you pedal stroke.

      Clipless pedal riders tend to be very intimidated by flat pedal riders and how they can do things they were told are impossible. There is no reason for the average rider to use clipless pedals exclusively and some pretty compelling arguments not to.

      Reply • October 7 at 2:18 pm

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