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

One of the more common reasons I hear from riders about 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.

It isn’t really about clipless pedals and being attached to your bike, it is about an industry wide misuse of the technology.

To make my case I point to trials riders like Ryan Leech and Danny McCaskill. You can’t tell me that they don’t feel connected to their bikes yet they are not mechanically attached in any way. Connecting with your bike happens at a subconscious level and has nothing to do with having your feet attached to the pedals.

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 in the first place.

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.

That’s it for now, if you have any questions on how to use flats to help you feel more connected to your bike or any tips that helped you figure it out please post a comment below this post. Also, if you liked this article please click one of the Share or like buttons below it to help spread the word.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

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  1. Jon Laterveer says:

    Nice point about Trials riders, obviously they are at a high level of skills and connection to a bike. They stand, use flats, ride rigid bikes and they sure have the 3 skills (body position, track stands & manuals) nailed down 🙂

    Reply • August 28 at 11:46 am
  2. Ray says:

    In my case and most of my friends, we switched to clipless pedals not to compensate for lack of skill but to stop being hit on the shin with the pedals. Clipless pedals stopped the embarrassing wriggling in pain on the ground while holding the shin after a foot slipped from pedal. Later we heard that clipless had many more benefits than flats so it was a win win in our minds. Now I’m going back to flats to learn the skills I should have when I started. Doing it because now I know that there are special shoes that don’t slip of flat pedals. 🙂

    Reply • August 28 at 4:15 pm
  3. Jim says:

    I have been on flats and 5-10’s for the last 3 years.I love them but have noticed this year more than ever on steep climbs that my feet sometimes slip off the pedals while standing-always right at the top of the stroke. I’m sure it is something in my technique but can’t pinpoint what I am doing wrong. Is this a common problem/mistake?
    Thanks for a great website.

    Reply • August 28 at 5:11 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Your feet can’t come off unless you are pulling them up so there must still be some pulling when you start cranking hard. It can take a while to get it all down but just try to focus fully on the downstroke and not at all on the upstroke.

      Reply • August 29 at 10:45 am
      • WAKi says:

        It was an issue for me even 1year after switching to flats. It happens extremely rarely to me these days after I switched to thinner pedals. Such pedals with ca 16mm and thinner platform are advised by some of world’s best skills coaches. When I blow through the pedal these days it is usualy due to pulling because my foot does not get into proper angle to push over the top. Happens mostly on seated pedalling when I want to have a burst to stand up to get over a boulder or something

        Reply • August 30 at 6:13 am
  4. Philip says:

    “Losing your mechanical attachment point to the bike should not drop your performance by more than 3-5%”

    Why is this? How did you quantify the 3-5%? Why with the right set up why are they not equal?

    Reply • August 28 at 8:48 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I actually got the number from Jared Graves who told me he only thought clipless pedals increased his times by 3-5%. My ultimate point is that if you take try flats and you aren’t half the rider you were on clipless then you have some issues.

      The truth is that the stiffer sole and mechanical attachment point do improve power transfer slightly and will result in faster times in certain situations, namely on the road and in labs. On the trail there is a lot more to it but which is why I think that flats are just a if not faster for most riders once they learn to use them right but you have to be able to concede that clipless are better in some situations…just not the ones 99% of mountain bikers find themselves in.

      Reply • August 29 at 10:44 am
  5. Neil B says:

    Hia James,
    Sorry for the long post.
    I was almost 20 years on clips (since the very first SPDs), I never thought I’d manage with flats when I tried them 6 years ago. But my first trip to the Alps (on the SPDs) had taught me you cant afford to be clipped in on those exposed sketchy sometimes muddy AND rocky switchbacks without exceptional skills.
    So I switched, eventually some Burgtec Penthouse Flats pedals and 510’s helped with this (see Brook McDonald on his PF’s, he flies).
    It took a while to stop lifting off, the switch reveled some real bad stuff in my technique – and I do have some impressive scars on one calf from getting ejected when I was using Shimano DX’s. But I did it, 6 years on Penhouse Flats now and very happy, I’ve really enjoyed your posts telling me why I am doing the right thing.

    What happened next tho! a little while back I added a 29 er to my shed as a lightish, more “XC” bike for longer rides. Of course it soon got wide bars and it even started out with flats.
    Few days ago I found some nice old Specialized boots (setup for Time clips) in my cupboard and thought I’d try them again. Might be great for XC, right. NO, wrong, not for me – My feet felt like they were skating around on two ice cubes. The pedals had turned into tiny little pivots and I completely lost my feeling of connection with the ground.
    Just like you expected.
    Then, on my way home, my rear slipped on a sketchy climb and immediately dumped me sideways into the briar patch. I lay there still clipped in and thought of the old days! Nice! Now, if I get the old Colnago road bike out that’s been hanging for 10 years, I’m even gonna put flats on that. That should get those roadies excited.

    Thanks for another great post James.

    I hope you guys out there follwing James get to try flats, you’ll need decent grippy ones like my Penthouse Flats and proper sticky shoes, like the market leaders from 510, or maybe try Vans Gravel. It does take a while to feel safe and I recommend shinpads, but then you start to rip. When its muddy and/or sketchy its sooo nice to know you could get a foot down. Not to mention when it gets exposed to altitude and big falls alongside the trail. You’ll not catch me on clips on Alpine terrain again. That fall I had the other day could easily have been fatal on an exposed trail in clips.

    Go for it. You should try anything (legal) that might enhance your ride, right?
    Happy trails

    Reply • August 29 at 2:29 am
  6. tambi jalouqa says:

    Hi James,

    Been using flats 5-10’s for the last 4 years and i never felt the need for clipless. i feel more confident and dynamic on my bike that riders who boast about being “clipped in”.

    Also what do you think about using indoor rock climbing to develop upper body and core strength i just started climbing and it feels so good. Would it hinder riding performance?

    Reply • August 29 at 4:10 am
  7. WAKi says:

    Flats for alonst any fully all the way, flats for HT on technical steep stuff and leisure riding. Clipless for HT for fast riding when you want to keep up with fullys. You can’t pedal an HT through rough at speed on flats. Then you can’t ride HT in rockgardens with confidence on flats, unless you choose to do it slowly and methodicaly what has it’s own flavour, but your mates on fullys will be out of sight. Sometimes you need to cheat…

    Reply • August 29 at 9:42 am
    • jason says:

      I don’t own anything but hardtails and ride flats 90% of the time. Rock gardens, downhills, and anything else around I stay right on the full suspension guys. Once I learned how to keep my feet heavy they have never come off the pedals.

      Reply • August 15 at 11:36 am
  8. Robin says:

    Hi James and all posting,
    Thanks for the great info; I’m just getting back on the trails after a back injury 8 years ago and most recently shoulder surgery (2 screws). I bought a new 29er to celebrate, so I’m not only getting used to being back on the trail but also a 29 inch wheel. I’ve fallen so much and still been clipped (I don’t remember that issue before) that I’ve decided to try (good) flats and 5/10’s. I’m apprehensive, but your thoughts and the posts make me believe it is true.y the best thing to do.
    Love the workouts!

    Reply • September 2 at 7:55 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You’ll do great and I’ll bet you’ll instantly have more fun. Keep me posted on how things go…

      Reply • September 3 at 9:48 am
  9. Eric L says:

    Hi James,
    I’m sold on both flat pedals & standing pedaling. There is one thing that I still need to figure out and wanted to see if you have any experience with my specific issue.

    I think I’m seeing a combination of 3 things (but not positive) – moving my foot forward on the pedal with my toe further out front (toe is more exposed), the increased amount of force I put down on the pedals while standing (squishes suspension which lowers clearance relative to sitting), and a slight change on flat terrain in my body position relative to the pedals (I can push down & back with my toe dropping slightly). The combination seems to be putting my toes in a more exposed position. I noticed this on a ride over the weekend where I kept “stubbing” my toes on rocks.

    This may just be part of the learning curve as I adjust my lines & pedal stroke timing, and it’s not enough that I’d go back to sitting & clips, but would love to make things a bit easier on my toes if you have any ideas.

    Reply • September 3 at 12:54 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Having to re-time your pedal stroke is pretty common when switching to flats but it will get better. I notice my toe hitting more rocks when I switch from my Cove G-Spot to my Yeti ASR-5 because the 5 has a lower BB, which means I have to adjust accordingly. It is just part of riding and you’ll pick it up pretty quickly.

      Reply • September 4 at 11:26 am
  10. Frank says:

    Hi JAMES.
    I ride with VP all purpose flat pedals and FIVE ten freeriders shoes. But when im heading a jump i feel insecure because sometimes y loose one pedal while in the air (im an all mountain rider/entry level DH rider). My Five Ten’s are awesome so i dont think they are the prolem. Can you share a tecnique so it dont happen so often. I want to hit big jumps but i need some confidence first.
    Thanks dude

    Reply • September 8 at 4:10 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      While I need to make a video showing how this relates to jumping a bit better the same body action you use to manual/ bunny hop your bike is the same one you use to jump. You have to be active of a jump and not just ride off of it. Practice this skill and you’ll find it easier to apply to jumping.

      Reply • September 9 at 2:55 pm
  11. Ray Huertas says:

    I am 53 yrs old and just converted to Flats. I live in Florida where most of the trails are a combination of XC , Freeride and technical trails in very sandy conditions with a lots of roots. Two things happen, 1.While on XC trails I notice on rough bumpy patches, my foot bounces out of the pedal at different points of the stroke which slow me down. 2. Coursing through obstacles when I bunny hop, the rear wheel bounces lower than the front. I cannot pull up like I use to with clipless and jump with wheels parallel to the ground. (Although I can do a parallel bunny hop while standing still on flats). How do I fix that? “Old dog trying to learn new tricks”

    Reply • September 17 at 5:57 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Hope these answers help…

      1 – You can’t pedal with reckless abandon on flats like you can on clipless. You have to pick your spots to get on it and when the trail gets rough you need to stop pedaling and get into “flow mode” and float through with as little loss of momentum as possible. Standing up to pedal also helps when you do need to pedal through rough stuff.

      2 – Check out this video, it will show you the technique you need to pull up your rear wheel without being attached to your bike –

      Reply • September 17 at 4:11 pm
  12. frederic nicholson says:

    It would ne interesting to discuss how clip pedals for road bikes and mountain bikes are used differently. I’m riding on the road with clips (after changing from cages, I’m an old fart) and I feel great. After getting hooked on mountain biking, it looked natural to go with clips, but it does not feel good at all. I agree that it does not help,is dangerous and simply not a good choice for most riders. I’ll get them off the bike right now!

    Keep riding !

    Reply • September 23 at 7:35 pm
  13. stirling says:

    I have only just started riding a HT 3 months ago so have little experience but can share the general sentiment here. I ride hard pack and loose sandy trails with very steep and rocky uphill and downhill in Australia’s Blue Mountains region. I am rockin cheap bear cage pedals and using hiking shoes with grippy knobby soles which seam to work really well and catch on the spikey bear cage pedal.
    I am no slower than my mates in clipless and am learning proper technique bunny hopping without my feet mechsnically attached to the bike.

    I’ve yet to read about anyone using my combo so am hesitant to change to flats with pins and 5 10’s thinking I won’t get anymore grip than I currently have.

    Know anyone using cage pedals and hiking shoes? I find it works but don’t know what I might be missing out on with proper flats and good sticky 5 10’s or a similar good flat shoe.

    Any advice helpful !

    Reply • October 15 at 4:06 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’ve found that a flat soled shoe made does stick better than one with lugs and spaces in the sole. The pins get better traction and any way you step on the pedal will get grip as well. I used tennis shoes for years and thought they were great – and they were – but shoes made for flat pedals definitely make a difference.

      Reply • October 15 at 3:28 pm
  14. Tony says:

    Ah, the flats v clipless debate. I am getting there with flats, but have to concede that my bike is still my bike because on a few occasions it has remained hanging to my foot rather than bouncing down the mountainside ledge…

    …however, thanks to kettle bells I had the core strength to Gaul me and it back up again!

    On a different note, I started riding with 5 10’s and they stick so firmly to the pedal I found it was hard to get the right placement. I now use non mtb Etnies and that ability to shift on the pedal as well as slightly grip with the foot has helped massively.

    Once I get the placement nailed in I’ll return to the 5 10s…

    Reply • August 15 at 8:10 am
  15. I agree that both have there place and neither should be pushed to the exclusion of the other. I have to say that even at maximum spring tension I can get out of my clipless pedals any time I want. Actually wish I could have a stiffer retention spring!

    Reply • August 16 at 9:27 pm
  16. Dylan Hornby says:

    I currently live in the Middle East, where it is relatively flat and very rocky. I was on clipless prior to coming here, having ridden extensively in Southern Africa. Naturally when I got my system together here I opted for clipless, that was until i competed in the Desert Challenge traversing sand dunes and some really thick sand. During prep the day before, I was in the local bike store and saw a set of flats, I bought them and installed them that night, thank goodness I did, we spent a very big part of the race portaging or getting caught up in massive sand traps, my partner was on clipless and struggled more so than I on that race.

    I have remained on flats since, at first I felt like my feet were continuously loosing contact with the pedals, but after a lot of practice I have managed to resolve the issues. I just upgraded and the bike came standard with SPD Pedal Platforms, which i will try out in Autumn as it is way too hot right now.
    Interesting to see both sides of the debate!!

    Reply • July 28 at 4:26 am

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