February
13

Why Flat Pedals Improve Your Riding – Interview with MTB star Ryan Leech

One of my most popular podcasts interviews over the last few months was with trails rider and over all mountain biking stud Ryan Leech. At the end of our conversation I mentioned something off hand about flat pedals the tragedy of seeing new riders forced into the so quickly and Ryan was in both total agreement as to the need to learn how to ride on flats and surprised to hear that clipless pedals were being pushed so hard onto new riders.

Ryan was nice enough to join me for another podcast and in this one we dive into the use of flat pedals and how they enhance your balance, pedal stroke and skills as a rider. More importantly they enhance the FUN factor, which sometimes riders forget about. Ryan also gives us his advice for riders looking to make the switch from clipless to flat pedals and what you need to look for in a pedal and shoe to make it work.

All in all, Ryan does a great job of dispelling a lot of myths surrounding clipless pedals and reminds us that if trials riders – the most technically proficient riders in the world – don’t need to be attached to the pedals them few of us really do.

Download this episode (right click and save)

-James Wilson-

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  1. Leith says:

    Very cool interview. I like the idea of the 30 day flat pedal challenge! I think it’s great that there is starting to become an emphasis on learning the basics of riding on flat pedals to build a very solid skill base before committing to being clipped to your bike. My personal experience is I started on flats, then went to primarily clipless for 10+ years, then recently changed back to flats after falling into a progression slump. I would love to hear more about how experienced riders/racers could also benefit from letting go of the clipless dependency and maybe taking a few steps back for a while to re-learn how to ride properly again. My guess is if more riders did this then more riders wouldn’t want to go back to clips at all. Thanks again for the great info.

    Reply • February 13 at 12:08 pm
  2. Adrian says:

    Great interview. I’m 30 something coming back to MTB. Got myself new bike and new clipless pedals. Couldnt hack them at all. Went back to flats and am buzzin. Just like ye said its so much more fun and just easy. Less stress too. Am i going to get it wrong and end up keeling over into a razor sharp rock. I think the answer to when you are ready for clipless is if you have to question am i ready to move onto clipless you are not.

    Reply • February 14 at 3:47 am
  3. John K. says:

    I am amazed this is still an issue. Good on you James/Ryan for putting this message out there!

    Looking forward to those yoga/strength video teasers. Yoga has helped me regain a lot of mobility after 20+ years of sports.

    Reply • February 14 at 10:27 am
  4. TO says:

    I race xc and I love standing and pedaling. Flats have taken my riding to another level. I switched to flats about 2 seasons ago. I might clip again some day, but I think I can make a lot more progress on flats.

    I think the part of the podcast that nails it was something like “you don’t balance on the balls of your feet when you deadlift, so why are your clips positioned under the balls of your feet??” Flats definitely put you in a position to be way stronger, pushing down on the mid foot and heel and driving from the hip, like a deadlift.

    Climbing steep and rocky sections, I am finding places to pedal really hard and I pump wherever I can. I feel a much more intimate connection with the trail, and the bike just feels way more playful.

    Reply • February 14 at 3:57 pm
  5. Wade says:

    Great interview James.

    I started with cages and never could get the hang of them. Was always trying to flip the cage over to get my shoe in them. Finally tried clipless. They are easy. Put your foot down, they lock in, no thinking.

    So I wanted to see a section of trail that I helped build up at Buffalo Creek. The trail was over my head, I knew that going in but it has some of the best views around so I figured I’d be walking most of it anyways. On one of the solid pieces of granite, my shoes (you know with hard soles and metal cleats) slid one way, dropped my bike and I ended up with a perfect large chainring tattoo on my rear (try and explain that one – fall on your big chainring)…

    I got Transitions flats and 5-10 Impact 2 shoes for Christmas. Can’t wait to jump off my bike and not worry about slipping…

    Since then, I’ve only been able to ride once and that was on the road. Anybody that thinks you can move your shoe around on flats – mine don’t. (I almost fell over by not lifting my foot off the pedal when stopping.)

    The thing that I’m struggling with is where do I place my foot in relation to the axle. Ball of the foot over the axle is probably where I thought the clipless were set. Maybe the ball should be slightly in front of the axle. Any suggestions? Any hints on repositioning your shoe? I tended to lift mine up and put it back down in exactly the same position.

    Thanks again.

    Reply • February 14 at 4:25 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You want the ball of your foot in front of the axle. The idea of needing to push through the ball of the foot was based on where you push off when running, which was a mistake. Pushing down on the pedals is more like drivimg your foot into the ground when doing a deadlift so you,need it placed more mid-foot. I find that somewhere between the ball of your foot and the middle of your foot is the best spot. To be honest, if you listen to your body and place your foot where it feels comfortable then you will be alright. Hope this helps, give flats a solid 30 days and you will get it all figured out.

      Reply • February 15 at 7:17 am
  6. Jim says:

    I”m 48 and ride with a bunch of teched-out forest fairies… you know the kind. They all wear xc race gear and have really light bikes with clipless pedals. They have endurance but are frail and week and never take any air over 2 feet. 3 years ago after researching fitness, I came across this site and read all the blogs about flat pedal riding and decided to give it a try. By the way, I’ve heard of Ryan Leech and seem his riding videos for at least 7 years and always thought that if he could do what he does of flats, trail riding on flats can’t be that hard. So, him and Jeff Lenoski were motivation too. After 3 weeks of flat pedal riding, I was having fun and my lower back pain went away. Now, I’m killing it. I get a lot of questions and a lot of perplexed looks because they just got schooled by some old guy on a heavy bike (05′ Reign) and flat pedals. But still they won’t change. The vast majority here in the Tetons of clipless. A common response I hear is: “I’m XC. I’m not one of those downhillers”. My theory is that people won’t change because it’s more about style and some pre-conceived notion of what a mt. biker should look like. Lycra clad xc people resent downhillers, 4x, trials riders. Until the day comes when everybody (no matter what style you prefer) is just a mountain biker, there really isn’t going to be a big acceptance of flat pedals (even though they are better) among the xc/ trail rider crowd.

    Reply • February 14 at 11:58 pm
  7. shane says:

    Great interview James. Like a lot of other riders that follow your blog, buy your workouts, etc I have decided to give flat pedals a try this season. Just got me some Blackspire pedals and Five Ten shoes. I’m committed to giving this a try (financially at the very least). I do have a question though. In your interview you mentioned more than once that “riders are pushed into clip less pedals too soon”. This makes riding with clip less pedals seem like some sort of end goal. So when are clip less pedals appropriate? XC racing only? There must be some benefit to them.

    Reply • February 16 at 10:09 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I guess by “too soon” I mean that they don’t ever really get a chance to learn how to ride flat pedals and so they never really get to make a fair decision on whether clipless pedals are truly better or are just different. It takes some time to learn how to pedal properly and how to keep your feet planted on the pedals and going to clipless pedals too soon will give you the false sense of improvement since your feet are planted and so it feels like your pedal stroke is smoother and your feet are more planted and that leads a lot of riders to assume that without the attachment point those two things are impossible.

      If riders were able to spend the first several months of riding on good platforms and good shoes they would see that they can, in fact, develop their pedal stroke and skills with flats. Clipless pedals are like a weightlifting belt or racing flats in track – yes, they provide a small advantage in some areas but they also have drawbacks in some areas and for a lot of riders who really learn how to ride flats that trade off is not worth it. To be honest the more I get into this the less convinced I am that they offer any real benefit except at the highest levels of competition and that the vast majority of riders simply aren’t skilled enough to really use them properly and instead are just using them to cover up dysfunction and technique flaws.

      Like we said in the interview, spend some dedicated time learning to ride flats and then decide if you want to use clipless pedals. For a lot of riders that answer turns out the be “no”. From a pedal stroke and skill development standpoint plus a long term overuse injury prevention standpoint flats offer a lot of advantages that clipless pedals can not.

      Reply • February 16 at 1:16 pm
  8. WAKi says:

    I was riding on flats through first four years on a bike, then changed to clipless. I found a boost of confidence in them and they did took my comfort zone to another level as i wasn’t loosing the bike from my feet anymore. Off course I didn’t know anything about proper riding position, like heels down. Anyway, clipless did a great job for making me more confident. Within a year I started jumping 6+ meter speed jumps, while before I was crapping my pants on a 0,5m gap. I never ever felt held back mentaly on SPDs, I crashed only once because I could not clip out. But I never ever felt I ride faster or more efficent. In fact I was best in terms of fitness before I rode clipless.

    I changed to flats after finding this site and realized that my skills “plateaued” for last 4 years and how much balance was missing in my riding, heh, how much bad habits I had. Stuff I was uphilling by sprinting and bashing into rocks and roots, now I am cranking up gently and slowly, with much less effort. Sure it is hard to pick the bike off the ground on flats in the first rides comparing to clipless, but once you get it how to lift it properly you jump way higher. I can lift my bike 1.5ft up no probs because flats made me learn proper bunnyhopping.

    So to sum up, I think flats are best overall, but you should give clipless a try -> just don’t fall into abyss. It is vital though to become aware of fundamental bike skills (thanks to James, Lee and Gene for that), otherwise you are just walking in the dark. We have a crisis of authority in every discipline of life, and it is the industry putting millions into hype so it stays that way. If all you read or hear are product brochures, biased magazine tests, and racers busy doing racing not thinking what to say, well… it takes time to be smart, you are not born with it.

    Reply • February 17 at 1:08 am
  9. Kim says:

    I been reading this site over the past few months as I rehab from a major shoulder injury. Lots of interesting stuff. I’ve been mtb forever and grew up with clipless pedals and so am totally comfortable using them in pretty much all situations. But since my old clipless shoes and pedals were worn out and need replacing and I’m coming back from the shoulder injury, I am going to give the flats/5:10s a go as soon as I get back to riding.

    Two questions though and sorry if this has been covered and I just havent seen it. First, how does one bunnyhop? I assume you point your toes down and sort of push/scoop back and up on the pedals? Second, what about foot fatigue for long (i.e., several hour) xc pedal type rides? Does the foot strengthen up and get used to it? One of the additional claims around clipless shoes/pedals is that the firm shoe bed is advantageous – supposedly more efficient and less fatigue.

    One other point for the debate is cost. Unless you are buying the most expensive flat pedals possible, a good quality flat/5:10 combo will cost substantially less than a good quality clipless setup

    Reply • February 17 at 12:33 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      To bunny hop with flats you have to first learn how to manual, which is simply getting your front end up in a balanced position. Once you have that down you simply pop the rear wheel up. At no point do you need to pull up with your feet, that is actually bad technique that and one of the reasons that learning to ride on clipless pedals actually makes it harder to really learn theses techniques. Here is a good video that shows the process in action:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiIunH47qew

      As far as foot fatigue I guess that they do get stronger and used to it. However, something to consider is that something is going to be the weak link – if your foot is not fatiguing then something else is. Your body is designed to be “self limiting”, meaning that your feet are supposed top go out first and using stiff shoes to allow your feet to further than they naturally would places unnatural stress on the rest of the body. That is why there is such a huge overuse injury rate among riders – they artificially strengthen the weak link of the feet and simply create another weak link somewhere else further up the kinetic chain. This is why so many riders who switch to flats report aches and pains going away.

      I’d rather have my feet get tired than my low back and knees wear out.

      Reply • February 20 at 10:40 am
  10. Guthrie says:

    I have been following the Clipless vs flats for a while and I know you are going to shake your head, but I ride clipless with a skate style type shoe. I have ridden flats before, but don’t really notice much of a difference other than in SUPER rocky sections I don’t need to worry about my feet at all when I am clipped in. My pedal stroke is basically the same and I have fun on both pedals, but do the same trails clipped in faster than flats. Your site has ALMOST made me want to buy a pair again, but hard to justify the cost when both pedals seem pretty much the same for me.

    I hear and understand all of the arguments for and against, but none really have been enticing enough to make me switch completely. I’ve been riding frequently for about 7 years and don’t have hip, back, or knee problems when I take the time to dial in the pedals and shoes. I started out with flats, went to clipless, back to flats, but went back to clipless. I ride super tech trails (think Moab, I live 3 hrs from there) and am not scared to try things clipped in.

    I have tested the same trails in flats and clipless and when I sprint, I cover more ground in clipless. Fun factor is the same and I don’t really notice that big of an advantage using flats especially on 20+ mile rides and Super D races, other than I can put a foot down in super tight corners if need be. But putting a foot down isn’t the best technique anyway, so I just ride clipless cuz it is fun, faster and don’t see a big advantage with one or the other.

    I enjoy reading your site and all the excersices etc, but just wanted to put a different view on here than everyone else….

    Reply • February 29 at 5:03 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I don’t dislike clipless pedals, I dislike the notion that they are better and that notion leading to riders who never learned to ride on flats. Like I have mentioned before, they are like a weightbelt in the gym or racing flats in track – they offer a small performance advantage but they shouldn’t be relied upon all the time. It sounds like you are using them the right way so thanks for sharing your viewpoint.

      Reply • March 1 at 2:19 pm
  11. Guthrie says:

    I do agree completely. Just after my first comment, I found some flats on sale and couldn’t pass them up…. I broke down and bought some! haha! I figure I can ride clipless for the races and flats on anything less than 15-16 or so miles. What are your thoughts?

    Also I am saving for some fivetens, do you happen to get any commission if I buy from certain places or am referred or anything? If so, let me know and I will try to go through them

    Reply • March 1 at 6:48 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No, I don’t get any commissions on 5-10s, I just really like their products. I recommend http://www.zappos.com if you can’t find a local store that has them (always support your local bike shop if you can). Zappos offers a 365 day money back guarantee so you can return them for any reason if they don’t work out.

      Reply • March 2 at 7:03 am
  12. Guthrie says:

    Thanks James! My LBS has some decent deals on 5 10’s so I am going through them. I did use some flats this weekend after a llittle over a year on clipless and, as hard as it is for me to admit, I noticed I started getting lazy with my clips. Glad your site convinced me to get a pair again.

    Reply • March 5 at 8:55 am
  13. Ray says:

    My brother and I have been reading your site and adopted your standing pedaling technique. Our seats are slammed and we stand the entire time climbing 3,000 plus feet over 20 or so miles on an average ride. At first I didn’t think I could do it because my brother is 5’10 145lbs and built like an mma fighter. He makes it look easy. I am a sturdy 5’10 200lbs. It was tough at first, but also rewarding. I can get a better workout in less time and my local trails are challenging again. Another benefit is that my bike is always ready to descend. No need to stop to drop the post, or buy a dropper. We both run 1×9 hardtails with CLIPLESS pedals.

    So, we decided to take the experiment further and switched to flats. We tossed our xtr pedals into an old camelbak and threw it in the attic. We have both tried flats for a ride or two and said ‘f’ that. But, it just keeps calling us back. This time we are committing to it for 6 weeks. We ride at least 3 times a week, so that will be plenty of exposure to flats. We already look weird on group rides because everyone has dual suspensions, dropper posts, and clipless pedals. We literally stick out in the crowd because we’re standing on the pedals, but now we’ll be on flats.

    I’ll post again on this thread once the 6 weeks is up (June 1st). Either way, we both love standing and can’t imagine going back to being folded over on a steep climb spinning like a hamsters. Thanks for giving us something to think about.

    Question: Why don’t you ride a hardtail? It seems to fit with your style of riding, standing to pedal.

    Reply • April 22 at 11:24 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Make sure that you get some good shoes like 5-10’s or Teva riding shoes – they make all the difference in the world.

      I’ve spent plenty of time on hardtails, I just don’t like riding them all the time. A little suspension to make up for when I screw up helps but I am a big fan of riders learning on hardtails since you have to learn to ride the bike instead of relying on the suspension to bail you out.

      Reply • April 23 at 8:00 am
  14. Terry says:

    I am a new Mountain Biker (6 months or so) and ride on average 2 times per week at about 10 miles per clip. I use flat pedals with bands and have no desire to go clipless. What are your thoughts on flats with bands?

    Reply • April 23 at 1:15 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The new generation of riding shoes make them unnecessary. 5-10, Teva and Shimano all have great shoes made specifically for flats and have sticky rubber soles. This keeps your feet planted batter than the straps.

      Reply • April 23 at 2:05 pm
      • Jason says:

        James,

        Do you have any opinions on riding with Vibram FiveFingers? I’ve read a few rider’s experiences with them, they consensus seems to be they feel good but very slippery when wet.

        Reply • May 9 at 1:32 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          I have had such great luck with 5-10 shoes and they protect your toes better that I have never tried them. The 5-10 Spitfires are a pretty “minimalist” shoe and a great choice if you are looking for something along those lines to ride in.

          Reply • May 10 at 5:54 am
  15. Justin says:

    I am using Spitfires right now and they are my first speciality riding shoes. I have always used skate, hiking and even water shoes in the past. I love the 5.10 Spitfires. When I get a new pair of 5.10, what model should I consider getting? I understand the spits are a bit more flexible than most 5.10. If I get a stiffer shoe model will I regret it? I am all mtn rider who does 3-4 XC races a year. I dont want to lose the feeling for the trail with a bigger bulkier/stiffer shoe.

    Reply • January 30 at 10:45 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I like the Freeriders for trail riding, they are a bit more substantial than the Spitfires but not nearly as bulky as the Impacts.

      Reply • January 30 at 11:37 am
  16. René says:

    James,
    I live in the netherlands, thus mountainbiken is in the flatlands.
    Read a few articles from you over flat pedals and liked.
    I’ve used flatpedals before but switched to onesided clipless pedals on my new bike last year. Bought these cause I wanted to give a try riding clipped in, but also able to ride not clipped in, in the Alpes during holidays. But I never got the same feeling as I had on my old bike.
    Searching for the right side for clicking in or standing on the ‘flat’side was always annoying me. And riding more technical terrain, being clipped in or on the ‘flat’ side felt not safe and secure. Instead of putting my efforts into mountainbiking, I was thinking and trying how to keep my feet onto the pedals or how to get out of them in case of a fall.
    So I switched back to flat pedals and bought a descent pair of shoes (Specialized 2FO). Loved it from the start.
    No more hussle of clicking in etc.
    Starting on a steep climb or steep descent is much easier, just put your shoe onto the pedal and go.
    My girlfriend who bougt a new bike at the same time is still riding with the one-sided clipless pedals. but she uses most of the time the non clipped side because she is afraid of falling over due to not being able to unclick soon enough.. (she already did oa few times)
    she is now also thinking of changing to flats.
    I pre-ordered a pair of your new catalyst pedals, can’t wait to try them on my bike. My girlfriend who has smaller feet of course wants to use my current flat pedals when I got the ones from you.
    happy riding.

    Reply • November 10 at 7:47 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m sure you’ll love your Catalyst Pedals, I hope to have them out for delivery by the middle of next month.

      Reply • November 10 at 7:53 am

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