Updated: May 25, 2020
This particular post was inspired by a conversation that was recently had with one of our students. Tarah, who has done all of her coaching on flat pedals, was previously someone who was a clipless pedal rider before she started having lessons. At our behest, she reluctantly switched over to flat pedals to improve her riding technique.
A few months back she mentioned that she was going to go back to clipless pedals. And she had very good reasons to do so. She made this change for one ride a few weeks ago, and after the ride, she decided she really wasn't a fan of clipless pedals anymore and put her flat pedals back on her bike.
For those of you that might have looked at any of our program or skills clinic curriculums, you may have noticed that in our recommendations we always mention that we like riders to do our lessons using flat pedals. We're more than happy for you do our sessions in clipless pedals. However, we do have reasons as to why we prefer you to learn in flat pedals and thought we'd elaborate a bit further - and it's not because we're both flat pedal riders.
In fact, when I personally took up mountain bike riding again in 2015, I went straight back to what I had done in the 90s and put clipless pedals back on my bike. I actually didn't think there was any other way of riding a mountain bike. It was only at the beginning of 2018 that I somewhat hesitantly put my first set of flats on my bike.
There are definitive advantages to riding with clipless pedals. From my perspective they are:
They can be more efficient that using flat pedals. Particularly when you start to become tired and your riding technique starts becoming a bit sloppy;
They tend to be much smaller than flat pedals, making them lighter and less likely to run into objects on the trails;
They keep your feet attached to the pedals, irrespective of how rough the terrain is; and
They can help you lift your bike up over obstacle and features.
The last two points are perhaps the most interesting, because they are exactly the reason we prefer to teach people how to ride flats rather than using clipless pedals.
When riding there are three contact points which riders use to control their bikes with: The seat, the handle bars and the pedals. I have found through my own experience and in coaching others that learning to ride with clipless pedals tends to take your focus away from what your feet are doing because there's no need to worry about them. They are simply stuck to the pedals so you can just get on with the business riding your bike.
The problem is that this habit can result in a rider completely forgetting about what their feet are doing and ride their bike through their handlebars instead. I'm generalising of course - this isn't the case for every rider. However for many riders that do find themselves struggling to find flow on the trail, it can often be because they are riding through their arms rather than their legs and feet.
And then there is the whole getting in the wheels in the air thing. For years I thought the only way to get a bike into the air was to lift it up using clipless pedals. I'm sure there are a few other riders out there that still think this to be the case and that getting a bike into the air using flat pedals is dark magic!
The reality is that getting your wheels off the ground is all about learning to drive your weight through legs, feet and pedals into the right places and at the right time. One of the problems with being clipped in though is that can be hard to tell if you're using the correct technique or "cheating" by lifting your bike up with your pedals.
Flat pedals have other advantages as well. Some of these include:
Being able to jump off your bike in emergency situations such as looping out;
Using different muscles to pedal with by shifting your foot position to help increase the distance you're able to pedal;
Moving your foot into the best position to ride different terrain and features rather than being locked into a single position;
Forcing you to stay connected with your pedals;
Knowing when your riding technique isn't right because your foot has come off the pedal so you can fix it (yes - in my opinion your foot coming off your pedal and telling you that you've done something wrong is actually a good thing otherwise you'll never fix the problem);
Telling people that lifting the bike off the ground without being locked into the pedals is dark magic.
That last one may have been something I made up......
I started this post with a story so I thought that I'd finish it off with one. The amazing Kelly Redmond started coaching with me after a conversation we had shortly after she had a mountain biking incident. I mentioned that perhaps she should try flat pedals. Her response was that switching to flats would be a backwards step.
But she was intrigued. And made the change. And hasn't looked back.