Head Coach Andy’s take on Flat Pedals for MTB riding

Without stirring up the clipped-in versus not clipped-in pedal debate a whole bunch, I’m going to shed some light on proper set-up and favorable shoe/pedal/cleat combinations for each, along with a few tips and tricks to get the most out of each set-up.

Well … what the heck, here’s my two cents on the “clipped” vs “no clips” great debate:

Guess what? Neither one is better! Each set-up has its advantages and disadvantages. Really, if you want to become the most well rounded and competent rider possible, get comfortable on both types of pedals. I’ve learned very important things (possibly, the most important things in controlling the bike!) riding flat pedals and transferred it over to riding clips, and, there’s a good chance I never would have learned the significance of these techniques had I ridden clips exclusively – and vice versa. Currently, I do switch back and forth between clips and flats.

Try out the other set-up! You’ll learn a thing or two about your riding and develop some technique that you otherwise will not!

O.K., first “non” clipped pedals, otherwise known as platforms or flats:

Too often I see my students (and other riders) riding with sub-par, junk for pedals. Pedal pressure is the most important element of controlling your bike. If you don’t have an excellent relationship between your bike and your feet, you’re at a major disadvantage when it comes to trying to ride the thing. You absolutely do not want to use cheap plastic pedals such as the kind that come with toe-straps with the straps simply removed. They have no traction and small platforms and are really quite dangerous. You also want to steer clear of cheap metal-cage pedals. Flat pedal technology has come a long way in recent years. A few years ago there were only a handful of quality flat pedal choices out there. Now, the choices in great flat pedals are darn near infinite!

The first thing you want to look for is a very thin pedal, for a few reasons.

First, the pedal has less of a chance of “rolling over” under your foot. What’s rolling over? Picture this: let’s say you’re looking at your bike from the side, and let’s say your pedal is actually a 4”x4” square block of wood with the pedal axle right down the center. If you sit on your bike and hold the brakes so it can’t move, place your foot on the block (pedal) and push your foot forward in its relationship with the bike (without moving the pedal or rotating the cranks), because your foot is so far away from the axle (in this case, about two inches), in other words, because the pedal is so “tall”, the pedal itself will eventually rotate and “roll over” under your foot. Just as if you “rolled” that block of wood of off a steep cliff. As you can imagine, this would be no good if it happened while you were riding. Rolling a pedal over usually happens when a rider gets out of position on the bike and doesn’t have enough weight on his/her feet, especially while braking, because the bike (and the pedal) wants to slow down or stop, but the rider (because of inertia) wants to keep moving forward. Do you have a tough time staying smooth on the descents, want to learn how to be smooth by getting lower on your bike and keeping your weight on your feet? Get on some flat pedals, they’ll force you to do this correctly!

Canfield Brothers Crampon and 5.10 shoes the ultimate Flat Pedal/Shoe Combo

 

A thin pedal also has more clearance from obstacles on the trail then a thicker one. An eighth and especially a quarter of an inch, is a huge deal when it comes to smacking pedals on rocks, logs, whatever, and can easily mean the difference between a small, manageable error, and a crash.

 

Thin pedals also put your center of gravity closer to the ground. Who cares? Its only a quarter of an inch? Your feet are the most important aspect in controlling your bike. They’re tied into the balance sensors of your body. Ever wore a pair of shoes and then got another pair of shoes that are just a bit thicker? You notice this instantly. Combine this with the fact that a tall or thick pedal stands a better chance of hanging up on obstacles and rolling over and all of a sudden I’m not feeling so great about my pedal choice with a thick pedal and I’m not riding very confidently. Ever hear a top rider complain that they hate the pedals that they are riding? Nope? Know why? Because they won’t be riding them for very long and definitely not when it counts. Look closely, and you’ll see plenty of riders who are sponsored buy a certain company while riding another companies pedals, risking losing a nice chunk of money and definitely upsetting a few people in the process. Its that big of a deal!

Thicker quality flat pedals also have a parallelogram shape (viewed from the side) to help the pedal to rotate into position under the rider’s foot in case the rider happens to step on the “edge” of the pedal (vertical front or back of the pedal if it is in a level position).

Thin Pedal w/large pins! Canfield Crampon

Good flat pedals will also have a wide, broad platform (viewed from the top). This allows more room for your foot and more area to get traction.

 

Let’s talk pedal pins! These are the pins that stick up out of the pedals and stick into your shoe, providing traction.

 

Short pedal pins allow for an easier removal of the foot from the pedal and they don’t mess up your shins quite as bad WHEN you rake them across your legs. Often BMX riders will ride short pins and also fewer pins because they need to remove their feet from the pedals, slide them around and re-adjust, or just plain get off of the bike in a hurry (eject). Ever see a hard-core BMXer’s shins? Not pretty …

Wide Platform to balance on

Nice long pedal pins keep your feet in place. With long pins and a good shoe (discussed below) your foot is pretty much locked in. There’s no siding around or re-adjusting. Your foot is planted on the pedal and it won’t move unless you get all of your weight up and off of the pedal. Yes, they do a number on any type of soft fleshy tissue that they come in contact with, but the chances of “slipping” a pedal with a proper shoe and a proper pedal with long pins is drastically limited. Kinda like you stand a better chance of cutting yourself if you use a dull knife rather then a sharp one (?).

 

How ’bout shoes? The shoe company, 5.10 is the industry standard in quality flat pedal shoes. They use a super sticky and soft rubber for their soles and an awesome pattern for traction. They have numerous models from street shoes to full Downhill shoes with padding and reinforcement in all the important places. Another not so bad choice is your typical “skate” shoe like Vans, DC, Etnies, etc.

5.10 Sticky Sole to keep you on the pedals

These shoes are also designed with fairly soft, wide, broad soles for sticking to skateboards and BMX pedals. The sole on all these shoes is also thin so that your foot is as close as possible to whatever it is that you’re standing on and trying to maneuver.

Stay away from running shoes. These are designed to minimize impact, not stick to pedals. Often these shoes have large lugs for traction (trail running shoes) and, often, sections in the soles of these shoes are removed by design to help enhance their purpose – which again, isn’t to stick to pedals – obviously, your pedals won’t stick to a section of your shoe’s sole if it isn’t even there. These shoes also have quite thick soles – especially trail running shoes – that put you at a greater distance from the pedal the the above mentioned types.

… and they don’t look nearly as cool! Remember: look good, feel good … Ride Good!

Anyway, check back soon for the “clipped-in” version of this article. Put some serious thought into learning to ride flat pedals if you haven’t already done so … even if you are a “Clipped-in for life” rider.

Please see this post for Gene’s take on both pedals: http://betterride.net/?p=328

and this post with a study that shows that the upstroke that clipless pedals allow you to do is not efficient :

http://betterride.net/?p=437

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26 replies
  1. Jeff says:

    awesome article. Now I don’t have to feel inferior for not wanting to go to clip-ins. I just never have felt comfortable riding with them.

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Jeff,

      Yeah, no need to switch but as Andy will explain in the next article and as I did in the article linked to clipless pedals have some positives too. Like Andy I ride both, but I prefer being clipped in.

      Reply
  2. robert says:

    Hey bought a set of cramptons pedals after i saw them on better ride one of the biggest single inprovements apart from reading better ride keep up the good work cheers

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Robert,

      If a pair of pedals and our articles can make improvements to your riding just think what a 3 day camp with us would do for you riding? Why not invest $600 to upgrade your skills for a lifetime!

      Reply
  3. Matt says:

    Great article – thanks. I’ve always clipped in and wanted to know the best way to approach riding with flats.

    Reply
  4. Phil Marsh says:

    Man, I wish you had put this on here a few weeks ago! I bought some 5.10′s and Shimano pedals. I love the shoes and the pedal are ok but I noticed that I am whacking a lot more rocks and stuff with the pedals than I ever did with my Candies. The Shimanos are probably at least 1/2″ thick with small studs but so far at least I stay on them pretty well. Oh well, something else I can buy next year maybe!

    Reply
  5. Fred says:

    I have been riding flats for about three months and have been clipless for several years before that. I now like flats better than clipless, I guess because I have been riding flats exclusively.

    How often should one switch back and forth so you don’t loose your confidence with one or the other?

    Nice, article, I like how Andy takes the mystery out of what makes a good combo.

    Reply
  6. Nick says:

    man. so true about thicker pedals snagging rocks and roots, etc. just got new kinda thick metal pedals. upgrad from the plastic ones i had on. will def switch it up to the thin ones down the road. thx 4 the info…

    Reply
  7. Mark Borman says:

    Andy,

    Thanks for the great flat pedal insights.
    Very helpful, particularly “A thin pedal also has more clearance from obstacles on the trail then a thicker one. An eighth and especially a quarter of an inch, is a huge deal when it comes to smacking pedals on rocks, logs, whatever, and can easily mean the difference between a small, manageable error, and a crash.”

    I have Shimano PD-M545s and they are smacking rocks constantly resulting in some crashes. I going to get the Canfield Bros.Crampon right away.

    You and Gene are the best! Thanks again.

    Mark

    Reply
  8. JJ Young says:

    I agree! I use to ride with so much more confidence on the flats. Of coars I got drawen in the clipless world. Crash bang boom all over the hill on those Shamonos. So after a good 8yrs I went back to old school. I bought a pair of Specilized Taho’s ” like a hiking/bike shoe and a pair of cheap Smarty Eggbeaters so I could plat form and do clipless while riding when ever the tarrain called for it. Very happy now riding like I use to 12yrs ago!
    Your artical should have been posted 10yrs ago. Should of could of would of!

    JJ

    Reply
  9. Ryan says:

    I haven’t ridden flat pedals for nearly 10 years. Of course I never had a nice, low profile set like Andy describes, and my shoe choice was junk. I found clip-in to be such a vast improvement over my flat set up back then that I never even thought about looking back.

    This article has me thinking about getting a set up at least to try it. It seems the power loss on the upstroke could be an issue when climbing though?

    Reply
  10. Andy says:

    Ryan,

    I touch on the loss of power (or lack thereof) on the up-stroke in the article. I strongly believe that – on technical climbs – because the pedal cadence must slow down in order to do all the other things necessary to negotiate obstacles that are always present on these types of climbs (H2o bars, loose terrain, errosion ruts, etc), the trade off for a VERY miniscule amount of power loss is easily worth the benefits the flat pedals offer. Now, if you’re a rider that really prefers the high rpm spin method of pedaling, AND the climb isn’t extremely technical, then maybe flats aren’t your pedal of choice in this type of situation. (Although, as the article states, you can spin pretty highly and effectively with a good flat pedal/shoe combo.)

    Put it this way: I know some riders that are some of the best technical climbers in the world (if there is such a category, LOL). But, these riders can climb stuff that most riders would consider impossible … and I most of these guys would prefer to do those type of climbs with flats.

    And remember: super-tech climbs require perfect position and technique. These are more important then raw power. Raw power won’t get you squat if it is not applied correctly. If I can confidently maintain my form because I know I can get off of the bike instantly if needed… that’s going to get me up the hill. Riders actually ALMOST NEVER run out of power on climbs (Sorry, just ’cause it hurts really bad dosn’t mean you ran out of power!), they simply get out of position and then are unable to apply the power.

    Reply
  11. Andy says:

    Fred,

    Whenever you think you should … how’s that?

    I try to make sure I get on my flats for stretch ever month or so. I do ride clips more and more these days and do find myself feeling the need to get back on flats in order to remain comfortable on them. If I know that I’m going somewhere where I will ride definitely ride flats, then I try to put a couple rides on flats before hand so I’m feeling good on them when I get there. Maybe if you’re going on a trip and who knows what you’ll end up riding, get on both pedals in advance so you can comfortably make a decision on a ride to ride and place to place basis.

    Reply
  12. Stephen says:

    1. Please give some recommendations for good quality flats that don’t cost $160! If you don’t think there are any, please say so ;-) .

    2. Do you think that you could get away with one pair of shoes–the Five-Ten Minaar’s or Hellcats for both clipless and flats?

    TIA.

    Reply
  13. Mike Taglio says:

    Don’t know what to say? Just started to MTB about two years ago…Need to get to a close 3-day school. So confused about how-to’s. Been breaking alot of bones and using alot of sugerglue and bandaides. Wife wants me to quit. Racing the SERC curcuit in the east.(GM50+) Want this so bad, practice daily. Thanks for the tips, read all.
    Mike Taglio

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Mike,

      Glad to hear you are using our tips and out learning to mtb in your 50′S! Sorry to hear about the broken bones. Where are you? We would love to get a camp near you so you can invest in your skills and stop hurting yourself!

      Cheers,

      Gene

      Reply
  14. Renee says:

    Thanks for the article about riding with flats. I have been mountain biking for about 5 years off and on and I am really starting to get into it more. I often felt like not being able to ride clips made me an inferior rider…glad to know there are benefits to the way I’ve been riding. Thanks!

    Reply
  15. Jonathan (Yongxin) says:

    So how thick is too thick? I have an Xpedo 100x100x17.6 (mm), a little over half of an inch thick, is it too thick?

    Reply
  16. Stacy says:

    I read this article a few months ago and it totally clicked for me. I’ve been riding flats since before clipless were around. We just used whatever came with the bike. I went the clipless route and few years ago and was amazed at how much power I had and that feeling of commitment that you get. I was also amazed at how many “stupid” falls I was doing, at lease several a season, some of them hurt.

    I started to notice that the younger guys who grew up on BMX bikes were riding platforms and really hucking it. They were popping more jumps than any of the “attached” riders. I also notice that I wasn’t able to do a simple bunny hop without being clipped and felt that I must not have a good relationship with the real balance of my bike.

    So I upgraded to some real platforms and some awesome 5-10 shoes and am completely stoked. I’m able to really push the limited in heeled-over turns with loads of confidence. I can attest to several instances where if I was clipped I would have taken a painful spill. I have not had a “stupid” fall ever since.

    I’m using the Nukeproof/Diety plastic pedal with steel pins. Very light, very stable great grip and very thin,

    Reply
  17. Janet says:

    Hi…I’ve been looking at the Crampon flats & saw a review that said they were hard to spin. Crank Bro’s response was confirmation that they are hard to spin as they were primarily designed for DH. I’m looking for good flats for AM riding; could you suggest some pedals that would be good for me? I’m a beg-int rider and want something without pins or will ride without the pins (at least at first) as I’m not into trashing my shins. If I’m removing the pins, is it still worth investing $$ in a high end set of platforms? Thanks for the input…

    Reply
  18. Jack says:

    right now i use wellgo wam dh 10 magnizium downhill dual pedal.large platform with studs on one side and spd on other. my pearl isumie fuel shoe has soft rubber and when on platform side the spd cleet does not hinder(.plastic hard mtb shoes slide too easie). also my cleet is as far back as it will go. soon i will get maltese falcons 5 ten.they will fit better. and stick better. the problem with clip in is you do small jumps and trails, then if you unclip you cant keep your feet stuck. altho i like clipped in control it wont surprise me if they are only serving as newbie training wheels.i look forward to solving these problems..i pedal trek remedy 7 all mountain with customized chain management. for protection against pedal pins I wear full full knee shins pads. unless it is hot. but in a crash i still catch pedal scrape on back of calf.this works for me now but i got a funny feeling what ever gene says will work better..

    Reply
  19. Eman says:

    Glad to hear you finally took the pnulge and decided to try flats. The first thing to keep in mind is that it will take a few rides to get the hang of it so you can not base too much on your first ride. There was a learning curve for clipless pedals for you as well and I’m sure it took a few rides until you started to feel comfortable on them.I’ll give you my input on your questions 1) Yes, you should wear some light shin guards while learning to ride flats. I called mine my XC shin pads and they were light shin pads that would stop my shins from getting tore up if I slipped a pedal. Once you get the hang of it you won’t need them as there is an art to getting your leg out of the way when you slip a pedal, plus you’ll find you simply don’t slip pedals very much as well.2) I learned to ride a bike on a hardtail so I don’t think that has anything to do with it. You’d have the same issue on full suspension your legs are too stiff and you were relying on the clipless pedals to hold you on. If anything you’ll find that you will ride smoother since you’ll start to use your legs more to absorb trail impacts. Suspension is not there to take impacts anyways, it is there to pick up the slack and improve your margin for error. You should ride like you have a hardtail even if you have 6+ inches of suspension and use your body to absorb impacts, not the suspension. Of course, most riders don’t get that point and instead bash into everything in sight, relying on their suspension and big wheels instead of their body, but that is somewhat besides the point.3) Don’t let your ego get in the way and stick with flats for at least 6 rides. If you switch back and forth then you’ll never really get how to use flats you have to force your body to figure it out and adapt. Also, get a dropper post or at least get into the habit of lowering your seat for sections of trail that you don’t need to sit down much for. Sitting down to pedal with your seat down is not the knee killing position it is made out to be.Hope this helps January 30 at 6:42 am

    Reply
  20. Ben says:

    Any shoe suggestions for those of us with wide feet? 5.10 doesn’t make wide sizes, nor does any skate shoe manufacturer as far as I can find. Trail running shoes or hiking shoes such as Merrell’s are about the best I can find for wide feet. Of course, they’re lugged, which you recommend against.

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Ben, Not sure but I seem to remember my Shimano DX shoes (their BMX/Downhill shoe) being wider than the 5.10′s I sometimes go a half size bigger with the 5.10′s for more toe width.

      Cheers,

      Gene

      Reply

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