Head MTB Skills Coach Andy W’s take on Clipless pedals

In my last installment, I went over some of the technical aspects of flat pedals and shoe combinations and what to look for (and what to look out for) when riding said pedals and shoes. I also talked about some of the advantages that flat pedals offer the rider. In this installment, we’ll talk “clip-in” pedals (otherwise called “clipless” pedals).

My plan, initially, was to discuss the technical elements of clipless pedals and how to get the most out of a set-up. But, as I wrote, I realized that there is a lot of information regarding technique – good and bad, and “flat vs clipped” – that is still confusing to some riders, and therefore, I felt I should elaborate on it.

(Next installment, I’ll go over the technical aspects and what to look for in clipless pedals and a few tricks and tips with …)

As I said last time, if you want to get the most out of your riding – become the most competent rider possible AND have the most fun – I highly suggest you learn to ride both types of pedals. Both have advantages and disadvantages and each one will teach you to really develop certain aspects of your riding that may not occur if you simply stick with one type of system. Neither is better or worse – especially when it comes to technically challenging (i.e.: FUN!!) riding.

So, clipless pedals … and my take on some of the advantages and disadvantages:

Clipless pedals have been the only way to go, so to speak, in road riding and cross-country racing for a long time. And this makes a lot of sense: road riders ride on pavement, and often cross-country races are held (sadly enough, in my opinion) on tracks that resemble dirt roads more then they do “trails”.

It is often considered that the best way to ride a road bike – the most efficient way to pedal – is to “spin” very fast circles with the pedals, in a quite easy gear, and in theory, apply force throughout the entire pedal stroke (this was popularized by Lance Armstrong, among others), rather then “mash” the pedals, only applying force on the down-stroke (think standing up, pedaling, in a very hard gear). Its very possible to pedal like this (spin) on smooth surfaces, and I’m not going to argue that this isn’t the best way to pedal a road bike or race a technically-easy cross-country race (although, there have been some very successful “mashers” on both the road and the dirt).  Andy won’t argue but the study linked to in this post does say that “spinning” is not as efficient as “mashing”: http://betterride.net/?p=437

However, at BetterRide, we specialize in teaching “mountain bike skills”. People come to us to learn how to ride their bikes on technically challenging (i.e.: FUN!!) terrain. The speeds are usually slower in this type of riding, the terrain is quite varied and unpredictable (not paved or smooth) … because of these variables you stand a better chance of crashing than you do riding down the road. What I tell our students in our camps is, when the trail is flat and easy, I pretty much don’t care how you ride the bike. That’s not my area of expertise. When you’re riding the easy stuff you can eat a sandwich if you want to … juggle … I don’t really care … and, my students probably don’t need me to help them how to ride down a flat road or road-like trail.

But, when the terrain gets difficult and challenging, that’s when skills count and when we have to do things right on the mountain bike! When this occurs, we have to do things that road riders do not: we may have to drastically accelerate the bike in order to get up an extremely steep section of trail. We will often need to accelerate the bike in order to wheelie over an obstacle – and then maybe do it immediately again! (Proper wheelie technique happens with the legs, pedaling, and weight shifts – not merely yanking up on the bars) We may have to stand up, pedal, and charge up a steep rocky section. None of these things can happen effectively if we are already pedaling at 120 rpm (a fast pedal “spin”). When the trail gets tough, we need to slow down our pedal cadence so that we can execute the above maneuvers.

Because we will be pedaling at a slow cadence, we will be applying our power almost exclusively on the downstroke – even with clipless pedals – therefore, possibly (depending on who you talk to) negating any power advantage that clips may have over flats.

I personally feel that on extremely difficult, steep climbs, clipess pedals not only do not help the rider (because of the necessary slower pedal cadence) but also hinder the rider.

Hinder the rider? How? Well, if you ride clip pedals then you’ve stalled out on a nasty climb and started to topple over, tried to put your foot down to catch yourself, but were unable to unclip!! Man, those rocks hurt, huh? Especially if you tumble down thirty feet of them and into a creek bed like I’ve done on a few occasions!

When we come to a dead stop – such as when we stall out on a steep climb (or stop at a stop light! he he) – we need to immediately get our foot to the ground. Often, even the time it takes to execute the slight twisting motion to unclip our foot from the pedal takes too long (especially if you screw it up because you’re panicking!), and, BAM! You’re on the ground.

… if you ride clip-in pedals and this hasn’t happened to you yet, don’t worry … it will!!

Once this happens to you as a rider, you get a bit timid on those nasty climbs and bail-out a little early, not staying with it and attacking as long as you probably could have because, like I said, those rocks sure do hurt when you fall on them!

With flat pedals I can stick with it and climb ’til the last second. I can jump off the bike with both feet instantly if I need to. There is no doubt in my mind that I can (or will try to) climb gnarlier stuff with flat pedals then with clips.

Some riders complain that on climbs, with flats, their foot pops off of the pedal on the up-stroke. This happens to me, too, especially if I have been riding clipped-in for a while, previously. But, once I’m conscious of this, it goes away after the first climb, and, the amount of power that could be provided on that up-stroke, if I were clipped, in is so miniscule – its like a lone duck helping to push the Queen Mary through the ocean!

Advantages of clip-in pedals? First, the shoes are extremely stiff – stiffer then the shoes one would use for flats. This transfers more power to the pedal. Next, right under your foot and your super stiff shoe is a metal cleat which is engaged in a metal pedal. There isn’t really any “give” in this system and the shoe doesn’t “smush” down under your foot. I can usually feel this when I ride flat pedals and this is one of the only places where I can buy the argument that flats aren’t as efficient as clips. Also, you can get your Lance Armstrong-spin going on flat, smooth sections of trail – but you can also do this pretty effectively with flats (?).

In my opinion – and applicable to aggressive technical riding, and kinda counter-intuitive – probably the biggest advantage of clips over flats: they force you to SLOW DOWN and ride smart! Most people will ride a bit more cautiously when their feet are locked into their bicycle. In the end, you do go faster if you ride smart, and “go slow to go fast”, rather then flail out of control down the trail, riding way over your head – like I was always prone to do with flat pedals because I had the confidence I could instantly put a foot down or “abandon ship” if things got really bad! This is a huge reason why I now clip in when I ride downhill rather then ride flats (like I used to in do my “glory-days” of racing).   BetterRide founder Gene and World Champ Greg Minnaar like to clip in for a different reason, please see this post: http://betterride.net/?p=328

I learned some majorly significant things about vision (the most important thing in riding the bike) after I hung up racing and was no longer distracted with going as fast as I possibly could all the time, while I was clipped in – riding XC, not DH – and thus riding more cautiously.

And one more advantage of clip-in pedals: just as flats force you to maintain excellent position on the bike in order to keep your feet on the pedals (and, thus, you’re better able to control the bike), clips allow you get a little sloppy, and still, your feet are right where you left them, perfectly positioned on the pedals! This can lead to some bad habits if you start to rely on it, but it is nice at times!

So there’s a little more info on the “Flats vs Clips” non-debate. Next time: what to do to maximize the performance of your clipless pedal set-up.

6 replies
  1. Brete
    Brete says:

    Well, this convinced me further that flats are right for me. I tried clipless for a while last year, and it totally ruined the fun. I was scared going up steep terrain. I was scared going down steep terrain. It was simply WAY too much effort for far too little benefit. Now I’m hearing the pedal efficiency is minor? That’s a relief to hear, honestly. Last year, I timed myself on several occasions climbing a long, technically-easy dirt road on both flats and clipless, and my times were the same! Maybe that means I’m just a lame climber, but, either way, flats are the only choice for me … for now.

  2. WAKi
    WAKi says:

    If you ask me what was the best thing about clipless I will say: confidence. Hitting rough section as strong as I like, taking off jumps and drop offs with this vision of my bike falling off my feet. Sure I fell, but I fell way often and way harder on flats. Clipless have scared away many of my demons, mainly those who waited for me in rockgardens and on drop offs, honestly I’m sure I would be some certain way behind in my skills comparing to what I can now if not this period on clips. But I changed to flats and good sticky shoes, lately as I was suspecting since some time that they mask some nasty bad habits of mine. And well… as soon as i changed I found there were many! I learned to pedal more gently, I’m more cautious what is coming under my front wheel, I’m trying to be more methodic on uphills, wheelieing roots instead of ramming into them and pulling up the rear wheel. As far as XC/trail goes, I love flats! tried flats for the first time in a bikepark lately and many demons came back. But just one thought… drop your heels, supple feet supple feet! and most of them go away. Sure, demons left marks on my shins again, but hell yea how many angels I saw in the corners!

  3. Brete
    Brete says:

    Yeah … “drop your heels.” I drop my heels going down rough terrain. I point my toes down when hitting a lip or bunny hopping. I’d be REALLY interested to hear what Andy/Gene recommend for different situations.

  4. Andy
    Andy says:

    Brete and Waki,

    Both of you are right on! WAKi, Clipless definitely allow you to ride sloppier and then save your butt because you remain clipped-in, despite maybe-not-so-great technique. But, if you ride this way, as many riders do, you waste a lot of energy and are out of position quite frequently, upping your chances of crashing. A lot of good clipless riders, that then learn to ride flats, say that flats smoothed out their riding – like you said, you now wheelie roots instead of slamming in to them. Slamming into roots robs you of a lot of energy and momentum – and if slamming into things becomes a constant in your riding style, then you’re not riding very smooth of efficient!

    Brete, the most important thing I focus on in order to keep my feet on the pedals and stay in good position with flats, is that, when I encounter a rough section of trail, I have to keep ALL of my weight on my feet, stay balanced and loose, and get LOW on the bike WAY LOW! Bend your knees to the point where you’re half-way through a squat. This gives your feet the range of motion they need to “stay with” the pedals. The bike will always drop away from you on descents, getting low will allow your feet to “keep up” with it as this happens. Also, this gives you side to side range of motion WHEN the bike slides, skids, or is knocked sideways by objects in the trail.

    We want to keep our upper body, our torso – from hips to head – moving down the hill in a nice smooth line while allowing the bike to move around dynamically underneath us. If I’m clipped in and I’m standing tall and have straight legs, then when my bike gets knocked 8″ to the left, because my legs are straight, I (my upper body, torso) get pulled 8″ to the left (if I’m riding flats, now the bike goes to the left, but my feet don’t! This is how flats FORCE you to maintain a good position – if you don’t, you’ll find yourself on the ground in a hurry!) If I maintain good position, low on the bike with bent legs and arms, now the bike gets knocked to the left, but I have enough range of motion that my feet can go with it, maintaining contact (and control) with the pedals and grips, while my torso continues along on its smooth line.

    Like I said, flats will teach you some lessons on how to properly ride the bike that you probably wouldn’t pick up on if you always rode clipless exclusively. So, even if you always will ride clipless when it really counts, if you can carrry these lessons over, then you’ll be a better rider!


  5. Brian
    Brian says:

    I have started riding flats this year after 15 years clipped in and I am loving it! I have even done my last 3 xc and endurance xc races on them. I get some funny looks from fellow riders here in WI, but what I’ve learned from the flats (how to corner with my feet) and no more low back pain from “unnatural” pedaling are well worth it.

  6. Philber
    Philber says:

    I wear clips on my full suspension bike and flats on my singlespeed, so I go back and forth all the time.

    In addition to what has already been said:

    A big advantage to flats is the ability to just jump on the bike and go. It makes every ride a little bit faster at both ends. If you’re juggling rides between a job and a family, like I am, then not having to change shoes at both ends of a ride is nice. Also, you never forget to bring your shoes!

    I do find that clips give me a more solid connection to the bike than flats. With clips, I feel that the bike is more a part of me, like a downhill ski or a golf club. With flats, I’m a little less connected to the bike, and I flail around a bit more as a result.

    Also, even with low profile flats, flats and street shoes will always be bigger profile than clips and bike shoes. In a rock garden with 8″ boulders, that may mean the difference between smashing a pedal into a rock or not.

    I agree though that mastering both is worthwhile. I don’t feel that one is ‘better’ than the other – they’re just different. Like a full suspension and a rigid singlespeed – just different.


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