Posts

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.