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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.

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

Andy’s take on Coming Back From an MTB Crash

Not all crashes have to happen and the old saying, “if you aren’t bleeding it wasn’t a good ride” is nuts. Skilled riders ride hard and fast and don’t crash much. Unskilled riders (like me for the first 11 years of mtbing) wreck a lot, Andy is very skilled, rides had and this was his first hard crash in over 2 years. Check out his article and stay tuned for my article on some ways to come back stronger than before you crashed.

Andy’s Take on Crashing

In almost every camp that I teach, there is at least one student that is there because he or she had a bad crash – possibly got injured – and then decided that if they wanted to continue to do this MTB thing, they had better figure out how to do it correctly.

I explain to these riders, when they ask me how to “get over” their crash, that with the knowledge of riding that they will receive from the camp, and with the solid and proper technique that will be obtained through diligent practice, their skill level will dramatically improve and they will be able to understand why that crash happened (often, riders really don’t know what went wrong and why they had that nasty crash) and what they should have done differently. We talk about working our way back with baby steps. We talk about how to fall safer. I explain that fear and failure are natural and necessary parts of learning and riding – its o.k. to be apprehensive after a big crash – and those things don’t go away when you graduate from beginner to novice, but, in fact, persist all the way up to the top of the game – the best riders in the world experience the same fears, the same trepidation, as beginners (about different and more difficult obstacles, obviously – and probably bigger and nastier crashes!).

 

The riders always understand this – it all looks good on paper to them – but they still look at me and say, “I’m still scared! What can I do?” So for the next three days of camp, I try to impart to them various methods of getting over that fear, that mental obstacle.

And guess what! I recently got a chance to practice what I preach, so to speak!

So the following is a run down of what I did – and am currently doing – to shake off some of my own demons after a particularly scary crash. Everybody’s situation is different, but here’s mine, and here’s what is working for me. If you find yourself in this situation, hopefully some of the following will work for you.

Without going into too much detail, I basically made a mistake in one of the worst places possible while going fast, fell out of the sky and tumbled down the earth a good bit. Aside from some cuts and bruises, being sore all over, tearing my riding kit to shreds and ringing my bell a little, I got away with a couple of pretty jacked-up toes and a severely bruised heal.

 

It could have been way, way worse …

The first thing I try to do after a gnarly crash is figure out what went wrong. And there were a couple of things that were semi-preventable, that perhaps, would have made the difference. But what really went wrong was this: I was pushing myself and my bike super hard in nasty terrain – something that I love doing. And, if you do this often enough, sooner or later, its gonna bite ya!

I know that there isn’t any way around that – and that’s what bothered me.

I don’t believe in lying to myself about the potential dangers of riding. I don’t believe “that it will never happen to me …” I don’t refrain form talking about crashing or injuries (I will knock on wood every once in while!). It is what it is … and that’s part of what makes it challenging and fun! And I believe that I need to understand what the consequences of my actions could be, and then be prepared to deal with them.

Unfortunately, the possibility of having a bad crash is always present – whether you’re a World Cup downhill racer, or a beginner riding off a curb. And bad crashes scare everybody! .. I don’t care who you are! Some people deal with this fear better then others, some people don’t deal with it well at all.

The bottom line is we all WILL get scared. As a rider you will ask yourself, at some point, is it worth it to do this? Whether that means dropping of a 1,000,000 foot cliff, rolling down a nasty ledge in Fruita, or – worst case – even considering quitting riding altogether (I’ve had plenty of students that have taken the camp because they decided they either needed to learn how to do things correctly, minimizing the chances of falling as much as possible, or hang it up altogether).

The question I had for myself was, “is it still worth it to push that hard?” (for some of us pushing our limits is trying to wheelie up a curb – that’s fine, and also plenty scary and dangerous if you haven’t mastered the skill yet). And I wasn’t sure that I still wanted too.

 

I could still teach riding for many years even if I decided to take up playing checkers in the park as a competitive outlet . I don’t need to ride as hard as I do to do my job. Like many of you, my job depends on me being able to function physically. Getting hurt isn’t an option.

 

And, there are tons things to do out there to get your jollies. But, if you’ve read this far, then you probably understand that you get some things from riding bikes that you just don’t get anywhere else.

Besides fitness, the social aspect, a great excuse to travel around, and arguably the world’s greatest job, simply riding the bike hard, bettering myself here and there, pushing that edge, learning … those are the things that I live for.

Riding hard forces me to keep myself in pretty decent physical shape. Could I still teach riding if I stopped working out, running in the trails, riding motocross, and polished off a box of donuts, fast food, and twelever of PBR everyday gaining 30lbs in the process? Sure I could. But would I have gotten out of that crash with only a couple of mangled toes and a head-ache? Hell no!

Riding hard means constantly having a challenge for myself: I always have a ride just around the corner with other riders that want to ride hard and push themselves. I think we all come into these rides both excited and also wondering where we’ll stand with our buddies. That’s Fun!

I believe that BetterRide offers the greatest MTB instruction in the world. Because Gene and myself – even as “old” guys – continue to push ourselves as riders, we continue to improve upon our already great product – with both the riding and teaching. We are able to prove and disprove theories, bounce ideas off one another, and test these things – still – at the upper levels of riding. Is this mandatory in order to teach mountain biking? Nope. Is it extremely important to us? Yep!

 

I believe that it is also extremely important to ours students to see that the basic fundamentals of riding that we may teach in the parking-lot during our camps, are the same exact skills that are used by high-level riders in the most difficult situations when we get out on the trail. Essential? Maybe not. Essential to me in order to provide the best product possible? Yes.

 

I constantly find myself looking into new trails, products, gear, in order to give myself (and my students) that little extra edge. I can get up in the morning and go for a ride, come home and work on BetterRide stuff all day, teach a clinic, then go drink a few beers with a few riding buddies and talk bikes all night, and then get up the next morning and do the same thing. This all stems from the passion of riding the bike.

And that passion also means, to me, pushing it a little bit … sometimes, a lot.

The point is this: big crashes are scary, as they should be! You don’t simply forget about them, and I don’t think you should. But doing what you love, what makes you tick, what makes it all worth while is mandatory in life! And after running through the above list of reasons, among others, that I dig riding, I know that the reward is worth taking some chances.

I think that for most of us, this is probably the case – whether we’re about to send it in our race run at the World Champs, or whether we’re feeling good on the bike and today’s the day we’re going to go for that foot-tall rock ledge that we’ve previously always walked. If we focus on all of the positives – and they’re truly accurate and positive – they will usually out weigh the negatives.

Will I implement the things that I learned from the crash into my riding? Heck yes! Will I ride a little conservatively for a while? Yep. I’ll use baby steps and time to help me get back to where I was. Will I be aware of the level of danger that I subject myself to? Yes. But, I’ll focus on those positives and the fun and the challenge and understand that part of going fast and riding hard is about not getting hurt by doing things correctly and by being smart!

Inevitably, those students in my camps, who showed up timid because of that nasty get-off that brought them to the camp in the first place – after only three days of instruction – see the trail, riding, and themselves as riders, with new eyes. The tools that they gain from the camp are their positives, the feeling that they get from riding the bike correctly and understanding, thus, being able to commit to learning the proper techniques, are also their positives. This is what they are then focused on – not the negative of that bad crash. And this is what gets them out there on the bike, having fun and challenging themselves, again.

And although my situation is different from that of those students – its actually quite the same!

Video: Huge MTB Skills Increases with the Least Amount of Practice!

The idea for this article came from “Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster”, a great book on learning sport by Ernest Dras. In my blog article, “The Best MTB Skills Advice I Have Ever Given. (How we actually “break” bad habits and create perfect ones)” I explained a bit about the Myelin Sheath and how we improve through through slow, deliberate practice. Now I will explain how to practice slowly and deliberately and see huge returns with the least amount of practice.

The first step is know the goal of the skill you are practicing (what is my desired outcome), how to do the skill perfectly (you may not be able to it it perfectly but you understand each individual piece of the skill and how it should be done), how it should feel and what it should look like. Without this knowledge base you are not practicing, you are simply riding and most likely ingraining bad habits.

In this example I will use cornering which is probably the most complex and most misunderstood skill in mountain biking (and road biking for that matter).  The goal of cornering is exit speed, as the faster you can exit any given corner the more efficient you will be. The foundation for cornering is perfect body position and vision, once you have these mastered it takes counter pressure (my phrase for counter steering) to get the bike to lean, weight placement to stay in balance, hip articulation for power and control, proper arm position and weight placement. We spend over two hours on cornering in a parking lot doing drills before applying it to the trails in our camps (and expect the riders to do drills the rest of their life to master and maintain mastery of cornering).

I see so many riders and racers who have studied enough video to have a decent idea of cornering technique and now they are just trying to go faster with a vague understanding of proper technique.  These riders always plateau before reaching their true peak. They plateau because they don’t know, understand and more importantly can not do the “details” correctly, doing something 80% perfect sounds impressive but it means you are doing it 20% wrong! A better understanding of the skill and some good, slow practice would make these riders much better!

Once you have a deep understanding of the skill slow practice will help you fine tune the skill. By doing the skill extremely slowly you will be aware of every small change in pressure, vision, balance, control, etc. You will find “dead spots” (where something is missing, such your weight suddenly shifting), you will understand how a little more counter pressure effects not only the lean angle of your bike but how it effects your balance, your hips, your outside arm, your traction and your trajectory.

Gene Slow Practice on the Road

In this video I am practicing slowly and have my “awareness” turned up and can feel what every little movement does. I am experimenting a bit, pushing a little harder with my inside hand and feeling what that does to the pressure on my feet, to the position of my hips, to the bite of my tires and sharpness of my turn. As I push forward with my inside hand I become aware that I am pushing my body backward, behind the pedals and it is unweighting my front end causing my front tire to push.