Clipless pedals (the confusingly named pedals you actually clip in to) are often touted as the best pedals since they help you stay connected to the pedals. While these pedals may seem secure, efficient and better for skills like log-hops or jumping, there is a counterpoint worth considering for mountain bikers. Since the top BMX, downhill and trials riders use flat pedals some, or all, of the time to execute mind-blowing skills, spending time on flat pedals would probably benefit other riders as well.
Many cross-country and cyclocross riders I coach are opposed to trying flat pedals at first since it is uncommon to see top riders using them. If I can convince them to do some coaching sessions to overcome early frustration around bike setup, feet slipping off-pedals and stepping back on some skills, they see progress in their riding.
Here are three reasons why dabbling in flat pedals is beneficial:
Builds Fundamental Skills
In general, newer riders (in any discipline) benefit from using flats to quickly grasp the fundamental skills of cycling (e.g., balance, braking, standing, weight transfer). Indeed, many of the top riders started on flat pedals, so it’s a mistake to assume we should use clipless pedals to learn skills because we see them using clipless pedals at their peak.
I was fortunate enough to not know about clipless pedals the first five years of my cycling career. Even now, as an ‘elite’ rider I include flat-pedal rides on my BMX, commuter, in the odd spin class and at points during the year on my mountain bike to maintain a strong connection to the bike.
This thought of a ‘strong connection’ may seem odd given that you aren’t connected via cleats, but learning to ride and execute skills with flats makes you a much more confident rider. One important investment to boost this connection is flat-soled shoes and pedals with pins, which are actually quite affordable in relation to other cycling accessories. Favorites are these shoes (which have a sticky, flat sole to grip the pedal) and pedals from Pedaling Innovations or Race Face.
By simply by riding on flat pedals more you can learn to push into your pedals and handlebars to maintain a connection to the bike as you move with the terrain and execute maneuvers like bunny hops.
When you’re new to riding, the last thing you need to worry about is clipping in and out of your pedals. With flats, it is quite intuitive to put a foot out to save a fall. Once you have made this foot-out (dabbing) motion automatic, it can be transferred to clipless pedals easily. New riders using clipless lose valuable practice time, spending too much time trying to get clipped in. If they can learn pedaling mechanics, balance and coordination first, clipping in is actually much easier to master.
Even the cyclocross dismount and mount is easier to learn with flat pedals. I have had great results having experienced cyclocross racers try flats for a block of rides as they refine their mounts and dismounts without having to worry about clipping in and out. This isolation of a single skill is common in other sports (Think: a batting cage in baseball or putting green in golf).
Comfort and Recovery
If you haven’t spent a day riding on flats, then you have missed out on the comfort and flexibility of being able to walk around, do hike-a-bikes in more comfortable shoes and not have to change in and out of shoes. While clipless cycling shoes have come along the way, there is something about the simplicity of riding bikes in shoes you could walk around in comfortably and not get weird looks — or slide across slick floors in.
It is also possible to come back from acute and chronic injuries using flat-pedals. I have seen chronic issues like IT band, hamstring and knee pain resolve with the change in movement pattern and foot placement that occurs when changing to flats. For those coming back from ankle or foot fractures, flat pedals can be a great way to get back on the bike early.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you have been struggling with poor results due to technique, crashes, injury or discomfort on the bike, it’s time to take a second look at riding flat pedals. Use flat pedals like other tools to maximize your fitness, such as strength training, intervals and indoor training. Flats are really the best way to help yourself get better without needing additional special drills, consider joining a friend who is learning to ride by learning, or re-learning, cycling with flat pedals yourself.