Mercilessly disassembling cycling culture

Bike Snob

You Need a Bike with Flat Pedals

It's time to let yourself go

This classic, lightweight Danish bicycle uses flat pedals. ( Sludge G / Flickr )

It's time to let yourself go

In the world of cycling, it's common knowledge that in order to engage in "serious" riding you need foot retention, which today means using some type of clipless pedal system.

Like many of cycling's rules both written and unwritten (the Velominati comes to mind), this is mostly a bunch of bullshit.

The main reason people will tell you that you need foot retention while riding is that it provides maximum power transfer between your legs and the bicycle's transmission. See, when you're putzing along in sneakers you're merely pushing down on the pedals and hemorrhaging valuable energy through the flexy soles of your Vans. However, when you're clipped in, you're both pushing and pulling the pedals and sending power from your magical ruby slippers to your cranks for the entire 360 degrees of the pedal stroke, thereby extracting the full potential of your high-performance carbon fiber bicycle.

Yeah, right.

In order to deliver power to your drivetrain efficiently, you need a good bike fit, a reasonably smooth pedal stroke, and a solid platform for your feet. Beyond that, if you think a clipless system will allow you to "pedal all the way through the stroke" or "eliminate the dead spot" from it in a way that flat pedals will not, then I've also got some oval chainrings and a perpetual motion machine to sell you.

That's just not how legs work.

If you'd like to learn more about why this is true (or even if you don't) I recommend reading Just Ride by Grant Petersen. He also dispels lots of other bike myths, like the one about how if you ride your bike while wearing underpants you're not a real cyclist and you will die.

But that's another subject for another time.

flipflop-bike-pedals.jpg
There are certain aspects of clipless pedals that are downright insidious. They make you lazy, for one. (Courtesy of Redvinediary Twitter)

This isn't to say I don't like clipless pedals or that I don't use them. I do and I do, quite often. Here's why:

  • They can help you bunnyhop the bike over curbs, potholes, logs, or whatever else your local habitat puts in your way. 
  • They can help keep your feet in place on rough terrain or while sprinting. 
  • They will definitely keep your feet from slipping off the pedals in rain and mud. 
  • They work with shoes that are optimized for cycling (lightweight, breathable, easy to adjust while in the saddle, etc.).

At the same time, a lot of the reason I use clipless is simply habit and mindless adherence to custom, because some of these advantages are also drawbacks. Cycling shoes are great for riding bikes, but they suck for everything else, whereas flat pedals offer you an infinite choice of footwear. Oh, sure, you can get SPD-compatible sneakers, but why? And while that secure clipless connection can be great on technical terrain, it quickly turns against you when you get hung up on something and fall down a gully with your bike still attached to your feet.

I know I can't be the only rider who's struggled to extricate themselves from beneath their bicycle like an upside-down beetle trying to right itself.

More than this, there are certain aspects of clipless pedals that are downright insidious. Firstly, they make you lazy. Do you really need to be physically attached to your bike in order to ride it over a log? Do you really need special equipment to tell you where exactly to place your feet, like you're slipping into the ass groove in your sofa? (This goes double if you had to pay a bike fit professional to help position that "ass groove" in the first place.) Secondly, clipless pedals engender a smug sense of superiority. Once you master clipless pedals, you look askance at any rider who has not, and on a certain level you feel your attachment to the bike reflects your commitment to the sport. They're tentative noobs, whereas you're like a captain ready to go down with the ship. "If this bike falls over I'm going with it!"

And there you are, still attached to your state-of-the-art suspension bicycle at the bottom of a ravine.

Sure, none of this may seem like a big deal, but if you're not careful, then before you know it you're chasing the perfect pedal stroke like a dog gnawing at its own ass. Have you ever seen roadies subjecting themselves to the useless indignity of one-legged pedaling drills?

That could be you.

On the other hand (or foot), dispensing with the ritual of clipping in and out and opting for flat pedals at least some of the time will keep you in touch with why you love riding bikes in the first place. You'll be able to go just as fast and just as far. You won't wear out your cleats on the sidewalk or slip in the coffee shop. You can walk deep into the woods and find a place to relieve yourself with traction and confidence. Oh, sure, your non-bike-specific shoes may look funny with your stretchy clothes, but guess what? You don't need to wear those all the time either. Equipping at least one bike in your fleet will help keep at least one foot planted securely outside the realm of total weeniedom.

And unless you do a lot of sprinting in rainstorms, you'll sacrifice little to nothing in terms of performance with flat pedals. In fact they'll probably improve your performance in the long run, given the fit and positioning issues so many riders seem to have with clipless. (If you need a pedal system with lots of float, ask yourself why you're bothering with it in the first place.)

Love your clipless pedals? Then by all means keep using them. After all, there's no denying the thrill of that first "click" as you roll out on a cycling adventure. At the same time, don't lose sight of what they can and can't do. Clipless pedals won't eliminate the dead spot from your pedal stroke, but flat pedals will eliminate the dead spot from your cycling enjoyment.

Filed To: Bikes / Gear / Culture / Footwear / Legs

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