When I first started mountain biking, it must have been only a few months before I was pursuaded to screw on a pair of cleats and fix myself to the steed good and proper. Clipless pedals were for the elite and flat pedals for noobs, so I was told.
I remember it being pretty terrifying, wobbling back and forth on my mountain bike, awkwardly unclipping myself every time I stuttered to a stop. And often not even managing that. I’m pretty sure at least a few of the scars on my knees are thanks to helplessly tipping over after waging a losing battle against my pedals. There’s nothing quite as humiliating as ending up ass-over-tit after rolling to a stop on a completely flat piece of ground and simply not being able to get your damn feet out.
But, after a few months I was hooked. Climbs seemed easier as my feet stayed glued to the cranks. Downs seemed faster as no more was I bounced off the pedals on every little bump and jump. It seemed I was a clipless boy to the core, loving the ease with which I picked my bike up over the jumps and the effortless way I could sail over the rough.
Clipless pedals can contribute to knee problems
But, then things started to go a little wrong. First, my knees started to get creaky – c’mon, I’m not THAT old yet. Passing 30 shouldn’t instantly put you into “Gosh son, me lumbago’s giving me right gyp this morning…” Well, turns out I had a spot of Illiotibial Band Syndrome. And a major cause of that? Cleats causing your feet to be turned too far inwards. I adjusted and adjusted but always felt my clips pulling my toes too far in – suspect I’m just built a little splay footed. On further reading, it turns out that clipless pedals and cleats actually contribute to quite a few knee problems. Strike 1 for the cleats.
Clipless pedals can make mountain bike crashes worse
Next, the biggest biking disaster that’s ever happened to any of my friends… A buddy of mine was cycling along behind me, basically messing around on a flat path, trying wheelies and manuals, and suddenly I heard a crash, followed by a horrible scream. I rushed back to discover my mate lying flat on his back, gasping and staring down in horror at his foot. A foot that just happened to be sticking out to the side at 90 degrees to his leg. It was pretty horrendous, he was in a huuuuge amount of pain – the ambulance hurtled out, stretchered him up and took him off to hospital and it transpired that he’d both broken and dislocated his ankle. Cue a quarter of a year on crutches, another half year hobbling around, and a pretty slow re-entry into anything hugely active.
The worst part of this story is that that injury, if left untended for more than a short time (possibly hours I’m told) can result in you losing your foot. Seriously. Foot. Off. Gone. Amputated. The dislocation cuts off the blood supply to the foot and, without blood, it simply dies. Holy sh*t.
This happened because of the clips – no question. He was cycling along at walking pace, just messing around, and happened to fall badly. Some how, some way he fell at a bad angle, the clips didn’t release right and his foot was near twisted right off his ankle.
So, flat pedals it is….
Seriously though, most people go through an entire life without any kind of injury like that, but I suspect a large proportion of clips users will admit that a fall at some time in their biking career has been made worse by being clipped into their bike, even if you’re damn good at getting out of them.
Flat Pedals force you to ride your mountain bike with more skills
The final reason, and a more positive one, is that I reckon that I might just become a better rider on flats. Clipless pedals are a crutch for your downhill skills – you can bunny hop by just pulling up on the cranks, you can jump badly because your bike’s always gonna come with you, and you can forgot about weight in a lot of ways because no matter what you do, you’ll always be attached.
I’ve already been learning how to bunny hop on flats, and my jumps have become smoother and feel faster because I’m having to learn how to shift my weight in the air and how to move with the bike, rather than taking it with me. I find my berms are faster because I can put a foot down much more easily if I need to.
The first few rides were weird – I was totally unstable and couldn’t jump for toffee, but I’m over that now, and totally loving it. The secret is good kit, and I’m gonna talk about that in a future article. You need to spend as much on good flat shoes and pedals as you would on clipless shoes and pedals, whether it’s spds, time atacs or Crank Bros egg beaters.
Check back soon for the secret to riding flat pedals well and the kit you need to do it.