Flat Pedals vs Clipless pedals – Why I’m moving back to flats

Clipless pedals on a mountain bike, compared to flat pedals

Some standard clipless pedals for mountain biking

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.

Colin

Colin started mountain biking in the early 2000s and has haphazardly, and with barely increasing skill, dragged his bike around the majority of Scotland's trail centres since then. Colin has oodles of hard earned experience in how NOT to do things - listen, be warned and don't repeat his mistakes...   More about Colin... Google+ Colin

24 Responses

  1. andy b says:

    good advice, i totally agree. Spd’s can make you lose your nerve and skills when it comes to technical trails knowing if it goes wrong its gonna hurt loads.Also if they are not set right spd’s will damage your knees.

    • Colin says:

      Cheers Andrew,

      I have a couple of bails this weekend that made me even more glad I wasn’t on clipless pedals. Descending a skinny on the Red run at Glentress, I just went a bit wide and had to get off. I jumped clear of the bike easily with my flat pedals, but if I was clipped in I’d have been sliding down that 45 degree slope on my face, with my bike on top of me.

      I’ll be sticking with the flats for a while 🙂
      Colin

  2. Donna Singleton says:

    Thanks for the article. My BF insists I move “up” and clip in, I’m like “why the heck do I want to be tied to my bike? If I take a spill I don’t want to be tangled up with the bike too.” To me, tying on is only a good idea if your riding a bull or bronc, and even then it’s pretty scketchy.

  3. Andy says:

    I just bought cleat/flat combination which gives you the best of both worlds. I gather cleats are better for commuters using road bikes. A friend thinks I should have bought peddles with cleats both sides, rather than the combination as you need to look down to check which side you are on. Hmmm. Still not sure what is best.

    • Saul Berg says:

      There is NO such thing as the BEST of both worlds. This compromise is the WORST of both worlds. Only one side to clip in on, so when getting started on an incline you may be fudging around with the pedal to clip in, and when on the flats side the cleat will be getting in the way and you have WAY less than optimal shoes for flat pedals. With clip in pedals you want a really stiff in sole and with flats you want a little more flex (to grip to the pedal). Pick one and stick with it, but this compromise is a disaster waiting to happen.

  4. Marg says:

    I just ruin my left knee and probably my life, in a accident with my road bike and a car. The clipless pedal was the cause, didn´t release my left foot causing a major stress on my ankle and knee. Tear my acl , lcl, and meniscus . I need surgery, 6/12 months recovery.
    PAIN PAIN PAIN and more PAIN.
    And let us hope that it´s all.

    Clipless pedals no more.
    They are great, but if i could go back in time, i would never use them.

    • Michael Langton says:

      Hi, 2 weeks ago I was riding my carbon triathlon bike with clip in type pedals and nearly got killed.

      Got struck by a HGV truck and cycle got hit and dragged under the 2nd axle with me still attached to pedals.

      Frame snapped in half and my shoes had to be cut off to free my legs.

      I am now on crutches and have major trauma to my left leg. Screws and a plate in my ankle and fractured knee cap , various ruptured vessels and a large edema on my upper leg .. Have been draining fluid from it for 10 days now.

      Lucky to come away with my life and would not use clip in pedals again.

      Just my thoughts

  5. Chris says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I love clipless on the road bike where I think the risk of a failed disengagement is offset against the risk of slipping off flats at full power or the discomfort of straps but when I’m shredding the trails and things go awry it’s bye-bye bike.

  6. Phil says:

    I just switched to flats for most of the reasons mentioned in the article – reducing risk of catastrophic bails and increasing skill by not being lazy because of being connected to the bike. I think the article sums very nicely some of the laziness that can happen riding clipped in. I’ve recently switched to flats and have to say I am having a bit of difficulty getting used to not riding clipped in. I find that my feet are going everywhere because I am used to pedaling in circles. It is really taking some effort to learn to keep my feet planted on the pedals whilst going over the rough stuff. With clips you could spin over rooty sections or up hills focusing never thinking of foot position. Flats totally require more finesse pedaling (not just mashing) and much more focus on keeping your feet planted on the pedals. There is just way more attention that has to be paid to staying planted on the bike when riding flats. I’m planning on sticking with flats, but I see there is a curve unlearning how to ride clipped in.

  7. Colin says:

    Cheers for the comments folks – it really looks like there’s a bit move back to flat pedals these days. I wonder sometimes if it’s anything to do with the growth of technical trails – there are more and more red and black runs these days that have some nasty, tricky sections. Great fun, of course, but the risks are bigger if things go wrong, especially if you’re stuck to your bike! That was one of my big factors in going back actually, just so that I’d feel more confident trying my hand at the rock gardens at Glentress, like the wormhole for example.

    Phil, the best advice I ever got for staying planted on flat pedals is to concentrate on keeping your heels down. It makes sense because as you’re going over the rough stuff the forces are pushing you up and back. So, you’re likely to bounce up and forward relative to the bike as it slows down on the bumps. Keeping your heels down means that as you bounce, you bounce backwards a little thanks to the angle of the pedals and of your feets, so when you return, you’re back on the pedals.

    Or maybe that’s not the explanation at all, who knows! All I know is that it works! Heels down, toes pointed up, sweet.

    That and keep your needs flexed. Have fun!

    Colin

  8. Al Painter says:

    Just picked up a set of 50/50’s from CrankbBrothers. Read an article about flats making you a better rider, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Also have some low back disc issues and I’m interested to see how flats affect that in terms of allowing more freedom for the foot to move and that translating into the hips.

    So I’ve got in terval loop I use to train and I’m going to run the flats for a month, get rides in on the 29er and 26er I have and see how the times compare.

    The biggest issue is I need more baggies because it may look a tad silly running flats in Lycra drawers!

    • Colin says:

      Hah, have to agree Al, you can’t be in the lycra for that. In fact, it’s hard to justify lycra on show at all really unless you’re secretly a skinny wheel fanatic 😉

      Good work on the 50 50s though – I’d love to hear how they work out, especially with regards the back troubles. I’ve struggled through a few issues, mostly in the knees, and now fighting to get back after a broken leg earlier in the year, so always interested to hear stories of fighting off injuries. Pop back and let us know if you have time.

      Cheers!
      Colin

      • Al Painter says:

        Sorry for the very late reply! Flats were a good experience. It seemed my knees, hips and back were happier not being clipped in.

        Cornering was better, and an element of fun had returns to riding. Being on the bike is actually for riding, as to where being clipped felt training had to take place (raced XC 2006-2012). It also really cleaned up my pedal stroke on the road.

        Good experience, definitely recommend. I also have some shorts where the chamois can be removed so I can use my bib shorts with them. I know always have baggies to ride in!

        I’ve got Teva Links paired with the 5050’s and Canfield Brother Crampon Ultimates. Two great combos!

  9. Mike Lauder says:

    A bit late to the conversation – oh well.

    One thing to keep in mind when using flats is that although you can plant your feet on them at any angle you like – something that is limited with most clipless systems save for, perhaps, speedplay, there is practically zero float due to the pedal biting into the shoe.

    As your foot travels through the rotation of the crank the foot tends to want to yaw which is why clipless pedal systems have the float built in. Typical road systems have 9 degrees of float, or more, to prevent injury to the knees and ankles from this movement.

    My own preference, bearing in mind that I like to do loads of miles both on and off-road and don’t like to wear baggy shorts!) is to use a very light and floaty system with easy release. In the past I used Eggbeaters but found that the cleats wore too fast. Now I use Speedplay Frogs which have something like 20 degrees of float and no spring trying to return your foot to the centre position. They’re also very easy to get out of. I can’t remember ever getting my foot stuck in either of these pedals – something I can’t say for SPDs or ATACs.

    On the road I’ve been using Speedplays for years – they only pedal worth using.

    Mike

    • Colin says:

      Thanks very much for that Mike – really, really useful, and far more detailed than I could have done!

      I’ve never tried out the Speedplay pedals, but will definitely give them a shot on your recommendation. My knees are only getting older and creakier, and breaking my femur earlier this year hasn’t exactly helped in that area! The extra float’ll come in really handy. Interesting that they don’t have a centering spring too – I’ve always been slightly irritated by the small, but insistent angular pressure put on the foot by other pedals, especially SPDs.

      What model of Speedplay are you using on your road bike? I’ve been dabbling in triathlons recently (until the leg break…) and I’m slowly getting to know the skinnier bikes, but still not quite up on all the kit!

      Cheers!
      Colin

  10. Ben W. says:

    I haven’t made the transition I clips yet. I think I am goin to switch to clips on my road bike but stick to flats on my mountain bike

  11. John Bozi says:

    I am pretty new to MTB and have clipless as they came with my bike. I actually new bike to get a smaller bike so I’d feel closer to the ground especially in things like cornering downhill. My biggest problem is coming from BMX on 20″ where you really feel like you have the right gravity. On my first mtb 19″ I felt like a mile in the sky with no control, although dam great for peddling on easy stuff. So now I got the clipless shimano plastic on one sides. I did the usual few falls off the bike mildly, and then started more technical, where I keep unclipping reclipping when going around corners. Decided that the plastic side is totally a waste if you going to use these peddles as half the time you cant reclip in time and end up with no foot anywhere.

    so currently I have them on the easiest disengage, but I am still so scared to hell that when it comes to something hairy these things will either break an ankle or twist a knee in the wrong sort of crash. Sure I love the power you get but I am going to be a dad and I worry so much if I lost the ability to walk I would lose work and the ability to care. I really don’t they are for us recreational users, but the guy at the store says I should persevere even though he would make more money by selling my flats.

    confused and thanks for the article.

  12. JJ says:

    I just had my first day of mountain biking with clipless pedals. Admittedly, they were helpful on the 3000 ft climb to the top of the mountain. However, when descending, I lost my confidence and skill when I encountered technical terrain. When clipped in, I lose the ability to jump of my flat pedals in order to dump the bike and land on my feet. The jump and dump is VERY valuable when attempting difficult terrain. For that main reason, the flats are going back on the bike…

  13. Guy says:

    you can turn the word as it suits you some one else can do the posit. both ways are good with certain limitations.
    riders damage themselves regularly because they are riding bikes, when you do that you can fall.
    knee injuries are happening normally because the shoes are not set properly the seat isn’t in the correct height or position and the general bike set up is not good. some time the rider himself is pedaling cowardly.
    and after all the above the rider still blame the machine instead of asking himself what is he doing that cousing injury?
    there is no one way. but eclipses is the fast way on XC, DH, BMX, CX and road above any doubt.
    you can learn technique, gain confidence, play on flats in time you need more power progress to eclipses.

    and don’t fool your unconfident readers

    have beautiful riding days and join us on Epic Israel 2014

  14. Greg says:

    Where’s the promised follow on articles?

  15. Frank says:

    Great Article! Thank you for the input!

  1. December 27, 2018

    […] debate over clipless vs. flats yeilds an enromous amount of vaired responses. Everyone has their opinion on why one is better than the other and there is no way you’ll be able to […]

  2. July 22, 2019

    […] debate over clipless vs. flats yeilds an enromous amount of vaired responses. Everyone has their opinion on why one is better than the other and there is no way you’ll be able to […]

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