One of the largest heavyweight showdowns in the mountain bike community, Clips versus Flat pedals. Unfortunately, I don’t deal in absolutes so I will be taking an idealistic approach to the conundrum with the intention to bring an intelligent choice when figuring out how to pedal your rig. So step on- errr, step in… Whatever is necessary and let’s take a look.
I had been getting out to South Mountain’s National trail 3-4 times per week. The description “rocky” is an understatement, like calling a tiger a cat. I was climbing quite a bit, and honestly, beginning to like it. This is saying something since two years ago you couldn’t have convinced me to ride a bike with less than seven inches of travel much less use said bike to pedal UP hills. Regardless, for some reason or another I started to think there must be something better for getting up the hills and then I had an AHAH moment, well, more like a OH MY GOD I SLIPPED OFF MY PEDAL AND CRUSHED MY KNEE INTO MY HEADSET moment (I had two of these). In my agony, I looked at my cherished flats and decided to begin researching. I knew clips were a heavy favorite in the area since most riders cruised through the parking lot atop their clipped mechanisms.
My initial Google search brought tremendous excitement, forums, articles, guides, they appeared in a plethora of potential factual information. I was wrong, instead I found a battle grounds of bigotry. A logical statement or article here and there crushed by the opinions of pedal activists. The comments screaming CLIPS for Life, FLATS for true riders, and so on, a disappointment at best.
From what I could tell from some articles, the clips tend to help climbing and will help in technical sections where it is easy to bounce or slip off a pedal. This was enough to encourage a try.
A few pints into a lousy conversation with friends, I made the purchase on my phone and had my shoes/pedals sent to my home. Sorry LBS folks, you weren’t available at the time (although a bike shop with a bar might stir up a little extra business from me).
A couple days later my pedals were attached to my bike, my tap shoes strapped tight and I stepped over the saddle of my bike like I was the first man to do so. My Shimano SPD cleats shining in my well lit garage, I knew this would be the next big step in my Mountain Biking performance. I slid my right foot into the clip with a shaky click and pushed off into my driveway, the left foot slapped on top of the pedal, a sloppy attempt at clippage yet I managed to get it in. I did a quick circle and made it back to the driveway before failing to exit my pedal. Gravity took my 200 pound frame to the cement with a hard thud. I am not sure if rock bottom gets any lower for cyclists than falling in your driveway, but this didn’t stop me. A few more tries, a few successes, and a few failures. I knew I could get used to it, but I was scared to take them to the trail. I loosened the springs, but I still lacked the ability to exit the pedals in an emergency.
A work friend of mine had turned me on to the multi-directional SPD cleats, he had a similar issue and swore by them. So, I figured I would double down and purchase the SPD SH-56 Multi Directional cleat. This was a game changer, I could pop out of my pedals with ease, no problems. I made it up and down National Trail without any issues and my dignity was nearly restored.
Let’s fast forward a week or so. My friend and I finished laughing about the ridiculousness of the existence of the standard SPD cleats that are included. I boasted, “I have never popped out of my pedal accidentally and I can get a foot down in sketchy situations, best purchase ever!” Minutes later, my foot flailed wildly from my pedal mid-air and I realized the SPD-56’s weren’t perfect but certainly essential for beginners.
I am sure I will have more experiences on the clipless pedals soon but here are my thoughts:
With a downhill approach to cycling I have transitioned from a Shuttle up, bomb down mentality to a shut up, pedal up and bomb down mentality. I was one of many that saw the clear advantages of the flat pedal and swore by them for the following reasons:
- The Bail: The last thing I wanted when coming into a rough section too hot was to be stuck to my bike as a bail could potentially save my body.
- The drift: When the tires start sliding, the most comfortable thing in the world is a foot down, flats allow complete control in removing and re-adding the sole of your foot.
- The hike: In the desert, we have a lot of rocks and a lot of sections that require a hike. Some grippy shoes were both comfortable and functional when scaling up rock features.
- Honorable Mention: You can ride your bike around the neighborhood without funny looking shoes.
- Pedal efficiency: Legs are set in position and able to push and pull. I find this allows a more efficient stroke, especially when the terrain gets techy.
- Technical Downhill: Often times I find myself hitting awkward step downs that push my suspension to the limit. During these time my feet will bounce or move in flats as opposed to staying attached with clipless pedals.
Clipless are not better than flats, and vice versa, they both have pros and cons and should be treated as such. I will keep a set of each in my bag at all times. I do recommend beginning with a set of multi-directional cleats. They may have the potential to pop out, but in the spirit of having a good time, you will regret the learning curve of escaping your standard pedals. If you are constantly jumping off your bike, bailing, hiking, or lack total confidence on the bike, stick with the flats. The last thing you want to do is have a bad time. If that isn’t the case, grab some clipless pedals and learn what works for you, there will always be a setting where clips are the best choice, so you won’t regret the purchase.