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Flat Pedals

I started mountain biking in… 1990? My first bike was an 18 speed Raleigh Peak (Now Sports – Doing It Now!) with thumb shifters, no suspension, and cage style toe clip pedals. When I went to college and met some other cyclists they introduced me to cleats and clipless pedals. I bought a set, installed them, rode around the dorm parking lot, and promptly fell over furiously trying to yank my foot backwards. Things went better after than and they became my exclusive style of pedal for over 30 years (mostly Shimano SPDs).

Two years ago, I bought my first set of flat pedals. My main use case at the time was for biking in the snow… my shoes/cleats would get packed with snow if I stopped and put my foot down (or gasp… had to get off and push up a hill due to poor traction). Flat pedals solved this, and had the bonus of allowing me to wear whatever footwear made sense (hiking boots with ski socks on the really cold days).

Fast forward to this past summer. For a while I had had problems crashing worse than the situation warranted because I couldn’t get out of my pedals. I tried swapping cleats, shoes, and pedals, to no avail. I finally decided maybe it was age related, that my reflexes weren’t what they used to be or something else physical. So, I decided to take the flat pedal plunge. Here are some observations.

The largest benefit is that it improved my confidence. Not having to worry about twisting out made me willing to try things I might not have otherwise. It also improved my “hang time” – if in a technical section and stalling out, I am more willing to try to balance and pedal out of it instead of giving up and putting a foot down. The final benefit may be that on downhills I drop my heels to prevent feet coming off the pedals, and I think that actually improves my whole body position on the bike (forces weight back).

The downsides list is longer. Some of these are fixable – just a learning curve, some may be permanent.

  1. Loss of power. I definitely feel like I’m not as fast on flats… you can’t pull up on the pedals at all, and even if you don’t pull up routinely you still lose something in other portions of the pedal stroke because pushing down is… it.
  2. More time out of the saddle -> more cardio. I have found that I need to get out of the saddle more in technical sections to avoid my feet bouncing off the pedals. This takes more energy.
  3. Catching air. I realized I had a (bad?) habit of pulling the bike up with my feet – hopefully when you figure out this doesn’t work with flats you will NOT be mid-air as it makes landing awkward at best and a bad crash at worst. BMX racers may not have this problem, but I never did that. I have since figured out how to get off the ground without this happening, but it took a while.
  4. Ledges. This is probably the biggest area I’m still trying to figure out. Apparently I relied very heavily on pulling the bike up after me which flat out (pun intended) doesn’t work. I’ve compensated somewhat by trying to go at those obstacles with more momentum but there is an energy cost (see #2).
  5. More shoes. I have a lot of pairs of cycling shoes. My track bike uses different cleats, so I have a shoe for that. I have a cold weather shoe, a daily rider shoe, and a townie shoe. For flat pedals, I initially bought some cheap skater shoes, but quickly switched to a dedicated flat pedal shoe – they do make a difference.

I still ride SPDs on my gravel bike (and townie, and tandem… I may have a problem) but on balance I think the gain in confidence (and reduced risk of crashing with bike still attached) is worth the tradeoffs for me. Then again, I’m a recreational rider.

Have you tried flats? Would you?

1 thought on “Flat Pedals”

  1. A tip of the hat to you for taking the flat pedal plunge. It sounds counterintuitive, but for reasons you point out here, it takes courage. I am not brave enough for that yet, but I give props to anyone that rides flats. The first time I ever went mountain biking, it was on flat pedals, and even though I’d never ridden clipless at that point, either, I felt like I needed the ability to pull up on the pedals, for some of the reasons you cite here (I hadn’t thought of a couple of these, but they make sense, well observed.) I’ve been in spds ever since and while I know that riding flats would probably make me a better bike handler once I got the hang of it, I don’t feel motivated enough by that to invest the time/energy in the learning part. That said, my toes got cold on this morning’s ride, and a pair of hiking boots with thick socks might have done the trick, so who knows…

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