My Journey from Flats to Clipless Pedals… and Back to Flats Again

When I first got into mountain biking I rode a 1996 Specialized Hardrock, which at that point, was probably 10 or 12 years old. Not knowing any better, I was learning to rip up the local trails on that rigid beast (okay, “rip” may be a stretch) and was rocking some sexy plastic flat pedals that came stock on the bike. Ignorance is bliss, right?

Before long, I began the descent into full-on mountain biking addiction. Somewhere along the way, it was brought to my attention that I should be riding clipless. “Hmmm, you mean you are actually attached to the pedals?”

“Yes,” I was told… it is a more efficient transfer of power, it helps you be one with the bike over technical terrain, and so on.

Off to the bike shop I went and bought my first pair of entry-level SPD’s and a pair of red and silver Specialized shoes that matched my bike. It was dead sexy, if nothing else.

I practiced in the street before hitting the trails. On my first trail ride I remember going through a particularly rooty section with more ease, and the only “crash” I had was when I unclipped on one side and the bike leaned toward the other. Lesson learned: I needed to coordinate those two actions in the future.

Photo by jeff.

Years passed and I upgraded from my old Specialized to a Gary Fisher XC bike and then to a Santa Cruz trail bike. I also switched to Crankbrothers pedals along the way, but I was still riding clipless and not thinking much else about it.

Let’s at least assume that my bike skills improved through the years. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, my style and approach on the trails changed over that time too. My philosophy has migrated from a “let’s see how fast I can go” mindset to a more Zen-like approach to the overall experience of trail riding. And, of course, I continued to read articles and forum posts about everything mountain biking, including countless discussions on the pros and cons of clipless vs. flats… many of them right here on Singletracks.

I began to question what I thought was gospel. XC-type riders use clipless and flats are reserved for AM/DH or beginners, right? Well, not always it seems. In addition to what I was seeing on the Interwebs, some of the riders I met along the way were very skilled AND they were riding flats on the local trails.

As is often the case, there are as many opinions as there are riders. What I did glean from my growing interest in returning to flats is that a good pair of pedals and proper shoes is critical. My novice experience of using the stock flats that came on my old Specialized combined with who-knows-what shoes was most likely not reflective of how it truly could be… or should be, for that matter.

Since I had already been toying with the idea of purchasing a different pair of shoes for bikepacking, I felt like this was the perfect excuse to re-enter the world of flat pedals. For bikepacking, I figured the flat pedal set-up would be more comfortable and versatile compared to a clipless set-up, but how would it do on the local trails?

After some research, I pulled the trigger on Five Ten Freeriders and Kona Wah Wah pedals. Upon receipt, the shoes felt great and the pedals installed with ease. The real test was going to be on the trails, though. Over the next week, I rode three familiar local trail systems which ended up being a great test.

I quickly learned I had to make a few minor adjustments to compensate for the fact that I was no longer fully attached to the pedals, but overall, I was really surprised at how locked-in my feet felt.

During those first few rides, I had made mental notes of several sections of trail where I was curious to see how things would go in flats, and most often I rolled right through with no problems. I didn’t feel like I was losing much, if any, efficiency while pedaling, and did not feel I was at a disadvantage by comparison.

Further, I felt like I was railing turns with more confidence. Perhaps it was the result of more pedal surface area translating into more force on the outside pedal keeping things locked in. Or, it may have been increased confidence knowing that if I started to slide out, the foot would come down more easily to help prevent a crash.

Other advantages included not having to change shoes at the trail head and increased foot warmth. In the colder months, I struggle with keeping my feet warm. I’ve tried numerous remedies, and none of them have worked as well as just wearing the Freeriders.

It’s been a couple of months since I started riding flats, and I have ridden numerous trails and over a variety of terrain. I have found my current set-up to be comfortable, versatile, and efficient. When I set out on this little experiment, I figured I would soon return to clipless, but now I am not so sure. Only time will tell.

So, if you’ve been pressured by friends or the media to ride clipless “because it is the right thing to do,” but are curious about riding flats, I’d recommend you do your research and plunk down some coin for a good pedal/shoe combo. You may find that being wrong never felt so good.

Fleetwood lives in Richmond, VA and considers Pocahontas State Park his home turf, where he loves to ride and work on the trails. He enjoys traveling throughout the state and beyond to explore new trails, and in the last year went on his first bikepacking trip in the George Washington National Forest. Mountain biking has opened a whole new world to him, and he looks forward to many new experiences, new friends, and fun times on the trails. Find out what he is up to at Escaping the Dreary Confines.

Related posts:

  1. Making the Switch to Clipless MTB Pedals
  2. How to Switch to Clipless Mountain Bike Pedals
  3. The clipless pedal debate rages on
  4. New MTB pedals from Look
  5. How to Choose the Best Mountain Bike Pedals

62 thoughts on “My Journey from Flats to Clipless Pedals… and Back to Flats Again

  1. Thank you fine sir for this post. Having gone from flats to clipless and back to flats myself, I can vouch for the truth in this post. The confidence I gain on flats makes my ride ten times more enjoyable.

    • Thanks, I did the same thing. I road my Cannondale ridgid frame and fork when I was in my early 20ies on flats and before that my bmx. I recently bought a new AM and after a 20 year break. I road it a few times on the street, I put on the clips and hit the trails (I have 20 years of ridding my road bike with clips under my belt). I was surprised how I had lost my touch granted I’m now 43 but still. I rocked on my cannondale could ride it up steps and did 4 foot jumps. I decided to practice some more and put the falts back on. I have found that my problem or loss of curage isn’t so much about getting out but getting back in! If I’m approaching a technical area from a stand still or after I’ve clicked out to catch my balance and don’t click in first shot then your down. After a couple times I lost my nerve and now with the flats it’s no worries again!

    • I have… that’s all I do are XC races (marathon distance of 40+ miles) and they do quite well. It’s really nice to have the sneakers on the HAB sections!

    • I have not, but I’m not much of a racer. Did an 18-hour a couple of years ago and might do another one day. Jury is out on what pedals I’d use this point. I rode the same course that I raced using my flats and it was fine.

  2. Good post and way to go with what works instead of what everyone else thinks works. I like my clipless pedals but I have a friend who’s a great rider and she likes her flats. To each his own I say :)

  3. Great Article. I myself have gone from stock flats, to clipless, and back to Flats. This issue to me is more personal preference. There are as many different ride styles out there as there are fingerprints. I’m not a competitive cyclist, I too go for the more Zen approach. I prefer to get out for half a day or more and stop to take in the sights or smell the roses along the way. While I am slightly less efficient on climbs, it’s not so bad that it makes me want to go back clipless. To each thier own.

    • I too must agree that speed and “being one with the bike” is not the only consideration when riding. I like to be comfortable, safe, and enjoy the experience.Thirty years of avid riding and I am using a flat pedal on one side with SPD on the other. The bike should be convenient, fun, user friendly and a utility. Pushing the edge is not my goal anymore. I have speedplay and dura ace pedals that belong on bikes that will be all day affairs. Thanks for opening up the idea that flat pedals are a valid choice.

  4. I had the flat/clipless combo for a while and did enjoy them until I started using the clipless side the majority of the time. Then it got annoying trying to always get the pedal flipped to the right side.

    • I’ve seen some other comments about these combo pedals. I have never used them, but I feel like I would either want flats or clipless and not the combo for this very reason. I should at least try them out though before I make up my mind, right?

  5. Love the flats….gotta get me a pair of the freeriders to complete the package. When I entered my first race (with flats nonetheless) I was nervous about the efficiency and the vast majority of the field was clipless. It was only Cat 3 but I’m not gonna lie, when I passed 3 riders on a particularly challenging hill I felt like I won one for the flats. But I’m thinking pro category at 3 times the distance might be a different story… :)

  6. My entry level GF Wahoo came with stock flats that weren’t very good. Rode a rental bike in Colorado that had some really good flats and I’ve considered switching back. Clipless can be really tough (painful) in Texas Hill Country rock gardens. By the way Fleetwood, LOVE going to Pocahontas when I’m in Virginia. I make a lot of business trips to Va and I have an “out of town” bike stashed at a friends house in Hampton. Always worth the hour and a half trip to the park.

    • Cool. PSP is a great park with some great trails. Have you ridden the eastern trail systems — York River, Freedom Park, Wahrani? Not trying to disuade you from coming to the RVA, but they’d be closer for you.

  7. I am, and will remain, a clipless devotee. However, I have and occasionally ride flats. I find clipless allow me to get sloppy in my technique, so I will occasionally throw on the flats to re-hone my skills and then when I go back to clipless, I can really rock the trail. If you can bunnyhop with flats, you can really fly with clipless!

    One nice thing about clipless, you cant get beartrapped by them.

    My current fave pedals are my recently acquired Shimano combo flat/clipless. I thought I might be disappointed as they would be a compromise of the benefits of each, but I’ve found them to give me all the benefits of clipless with most of the benefit of flats, making them my ultimate trail riding pedal.

  8. YES!, a very similar experience to the writer’s. On flats now and, aside from road and the occasional xc race, flats along with my trusty 5-10s are all I ride. The flats are even more fun when paired with a dropper post. Hike-a-bike’s are a breeze (heck, I hiked up pikes peak in my high impacts), low ridin in the parking lot’s fun, im way more aggressive in corners, and relearned proper technique for bunny hoppin…to each their own though.

  9. Oh yeah, definitely can go with CB Mallet (or something similar) and some 5-10 Maltese Falcon for example for a nice in between. Working at a bike shop I always point out the 5-10/flat option for an alternative but its amazing how many riders only drink the clipless cool-aid.

  10. Great write up!! I have done this same transition, never fully leaving flats on certain bikes. I have now switched my clipless for flat on my SS and am not looking back. My confidence is back up, whereas when clipped in I was scared to try many things!

  11. Great post! It will help many people who consider going clipless. But I want to correct one thing: bigger pedal platform doesn’t translate more force on the bike – force remain the same. It does feel like it but it’s mental, because you can put your foot down anytime and you push harder through that corner.
    I ride clipless on FS myself and flats on snow bike (to be able to wear winter boots) and agree with @Skibum, that flats make your technique better. And after you clip into clipless you’re flying over the trail. Also, I’ve used flats when bikepacking too. Waterproof, breathable and grippy Columbia trail running shoes kept my feet dry and comfortable while creek crossing, riding in the rain and simply hiking steep parts.

  12. I run both flat and clipless. I found when riding enduro or DH I stick with flats. I have a few of those pedals with the cage as well as the clip. Yes both types of pedals have advantages, I will not dispute that. But over time I have developed an appreciation of the ability to bail at a moments notice with flats…Places like Mountain Creek and Hilton falls you need flats for that measure of safety.

  13. Forgot to mention: there’s nothing funnier than watching someone who’s been riding clipless for years try a bunny hop on flats. One afternoon a riding buddy watched me hop over a parking barrier in the trailhead’s parking lot. He honestly asked me “how do you do that without clips? it doesn’t make sense” bahahaha

  14. Be aware of the transition between clipless/flats during pub rides. I always ride clipless, but rode flats one night to the pub. After a few drinks I tried to bunny hop a high curb like I would in clipless. I essentially jumped over the handlebars onto my face in front of a crowd.

  15. After riding BMX freestyle for so many years in my youth I don’t think I will ever go clipless! I am just too comfortable riding on flats. Heck I got into mountain bikeing after not riding a bike at all in over 10 years due to a coworker talking me into it. He was mountain biking for 3 years at that point and still could not bunny hop, The day I picked up my brand new 29er was the day I could bunny hop it. He was amazed I could do it with flats, especially cheap plastic flats! Though I couldn’t bunny hop 6 inches that day, it took some practice to get the height up a bit! I may try Clipless one day or an other but doubt I will ever give up my platform pedals for good!

  16. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read my article. I also appreciate the great comments and discussions that followed. I will respond to some of the comments directly in the next day or so. Thanks again. Ride on.

  17. I rode clipless for years, and years, 3 years ago I decided to give flats a try (bought some 5-10′s and diety decoy pedals. the first week and a half I felt like I regressed big time in my riding ability but, once I figured out how to keep my feet from getting bounced off the pedals things changed big time and the smoothness of my riding technique really took off. I feel like I made more technique progress the first 3 months of riding flats then I did the first 3 years of riding on clips (I can actually bunny hop much higher with flats than I can clips). With flats I seem to be much more connected with the terrain and enjoy the flow of the trail. I have tried switching back several times with several different pedals and each time I do it I absolutely hate it.

  18. yea good platform pedals make all the difference I used to use the cheap plastic ones then finally I bit the bullet and bought a pair of Kona wah wahs three years later they are still super grippy and the bearings are still smooth

  19. I have gone back and forth a few times in my almost 30 years of riding and am on flats right now and love them. Between the new awesome shoes that are available and the new pedal designs I don’t see any huge reason for the recreational rider to ride with clipless pedals…

  20. amen.

    another flats convert.

    and another zen convert.

    the day i took the computer off my bike and put flats on is the day my concept of mountain biking changed.

  21. Interesting perception of flats & clipless. I personally ride with clipless and would not change at this time. Personal preference spawns all sorts of justifications & advantages! Flats or clipless – keep on riding.

  22. I have numerous friends who swear by clipless, but I relate clipless with pain and they aren’t for me. I’m a decent rider and can be competitive with most of my friends when I’m on flats, but my riding went to crap the two times I put clipless on my bikes. Give me clipless and I can give you all the material you need to write a book on 101 ways to crash a mountain bike! I admit clipless helps my climbing as long as it isn’t technical, but I’d rather push a bike on the steeps any day over coming back from every ride covered in blood where I’d crashed multiple times solely because of the pedals. What’s funny is when I use clipless pedals my friends blow by me like I’m tied to a tree I’m so slow. I guess it’s because I’m always waiting to crash rather than flowing because I know it’s coming. Not if, but when. I’m back on platforms and having a lot more fun, and I can finally keep up with my buds again.

  23. No mention of toe clip cages with straps?? This setup is the perfect answer to the Flat vs Clipless debate. You get some of the pedaling efficiencies of Clipless (without the pain), and it eliminates some of the negatives of the Flats (not being “locked” into your bike). I’ve been riding this setup for 20+ years with no complaints.

  24. If you have good technique there is no reason for toe clips or clips period. I rode clips for years, they made me feel more connected to my bike bla bla bla… After riding flats for the last 6 months I now feel more connected to my bike than ever bla bla bla… Truth is clips in most cases do make you faster… Truth is for most riders clips are a crutch to get more speed, power bla bla bla… if you are after the KOM clip in…If you are almost as fast as Aaron F’nnnnn Gwin clip in dude you have a shot at the World Downhill Championship and clips might just be the edge you need…Or they may finally take you on that out of control, chained to your bike, wild ride to the hospital, that most of us have been on more times than we care to admit…(I heard you thinking not me Knock on wood!) But if you are just a normal decent rider looking for fun and want to be a better overall rider go back to some good flats and good shoes… Yes there is a learning curve but in the long run you will develop and perfect your techniques and pedal stroke, In the long run you’ll be just as fast as most of your buddies and have way more fun and will be way more comfortable on your bike. And last but not least you get the last laugh when your buddy that rags on you about why riding clips is so much better finally gets into that situation mentioned above… Flats are Fun! Clips are done! :-) )

  25. Mountain biking is about 35% of my fitness program-and I rode over 800 singletrack miles last year. My egg beaters work out more leg muscles which is important to me since fitness is a major factor in my riding. For that reason alone I’ll never change. Furthermore, I have never been concerned about being unable to exit the pedals in a crash. The moment fear enters the equation you’re done anyway.

  26. For whatever it is worth, my article was not intended to be anti-clipless. I rode clipless for years and didn’t struggle with unclipping. It really becomes second nature once you figure it out. I just wanted a “change of scenery”.

    I sincerely do appreciate all of the comments and discussions on both sides of the fence, but it my mind, you don’t have to choose one side of the fence or the other. Live on both sides and see what possibilities open up for you.

    Ride on however you see fit. See ya on the trails!

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