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.

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