Flat Pedal Experiment-updated!

FlatsWhy?

I have spent the last four years or so extolling the virtues of Cross Country racers using flat pedals for skills sessions-In my regular coaching sessions for young riders I insisted that they rode flat pedals for the skills practice in order to challenge them and to ensure that they developed good technique. In November last year I decided to take it one step further in my own riding and experiment with riding flats all winter-I was expecting riding on flats to benefit my technique and it has done….but it’s also had a few unexpected benefits. Here are some of my thoughts so far.

Get the right equipment:

Flat Pedal

DMR V8’s. Bombproof (even if the paint wears a bit)

Thanks to a notorious former Road Pro we all know that “it’s not about the bike” and this certainly isn’t about me telling you that you need to spend loads of money on kit if you want to improve your riding. However, the first lesson that I have learnt is that the shoes and pedals can make a big difference. Most of us have probably have some experience of a foot slipping off a pedal shortly followed by that pedal whacking into their shin, even if for some of us we were young enough at the time for the memories (and maybe scars) to have long since faded. That’s one of the reasons that pedals with a decent amount of grip are important. The other is that when you are riding muddy trails (and there doesn’t seem to have been any other kind of trail this winter) and both shoes and pedals are covered in mud you still want to feel secure on the pedals. If there isn’t enough grip to cut through the mud feet will be sliding off on bumpy sections even with good technique. Also, if you need or want to lift the back wheel you will need to be able to pull up on the pedals and be confident that the pedals (and therefore the bike) are going to come with you. I’ve been using a pair of DMR V8’s which have good grip and are great value for money at just over £20. The only downside is that they are a little thick so can catch on the trail sometimes-many of the newer designs are much thinner to help overcome that problem.

5 10's

Five Ten Impact. Very Sticky rubber!

As for the shoes, I have always used an old pair of trainers and been relatively happy with them until this winter. I figured if I was going to do the experiment I should do it properly so I ordered a pair of Five Ten Impact shoes and all I can say is WOW! The soles are almost too sticky meaning that it can be difficult to make minor adjustments to foot position but once your foot is in position they are great. The other advantage to them is that your feet stay much warmer and drier than in any racing shoes and they seem like they will last forever because they’re so much sturdier-this brings me nicely onto another unexpected benefit: riding flats through the winter weather is cheaper! There are no cleats or springs to wear out in the mud-in fact flat pedals seem to be pretty much bombproof and you don’t need to wear overshoes so there is no danger of ripping them, wearing them out or even breaking zips.

Riding:

Firstly riding flats has definitely made my technique better:
Two of the key skills of MTB are rear wheel lifts and bunny hops and riding on flats means you’re your technique for both has to be good purely because it’s very hard to do either without the correct technique and you can’t do much riding without coming across something on a trail that you need to jump over or ride up. It also makes me more aware of my foot position (especially on bumpy sections of trail), has improved my pedalling technique and it stops me being lazy. The last point wasn’t obvious until I rode off a local jump for the first time. It’s not a big jump by any means and I’ve ridden off it on SPD’s loads of times by simply manualing and letting the back wheel fall to the ground but when I did the same on flats I found my feet flapping in fresh air for a fraction of a second-not a nice feeling! This is where perhaps the biggest benefit of flats became clear-not only do they stop you being lazy, they also make you think about your riding (and particularly your technique) far more than normal and that is a really good thing for most riders!

Secondly it has made me physically stronger:
Actually I have no proof of this one but I definitely feel like it has and that I am working harder on rides than I would be on SPD’s. There is a lot more effort going in to climbing and riding through mud, especially where I am trying to find grip by squeezing on the power. I guess the real proof of this will be how I feel when I put my SPD’s back on for the first time.

Third falling off is less painful:
I have had a few crashes recently where the front wheel has stopped quickly and I’ve gone over the bars (mainly from me trying something a little silly to be honest). Another unexpected benefit of being on flats is that when that happens you are free to jump/fly off the bike and use your ability to land on your feet, roll or do whatever you can to soften the impact. You don’t end up getting twisted around with the bike still attached to your feet which can definitely add to the discomfort of crashing.

I’m going to continue with the experiment for the next few months-at least until the UK weather improves a little and I’ll do an update of this article in a few months’ time in case any other benefits have cropped up. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’re an XC racer who’s ridden flats so drop me an e-mail at scott@fitinnotime.co.uk

Note:

Shortly after I wrote this piece, I noticed a video by Mojo/Neil Donoghue talking about making the change the other way around. Neil had spent his whole life riding on flats and then moved to clips to ride Enduro last season. It’s an interesting different viewpoint-for me I guess it depends what you are comfortable on to begin with. A change is always going to take some getting used to. Have a watch: http://vimeo.com/85088839

Update (21/04/2014):

I promised an update when I first wrote this but things have been a bit hectic for the last couple of months and this is the first chance that I have had to add my thoughts. I’ve been back riding on SPD’s for a few months now and while the first few rides felt a bit odd I’m loving using them again now. I am still using flats for some coaching sessions but for the majority of my riding I’m attached to the bike. So what’s the verdict?

It’s completely subjective obviously but I feel like I am riding better technically than I ever have at the moment. I’m not claiming that it is all down to the flat pedals but I do think that they’ve had a big part to play, particularly in terms of jumping and riding drop offs. I went for a ride last week and cleared a local set of doubles that I have never done before and today I have cleared the tabletops in the freeride area at Cwmcarn which I’ve never been anywhere near before.

Will I go back to flat pedals again for next winter-Absolutely!

Would I suggest other riders do it as well? That depends on your goals and how persistent you are but if you want to improve your technique and you’ve got the patience to stick with it through the early stages I am totally confident that your riding will improve as a result.