Here’s what it’s like to ditch the clips for flat pedals

One woman's experience of embracing the flats

There’s no doubt that clipping in has many benefits for mountain bikers. After all, it works well for Rachel Atherton and Danny Hart, right?

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But it’s all too easy to rely on being clipped in to give you a lift over obstacles, rather than employing good technique. As I’ve recently found out, switching to flat pedals can help, but it can also take some getting used to – and some expert tips from a coach won’t go amiss either. 

Feeling flat

I’ve spent the last 10 years mountain biking clipped in to my pedals. I love the sound of that heavy ‘clunk’ when I set off, and the security of knowing my feet won’t slip when I’m out the back of the saddle on a steep descent. But if I’m honest, I know I use my feet to leverage the bike up and over obstacles when there’s a better way. I know my skills have been limited by my laziness in ditching the SPDs and learning how to manual a bike properly. I know the theory.

Related: Flat out or clipped in?

Riding a 140mm / 5.5in travel enduro bike all summer expands the range of gnar I’m prepared to tackle. I’ve become a passenger on trails I never thought I’d even contemplate, but mostly it’s about hanging on and surviving.

Fi spotswood’s liv intrigue:

Fi Spotswood’s LIv Intrigue

So eventually I decide to bite the bullet with some platform pedals and the Specialized 2FO ‘foot out flat out’ flats with their ‘SlipNot’ soles. Time to upsize my baggy shorts and get rad.

Related: Specialized 2FO flat-pedal shoes review

But first I plan to run a control test on my favourite loop sporting a sparkly new pair of lightweight, cleated Northwave cross-country shoes (in white and lumo yellow for extra speed).

The shoes

The clipped-in test run

Once I get used to the gleaming white Northwave Katana 3s against a now standard backdrop of mud and squelchy leaves, I just forget they’re there. The carbon reinforced sole is stiff, and the footbed padded just enough to take a bit of pressure off.

I suffer badly from hotspots with moulded shoes but no issues arise. The three Velcro straps – avoiding ratchets – will give these shoes a long life, and they allow for a snug fit. The design is fairly simple but the aggressive sole and two front studs make hiking, with or without a bike on your shoulder, fairly manageable.

Danny hart prefers to ride clipped in:

Danny Hart prefers to ride clipped in

The loop I ride in the Katanas feels smooth, fast and controlled. The trail conditions have deteriorated so I’m a little nervous on some of the unbanked corners of a particularly well-polished portion of the trail, but once I reach the fun swoopy singletrack descents that cling to the side of the gorge, I’m back in my element.

I forget I’m in ‘test mode’, fling my weight off the back of the saddle and lean over the bike as far as I dare. I know I’m riding well, and the QOMs and cups that pop up on my Strava page when I check later serve to underline that feeling.

Going flat out (or not)

It’s an entirely different experience riding the 2FO flats, although they are – somewhat surprisingly – comparable in terms of fit, comfort and even stiffness (although laces on a bike shoe does seem a strange choice. I double-tie mine and tuck the ends away, which I’m sure isn’t high fashion but so be it).

Only a few hundred metres from home, rushing to get to the woods, I leap unthinkingly off a high kerb and my feet fly off the pedals. I land awkwardly on the saddle with an ungainly bump. The realisation dawns just how much I use my feet to control the bike!

Specialized’s 2fo flat-pedal shoes:

Specialized’s 2FO flat-pedal shoes

Taking it more steadily, I ease into my loop, trying hard to point my heels down and relax. The early section goes off hitch-free if underwhelmingly, but then I bump into a friend who asks to ride together, and trying to keep pace with his back wheel is tough, when usually it’s the other way around.

I push as hard as I dare but immediately back off on all the corners, for fear that my feet fly from under me again, and standing to descend I’m a bag of nerves. The confidence gained from a summer of riding a fun play bike (a Liv Intrigue) seems to have disappeared.

Slinking back home I don’t bother checking Strava, but instead email Ally Campbell from Campbell Coaching for some advice. Ally, an expert skills coach and legend in the rough stuff – who wouldn’t be seen dead riding anything technical clipped in – replies immediately, urging me to keep at it.

“You’re making a step change to your riding so it’ll feel strange at first, but keep going and you’ll reap the benefits,” Campbell tells me. Handily, she also provides some useful tips. 

Ally Campbell’s top transition tips

  1. Get the right kit. Make sure you have a good set of shoes and pedals. Don’t use trainers! The shoe must be comfortable and allow you to drive in to the pedal. Your pedal should be nice and thin, lowering your centre of gravity on the bike, which is especially important for 27.5 bikes with lower bottom brackets. The pedal should cover much most of your shoe. (Certainly the 2FOs are comfortable, grippy and solid. A good start!)
  2. Get your foot position right. Always try to place your dominant lead foot on the pedal first. You want to have the axle just behind the ball of your foot giving good movement to drop the heels and also allowing the foot to adopt a more natural position for the important power stroke.  
  3. Pump rather than lift. This is the big one but isn’t about flats or clips: you should be pumping in any footwear! Don’t lift the bike with your feet. It leaves you far too vulnerable (you create an over-rotation that is not a good thing). Rather, ‘push’ the bike with your hands and ‘pump’ rather than lift. This way you under-rotate the bike. You really can get lots of energy from the trail rather than trying to pedal all the time too! (This is where I’m particularly lazy, which losing the cleats has put in the spotlight).
  4. Drop your wrists and heels. As you roll into descents or are coasting along the trail, drop your heels and wrists a touch to move your centre of gravity back and down. This really helps in more technical situations or when things are starting to get a bit out of control! 
  5. Relax! I see lots of riders looking quite tense while they are riding, almost fighting the trail. Relax, breath and enjoy your riding.  

Campbell signs off by reassuring me again that I’ll definitely develop better riding skills with platform pedals – and that a drop in performance in the short term is inevitable.

Riding on flat pedals, you should drop your heels and wrists a touch to move your centre of gravity back and down:

Riding on flat pedals, you should drop your heels and wrists a touch, to move your centre of gravity back and down

So feeling reassured and motivated, the 2FOs have been put through their paces several more times, and each time the fun-ometer has been gently inching upwards. I’ve even started turning up early to meet friends and practicing finding that sweet spot of a manual for a few minutes in the car park.

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Gradually I feel I’m moving towards becoming a rider the Liv Intrigue deserves.